How to build a rocket electronics bay

I was originally going to create a series of articles dedicated to this topic: building an electronics bay for a rocket. Having never done this before, and having no idea what I was doing when I began, it took me quite a while to figure everything out and to actually build this thing.

In the end I decided nobody cares how long it took me to do this, and everyone is better off with a summary, even if it’s a slightly lengthy one. Quick table of contents based on the section titles below:

  • Why am I here?
  • What you’ll need
  • More about the flight computer
  • Step 1: Decisions and planning
  • Step 2: Attaching the components
  • Step 3: Dual deployment capabilities (optional)
  • Final thoughts

Why am I here?

So to get started: I’ve covered in a few previous posts what an electronics bay (or “e-bay”) is, and why you might want to build one. Just to recap here, an e-bay is not strictly necessary to launch a rocket, but it lets you do a variety of cool things. For example, with the right electronics, you can measure and record exactly how high your rocket goes; fire charges to deploy one (or two!) parachutes with more precision during the flight; track its location after it disappears from sight and inexplicably lands far away; and much more.

Flight computer - circuit board
flight computer

But assuming you already know what an e-bay is and some of the cool things you can do with one, the next step is building it.

What you’ll need

There are a lot of different ways to go about doing this. A simple e-bay can have minimal components. For example:

  • an altimeter to measure the rocket’s maximum height (it actually measures barometric pressure and uses that info to deduce the height);
  • a battery; and
  • an on/off switch.

That’s it, for the main components. In addition, you’ll need:

  • copper wire to physically connect things together (if your switch doesn’t already come with wires); and
  • some way to secure everything in place during flight (e.g. screws, or glue, etc.).

This last bullet can include nylon screws and washers (which I used for the flight computer), or just a lot of glue, or rubber bands or zip ties… you can get creative.

This simple e-bay wouldn’t have any ability to communicate wirelessly with things outside of the rocket, but it doesn’t need to. As long as you can locate your rocket post-flight and remove the e-bay and altimeter, it will provide you with useful data.

You can also go toward the other end of the spectrum and make the electronics as complicated as you want. But the basic concept is the same. You have at least one circuit board or flight computer, powered by at least one battery and connected to an on/off switch.

More about the flight computer

I chose to start with the TeleMetrum, which is a flight computer from Altus Metrum. It combines the functions of an altimeter with a few other abilities, including firing two separate pyro charges (for dual parachute deployment), GPS tracking, and a radio transmitter – hence the long antenna.

Physically, the TeleMetrum is just 1 inch wide by 2 3/4 inches long. It’s amazing how much cool tech can be crammed into such a small board. The antenna is 7 inches long, and ideally for this particular board you’d want an e-bay with at least 10 inches of interior length to accommodate the board and antenna. My e-bay was less than 8 inches, though, so I needed to extend the antenna somewhat outside of the actual e-bay. The antenna is flexible wire, but it’s best to keep it as straight as possible.

E-bay partially built, mid-construction next to ruler
e-bay mid-construction

I’ve also previously posted about building the e-bay minus any of the electronics, so I’ll just skip ahead here, assuming you have already constructed an empty e-bay based on my spectacular instructions and are ready to add all of the fancy gadgets and components.

Step 1: Decisions and planning

As noted above, you’ll need to first decide exactly what you want in your e-bay. Do you just want a simple altimeter to measure height? Do you need to fire pyro charges to be able to do dual deployment? Do you want GPS tracking and radio communication with your rocket?

For my purposes, I wanted all of the above, which is why I selected the TeleMetrum after carefully reviewing the options.

I also got a rechargeable 900 mAh LiPo battery from Altus Metrum. It’s really small and lightweight. Finally, I got an unnecessarily large push-button on/off switch, and some 20 awg copper wire from Home Depot. As a side note, “awg” technically stands for American wire gauge, but this would typically be referred to as “twenty gauge wire.” Somewhat counter-intuitively, the larger the gauge number, the smaller or thinner the wire diameter. The one I bought, 20 awg, is sometimes called “bell wire” because it’s used for common household purposes that require small amounts of current, like doorbells or buzzers.

E-bay nearly complete
e-bay nearly complete

You can see from the pictures above how I placed the components in my e-bay. Simple, right? To be honest, I’d say at least 95 percent of this is just planning and understanding what you’re doing – making sure you have all the right parts, you understand how everything works together, and where exactly it will be placed. Once the planning is done, the rest is a piece of cake.

Step 2: Attaching the components

To attach the flight computer, which has pre-drilled holes right in the circuit board, I drilled 4 holes in the e-bay wooden “sled” and used 4 nylon screws. I also added a dab of epoxy to hold them in place, just in case. I’ve actually heard that nylon screws work really well for this purpose, because they will shear. If the rocket suffers a catastrophic failure or really rough landing, the impact may shear the nylon screws (which absorb most or all of the force), but preserve the flight computer intact. I don’t plan to test this out, but it can’t hurt.

The push-button switch I simply glued in place with epoxy. It’s important to note that you’ll also need to drill a small hole through the external wall of the e-bay, and that hole should line up with the switch. You should be able to push the button – and therefore arm or disarm your rocket’s flight computer and electronics – from outside the rocket by simply inserting a pencil, screwdriver, or other small thin object through the hole to push the button. Make sure the hole lines up with the switch!

Finally, to help secure both the switch and the battery in place, I cut a few very small pieces of wood and secured them using wood glue. This isn’t strictly necessary, but it helps give extra security to the switch, and keeps the battery from moving around. I also used a zip tie with the battery, which I can cut if I needed to remove or replace the battery – though that isn’t likely.

e-bay view of one wooden end cap, with steel eyebolt, white pvc end cap and barrier strip attached
e-bay view of one end cap

Depending on what kind of electronics you’ve chosen and/or what you want to do with your flight computer, you might be done at this point. If you just have a simple altimeter, or you aren’t interested in dual deployment (yet), you now have a finished e-bay. Congrats!

However, if you are interested in dual deployment, or you just enjoy exposing yourself to dangerous materials and explosions, read on.

Step 3: Dual deployment capabilities (optional)

For dual deployment, you’ll need – in addition to the above list – the following things:

  • two small (1 inch) PVC pipe end caps;
  • some small screws and matching washers;
  • black powder (recommend FFFF); and
  • electronic matches (“e-matches”) or electronic igniter, such as the MJG Firewire Initiator.

In addition, while not strictly necessary, you may find it helpful to also have:

  • two 2-way barrier strips; and
  • at least one 4-circuit male connector and one 4-circuit female connector.
underside of e-bay
the underside

You can see a white PVC pipe end cap and white two-way barrier strip in the photos above. One of each is attached on the outside of the e-bay, on each end, and they’re secured by drilling a hole, using a screw and washer, and also adding a few dabs of epoxy for good measure to hold everything in place.

The PVC pipe end cap will hold a small quantity of black powder, which will give you your explosive charge, separating the two parts of your rocket at the appropriate time and deploying your parachute. The black powder is ignited with the e-match, which is wired up to the flight computer (which tells it when to activate).

The reason for the barrier strip is to connect the e-match to the flight computer without having to disassemble everything every single time – it’s just more efficient to have permanent wires running from the flight computer to the barrier strip (which, again, is located on the outside of the e-bay for convenience), and to just be able to swap out the e-match more easily each time.

Similarly, the reason for the 4-circuit male and female connectors is just to more easily be able to pull your e-bay out and access things inside. With the connectors, you can simply disconnect the wire and pull things apart much more easily, and you can also use a shorter amount of total wire which takes up less space and doesn’t clutter up the inside as much.

finished e-bay, next to cardboard outer tube which doubles as a coupler in the rocket body
finished e-bay!

Final thoughts

In this last picture, you can see the overall build of my e-bay. It’s nothing special to look at, but hey – it’s my first one. I also thought it was important to leave as much additional space as possible in case I want to add more electronics later, either for redundancy or to provide new capabilities for the rocket (GoPro camera anyone?). But your layout is up to you.

If all goes well, this whole setup will allow me to do much more in high power rocketry and accomplish a variety of goals I’ve set for myself in 2020.

A few final thoughts and some helpful tips:

  • Plan. As mentioned above, most of the work here is just planning and understanding what you’re trying to do, and ensuring you have the right parts. Once you’ve solved for all of that, building is the easy part.
  • Glue. When in doubt, use more wood glue or epoxy, not less. You can secure the components many different ways and have a lot of options.
  • Layout. Leave room for additional future components (if you have the space for it). If not, no worries.
  • Get creative. My antenna didn’t quite fit within the e-bay so I drilled a small hole to let it poke outside. And since it’s kind of close to explosive black powder, I shielded it with part of a plastic straw.
  • Label everything. It’s good to sketch out what you’re trying to do ahead of time, and it’s also helpful to label parts as you go. You can see, for example, I wrote “TOP” with an arrow on the outside of the e-bay to make sure it’s inserted into the rocket body the right way. Once the e-bay is completely sealed up, it’s not always easy to remember which way is up!

Next up, I have some ground testing to do – before sending this thing thousands of feet into the air.

5 reasons to put electronics into your rocket

I’m just beginning to learn about the different kinds of electronics that can go into a rocket. It seems like there are virtually limitless possibilities, but I’ll give a quick overview below.

TeleMetrum v3.0 flight computer chip sitting on stone backdrop
TeleMetrum v3.0 flight computer

A high power rocket often has an electronics bay (“e-bay”) or some payload area where you can put various types of payloads, generally electronics.

The options are really endless, but just to help provide some overall context, here are a couple of the major types or categories of electronics that can go into a rocket.

An empty electronics bay made of wood with metal screws and rods
An empty e-bay
  1. Altimeter. This is a simple device that measures altitude, or height. It uses changes in barometric pressure to determine height (starting by setting it to zero at the launch site, so that it has a starting point). It’s fun to launch a rocket, but it’s nice to know exactly how high it goes. I’ve heard great things about the RRC3 from MissileWorks, for example, as well as the StratoLoggerCF altimeter.
  2. Parachute release. If you wrap the parachute with a rubber band so that it’s closed tightly, it won’t automatically open when it’s released at peak height. By using a very small chip, such as the Chute Release from Jolly Logic, you can control when that parachute actually opens up and deploys.
  3. GPS/ radio beacon. It’s helpful to know exactly where your rocket goes, using something to record position data. It’s also helpful for finding your rocket after it inevitably disappears from sight and you have no idea where it landed. I’ve heard several people recommend the BeeLine GPS, for example, from Big Red Bee.
  4. Flight computer. This is a small chip (e.g. the one pictured at the top of this page) that integrates several useful functions into a single device. A flight computer generally contains an altimeter and GPS/ radio beacon, but also contains “pyro channels” which can control parachute deployment. A flight computer allows a rocket to “dual deploy,” meaning you can deploy two separate parachutes, and you have a greater degree of control over when the rocket parts separate and the parachutes actually deploy. The flight computer pictured above is the TeleMetrum, from Altus Metrum.
  5. Camera. Is there any limit to how creative you can get with putting electronics into a rocket? Not really! I’ve just begun to scratch the surface, but I know people put a GoPro or other camera on the outside of the rocket and record video during launch, so that you see the earth receding underneath. For some of the biggest rockets, you can even glimpse the horizon and the edge of the earth’s atmosphere.

My initial goal is to just figure out what I’m doing (I have no experience working with electronics) and put together the basic parts to create a functional e-bay with a flight computer. This is one of my 2020 goals – and specifically a January 2020 goal because I have a lot more to do this year.