How to tweet from space – the build

By | 3 minute read | August 2, 2016

project edge view from space leadspace

On Wednesday, 4 May, four students from Imperial College London met with a Senior Inventor and Computer Scientist at IBM’s R&D Centre in Hursley Park, Hampshire.  Their vision was to launch an affordable, cognitive probe into space that could keep watch on earth. They called themselves ‘Project Edge‘. It would look for signs of danger and report back any issues it saw. It would also monitor social responses to any events on Twitter for context. The probe launched on 19 June. This two-part series explores how the team built and launched the probe; how you can tweet from space and how you can build your own space probe.

IBMs IoT lab in Hursley UK     The IoT Innovation Lab, Hursley Park, UK

The essential ingredients for building a space probe

Wei Cong Te, Peter McQuaid, Diyar Alyasiri and Shawn Tsou are from Imperial College’s Electrical and Engineering Department. They met with Jon McNamara, a Senior Inventor and Steve Upton, a computer scientist. Together they talked about micro-services, MQTT messaging, BlueMix and NodeRed. These were to become essential ingredients in building their probe ‘The Sentinel’.

interpreting GPS signals from the Sentinel probeInterpreting GPS signals from Watson in space

In their first week back at Imperial the team started to construct ‘The Sentinel’. They fitted a Pi In the Sky (PITS) and successfully interpreted the GPS co-ordinate data The Sentinel would send to a GPS dongle. The first signals were weak. The team hoped to boost them with a LoRa unit – unfortunately it was out of stock. Image data was coming in too with MQTT passing the information to BlueMix but needing decoding from ASCII text. Processing the large volume of data would be a challenge for the team.

How to launch a probe into space

How do you get a probe into space? Using a weather balloon. The team started work with The BOC Group to identify what gas they could fill their weather balloon with. They also discussed how to store it safely on the Cambridge campus, where they were planning their launch.

The team set about tweeting from space. They looked at:

  1. extracting the GPS coordinate data from a software output text file <created by?>
  2. using a Python MQTT script to transport it to an IBM IoT BlueMix node
  3. using custom Javascript functions on NodeRed to route it to Twitter based on Tweet requests

It would be possible for someone on Twitter to ask The Sentinel a question – and see the reply!

Looking back at the sentinel probe launch siteThe first view from the Sentinel probe

GPS data from the Pi in the Sky (PITS) alone is difficult to interpret, so the team worked on mapping co-ordinates to GoogleMaps for something more visual. They converted the raw data they received into GPX or Keyhole Markup Language (KPL) and looked at ways to connect the points to plot out the Sentinel’s journey – possibly even in a video. <was this video produced?>

How to see Tweets in space

The team also found a way to extract all the sensor readings concurrently and send them to another terminal to upload them to BlueMix. Most excitingly the LoRa board arrived enabling the team to send Tweets up to the balloon in space and for the Sentinel to send telemetry and images back to earth. Watson could now tweet in space!

In preparation for ‘lift off’ the team sourced the correct type of Helium gas and worked out how to safely transport and store it head of their launch. They figured out how to insulate the probe to keep it safe at the much cooler temperatures 30km above earth. To see tweets in space, the team sourced an OLED display that the Raspberry Pi camera could photograph and send back to earth.

Assembling the sentinel probeAssembling the Go-Pro camera into the Sentinel probe to take photos of tweets in space

The probe takes shape as the team put together the two insulated hemispheres and fix the Go-Pro in place. With a final glitch between the OLED display and the tracker using the same serial interface resolved with a second serial interface, the team are ready to launch.

Tune in next week for a video of Watson’s trip into space. If you’d like more details, check out the Imperial College team’s Project Edge website and see more of these types of projects in the IBM Innovation Centre, Hursley website. If you’d like to know more about building your own space probe and tweeting in space, drop us a line below and we’ll get back to you.