Microsoft Azure is helping Southampton University to reach above the clouds in a first-of-its-kind experiment to probe the stratosphere using an unmanned vehicle.
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The Atmospheric Research through Robotic Aircraft project aims to show how a low-cost helium high altitude balloon could be used to send a payload with atmospheric monitoring equipment into the upper atmosphere.
Andras Sobester, research fellow at University of Southampton, said, "We are limited to devices that weigh next to nothing, but our data processing requirements are immense."
According to Sobester, there are not many options for launching sensors into the upper atmosphere. The helium balloon is the cheapest approach. "A fully manned research aircraft costs £10,000 per hour," he said.
The launch, which took place earlier on Friday March 4, propelled a Windows Phone 7 device and digital camera over 60,000 feet into the stratosphere. The phone runs an application developed by mobile apps specialist Segoz.co.uk, which uses mobile connectivity to connect to the Microsoft Azure cloud.
"[Processing in] Azure is used to predict the projected landing site," Sobester said.
Steven Johnson, who built the app, says the phone is a good device for data capture compared to a dedicated data logger, as it contains a relatively powerful 1 GHz processor and up to 32 Gbytes of memory.
The Windows Phone 7 Bluetooth stack could also be used to connect wirelessly to instrumentation.
In the second stage of the project, the researchers hope to use the balloon to launch robot gliders that have an autopilot with a pre-programmed flight path.