Blue Horizon

The Sky's the Limit

As part of their senior capstone project, three engineering students collect atmospheric data by creating a functioning weather balloon as part of Lockheed Martin's Project Blue Horizon.
By: Marissa Carney

All electro-mechanical engineering technology majors at Penn State Altoona are required to complete a senior capstone in order to graduate. This fall, three young men worked on Project Blue Horizon (PBH), the first project sponsored at Penn State Altoona by Lockheed Martin, a global security and aerospace company in Bethesda, Maryland.

Trevor Travis, Marcus McFarland, and Dimitris Kiaoulias made up the team tasked with building an amateur weather balloon to collect atmospheric data from high altitudes. Lockheed Martin has sponsored PBH with graduate students at other colleges like Cornell. Steve Betza, corporate director of the Future Enterprise Initiative at Lockheed Martin and former Penn State Altoona student, sits on the college’s Industrial Advisory Committee. Betza has attended the EMET student showcase for several years and thought PBH would be a good fit as a senior capstone project for Altoona EMET majors. “As I was looking to partner with an EMET program, there was no more natural project than this,” says Betza. With PBH, students gain great experience in electrical design and packaging. I have the highest respect for the Altoona EMET degree, which I believe is a degree of the future in terms of blending electrical and mechanical engineering. Here, students come out with a background in both disciplines.”

EMET students work on the payload for their weather balloon

Getting the payload right wasn't easy. It had to be less dense than a bird, it had to be waterproof, and it needed a long-lasting battery that was light enough to allow the balloon to float.

Credit: Penn State

Lockheed Martin provided the students with funds and a set of specifications and restrictions for the balloon. It had to be no more than a 10-centimeter cubed volume, and students had to be able to track the payload and take photos and video throughout the balloon’s flight. They also had to meet Federal Aviation Administration regulations. “Our payload had to be less dense than a bird so if it were to somehow meet with a plane engine, it would disintegrate and not destroy or damage it,” says Travis. “We had to register the balloon and give the FAA a window when we were launching. We also had to make sure that every airport in the area knew where the balloon was at any given time and that it could be tracked.”

Travis, McFarland, and Kiaoulias began preliminary work in the summer, coding microcontrollers, designing, and building. And when they launched their first prototype? “The payload landed in a water reservoir,” chuckles Kiaoulias. “So one improvement for our second launch was to make the payload waterproof.” “Each design took less and less time to figure out what needed to be fixed and improved and how to put our payloads together,” says McFarland. “The hardest part of the process and our design was the battery because every design needed one that would last a long time. Plus, a battery is heavy and we had very limited space.”

The trio launched four times with three different payloads. The final launch was the most satisfactory to the team, reaching 115,000 feet in altitude and landing near the New Jersey state line. “Pretty impressive for a latex balloon,” says Kiaoulias.

EMET students watch as their balloon launches

Travis, Travis, and Kiaoulias look on as their weather balloon takes flight.

Credit: Penn State

All three students are thrilled with the opportunity Betza and Lockheed Martin offered them. “It is great for us to get our names associated with an internationally recognized company,” explains Travis. “Plus, it set us up for success down the road. An employer might want a designer or someone to build something, and now we have that experience.”

“It’s a huge resume builder,” adds McFarland. “Lockheed Martin gets the most government funding out of any company in the United States. It’s nice to be able to say we worked with such a successful company.”

Instructor in Engineering and former Penn State Altoona student Jordan Sell was the team’s project adviser. She was excited to watch her students work on the project. “I was once in their shoes doing a capstone project here at Penn State Altoona, and I launched two balloons in graduate school. It was wonderful to watch them have some of the same experiences that I had.”

Kiaoulias adds that the hands-on element of working in a real-world situation is sure to be beneficial as he begins his career. “Instead of dealing with hypothetical situations, we actually worked on a real-world situation with a real company. Potential employers could be impressed by that.” “It was an amazing project,” adds McFarland. “I can't say it was smooth the whole way, but we worked around the problems and kept going. It was a fantastic learning experience that helped me prepare for the industry.”

Impressed with and proud of the first Penn State Altoona students to work with PBH, Lockheed Martin will offer the project again for the coming year with a similar set of challenges for students. “The work ethic of Altoona students is on par with those from any other campus I've worked within the country,” states Betza. “They are very employable, and I look forward to hiring Penn State Altoona graduates on at Lockheed Martin.”

Steve Betza with Trevor Travis, Marcus McFarland, and Dimitris Kiaoulias

Students Dimitris Kiaoulias , Marcus McFarland, and Trevor Travis pose with Steve Betza (far L) in front of their Project Blue Horizon senior capstone poster and payload during the Student Showcase.

Credit: Penn State