UPEI students all at sea to launch weather balloons

About 90 UPEI engineering students boarded HMCS Toronto in Halifax to release weather balloons to gather data as part of a first-year project.

Students unable to retrieve their weather balloons, but experiment still deemed a success

UPEI engineering students worked on their projects for five weeks before releasing the balloons from HMCS Toronto. (Jay Scotland/CBC)

About 90 University of Prince Edward Island engineering students are packed into the hangar of a large navy ship preparing to launch weather balloons in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean while battling rough, four-metre swells and sea sickness. 

The hiss of helium fills the air as the balloons are inflated and students carefully attach data reading equipment to them. They've worked on the payloads for five weeks and they contain equipment such as sensors, cameras, and GPSs. Each group is aiming to gather data while the balloon and their computers are high up in the atmosphere. They've designed them to withstand high altitudes and landing in the water.

The ocean is so rough as they work in the hangar, some are having a hard time standing — or keeping their breakfast down. 

The students boarded a bus at 3 a.m. at UPEI in Charlottetown last Wednesday to get on board HMCS Toronto in the Halifax harbour around 7:30 a.m. to conduct their experiments. 

UPEI students attach their payloads with data gathering equipment to the weather balloons inside the hangar of HMCS Toronto. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"It's really crazy, but it's also a good experience because then you actually get to experience what you're going to end up doing when you're done with school," said Sharon Adeyemi, whose project collected data on the sun using solar panels.

"It actually is great that we're working with the navy too."

The gigantic door on the hangar rolls up and students walk out to the windy deck while holding huge white balloons attached to their projects. 

Sharon Adeyemi says she was happy to learn skills she'll use when she enters the field of engineering as a career. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Macdonald Duru says he never imagined he'd be on a navy ship so early in his program. 

"Life aboard the ship for today, to me it's the best. Like, I have never experienced such feeling. I've never seen such beautiful views before," he said.

He said his excitement helped him from getting sea sick. 

UPEI students walk out on to the deck of HMCS Toronto to launch the weather balloons. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"For some of my friends they are not feeling so great because it's the first time here just like me, but then like I guess my excitedness, I'm so excited I just did not want to get sick and I want to enjoy every moment in this ship."

The Royal Canadian Navy tracked the balloons and devices by radar, but the balloons travelled too far to be able to retrieve them and get the ship back to shore on time. Staff back at UPEI were receiving location information from GPS equipment and communicating it to HMCS Toronto too. The navy had rescue boats and people ready and waiting to get the devices back, but the conditions were too rough. 

UPEI engineering student Macdonald Duru shows off his project that's about to be launched over the Atlantic Ocean from the navy ship. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Commanding officer of the HMCS Toronto Martin Fluet says while he's had civilians on board before, he's never had an experience like this.

"This is obviously a great opportunity for our personal staff to speak to the students to understand what is it that they do when they build and what's the process to building things," Fluet said. 

Commanding officer of the HMCS Toronto Martin Fluet says the project was a learning experience for the ship's staff, as well. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)

Students got a tour of the vessel and got to see how Canada's navy works, as well. 

UPEI assistant professor Nadja Bressan says although the students didn't get their data devices back, the project was a great experience.

"That's part of attempting and learning or in failing gracefully. I think we are successful in this," Bressan said.

"Even when you are the best that you can, and you build, and you design and you do everything right there is also never a guarantee and you have to learn with that to improve all the time."

Navy boats were ready to retrieve the UPEI experiments, but conditions were too dangerous to deploy people. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Students did put contact information on their payloads in case they are found by someone. 

"If it lands on someone's property maybe they're gong to mail it back to us," said student Sara Badr.

"It's a little bit sad that we didn't get them back, but we expected it and some of the balloons actually didn't pop so they're too far," she said. "We learned a lot."

UPEI engineering students and members of the Royal Canadian Navy gather on the deck of HMCS Toronto as the weather balloons are being launched. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Overall, UPEI and the navy were pleased with how the project went. 

"There's a lot of engineering on a ship like this and I think most of them have never seen anything like this or have been involved in anything like this so I think it's going to be a real eye-opener," said Nicholas Krouglicof, associate dean of the School of Sustainable Design Engineering at UPEI. 

Assistant professor Nadja Bressan says not only did the students learn a lot about engineering, they also got a great life experience on the navy ship. (David Laughlin/CBC)
Sara Badr says contact information is on her project in case anyone finds it after it was launched. (David Laughlin/CBC)
Designing the payloads attached to the weather balloons is part of the first-year engineering project at UPEI. (Krystalle Ramlakhan/CBC)


Krystalle Ramlakhan is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I., Winnipeg and Iqaluit.

With files from Jay Scotland