Heston, we have a potato.

Heston Blumenthal’s production team got in touch last year to talk to us about an idea they’d had for his new series, the first episode of which was going to be based around pies. Given that we are a well-known British manufacturer of something that sounds a lot like pie, they thought we might like to get involved; we had a chat about what they might be able to do with a Raspberry Pi, and after having discounted sous-vide cooking as being insufficiently visual, we put them in touch with someone I thought might be able to help do something that’d look spectacular on TV.

The Pie episode of Heston’s Great British Food aired two weeks ago on the UK’s Channel 4, and we did manage to get a Raspberry Pi on it; sadly, you didn’t see it or hear it mentioned, but you did get to see what it was doing. Namely, this:


Slightly shonky photo a result of taking snaps of the TV with my phone.

I’ll let our friend Dave Akerman, high-altitude balloon record holder and immoderately scary driver, explain what was going on. You can read this post where it was first published, and learn much, much more about high-altitude ballooning with the Raspberry Pi and how to get started yourself, at Dave’s website.

This fun project started with a call from a TV production company who were working on a series for Heston Blumenthal. They’d heard that I fly the Raspberry Pi and wanted to include it in their Pie episode. The idea was to fly a potato as that was the first vegetable to be grown in space.

Fast forward a few weeks, we had the challenge of finding a day that had good wind predictions and good weather, and would fit in with the filming schedule and Heston’s diary. Not easy, as you can imagine. However we did find such a day, with Heston available throughout, and I prepared a payload to fly. That needed to contain 3 GoPro cameras, including one looking down and one out sideways, plus a Raspberry Pi to send telemetry and live images from the flight:



On top of this I placed some foam blocks to hold everything in place, then a further camera to record the balloon burst:



On launch day, the first to arrive was Jon who’d made this wonderful retro-styled rocket, piloted by a King Edward with a familiar face:



We worked together to mount his rocket to my payload, using a shaped piece of balsa wood fixed to the underside of each:

kitchen table development


With the main payload finished, plus a spare back tracker, we waited for everyone else to arrive. Julie served bacon butties to all. Heston was a bit late, and his bacon was sad and solid by then, but he still ate it :-). Here he is posing next to my BaCoN shirt :-)

heston bacon


… and with Julie …

dave julie heston


After this it was time to go and launch. The film crew were very unobtrusive so I found it easy to just get on with the launch, chatting with Heston and explaining how it all works.



There was little wind so the launch was easy. After feeding up the balloon and payload …

dave launch


… I just stood back to let Heston do that to camera:

chef launch


Next job of course was to chase the flight. The prediction had it going from Berkshire to Essex, so there would be little chance of getting there before it landed even without a film crew so slow things down!

We saw some great images throughout the flight from the SSDV system, and had good telemetry also. Here’s an image (from a GoPro) during the flight:

spuds in space


When we got to the area, some time after the flight landed, we got a very strong signal from near the road, and my direction-finder swung round rapidly as we passed the landing spot. Someone in one of the other chase cars saw it in a field as we passed! We then stopped to check maps and find the easiest way to get close to the payload. It was then a short drive to get to the field, where we donned wellies and made our way to the potato before it took root!



Heston had gotten more and more attached to the potato during the day, and he genuinely seemed unwilling to mash the thing up by the time it was recovered!

heston and friend

This was all back in October 2013, and the show didn’t go out until May 2014! If you missed it, watch for repeats on Channel 4 or 4Seven, or watch it on 4oD.

Here’s the flight video from the show:

And here’s Heston talking about the potato on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man.


AndrewS avatar

I don’t tend to watch cookery shows, but I remember seeing the trailer for this on TV, and wondering if Dave Akerman was involved ;-)

Was the PiCamera not used this time?

Dave Akerman avatar

Yes, the Pi camera was used for all the live images being sent down; it was just outnumbered by all those GoPros! You can see the Pi images on the tablet that Heston watched in the car.

There was another, AVR-based, backup tracker at the bottom of the flight (in the ball that Heston lets go of) but it wasn’t needed.

Ravenous avatar

A real eye opener…

Norman avatar

maybe the first potato… but this bottle of beer was first


Dave Akerman avatar

No, not the first potato. I don’t think the one you linked to was the first beer either!

Gee 'The Rabid Inventor' avatar

How did you send the live flight images back?

The Sheffield hacker and maker group are going for there first balloon launch soon and just wondering how to get the live image data back from the balloon at a higher rate thatn 50 – 300 baud :)

It looks like another Dave ‘ The high Attitude Master ‘ Akerman success

Dave Akerman avatar

I used Philip Heron’s SSDV – get it on github

Dave Akerman avatar

Also, regarding baud rate, 600 works well and 1200 would probably work well enough if you use a temperature-compensated transmitter and have enough listening stations.

You just have to compromise on the image size. I usually aim for 1 image every 5 minutes.

Remember that photos taken at altitude will compress a lot better than typical photos you take on the ground – a black sky compresses a lot! Jpeg file sizes will be about half what you’d otherwise expect.

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