Smith & Williamson currently offers the only commercially available altitude control system for level flight with latex balloons and has sold units to university and NASA researchers. For more about Boomerang: The Complete Small Balloon Flight Control System, see here.
History of Level Flight with Latex Balloons
The idea of venting helium from a latex balloon is not new. The earliest published examples that we are aware of were completed in the 1950-60’s (Laby, 1956 & Mastenbrook, 1966). Controls ranged from balloon size string-operated valves to more advanced elctro-mechanical valves. Uses for this technology at the time was to expose nuclear emulsion plates to cosmic radiation and to provide both ascent and descent stratospheric water vapor measurements.
Mature Systems for Level Flight with Latex Balloons
We know of only three other mature and proven systems for achieving level flight with weather balloons, but none are commercially available.
The US Army Corp of Engineers (Fischer, 2014) has demonstrated the utility of low-altitude controllable balloons for acoustic surveying of migratory birds on military installations. This technique was earlier utilized by Cornell University (Fristrup, 2009) with funding from the DoD.
- Space Data Corporation has developed and launched tens of thousands of specialized controllable latex balloon systems to serve as high-altitude airborne data repeaters for the oil and gas market.
- Jeffrey Dailey at Taylor University has “designed and built an efficient, and durable buoyancy control system that increases the functionality of high altitude balloons giving us the capability of controlling the ascend, descend, hold altitude as well as avoiding the post-burst chaos and extending the flight time of latex balloons.”
Low-Altitude Flight with Small Non-Latex Balloons
We are aware of two groups that have done work with zero-pressure and superpressure balloon for level low-altitude flight. Both incorporate pump-type altitude control systems with non-latex balloon envelopes.
- NOAA Smart Balloon started using superpressure tetroon balloons and advanced into active air-ballasted spherical superpressure balloons (Businger, 2006). One of the last flights “completed a transatlantic flight in the vicinity of northern Africa, which marked the first time a low-level balloon drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from North America to Africa and continuously measured ozone and meteorological conditions.”
- Paul Voss at Smith College has developed a Controlled Meteorological (CMET) balloon that utilizes an air ballast bladder in a small zero-pressure balloon envelope (Voss, 2009). Using this system, his group has flown up to five-day missions.
Fischer, Richard A. “Use of Autonomous Aerial Acoustic Recording Systems to Inventory DoD Installation Impact Areas for T&E and at-Risk Bird Populations,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Environmental Lab. January 16, 2014.
Fristrup, Kurt M., and Christopher W. Clark. Acoustic Monitoring of Threatened and Endangered Species in Inaccessible Areas. Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, 2009.
Laby, J.E., and Y.K. Lim. “Level Flights with Expansible Balloons.” Il Nuovo Cimento 5.1 (1956): 249–259.
Mastenbrook, H. J. “A Control System for Ascent-Descent Balloon Soundings of the Atmosphere.” Journal of Applied Meteorology 5.5 (1966): 737–740. journals.ametsoc.org (Atypon).