It’s a simple formula: Blimps + Battles = Battle Blimps.
In a way, it’s shocking that it took 200,000 years of human evolution before someone decided that balloon jousting should be a thing. But the important thing is that it is now. If you’re into watching or participating in remote-controlled, flammable chaos, than this Thunderdome is for you.
Battle Blimps is brought to us by the good people at False Profit Labs, a loose collective of science-loving Bay Area creatives who love a good project. Fresh off a successful Indiegogo campaign and a show at this year’s Burning Man, FPL’s Brendan Colloran took some time to chat with Inverse and tell us a bit more about what Battle Blimps is, how he’s developed it thus far, and what a master blimp battler needs to know to take down the competition.
What is False Profit Labs? What exactly do you guys do, and how did it come together?
It’s a pretty loosely organized group of friends who get together to hack on projects. We think of it as science-based or technical-based arts and spectacles. So in the past we had a project where we built soap bubbles filled with hydrogen and oxygen and propane and we would let people stab at them with red-hot pokers. We had another one where we hooked up like a heart-rate meter to a bunch of giant flame effects, and you could see your pulse in fire. So it’s definitely out of that Burning Man tradition of like fire art — making big fires and letting people participate and play and check it out. We try to have it be a little bit more technical than doing something like throwing propane onto a giant sculpture.
So Battle Blimps is your brainchild. How did it come about? What was the origin for this project?
I think it kind of originated out of a couple things, one of which was that other project that I mentioned where we were blowing soap bubbles full of hydrogen. The group has been kind of playing with interests in this weird experience of lighter-than-air objects that rise. At some point we were brainstorming about playing with those ideas and what we could do with hydrogen and kind of laughing like, “oh, hydrogen is dangerous! What about the Hindenburg? What if we did something with the Hindenburg?”
I’ve always been interested in lighter-than-air vehicles. There’s something kind of “steampunk-y” about dirigibles —something interesting about how they move and how they fly. So I was like, ‘I think I actually want to try to build that. How can we turn that into the fun, kind of random spectacle or game or interactive thing that we can get people to play with? That would be cool, that would be novel.’
How do Battle Blimps work? What are the kinds of parts and components that you need to kind of create a hydrogen-powered battle vehicle?
The biggest constraint is that we want this to be a spectacle and be interesting and be fiery and seem dangerous without actually being dangerous. That limits basically how much hydrogen we can use, because if we actually have huge volumes of hydrogen, we actually could get giant explosions and giant fires. So we have to keep everything very small. And that means everything has to be incredibly light. So the biggest constraint for us was coming up with a way of building the system where everything will actually be light enough to be lifted by a small amount of hydrogen, but still smart enough and fast enough and interesting enough to be fun.
And none of us are hardware people. I’m actually a mathematician and an economist by training, and I work as a data scientist now. So we also had to pick something relatively accessible, so we went with Arduino because it’s a pretty accessible hardware, and easy to get up and running. We were thinking that anyone can learn it — even us, people who don’t have that background.
We chose to go with an Arduino setup called RFduino, which has built-in Bluetooth and is very small and very lightweight. It kind of provided the brain for the blimp. Each blimp has an airframe, which is all the mechanical parts of the blimp — so like the motors, the battery, all that kind of stuff — and it has the brain, which is the RFduino.
The RFduino talks over Bluetooth to a central laptop, so we can have a lot of brains running at once and they’ll all talk to one laptop, which is what we use as our central master-controller. That connects to a bunch of XBox controllers, used to control each individual blimp. Having it all go through one computer also lets us do some safety maneuvers. So we can shut off the project at any time we want to, we can monitor that status of all the blimps, etc.
What does a Battle Blimps round look like? Are there any rules?
I will explain to you both what the project ended up being like [at Burning Man] and what the vision was. Burning Man is well-known for kind of ‘eating up’ art projects. You carefully construct everything and it works like how you’d expect, and you know what’s going on when you do it at sea level in the Bay Area with different temperatures and different conditions. Then you bring it up there [to the desert] and the dust and weather conditions eat everything.
Our vision was to have a battle-blimp round consist of four blimps at a time, and they’re in this kind of enclosed cylinder about 24 feet across. And outside of that is where the spectators can watch the battles unfold. The whole thing’s enclosed in a big dome — that’s basically just to prevent the wind from blowing these tiny things away. Inside the cylinder, which is made of a screen mesh to keep the blimps from falling on people’s heads, there are four blimps at a time, which are controlled by four participants. Each round runs for 10 minutes, or until there’s only one blimp left standing.
What actually ended up happening was once we got [to Burning Man], we were having throughput issues and a number of difficulties building the blimps, so we ended up only doing rounds with two blimps at a time. We didn’t get as many participants as we wanted because the flight controls were tricky, so we’d get a couple people who flew them more often, and we would just try to put on a show for people who were around to watch.
What makes someone a good, skilled Battle Blimps participant?
I think it’s just a matter of practice, just like anything else. I haven’t actually flown a lot of remote-controlled helicopters, but the impression I’ve gotten from people who have flown more is that [the blimps] are actually pretty easy to fly, compared to a lot of other things because they just kind of float.
Some people are just good at thinking and reasoning in three dimensions and being able to understand what happens and where the blimp will go and how it will move. So maybe people who played video games as a kid have a better time adjusting. Some people definitely have a natural affinity.
I wanted to ask about the challenges you faced when you started developing this project. You’ve gone over a few of them; were there others? What solutions did you create to overcome them?
Like I said, the main ones have to do with just keeping everything really small and really light. Other challenges had to do with managing temperature, managing heat, and preventing combustion.
From the start it was not that difficult to make a prototype. Getting it flying was maybe the easiest part. Things started to get tricky when we were trying to figure out how to actually make them light each other on fire and actually achieve ignition. That’s what introduces a lot of the safety concerns — both because of an actual fire, and also because you have materials that the balloons made of that you want to make sure are relatively nontoxic.
You need some kind of ignition source on the front of the blimp, and that can’t just be a match because you don’t want to be lighting a match and then sticking it in front of a bag of hydrogen. It has to be something you can switch off — some kind of electrical ignition.
And then, of course, the first prototypes were just a bunch of circuit boards and motors and stuff that we literally taped onto a balloon, which aren’t cheap. If you burn up a balloon each time you run a test, and you burn up all the circuits and everything, then that’s like $60 per blimp.
We spent a lot of time thinking about what the balloon should be and we ended up making out own custom balloons out of bioplastic because we think that the bioplastic burns cleaner than if it was something that contains other additives.
Then we ended up having to build this whole airframe to hold all of the electronics and other components away from the burning balloon itself so that the components will be preserved and we can basically just swap out of the balloon every time instead of having to swap out a bunch of other parts every time.
You guys are coming fresh off from this successful Indiegogo campaign. What’s next? What are you plans for the short- and long-term future for this project?
I think we have a lot of ideas of how to make the whole system work a lot better and how to make it a lot cheaper. One of the things that ended up being difficult was we built all these custom balloons out of bioplastic, because we thought that latex balloons were going to be dangerous. Something happens when you pop a latex balloon where the hydrogen mixes really quickly with the air, and so you can get a pretty loud explosion, in contrast to a plastic bag, where a puncture allows the flames to spread slower and more controlled. We thought it would be much safer, but it ended up being a huge amount of work and a huge amount of money. So we’re kind of moving back to figuring out how to use latex balloons and how to get those to ignite safely without making a loud explosion, but still being dramatic and interesting.
We also want to hold bigger rounds of six to eight balloons at a time. We’re going to try to make it a little easier to fly so that we’re more able to get participants at a time. So basically we’re going to take this little break and then figure out how we can optimize the experience and what tweaks we can do to make it more fun and more engaging. We don’t have any shows lined up but we’re looking for something probably in January.
Do you imagine you’d be holding regular Battle Blimp events at some point?
Burning Man, as a venue, is incredibly permissive. You can’t do whatever you want out there, but basically whatever you want without needing to go through the fire marshall and get a bunch of permits and go through a bunch of safety inspections and stuff like that. It may be challenging to find places that will actually let us burn it down, you know?