What is a Pico Balloon?

Andy Pico Balloon to New ZealandMaking a Pico Balloon

by Robert Brand

There is not much in making a pico balloon – literally. My friend Andy has been making and flying pico balloons for a while now. These are basically strong foil party balloons that you can buy prefilled from a party shop. In fact, I believe that Andy keeps a few at home, ready to launch. When he sees the winds are right he adds the tiny GPS receiver, computer, APRS 10mW transmitter, Battery and antenna. These are secured to the balloon with little more than fishing line. The payload only weighs 13 grans – that is less than half an ounce.

In Australia, there are 4 classes of untethered or FREE balloons:

“Small, Light, Medium and Heavy balloons”

CASR Part 101E states:

A small balloon means a free balloon that can carry no more than 50 grams of payload.

So Andy’s balloon is classified as a “Small” balloon.

Provided that he does not launch within 6 nautical miles of an airport ( 11.112km), a single small balloon does not need CASA approval. CASA are the Australian Civil Aviation Authority and their job is to police the CASR (Civil Aviation Safety Regulations). Up to 100 small balloons may be released at the same time if far enough away from n airport or air field without needing CASA approval. If more are to released, the number and distance from the field must be considered as it defines what approval CASA need to give.

Other countries mostly have the same regulations, but you must check before releasing any balloon.

This information was correct at the time of publication, but readers are reminded to check for any changes in the regulations before releasing any balloon.

As for the payload, Andy chose to use th HAM Radio APRS system to track his balloons as HAM radio operators (Amateur Radio Operators) have set up a global network of tracking systems. Andy has his amateur radio license and is capable of making very small electronic components. He has chosen a small lithium battery and thin wires for the antenna. Each 5.5 minutes, the transmitter pulses a 10mW APRS signal from the payload and it can simply be tracked on the internet by anyone.

In the picture above, look carefully at the little black dot near the base of the clouds and a little to the left of the balloon. That is the 13 gram payload. Depending on air pressure, the balloon will sit in the lower jet stream between 6,500m to 8,500m altitude.

My friend Andy (VK3YT) is a master of minaturisation. Pico by definition means “one trillionth” – The work is used to emphasis the tin size of the payload – sounds better than a “small balloon”! He sent that picture to show the release of a recent flight! I hope to have a great announcement for you all soon about another Pico flight!

Just in case you have not read the previous articles. A balloon this size made from Melbourne to Sydney and on to New Zealand, crossing the Tasman Sea in just over 24 hours.


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