Unusual: Using Helium to Track Paragliders

It’s a warm sun­ny day just west of and about 1,600 feet above Lake Elsi­nore, at a paraglid­ing launch site unimag­i­na­tive­ly called “The E”. A few of us are get­ting ready to launch off the steep face of the hill to ride ther­mals and the wind. Our “plan A” today is to see if we can fly a giant tri­an­gle in the sky, at least 50 km. Plan A does­n’t happen.

Our plan B, how­ev­er, is to test small track­ers on the Heli­um net­work and see just how well they work. Plan B works splendidly.

First, what the heck is paraglid­ing? It’s not para­sail­ing (that’s where you get towed up behind a speed­boat in Can­cun. You’re basi­cal­ly a sack of sus­pend­ed meat in the air. 

It’s not hang glid­ing (although that’s equal­ly rad). Paraglid­ing is using some­thing that looks like a para­chute to launch off a moun­tain, hook a ther­mal going up, ride it to the top, then take off on glide. You repeat the ther­mal climb and glide cycle as many times as you can find a ther­mal until you get tired or run out of day­light. The US dis­tance record is over 250 miles. Yep, with­out an engine. Here’s what paraglid­ers and hang glid­ers look like. Hang glid­ers are the tri­an­gle shape. 

Ok, so what does that have to do with Helium? 

Sim­ple: Back up track­ers. Most of the time, we free flight pilots (that’s what we call our­selves, whether paraglid­ers or hang glid­ers) fly in places where we don’t need track­ing; places near cities, places where we can pop out at 4 in the after­noon, fly for an hour, and be home in time for dinner.

Some­times we go a lit­tle fur­ther, a lit­tle deep­er in the moun­tains, where cell cov­er­age is less reliable.

Some­times we go way out back of beyond, places it’s so emp­ty they don’t even build cell tow­ers (look­ing at you, Nevada.)

In those emp­ty places, our first option is a GPS track­er, which works well most of the time. Our sec­ond option is a cell phone, which works great as long as we’re around cell tow­ers. Which we aren’t always. Our third option is…nothing.

Or at least, it was. That’s where Heli­um comes in. With a small track­er, some­thing about the size of a hand­held radio, we can set up Heli­um gate­ways our­selves and track where we’re going over huge dis­tances. That’s impor­tant, because some of us (not me) fly huge dis­tances in remote places. 

Back in August of 2020, a paraglid­er I did­n’t know named Kiwi flew out into a clear Neva­da sky and disappeared. 

The free flight com­mu­ni­ty ral­lied all our resources, and when your com­mu­ni­ty is a com­bi­na­tion of ultra-geeky engi­neers and thrill seek­ers, you end up call­ing in glob­al satel­lite imagery com­pa­nies, 3 let­ter gov­ern­ment agen­cies, drone oper­a­tors, an army of ground-pound­ing searchers on ATVs, side by sides, moun­tain bikes, on foot, and a small air force of heli­copters, bush planes, sail planes, and stunt planes. 

I flew up from San Diego in a friend’s small plane (an RV8 if you must know) to join the search for a cou­ple days. Despite mul­ti­ple rock ‘n roll flights in mid-day mid-sum­mer low-lev­el ther­mic con­di­tions, we did­n’t find him. 

It took us (the paraglid­ing com­mu­ni­ty) 30 days to find him. We were far too late; he was dead when he hit the ground. 

He had been using GPS and a cell phone for track­ing. With very few cell tow­ers in the area of Neva­da he was fly­ing, cell recep­tion was­n’t good. When he hit the ground, he smashed his GPS, which was on his front side. He did­n’t have a “ter­tiary geolo­ca­tion option.” None of us did. We all thought two was enough. Kiwi’s dis­ap­pear­ance taught us it wasn’t.

So that brings us to how I found Heli­um. I want­ed a track­er that would work as a back­up option. Some­thing you could throw in the back of your har­ness and for­get about. I stum­bled on LoRa, got side tracked into this whole cryp­tocur­ren­cy appli­ca­tion, and set out to see if I could use Heli­um to track paragliders. 

The short ver­sion? You can.

Using a com­pa­ny out of Texas to pro­vide the track­ers and the visu­al­iza­tion, I bought a few Oys­ter track­ers and hand­ed them out to local paraglid­ers. I had set up a Heli­um gate­way at one of our local sites, so I was pret­ty sure it would work there, and it did. 

What I was curi­ous about was the next step: Would it work where I had­n’t set up a gate­way opti­mized for track­ing pilots? Yep, it does. In the image above, that’s my flight on March 21st, 2021, tak­ing off at The E and land­ing about 5 miles down range to the south east. Not an excep­tion­al flight by paraglid­ing stan­dards, but enough to show that with a few local Heli­um hotspots scat­tered around, you can track paragliders.

I don’t own or con­trol any of the sta­tions pro­vid­ing cov­er­age around that area. They’re all set up, run, and main­tained by oth­er peo­ple. That’s one of the many very cool aspects of the Heli­um net­work. You don’t HAVE to set up your own gate­way in order to use track­ers (or any oth­er sensor.)

What does the track­er look like? Here’s a pic­ture of it on my gear, right before I unpacked and took off to fly the oth­er day. Yep, it’s that lit­tle white plas­tic thing.

Now, what hap­pens when you don’t have any hotspots close by, and you’re fly­ing over a val­ley sur­round­ed by hills and moun­tains. Can you still be tracked?

Yep. That one is an even short­er flight, but it’s from a dif­fer­ent launch site (Palo­mar) where no hotspots are near­by. Does­n’t mat­ter. LoRa takes small pack­ets of infor­ma­tion LONG dis­tances (the Lo in LoRa). The near­est active hotspot is almost 40 km away, and on the far side of a moun­tain range! 

Update to this: The Palo­mar moun­tain range now has many Hotspots deployed on it, and turned out to be a prof­it-gen­er­at­ing machine when it came to Heli­um deploy­ments in 2021.

In the pic­ture below, the green spots are active Heli­um hotspots, also known as “gate­ways”. Those are the things that are receiv­ing infor­ma­tion from sen­sors, then pass it on to the Heli­um Net­work where it’s processed by com­pa­nies like Lonestar.

Ok, ok, enough hype. What are the limitations? 

  • As you can see in the Lon­eS­tar track­ing image, track­ing stops when I go below the line of the moun­tain range, at point 5. Radio waves don’t go through moun­tains. Some­times around, nev­er through.
  • The track­ing was­n’t set up for a fast time inter­val, so the track is jagged. 
  • As of right now, you can’t turn the track­ers off, so when I dri­ve home, every­one with my track­ing link can see where my house is.
  • If you don’t have cell cov­er­age, you can’t con­nect to the inter­net, so you need to put the gate­ways where they’ll have cell coverage.

None of those are insur­mount­able. It’s pret­ty easy to fit an on/off switch to the thing (Travis Teague could do it at 3 AM with his eyes closed in between polypha­sic sleep cycles). You can set a faster inter­val, although you’ll dri­ve bat­tery life down from years to months, and maybe days if you set it to 1 sec­ond inter­vals. You can set up a geofence around a “do not track” area. Final­ly, even in out-back-of-beyond Neva­da you can find cell tow­ers in odd places and cre­ate track­ing cov­er­age. That’s going down the rab­bit hole of link bud­get and band­width a lit­tle, and it’s not absolute­ly per­fect, but it sure is nice to have that ter­tiary track­ing option.

What about plac­ing hotspots?

Here’s an image from the afore­men­tioned Teague of a remote-deploy­able tem­po­rary hotspot (aka gate­way aka min­er). Let’s say you’re set­ting up an adven­ture race, or a way-out-there moun­tain bike 200 mile loop where you want to see where all your rid­ers are. Hell, maybe you want anoth­er crack at the Neva­da state dis­tance record on a paraglider. 

It’s not as easy as push­ing a but­ton; you’ll have to go place that lit­tle hotspot on a moun­tain top some­where, but it ain’t that hard, either. You could bring a hotspot up to launch and leave it there until every­one is land­ed and account­ed for. Find a few high moun­tains with trails up to ’em and you’ve got a fun project for the part of your team that likes that kind of Type II fun.

The thing will run for a few days on a bat­tery, so you don’t have to come back right away. Add a solar pan­el and you could leave it up there for a season.

Heli­um, both hotspots and track­ers, pro­vides that ter­tiary geolo­ca­tion option I was wish­ing Kiwi had back in August. 

In this case, the appli­ca­tion isn’t a super sexy fan­cy track­er that will link to Twit­ter and your old Myspace account plus your new Tik­Tok account (although I bet some­one will fig­ure that out). 

It IS, on the oth­er hand, a rugged lit­tle long-lifed suck­er that’ll cost you less than satel­lite track­ing sta­tions or cell tow­ers to set up (by a LOT), will be fun to deploy (depend­ing on your idea of fun) and may be the dif­fer­ence between you being found by night­fall or found at mon­th’s end when you’re out at the lim­its of human performance. 

So, what will YOU do with Helium? 

See ya in the sky! Yeah, that’s me in the orange wing on a love­ly Sun­day after­noon out at Palomar.

Want to know more about track­ers and Heli­um and the mag­ic of blockchain + radio?



4 responses to “Unusual: Using Helium to Track Paragliders”

  1. Steve Niebauer Avatar
    Steve Niebauer

    This is awe­some! Did these track­ers work out of the box with Heli­um or did you have to con­fig­ure them to somehow?

  2. Hi Steve,
    These were set up by Lon­es­tar Track­ing; way eas­i­er for non-tech folks to han­dle, which has been part of what I’m test­ing. Any geek can sol­der and 3D print, but it takes a genius to make things simple. 😉

  3. […] long after that first use case, Nik learned that involve­ment with The People’s Net­work often pre­cedes ques­tions from friends and […]

  4. […] hand­ed out the devices to local paraglid­ers, and we test­ed them. They worked (I’ve writ­ten about these tests over […]

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