For reasons I still don’t fully understand, my university went against good reason and granted me, a sophomore, $14,000 to build a balloon based sensor system for pesticide research. I am forever grateful to those unlucky administrators who put up with my dorm room laboratory, fielded calls from the FAA, and ignored the numerous tanks of helium stashed around the campus.
Known as ‘The Balloon Project’ my work was an engineering endeavor that took place on the newest university campus in California - which had no engineering program to speak of. With my small grant, support from a few incredible professors, the generosity of a local machine shop, and the Internet as my teacher, I designed and fabricated an air sampling system and accompanying subsystems that would soar to thousands of feet in the air to study the effects of pesticides in the atmosphere.
The gondola was laden with pan and tilt cameras, a full avionics suite, a remote deflation system, a WiFi enabled data logging system, 24 hours of battery life, a winching system, and all the accompanying software that made it work.
Two years of development later, with the official launch of the project looming, The Balloon Project beat California’s top-tier engineering universities in undergraduate research competitions taking home First Place in Engineering and Computer Science.
The most important thesis we proved: sometimes the simple act of supporting a student’s curiosity can be more beneficial than any classroom.