The Royal Military College of Canada launched its first ever high-altitude research balloon this week, opening up new opportunities for research by the university’s scientists and taking the first steps towards future improvements in aviation safety.
The balloon mission, called FLOAT (Flying Laboratory for Observation of ADS-B Transmissions), was a project of the Department of Physics (Space Science), with sponsorship from Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and support from Transport Canada, Nav Canada, AirNav Systems and Huron County. FLOAT’s goal was to observe ADS-B signals from commercial aircraft from high altitudes, to characterize the signal strength and accuracy from far above the aircraft. ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) is a navigational transponder system used by aircraft to share their position, velocity, and identity with each other. Nav Canada, the provider of air traffic services in Canadian airspace, has recently begun using ADS-B for air traffic control, and expansion of this service is planned in the coming years.
The FLOAT payload was launched from Wingham airport in mid-western Ontario at 12:21 EDT on Tuesday, 26 May 2009. It was carried aloft by a high-altitude balloon of the type used for meteorological soundings, reaching a height of approximately 90,000 feet above sea level, where the balloon burst as planned. From there the payload descended by parachute to a field 55 km east of the launch site, where it landed at approximately 14:25 EDT, after a flight of 2 hours, 4 minutes. The payload was recovered intact by RMC personnel about one hour after the landing. Throughout the flight, the team kept in close co-ordination with air traffic authorities to ensure safety to aviation.
The primary payload was a commercial ADS-B receiver provided by AirNav Systems LLC. The ADS-B data, along with information from GPS, environmental, and housekeeping sensors, was transmitted to a ground station located at the launch site, as well as being stored on-board for later recovery. Due to a failure of the on-board computer, data collected during the latter portion of the flight was not recorded. However, the partial data set which was obtained will now be analyzed at RMC, and is expected to provide useful scientific information, as well as engineering knowledge regarding the payload systems.
The entire mission was designed, built, and operated by graduate and undergraduate students in the Space Mission Design courses taught in RMC’s Physics department (PH 559 and PH 448), under the supervision of their professor Captain Ron Vincent. The mission was developed in a very short time frame – only five months from kick-off to launch, including design, procurement, integration and operations. In addition to the scientific data, the experience provided valuable education and operational experience to the students, who learned a great deal about the development, management, and operation of a space mission from their five months of hard work.
The successful conclusion of the mission includes several achievements for the team, including:
– The first-ever collection of ADS-B data from a balloon-borne payload.
– Qualification of the student-designed launch system, giving RMC a new capability for upper-atmosphere research.
– Qualification of the team’s novel tracking strategy, using commercial components to replace the heavy and energy-intensive transponders normally used on such missions.
Due to the performance of the launch system and payload carrier (both designed by the students), all of the key hardware survived the mission. A second mission is under consideration, to make use of this hardware and the spare equipment not used for the first flight.
The successful conclusion of the FLOAT mission shows the strength of the Space Science program offered by RMC, and opens the way for future developments in air traffic management based on ADS-B. For example, data from FLOAT could be used in the development of a satellite-based ADS-B surveillance system, which would provide both experimental and operational data to air traffic controllers, further enhancing the safety and security of air traffic in Canada.
Capt Vincent and the members of the student team wish to thank staff in the Physics and Electrical Engineering departments at RMC, as well as personnel from the supporting agencies for their assistance. Especially Transport Canada and Nav Canada, Air Nav Systems, DRDC Ottawa, Huron County and Wingham Airport which contributed to the success of the mission.
Maj Pascal Tremblay – Team Leader
2Lt Raymond Francis – Operation Officer
2Lt Daniel Desjardins – Telemetry, Tracking and Communication Officer
2Lt Matthew Wallace – Payload and Power Officer
OCdt Alex Cushley – Integration and Thermal Officer