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Reports From The Field: Tracking With Helium

I recent­ly drove up to par­tic­i­pate in the USA Hike & Fly­’s Ojai race on Octo­ber 31st, both as an ath­lete and a provider of track­ing with Heli­um. The ath­lete side was fun, but expen­sive. I land­ed in the bush­es and tore up my wing enough to war­rant buy­ing a new one. Not cheap. Still, rad to blast up the back­side of the range then launch off the ridge in an attempt to fly the course instead of hike it.

The oth­er rea­son I went up was to pro­vide cus­tom track­ing for race par­tic­i­pants. Hav­ing recent­ly done the very first paraglid­ing track­ing event up in Utah, for the X Red Rocks race, I man­aged to avoid a few mis­takes, repeat a few more, and learn a ton about how best to run track­ing for peo­ple who move flu­id­ly from earth to air.

As a quick recap, a “hike and fly” race is one where you attempt to com­plete a course by hik­ing on the ground or fly­ing your paraglid­er. Typ­i­cal­ly these races start in a val­ley and you hike up to the top of a moun­tain or ridge, then launch off from the high point and tag oth­er points, either in the air or on the ground. These “points” are usu­al­ly cylin­ders of var­i­ous sizes, from 10m radius to a 5 km radius. 

Ok, so what does it take to track a paraglid­ing race with Helium?

Let’s start with the prep work. With 30 par­tic­i­pants, I want­ed to have more than enough track­ers ready. My wife Lee & I prepped 40 Dig­i­tal Mat­ter Oys­ters, which were orig­i­nal­ly designed for vehi­cles but work well enough OTS (Off The Shelf) for paraglid­er track­ing. Here they are after we’d got­ten stick­ers on ’em, labeled ’em with a use­ful num­ber, and put the GKI con­tact info on the back, in case any­one for­got to return theirs at the end of the day.

Yes, I used a dri­ver to pull the back plates off all of ’em. At 6 screws each that would’ve tak­en for­ev­er manually. 

The next step was get­ting up to Ojai, where the race would be held. Lee & I loaded up the truck and head­ed north, arriv­ing in the evening at The Hum­ming­bird Inn. The next morn­ing I laid out all my gear for ini­tial func­tion checks. So far, so good.

One thing I was doing as a test run this time was run­ning a mobile hotspot, Late Rain­bow Bee. I built a Data Only Hot­spot using direc­tions over on the Heli­um site and using a Dragi­no LPS8, a RUT240 cell modem, and small Goal Zero Yeti 200X bat­tery I had lay­ing around from anoth­er project. On this project I was­n’t able to get it to pass data via the RUT240, so work remains to be done. Prob­a­bly an issue with the RUT240 set­up. Still, that in and of itself has been a fun lit­tle project. Ok, onward!

I ral­lied fel­low San Diego pilot Kris Souther to head up with Lee & I to place the two GKI Hotspots, Atom­ic Blood Wolver­ine & Fierce Hon­ey Bad­ger. We bumped over a bunch of dirt roads togeth­er and got every­thing sort­ed out.

Here’s the Bad­ger over by Chief Peak. For those of you way into build­ing these things, this is a slight­ly old­er build mode (direc­tions here). Notice the RP-SMA con­nec­tor (not an N‑type) for the bulk­head con­nec­tion. N‑types are way stur­dier. That’s 3′ of LMR400 cable, a 30 watt pan­el, and a 20 Ah bat­tery. Oh, and of course, an HNTen­na.

Once the Bad­ger was up we drove the long and rough road over to Nord­off, which had stun­ning views, a fire obser­va­tion tow­er, and a paraglid­ing launch. 

I set up Atom­ic Blood Wolver­ine on a flat spot with giant views, and our work was done. 

Kris brought along his wing, and once ABW was up, laid out his wing and launched off Nord­off Peak. 

Lee & I drove back down, and I checked in on my two hotspots to make sure they were run­ning. One was­n’t, most like­ly due to no cell sig­nal. One of many lessons learned was to make sure I check the func­tion of the cell modem and the hotspot BEFORE leav­ing the thing up and running. 

I spent the rest of the after­noon check­ing and re-check­ing all my track­ers, need­ing to shake a few of ’em to get them to con­nect (move­ment trig­gers a radio trans­mis­sion). Tom­my over at Lon­eS­tar Track­ing was super help­ful walk­ing me through basic trou­bleshoot­ing process­es, and by the end of it I had all the units I need­ed for race day.

Lee & I got up ear­ly Sun­day morn­ing and drove over to the meet­ing point to hand out track­ers. I gave a brief overview to the rac­ers about what was hap­pen­ing, what Heli­um was, and the ben­e­fits & short­falls of a cus­tom deployed LoRa track­ing sys­tem, then I turned off “Gristlek­ing” mode and went into ath­lete mode. Here’s the start line down on Rose Val­ley Road.

We had a cou­ple of moun­tain bik­ers as part of it, they biked the whole thing, which was pret­ty cool. A few of ’em even car­ried trackers!

From there it was a straight grind fest to gain the ridge, includ­ing some off-piste action with­in min­utes of the start when we missed our turn off. That’s how adven­tures go, right?

After man­ag­ing to land in thick brush unscathed and yet tear up my wing so bad­ly I need­ed to buy a new one, I packed it all up, hiked down 6 miles down Gri­d­ley Trail to meet Lee, and we drove around for almost 4 hours pick­ing up the hotspots back in the moun­tains. Dirt roads are slow going! The sun was set­ting and the marine lay­er was rolling in fast as we came back down the mountain.

Lessons Learned

  • eas­i­er way to pow­er cycle the track­ers is need­ed, both to save bat­tery & as a func­tion check
  • always check a remote hotspot BEFORE walk­ing away from it
  • the Data Only Hotspots are a neat idea but require a fair amount of geek­ery to get going
  • with­out cell sig­nal (or some kind of inter­net con­nec­tion) your hotspot won’t be useful
  • sim­ple method of hav­ing a writ­ten chart to keep track of (no pun intend­ed) who got what track­er worked real­ly well
  • it takes a ton of time to get to some of these places. You prob­a­bly want to be on site at least 2 days early
  • pri­or map study and think­ing about cov­er­age is essen­tial; need to shift out of “High Earn­ing” mode and into “Best Cov­er­age” mode

Hope that helps YOU as you deploy and use the Heli­um Net­work. Here’s to all of us grow­ing and crush­ing it togeth­er. Rock on!

1 thought on “Reports From The Field: Tracking With Helium”

  1. Nik, great post. In my mind it appears a major lim­it­ing fac­tor is the deploy­ment of the min­ers due to the time/energy required to get to each loca­tion. I have spent the last year learn­ing the in’s and out­’s of Digi’s Xbee mod­ules, specif­i­cal­ly lever­ag­ing their abil­i­ty to do mesh net­work­ing. It would mean piv­ot­ing away from the Heli­um side of things, but think if each user’s track­er through the mesh net­work pro­vid­ed con­nec­tiv­i­ty for oth­er users. You can still use the same cen­tral gate­way with a cel­lu­lar back­haul (I actu­al­ly was able to cre­ate a stand­alone xbee com­pat­i­ble solar cel­lu­lar gate­way that is about the size of a brick), but the dif­fer­en­tia­tor is lever­ag­ing the whole team to achieve dynam­ic con­nec­tiv­i­ty. Once peo­ple are up in the air, they become your best locat­ed “hotspot” because they have the ele­va­tion advan­tage. Cur­rent Digi’s most user friend­ly pro­gram­able mod­ule is the Xbee3 (https://www.digi.com/products/embedded-systems/digi-xbee/rf-modules/2–4‑ghz-rf-modules/xbee3-zigbee‑3), but it uses 2.4ghz. They are sup­pose to be launch­ing a 915mhz ver­sion in the next few months (hope­ful­ly) which could be a game chang­er for this appli­ca­tion. I have cre­at­ed cus­tom mod­ules for anoth­er appli­ca­tion (mine mea­sure some­thing else so they don’t have GPS) that fit in the palm of your hand, use mesh, and can last all day on a recharge­able bat­tery so I think achiev­ing a sim­i­lar form fac­tor to the oys­ter is pos­si­ble. I’m hap­py to brain­storm if you are interested.

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