Customer Focus: Christopher Couch and his High Altitude Photography Platform

(CC0 Public Domain)


As a child, or at least child-at-heart, we’ve all dreamt of building our own space craft. I mean, NASA sent a man to the moon 47 years ago using computers that occupied entire floors of the building. Surely this is something I can design now on my tablet and some garage tools?

Nearly 50 years–and millions of children’s dream–later, we’re still a long way from getting back to the moon (or maybe not – because, Google). At the very least, most of us just want to be able to fly around freely and get a better perspective of the world—hence, the popularity of quad-copter photography.  But our customer, Christopher Couch, an MIT grad and automotive manufacturing executive in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wanted to take that dream back to space. He decided to build his own High Altitude Photography Platform (HAPP) that will take pristine images at 30km (that’s 18.64 miles, which is almost 100,000 feet altitude). As Chris points out, that is 25% higher than a U2 spy plane!

Shots from 93,000’ by other MIT students on a $150 rig. (Image via


His HAPP will be designed after the Apollo command module for its stability in supersonic free fall. It will be made from Carbon Fiber, ascended by a weather balloon, stabilized by a cold gas reaction system, and driven by an Arduino single board computer. As a technical photography enthusiast, his goal is to be able to get the best “near space” photos possible, he also has plans to mount a 360-degree HD camera, similar to that used in this awesome demo by USA Today.

Building the HAPP

Chris concluded that composites would be the best material for this project. This would be his first experience with creating his own composite parts and programming the Arduino, so he decided to document the process. He holds a BS, MS, and PhD from MIT, so he was ready for the challenge.

He first built the plug for his scale-model aeroshell from wood, fiberglass, polyurethane foam, and Chavant clay. The plug is essentially a replica of the part you intend to build. A high-quality plug, as Chris has made, will produce a high-quality mold. A high quality mold will product one or many high quality parts.

(Image by Chris Couch via

He then crafted a class “A” mold from his plug by prepping his plug with mold release wax and PVA mold release spray. The tooling mold is from orange tooling gel coat, and a hand lay-up of a fiberglass laminate composing of 2-OZ and 20 Oz fabrics with a polyester resin. After polishing this mold for a perfect finish, he was ready for his composite part construction.

Composite Layup

The composite layup of the airshield is primarily 3K Carbon Fiber (#530, 596) for its incredible strength-to-weight ratio. He utilized Lantor Soric XF core material to add stability, which also facilitates resin flow for his vacuum infusion process. The outer-most layer features a KEVLAR® / Carbon Fiber Hybrid fabric that adds abrasion resistance for the landing—and, frankly, looks really cool.

(Image by Chris Couch via

Vacuum Resin Infusion

The parts were then made into a composite material by use of a Vaccum Infusion Process . Vacuum bagging greatly improves the fiber-to-resin ratio, and results in a stronger and lighter product. Adding the infusion process to vacuum bagging results in consistent resin coverage, less wasted resin, and provides unlimited setup time.

The vacuum infusion process pulls resin into the fabric reinforcement from the resin cup, and extra resin is deposited into a trap. Easy cleanup with high quality results.

A typical infusion setup: resin starts from the center, and is pulled evenly to the outer edges by a vacuum pump and spiral tubing. 

Chris’s setup for the HAPP (Image by Chris Couch via

Removing the Part from the Mold

Chris was able to remove the part from the mold and is ready for the next steps. To our delight, he has taken abundant time to meticulously document this adventure. He’s about 250 hours in, with plenty to go. He has posted some great step-by-step demos complete with tips with a little trial and error.  His hard work has paid off already with beautiful results:

(Image by Chris Couch via

(Image by Chris Couch via

Follow Chris

Check out Chris’s great write up, and keep up with his progress.

He is planning his first mission flight in 2017. We can’t wait to see our facility from 100,000 feet.

Building the Plug

Building the Mold

Composite Selection

Vacuum Bagging and Resin Infusion

Follow Chris’s entire adventure at:


Start your adventure at!

Sign Up for the Fibre Glast Newsletter

Related Posts


1 gary whitehead { 10.06.16 at 6:07 pm }

We use lots of fiberglass

2 gary whitehead { 10.06.16 at 6:08 pm }

thank you

Leave a Comment