A Balloon's Journey: Testing Distance Capabilities of a LoRa Gateway and Tranceiver

A Balloon's Journey: Testing Distance Capabilities of a LoRa Gateway and Tranceiver

Recently, some of us at DMC have been interested in the capabilities of the LoRa protocol. We were curious about how far it could actually transmit. The theoretical range of a device is very long—upwards of 500 miles, but without knowing for sure that long range transmissions are possible, it’s true potential for clients was nothing more than an uncertainty for DMC.

With the freedom to work on an internal project during this past FedEx day, a group of engineers in our Chicago office decided to test the network ourselves—and have a bit of fun while doing it.

The Problem

Wanting to verify the distance at which the device remained responsive, we first took our radio for a drive around Bucktown. Alas, barely half a mile from the gateway in our office, the transmission cut out—likely due to buildings obstructing the signal.

LoRa signal first test data

At DMC, we don’t let a few buildings get in our way. To get a true test of LoRa’s capabilities, we had to send the radio farther in a direction without obstructions.

The Balloon

At roughly 5:45 pm on Friday, June 1, a wild balloon was returned to its natural habitat in the sky sporting a radio and a GPS, ready to report back to our new Chicago gateway every step of its journey. It was a glorious and emotional launch, but no one could predict what would happen to our wonderful friend in the real world. Would he ride off into the sunset, or cause a 50-car pile-up on I-94?  His only mission was to go forth and send back details of his journey via the LoRa network, but what he accomplished was much more than just a simple one-way trip.

The journey started out smoothly. Our friend rose steadily into the sky letting the wind carry him south while consistently reporting back his position from the GPS via the LoRa radio. He continued on a southern trajectory rising to an altitude of 14,600 ft. over the next 1.5 hours and traveling all the way past the southern border of Chicago.

Initial IoT balloon flight path

Taking a Turn

However, things soon began to look grim.  At 7:18 pm his GPS lost satellite contact and did not continue to update its position and altitude. Just prior to losing position the balloon appeared to have leveled out at 14,600 ft., deciding he did not need to go any higher. Was this the end of his flight?

Not quite. Despite no longer knowing his position with his faulty GPS, the courageous balloon continued to report back to our base station for the next hour and 45 minutes until 8:56 pm. By our estimate we were now roughly 60 miles south of Chicago, losing signal and probably getting low on battery. It had been a good run, but after a solid ten minutes without any updates, it was the end of the journey. Did the batteries die? Did the balloon pop or were we just too far away? We may never know.

IoT balloon estimated flight path

What Are the Odds?

But wait! Today was not just any day, and not just any flight. Our courageous balloon had not given up yet! Lo and behold there was another base station located in Lafayette, IN and at 9:48 pm our good friend phoned home loud and clear with a fully functional GPS. An amazing stroke of luck swept our balloon down the improbable path towards one of the only other gateways in the Midwest area, which picked up the balloon’s transmission. Our balloon was still riding the winds at a steady 15,000 ft. and was as happy as could be.

As wonderful as this news was, it was not meant to be. We received several more check-ins across the west side of Lafayette, but after 10:55 pm we heard the last of our friend. He had lost some altitude, now only at 6,000 ft. and was surely at the last sips of energy from his battery. It was a great journey and may he find a nice corn field to settle down in.

Map of transmissions from IoT balloon

After more than five hours and 110 miles I think our little balloon deserves a round of applause.

In Conclusion

Our little balloon taught us much. Not only is this IoT sensor network an efficient one that we would consider recommending for clients in future use, but DMC’s Chicago office has joined the public LoRa network (The Things Network) and now maintains one of only four gateways in all of Chicago. Maybe someday soon, we will be the ones receiving the call from a courageous balloon pioneering too far from home.

IoT balloon fed-ex day project collage

Learn more about DMC's IoT solutions.


There are currently no comments, be the first to post one.

Post a comment

Name (required)

Email (required)

Enter the code shown above:

Related Blog Posts