Student engineers win awards and accolades for high-flying project in atmospheric research

Student engineers win awards and accolades for high-flying project in atmospheric research

By Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Danner Friend

Five Norwich engineering students and two professors, Danner Friend and Jacques Beneat, added new meaning to the idea of a high-level elective in April.

On Wednesday, April 13, they launched a high-altitude balloon equipped with a camera and scientific instruments from Broadalbin-Perth High School, located west of Saratoga, N.Y. The location was chosen based on wind predictions that the balloon would land in Vermont and to provide an opportunity to involve K-12 students.

20160713_dcse_balloon-1High-altitude balloons provide students a low-cost option for delivering their own scientific payload to the edge of space. The payload can include a variety of different sensors, cameras, and science experiments to monitor the health of the Earth’s atmosphere, perform research investigations of Earth and its atmosphere, or test new technologies that are being considered for future space missions. Students are also exposed to some of the same design, build, and testing processes that are conducted for space missions, hopefully interesting them in pursuing aerospace-related careers.

The students, all seniors who graduated in May, arrived early and talked about the project to the high school students before launching on the school’s football field, with about 150 students watching the launch.

A photo of the Earth's curvature taken from the balloon

A photo of the Earth’s curvature taken from the balloon

The balloon reached an altitude of about 110,000 feet before the balloon ruptured and began its planned descent. The payload included atmospheric sensors measuring temperature, pressure, altitude, ozone and methane, and a GoPro camera that recorded video of the flight. It landed in a monastery of the Carthusian Order (founded in France in 1084) on Mt. Equinox near Manchester, Vt. ( It came back to Earth two hours and 12 minutes after takeoff – and less than a mile away from where the students had predicted it would land. GPS tracking was used to pinpoint the exact location to recover the payload.

A map of the balloon's course.

A map of the balloon’s course.

With the flight, the students successfully demonstrated two innovative technologies: a 3D printed chassis that provided a high-strength, uniquely designed housing for the electronics and a gimbal mounted camera for stabilizing the video capture. You can read more about the launch in an article published by the Broadalbin-Perth high school:

You can watch the video of the launch day, and parts of the video taken from the onboard camera here:

The students, four from mechanical engineering – Austin Blum, Adam Dymit, Matthew Grohs, and Timothy Smeddal – along with one electrical and computer engineering student, Brett Valcourt, wrote a paper and presented their work on April 23 at the Northeast region’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Student Conference at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. They won the top award for the best research paper and presentation in the team category, and will represent the northeast region at the International Student Conference held at the AIAA Aerospace Sciences meeting in January 2017.

They also presented their work at the Vermont Society of Engineer’s Annual Meeting in April. Their work garnered Norwich accolades, as well, earning first place for senior projects presented at the David Crawford School of Engineering Convocation and the Glenn L. Harvey Mechanical Engineering Design Award.

Finally, the students participated in the Global Space Balloon Challenge ( April 11-May 9 as part of a global effort of high altitude balloon launches from 54 different countries across the world.