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Analysis | How to build your own spy balloon


Americans love a good balloon story.

Remember that kid in Colorado in 2009 floating around in a balloon until it turned out he wasn’t? That was one of the signaling moments of the early social media era, a point of discussion and speculation that dominated the national conversation for days. Remember, uh, “Up”? Pretty good movie.

And now we have this balloon somewhere over the continental United States. Hailing from China, according to a statement from officials in that country, it is either a weather balloon gone off course (according to those officials) or an espionage-oriented challenge to US hegemony that stems directly from President Biden’s weakness (according to several Republicans on Fox News).

Whichever of those two things is true – or if there is, I suppose, a third option – it’s fascinating to think about: this big balloon is floating out there somewhere, capturing the public’s imagination. This very old technology is used in a very modern way. This thing that we associate with children’s parties, now possibly deployed as an instrument of our ultimate destruction. It’s poetry.

So now let’s talk about how to make a floating metaphor yourself.

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As it turns out, releasing giant balloons into the upper atmosphere is not only not an activity limited to international espionage, but is instead a hobby for a large number of Americans. If you go on YouTube you can find videos of people filling large weather balloons with helium, attaching cameras and releasing them.

Here is one such example, from an amateur astronomer.

In fact, this activity is so common that it is a project performed in elementary school science classes. In fact, the main challenge seems to be recovering the payload camera once the balloon inevitably bursts (due to the reduced air pressure at higher altitudes). Generally, the rigs contain some sort of GPS device that facilitates retrieval.

Enough with that background. Let’s get ready to join nefarious international spymasters as well as Ms. Cromwell’s second-graders.

My resources for this story are twofold: a tutorial video from YouTube (of which there are many) and the detailed delineation of the required components and steps articulated on Instructables. I haven’t built such a device yet, as I have little need for photos of Montana’s nuclear missile silos, but this is admittedly something I’ve considered doing in the past because I’m a geek.

First, you need a weather balloon. Instructables recommends a 600 gram balloon, which you can get for about $50 online from sites like Scientific Sales.

Next you need helium. As you probably know, you can get this anywhere. Walk into Party City and ask them to point you to the spy trail. Or you can order online; this retailer offers 81 cubic feet (more than Instructables’ recommended 70 cubic feet) for about $150. (There are also other costs depending on whether you buy the tank or need the right valves. We’ll leave that to you and the spy manager from Party City.)

Only with that you will of course have enough to get your balloon into the air. But this won’t be great for spying unless you bought a sentient, talking balloon that can describe what it saw. (That raises the price considerably.) So you’ll also want a charge with a camera.

Instructables recommends using a disposable Styrofoam cooler ($5 at Walmart) spray-painted a bright neon color ($9 at Amazon) to make pick-up easier. Make a small hole in it, stick a GoPro camera in (a counterfeit costs about $100), and add a GPS tracking device (an Apple AirTag costs $30). Filling the cooler with aluminum foil ($9 at Wegman’s) makes the balloon and its payload more detectable by aircraft, which it’s recommended you avoid accidentally dropping.

You’ll also need some string to tie the cooler to the balloon ($7 at Amazon) and a parachute for the camera to survive its adventure (this $18 from Amazon is smaller than what’s recommended, but you can do a little legwork yourself here do , in the interest of Piet).

When you have everything you need, you can start assembling it. I’m not just going to replicate the Instructables instructions, which you can read for yourself. I do note, however, that it recommends using latex gloves when handling the balloon so oil from your skin doesn’t damage the latex. This brings me to the funny concept of an action movie where a Chinese spy balloon is destroyed by a hotshot fighter pilot who gives it an ungloved high-five. (All rights reserved.)

Perhaps the most important consideration once you’re ready to go is what the wind is doing. This balloon will be light and very high in the air and therefore subject to natural forces beyond your control. It is this external factor that Chinese officials say is responsible for their balloon’s current location, but I’m sure you can sort this out more easily than the Chinese academics who are being blamed for this weird geopolitical situation. There are many tools to do this (like this calculator that tells you how high your balloon will go) and there are many people who have done this before (like weather watchers who release hundreds of weather balloons every day) (this is why they call “weather balloons” are called).

These balloons actually help us understand the speed of the wind at higher altitudes, as well as other weather phenomena. The government publishes data on current wind speeds up to 16,000 feet, which you might want to consider before launching your own balloon. Is it helpful for you to know that the wind speed at that highest altitude is about 57 knots near DC as I write this? If yes, you are very welcome.

Finally, everything comes together and you release your balloon. In a short time you have joined the ranks of the world’s secret agents and collect critical, detailed information about nearby backyards and parks in your neighborhood. Feel free to contact foreign actors and see how much they will give you for this data.

I will end with a caveat. Two Christmases ago I gave my kids an Estes model rocket of the kind I had when I was a kid. We went out to launch it, which was a success. It reached its highest altitude and its parachute deployed. It then landed in the neighbour’s tree, out of my reach. It remains there to this day, much to my occasional embarrassment.

My point is this: you could end up with a fluorescent cooler hanging outside your house for a few months, a sure sign to government agents that you’re a spy. Or maybe you are a primary school teacher. I’ll let you figure out which way you want to take it.

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