Not just for NASA anymore: How one man is taking his own photos from space

Raspberry Pi Akerman Earth
A photo shot during Akerman’s most recent high-altitude ballooning flight.

It’s hard to look at a photo of Earth taken from space, such as Apollo 17’s famous blue marble image, without feeling at least a little awestruck. Seeing the “blue planet” from above can make you feel both very small and very important, all at once – each of us is just an insignificant human, and yet we can nevertheless take part in humanity’s great technological achievements.

Now imagine how it must feel for Dave Akerman – a man who watched the first moon landing at age 9 and has counted himself a space enthusiast ever since – to see photos stream down from space via a Raspberry Pi-powered camera he attached to a weather balloon.

Dave Akerman Raspberry Pi pie5
Raspberry Pi-themed payload container.

Back in July of last year, Akerman became the first person ever to send a Raspberry Pi microcontroller on such a high-altitude ballooning adventure. Since then, Akerman has pioneered tricks for snapping incredible shots from above the clouds and has also gained fame in both the science and tech worlds.

Akerman managed to unite his love of photography, coding, and space exploration within one incredibly complex and rewarding hobby: high-altitude ballooning. For those unfamiliar, high-altitude ballooning, or HAB, involves affixing a camera and a computer chip to a weather balloon, and then sending the little shutterbug skyward.

We recently chatted with Akerman about the new horizons the Raspberry Pi opened for him (literally), crowdsourcing tech skills, and the craziest thing he’s launched into the atmosphere.

Early flights: excitement and frustration

With a degree in electronics engineering and a career in software programming, Akerman said everything just tied together in terms of his entry into HAB. “I was interested in space and photography, and the skills I needed, I already had,” Akerman said.

Akerman first got into high-altitude ballooning because of how simple it was. “I never thought I should do that [HAB], but then seeing it was quite easy, I thought, oh, I’ve got to have a go.” After all, it’s much more satisfying to see a gorgeous photo of Earth that you’ve taken yourself than simply come across one in a magazine.

“… If you buy a Raspberry Pi, you can actually make something happen.”

However, it turned out that the standard HAB operation was a bit too simple for Akerman’s needs. Most ballooners would solder together a radio transmitter, a GPS tracker, and a chip called an Arduino, which is “something like a Raspberry Pi, but about a hundred times simpler,” Akerman said. “It’s a micro-controller, used for flashing lights and turning motors on and off.”

Unfortunately, the Arduino could only store low-quality photos and couldn’t transmit them. “One of the frustrations with the earlier flights was that … if you put a camera on board, and it’s taking photos on an SD card, you aren’t ever going to see them until you get the thing back,” said Akerman. Operating out of Southern England, Akerman’s weather balloons often wound up in the ocean, which meant the on-board images would be unrecoverable. “It’s a small island,” Akerman said. “We’re never far away from the sea.”

The Raspberry Pi: a game-changer

Akerman helped transform what was possible with HAB when he flew his first Raspberry Pi. Not only could the Raspberry Pi take better-quality images and store a lot more of them, it could also transmit those images via a live digital feed.

“It has a much bigger effect on people when they see images, especially the live ones,” Akerman said. “The highlight for me was just sitting at home, watching the flight, with the images coming down as it got higher and higher.” Now, instead of waiting three hours to find out what happened during the ballooning session, Akerman could “fly” with his camera in real time.

International reception

Like others in the UK, Akerman streams his live feed via radio transmission, which has the advantage of beaming over a 500-mile signal radius, making the balloon easy to locate and follow. The digital data includes “telemetry, which means position, altitude, and everything else, and the images,” Akerman said. “The end result is like a map with a balloon on it, and then there’s an Internet webpage with all of the images loading up … It’s not much different from your digital HDTV, but it’s much, much slower.”

A 3D model showing the view from the payload and the flight path. (Credit: Geoff Mather)

Of course, since the signal is beaming in all directions, anyone with the right gear can “listen” in. “We have lots of other people who are either balloon enthusiasts or amateur radio enthusiasts, and they tune into the signal using an amateur radio receiver,” Akerman said. Amazingly, people from as far away as Holland and Northern Ireland have followed his flight transmissions. Ever since flying the Raspberry Pi, he’s been inundated with interest. “[My blog] was getting more than a years’ worth of hits in an hour after the first Raspberry Pi launch,” Akerman said.

Crowdsourcing: the world of tech detectives

Collective interest in ballooning is hardly foreign to Akerman. In all his projects, he consults with other enthusiasts in the UK High Altitude Society, which hosts a wiki and chatroom dedicated to “launching unmanned high altitude balloons into near space.”

“The highlight for me was just sitting at home, watching the flight, with the images coming down as it got higher and higher.”

“It’s a great community, with everyone just helping everyone else out,” Akerman said. As a case in point, Akerman explained that he once broke the club’s all-time altitude record – and then helped another club member break the same record two weeks later.

Indeed, Akerman emphasizes that the group works by collaboration rather than competition. During one classic group adventure, Akerman’s balloon landed half a mile out to sea. “Within minutes of arriving there, I had the tide tables, they [the group] knew the wind direction and speed, they calculated how long it would take to come in to land, and someone recommended a good restaurant to go and eat nearby.” Together, oceanographers, 3D modelers, programmers, and engineers from the society band together digitally to make such ambitious projects possible.

Sky-high dreams

So far, Akerman has played with form as well as function, bundling his electronic components into polystyrene housings (called payloads) that he’s molded into whimsical shapes. Recently, Akerman launched the pink, cartoonish Raspberry Pi logo itself. “Aerodynamically, that was a disaster,” he admitted. His other creations – including a tongue-in-cheek flying saucer, and a TARDIS from the British TV show Dr. Who – have fared better.

In the future, Akerman aims to launch a long-term “floater,” or a partially filled balloon that drifts long distances rather than soaring straight up and back down again. “I did one like that,” he said. “It flew over France, Belgium, Holland, and ended up over Switzerland.” Akerman hopes the next floater, equipped with a satellite tracker, will make it all the way to Russia. He also aspires to photograph the Northern lights from space, possibly taking advantage of a gyroscope-stabilized ballooning platform developed by another society member.

Dave Akerman Rasperry Pie PIE6 Flight 8866078092_8d5b0e2d52_k
The view during ascent during the PIE6 flight.

Akerman also hinted tantalizingly about his connection with the heads of the Raspberry Pi foundation, Eben and Liz Upton, whom he hosted during one of his recent launches. “I would say that they’re very interested in what I’m doing, and are very keen to help, so if there was a new product that would help me, I would be the first to know,” Akerman said. In fact, in the past Akerman received a pre-production model of a new Raspberry Pi camera. Apparently, Eben Upton (pictured right, below) shares Akerman’s abiding passion for space.

Making a life in technology

Akerman emphasizes that for him, the Raspberry Pi is first and foremost a means to an end, not something he tinkers with for the pure fun of it. “I’ve never been good at just learning [something tech-related] just for the interest,” Akerman said. “I’d rather have a job, a project, and learn what I need to know to make that happen.”

All the same, Akerman believes that open-ended, user-modifiable tools like the Raspberry Pi create opportunities that fundamentally transform our relationship with technology. “I think we live in the world where you can just consume technology by buying an iPad and browsing the net,” he said. “But if you buy a Raspberry Pi, you can actually make something happen.”

(Images © Dave Akerman. All Rights Reserved.)

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