Researchers are Southampton University are taking advantage of rapid prototyping to create a new type of aircraft that can be used to study the earth’s atmosphere. This new craft, called the ASTRA Atom, is being designed to travel as far as 30 kilometers into the atmosphere and can be tracked while it is in transit and after it has landed.
“If there is a phenomenon that happens suddenly and you want to deploy some kind of instrument to measure it then our device is ideal. The radiosonde has the advantage of being simple to use and deploy but it has a number of drawbacks. You can only gather as much data as your bandwidth allows you to transmit back to the ground,” stated Dr. Andras Sobester, the project leader at Southhampton University.
In order to facilitate tracking the Atom, researchers have experimented both with a cellphone SIM card as well as radioteletyping. Although with the SIM card, there is limited connectivity while the Atom is at its highest, it will reconnect and transfer information once it returns.
The researchers at Southamptom used a 3D printer to create the first Atom prototype. This printer can print on actual plastic and builds the prototype up, layer by layer. The onboard data collection and transmittal system was designed using Microsoft’s .NET Gadgateer platform. This enabled the researchers to have the Atom up and functioning within a matter of hours, instead of weeks or months.
“…It’s open software so there is no commercial licensing, which is paramount for us as it allows us to integrate additional sensors into our current electronics,” stated Dr. Steven Johnston from Southampton University’s Microsoft Institute of High Performance Computing.
This marks an exciting new development for engineering and the implications are tremendous. Being able to launch the new Atom device after a significant event here on earth will provide valuable information that can be used to study the impact these events have on our atmosphere.