A Near Space weblog…

Legal Issues

I was racking my brain trying to figure out how to start our new blog.  Talk about how much fun it is putting a project together?  Talk about the science and the sense of satisfaction of seeing the data coming down and processing it later?  What’s our favorite part…the prep, the flight, the recovery? 

Naah, let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first.  Then we’ll get to the fun stuff.  Before we begin, I would like to make sure that you know:

We are NOT lawyers, nor have we consulted any attorneys concerning these regulations.  What follows is our own interpretation of the Federal Regulations concerning the launch and operation of unmanned balloons, which you may accept, reject or consult with your own attorney as to its validity. 

Ok, now that you know where we’re coming from, let’s explore “What gives us the right to think we can do what we do?”

Actually, the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, Part 101 which is titled “MOORED BALLOONS, KITES, AMATEUR ROCKETS AND UNMANNED FREE BALLOONS” provides the regulatory framework for building and operating Near Space projects.  While the regulations are fairly onerous for large payload missions, the minimums that are referenced in Section 101.1 “Applicability” are broad enough that we don’t have to worry about “radar reflective devices” or “cut-down devices” or lights or flags.  Basically we can operate pretty much unregulated, as long as you keep your payload and project construction under the minimum constraints listed in “Applicability”.

So let’s take a look at that section of the regulations that pertains to our ‘unmanned free balloon’. 

Section 101.1

(a) This part prescribes rules governing the operation in the United States, of the following:

(4) Except as provided for in §101.7, any unmanned free balloon that—

We will discuss section 101.7 “Hazardous Operations” a little later.

(i) Carries a payload package that weighs more than four pounds and has a weight/size ratio of more than three ounces per square inch on any surface of the package, determined by dividing the total weight in ounces of the payload package by the area in square inches of its smallest surface;

Ok , it’s not rocket science, but there IS math involved.  As an example, our payload package for the 2009 flight weighed in at a whopping 4 lbs or 64 ounces.  The bottom of the package is the smallest surface and it is square, 10 inches on a side, or 100 square inches. Using the calculation above, our 64 ounces divided by 100 square inches comes out to 0.64 ounces per square inch.  See, easy math.  So while our package was just at the 4 lb mark, we were well under the 3 ounces per square inch limit.

(ii) Carries a payload package that weighs more than six pounds;

Six pounds is the absolute limit for a payload package, ours was four.

(iii) Carries a payload, of two or more packages, that weighs more than 12 pounds; or

While one payload package can weigh up to six pounds, you can actually have two packages in your payload.  We read this to mean two separate and discrete ‘boxes’ tethered together in some fashion. The six pound limit per package still applies, ie you can’t have one box that is 11 pounds and one that is one pound and still be within the 12 lb limit. Each box must remain within the six pound limit. Once again, as an example, our 2009 flight carried two packages.  The tracking module weighed 24 ounces total and was attached to the bottom of the science/main module, which weighed 64 ounces.  Total weight was 5.5 pounds. 

(iv) Uses a rope or other device for suspension of the payload that requires an impact force of more than 50 pounds to separate the suspended payload from the balloon.

The line that attaches your payload to the balloon is very important.  You want it strong enough so that it doesn’t break on the way up, but it must be light enough so that it will easily break apart if it comes in contact with anything else trying to fly around in the same airspace.  We tried a few different kinds of lines and twine and settled on a 12 lb test catfish line.  To be safe, we tested the line several times to be sure it would break before the required 50 lb limit.  We connected the line to our electronic fish scale (which is also used to test the lift pressure of the balloon on launch morning) and steadily pulled until it broke.  It averaged around 15 lbs, which was plenty to hold our 7 lb total payload (5.5 lb in packages and 1.5 lb parachute).  It also fell well under the 50 lb limit mentioned in the regulations.

The start of the Applicability section mentioned section 101.7 “Hazardous operations.” Two things you can’t do.  1) You can’t operate your ballon “in a manner that creates a hazard to other persons, or their property” and 2) you can’t drop anything from your balloon “if such action creates a hazard to other persons or their property.”  In layman’s terms, these are considered catch-alls.  They are intentionally written to be ambiguous so they can be widely interpreted.  There is a Near Space enthusiast who likes to drop small balsa gliders from his experiment package just to see how far they will fly from 100,000 feet.  But if the glider poked someone in the eye as it landed, I guess they could nail him for “Hazardous operation”.  It also means, make sure you tie down anything external very well.  The burst balloon makes for a violent ride down and can rip booms and antennae from your payload packages.

So what we’ve been doing is looking to see if these regulations are applicable to our Near Space project.  Since in all instances we were under the minimums for applicability, this regulation is NOT applicable, except section 101.7 Hazardous Operations.  That being said, a little common sense will go a long way toward ensuring a successful flight.  If you’ll be launching or expect your package to land near an airport, give them a call and let them know what you’re doing.  They may even be able to suggest a safe time for launch when there is less traffic.  Take a look at the entire Regulation for yourself, and refer back as you build your project.     There is plenty of leeway in the Applicability section so that you’re not saddled with lights and cut-downs and the like.  After all, we’re not trying to conquer space, we just want our little piece of it.

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