Community profile: Dave Akerman

This column is from The MagPi issue 61. You can download a PDF of the full issue for free, or subscribe to receive the print edition through your letterbox or the digital edition on your tablet. All proceeds from the print and digital editions help the Raspberry Pi Foundation achieve our charitable goals.

The pinned tweet on Dave Akerman’s Twitter account shows a table displaying the various components needed for a high-altitude balloon (HAB) flight. Batteries, leads, a camera and Raspberry Pi, plus an unusually themed payload. The caption reads ‘The Queen, The Duke of York, and my TARDIS”, and sums up Dave’s maker career in a heartbeat.

David Akerman on Twitter

The Queen, The Duke of York, and my TARDIS :-) #UKHAS #RaspberryPi

Though writing software for industrial automation pays the bills, the majority of Dave’s time is spent in the world of high-altitude ballooning and the ever-growing community that encompasses it. And, while he makes some money sending business-themed balloons to near space for the likes of Aardman Animations, Confused.com, and the BBC, Dave is best known in the Raspberry Pi community for his use of the small computer in every payload, and his work as a tutor alongside the Foundation’s staff at Skycademy events.

Dave Akerman The MagPi Raspberry Pi Community Profile

Dave continues to help others while breaking records and having a good time exploring the atmosphere.

Dave has dedicated many hours and many, many more miles to assist with the Foundation’s Skycademy programme, helping to explore high-altitude ballooning with educators from across the UK. Using a Raspberry Pi and various other pieces of lightweight tech, Dave and Foundation staff member James Robinson explored the incorporation of high-altitude ballooning into education. Through Skycademy, educators were able to learn new skills and take them to the classroom, setting off their own balloons with their students, and recording the results on Raspberry Pis.

Dave Akerman The MagPi Raspberry Pi Community Profile

Dave’s most recent flight broke a new record. On 13 August 2017, his HAB payload was able to send back the highest images taken by any amateur flight.

But education isn’t the only reason for Dave’s involvement in the HAB community. As with anyone passionate about a specific hobby, Dave strives to break records. The most recent record-breaking flight took place on 13 August 2017, when Dave’s Raspberry Pi Zero HAB sent home the highest images taken by any amateur high-altitude balloon launch: at 43014 metres. No other HAB balloon has provided images from such an altitude, and the lightweight nature of the Pi Zero definitely helped, as Dave went on to mention on Twitter a few days later.

Dave Akerman The MagPi Raspberry Pi Community Profile

Dave is recognised as being the first person to incorporate a Raspberry Pi into a HAB payload, and continues to break records with the help of the little green board. More recently, he’s been able to lighten the load by using the Raspberry Pi Zero.

When the first Pi made its way to near space, Dave tore the computer apart in order to meet the weight restriction. The Pi in the Sky board was created to add the extra features needed for the flight. Since then, the HAT has experienced a few changes.

Dave Akerman The MagPi Raspberry Pi Community Profile

The Pi in the Sky board, created specifically for HAB flights.

Dave first fell in love with high-altitude ballooning after coming across the hobby in a video shared on a photographic forum. With a lifelong interest in space thanks to watching the Moon landings as a boy, plus a talent for electronics and photography, it seems a natural progression for him. Throw in his coding skills from learning to program on a Teletype and it’s no wonder he was ready and eager to take to the skies, so to speak, and capture the curvature of the Earth. What was so great about using the Raspberry Pi was the instant gratification he got from receiving images in real time as they were taken during the flight. While other devices could control a camera and store captured images for later retrieval, thanks to the Pi Dave was able to transmit the files back down to Earth and check the progress of his balloon while attempting to break records with a flight.

Dave Akerman The MagPi Raspberry Pi Community Profile Morph

One of the many commercial flights Dave has organised featured the classic children’s TV character Morph, a creation of the Aardman Animations studio known for Wallace and Gromit. Morph took to the sky twice in his mission to reach near space, and finally succeeded in 2016.

High-altitude ballooning isn’t the only part of Dave’s life that incorporates a Raspberry Pi. Having “lost count” of how many Pis he has running tasks, Dave has also created radio receivers for APRS (ham radio data), ADS-B (aircraft tracking), and OGN (gliders), along with a time-lapse camera in his garden, and he has a few more Pi for tinkering purposes.