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Pi in the Sky

Move over, Felix Baumgartner: the Austrian daredevil’s skydiving record has been smashed by a bionic teddy bear powered by Cambridge technology

Last August, Babbage Bear soared up to 39,000m – over 30m higher than Baumgartner’s ascent – before plummeting back to Earth. The cuddly toy was controlled by a tiny Raspberry Pi computer, which communicated with ground control and transmitted still and video pictures throughout his mission into the upper atmosphere.

Business success

The Raspberry Pi is the brainchild of tech entrepreneur Eben Upton, who has sold more than two million of the credit card-sized computers to date. He first worked out how to turn his idea into a business success while on the Executive MBA programme at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“The course provided the confidence to look outside the box,” he says. “We decided to adopt a licensing strategy, so the now Raspberry Pi Foundation just designs the computer and maintains the brand, and we license those two things to partners. They manufacture it in return for a royalty.”

Retailing at less than £25, the Raspberry Pi was intended to be a low-cost means of getting young people interested in programming. But it has found favour with a whole range of hobbyists and enthusiasts, who have used it in everything from electronic music to robotics.

High-altitude balloonist with a taste for Pi

Software programmer and balloon enthusiast Dave Akerman was one of the first people to order a Raspberry Pi in the UK, and immediately thought about sending it into near space. After several successful flights using weather balloons, he worked out that he could fit the computer inside Babbage Bear – the mascot of the Raspberry Pi Foundation – and emulate the feat of Felix Baumgartner.

Brave balloonist Babbage Bear

The intrepid Babbage was strapped in to a launch capsule attached to a hydrogen-filled balloon. Like Baumgartner, he had a camera trained over his shoulder to capture the moment when he made his leap of faith into (very) thin air. The launch took place on August 26, near Akerman’s home in Berkshire, and the event was live-streamed on the internet.

When the capsule reached 39,000m, a cord was cut to separate Babbage from his capsule. The bear in the air had another camera fitted inside his eye socket to shoot pictures during the descent, and the Raspberry Pi constantly transmitted his position to the chase car. He was safely retrieved from a field just south of Shaftesbury, an hour and a half after landing.

The video of Babbage’s skydive has notched up more than 200,000 hits online and made him an international TV star, but Dave Akerman already has greater plans. “I’d like to fly him in a paraglider, and program the Raspberry Pi with its landing positions,” he says.

For this fearless teddy, the sky’s no limit.