Pneumatic Antenna Launching Systems
Pneumatic Antenna Deployment Systems

My First Pneumatic Antenna Launcher - They are much smaller now, see below

News and Updates

FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions

What is Pneumatic Antenna Launching?

Pneumatically Powered (Tennis Ball) Antenna Launching. Pneumatic Line launching is perhaps a more apt description. First we need a line in the trees, then we can pull up an antenna, which in most cases is a long piece of wire. In the launcher pictured above a Tennis Ball is propelled by compressed air, towing a fishing line over the tree. Then we pull up nylon mason twine with the fishline, and finally a wire or heavier line as needed.

Why does anyone need to Launch an Antenna?

It is often more convenient to use existing trees than to erect supports for wire or beam antennas, especially when these antennas are required for temporary or emergency field use. We set up antennas for disasters and drills, camping and contests, practice and fun. With all the applications for Homeland Security there are many potential uses for rapid deployment. If you have a need to quickly set up antennas in various field situations, or you have some really nice trees in your backyard, you may have a use for Antenna Launching.

What is a Pneumatic Antenna Launcher?

It is a very simple system that uses the energy in a pressurized volume of gas (generally air), a valve to release the gas, and a projectile (tennis ball) in a tube that is accelerated by the expanding gas giving it the requisite velocity to pull a light line over the tree.

Why not use a ... (Slingshot, Bow, Rock, Stick, Crescent wrench, Blackpowder Cannon, 12 Gauge)?

We have used many different systems since the 70's to put lines up into trees. Each system has advantages and disadvantages. Throwing an object over a limb is the easiest, but will not reach very high, and there is a significant chance of getting the object stuck. Slingshots reach higher, and Bows reach higher yet. The main problem with all these systems is the projectile. A lead sinker, arrow or crescent wrench can do a lot of damage if it lands in the wrong place. If you are putting a line over a tree in your yard, there are often local ordinances against using slingshots and bows. What is needed is a really safe projectile, and a means for getting it over the tree precisely for maximum safety and effectiveness. If you have a really tall tree, then a Tennis Ball Launcher will allow you to go higher than most slingshots or bows. Even a small Pneumatic Tennis Ball launcher can reach up more than 150 feet, and it is possible to go much higher with the more effective models.

No, We did not try the Black Powder Cannon. I recall seeing an article about that in 73 magazine years ago. I think we've found a safer solution... And the 12 gauge - we've heard details, but we didn't and don't you try that one either...

My slingshot/bow works fine, why consider a Pneumatic Launcher?

You might consider a Pneumatic Launcher if you are interested in more Performance or greater Safety. Slingshots and Bows work, but Pneumatics work better. Eric's big launcher can put a tennis ball up over 600 feet high (with no line). The small CSV19 reaches up to 200 feet towing line, and the dimunitive CSV17 goes over 150 feet towing line. These launchers are 19 and 17 inches long, respectively, and the heights are measured length of line pulled out. Add about 9 or 10 feet to those numbers to get the apogee, since the reel is about 10 feet off the ground when launching upwards. You can make launchers go higher, and we have, but the availability of trees that tall and feedlines that long makes it rarely useful. So I scaled the pneumatics back to the smaller sizes. Also be very careful with the slingshot and bow, there are many injuries each year, especially with the slingshots.

If you are going to put up an antenna in the backyard the tennis ball is a lot safer than a lead sinker, and much easier to explain to your neighbor.

Why use a Tennis Ball?

There are three primary reasons to use Tennis Balls. Safety, Safety and finally, Safety. I have read of so many accidents with slingshots each year that I cannot recommend them. A lead sinker flying through the air is potentially an accident waiting to happen. They bounce off the tree, the line snags and the sinker returns on the line rebound, or they get hung up and come sizzling down when the line is pulled, potentially at higher velocity than even the slingshot can impart. The slingshot is not the problem, the projectile is the problem!

A Tennis ball is inherently a fairly safe projectile. They are big so they slow down quickly, limiting the distance they will travel and the velocity they impact with. They are not hard, so they tend to do little damage when they land. It is something familiar so people know what to expect. It is big enough to see fairly well. They are available and inexpensive.

How High will these Launchers reach?

130 to 200 feet of height is easily attained with a Pneumatic Tennis Ball Antenna Launcher while towing a 50 pound test fishing line. It is possible to go much higher with the more efficient or larger launchers, but we have not found suitable antenna trees much over 130 feet tall. So we consider 150 feet to be about optimal.

Are there other uses for these Launchers?

We have seen a number of other applications for these launchers:

Are these Launchers Dangerous?

If you've played or watched tennis you know that the serve is (usually) one of the harder hit strokes in tennis. Well, a good serve has more velocity than is required for launching a tennis ball over most tall trees. The ball slows down quickly, and on the far side of the tree (towing the fishing line) it comes down very slowly. Our launchers use velocities lower than a fast serve.

The simplest material for building an Antenna Launcher is Schedule 40 pressure rated PVC. This material is designed for working pressures in excess of 200 pounds per square inch, and the pressures we use are up to 60 or 80 psi. So while the pressures are within design parameters, the manufacturers of PVC pipe and fittings RECOMMEND AGAINST its use with COMPRESSED AIR. If PVC containing compressed air is fractured, it may result in high velocity PVC shrapnel. So avoid breaking it while it is pressurized, and wear safety glasses when using launchers or any power tool. Low and high temperatures make PVC brittle or soft so launchers should not be used in extreme temperatures Note that in many years of making and using these launchers we have seen a few broken in various ways and never have wee seen any shrapnel. The low volume and pressure we use is not likely to produce any.

Are these Launchers Regulated? Aren't they Illegal??

Here in the US the Federal BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) has ruled that pneumatic launchers are NOT firearms. Some Municipalities have regulations that may affect the use or ownership of Launchers. Such rules are not common, and the ones that do exist usually focus on combustion type launchers rather than pneumatics. Check with the local authorities to be sure. Note that slingshots and bows are generally illegal to use in residential areas, parks, campgrounds, etc. Here is the letter from the US BATF on the subject

How much does a Pneumatic Antenna Launcher cost?

The materials for a launcher cost between anywhere from about $60 to $100 or more, plus a fishing reel, some line and a few tennis balls. If you have leftover parts from a lawn sprinkler project it may be much less... Launcher Kits are available starting at about $100, see the Product List.

How hard is it to build a Launcher?

It depends on the model, and it ranges from fairly simple to quite complex. If you can cut and glue PVC and thread pipe fittings together you can build the simple models. Some require drilling and tapping a hole or two in the plastic, some need a little soldering. Kits are available for some models, so the hard parts are already done. The time required varies from a few hours on up. The more complex designs may require a friend with a lathe to machine some PVC. Generally speaking, as size/weight/cost go up, so does performance. A low performance design might require 80 psi to launch 150 feet high, whereas a higher performance design might do the same job at 25 psi. Choose a design that matches your construction ability, budget, size requirements and the trees you need to launch over.

What kind of Pneumatic Antenna Launcher should I build?

Eric (WD6CMU) and I (Alan WB6ZQZ) have been experimenting with Tennis Ball Launchers since 2002. We have built nearly a dozen different models, and I have written software that analyzes and predicts performance. A couple had insufficient performance, and some others had excess performance. (Excess performance is not always a problem as it does allow operating at lower pressures, but it may mean that the Launcher is larger and heavier than it needs to be.) We seem to be settling on about sixteen inches of barrel length, a 1" sprinkler or 3/4" pneumatic valve, and approximately 60 to 100 cubic inches of air storage. This produces a launcher that weighs in the neighborhood of five to seven pounds, and produces sufficient performance at about 40 to 60 psi for most launches. The barrel material is 2.5" schedule 40 PVC, into which a tennis ball fits very snugly, or 2.5" SDR21 PVC into they fit nearly perfectly.

To get specific I will mention some of our models,


The PADS Pneumatic Antenna Deployment System with Accessories

What is a Pneumatic Antenna Deployment System?

This is the name for the Launcher-in-a-Toolcase shown above. The CSV17 launcher fits nicely into this hard case. It may be small but has been able to reach over 150 feet in height. The PADS launcher and hard case are available on the order page. Also shown are a pair of Twine Reels containing 500 feet of nylon twine. They are available in 270 foot lengths as well. The grey cylinder near the bottom center of the photo is a bicycle type CO2 tire inflator. It can be used with a number of different capacity CO2 cylinders. Using the low-cost 12 gram cylinders produces enough pressure for one good launch per cylinder. Also in this case, but not visible is a 12 oz Paintball CO2 cylinder stored inside the barrel, along with two tennis balls. The CO2 pressure regulator is behind the right end of the ramrod. There are a total of six tennis balls in this photo, two hidden in the barrel and one hidden inside the reel on the lower left. The Mini-Coaxial reel on the lower left is a special reel made for this launcher to fit in the case. It is a scaled-down Zip-type reel with about a one foot circumference. Just behind the launcher's trigger is a bag of 12 gram CO2 cylinders for the bicycle inflator. See the PADS Web Page.

What about a Ball-valve type launcher?

The simplest pneumatic launcher is a pressure storage chamber, a barrel, and a ball valve in between. These are not particularly suitable for antenna launching because the performance is dependent on how quickly the valve is opened. Additionally, opening the valve manually disturbs the aim, so it will be difficult to make it go where desired.

What about a Combustion powered launcher?

Combustion type launchers use lighter fluid, spray deoderant, propane or some other fuel in a closed pipe chamber behind a projectile with an ignition source to light it off. In addition to some safety concerns, combusion launchers may produce somewhat inconsistent shot-to-shot performance, which makes them difficult to use as a serious Antenna Launching tool. They also misfire occasionally, require cleaning and maintenance and are more often regulated than pneumatic systems. Let's not use them for Antenna work!

How Small and Light can an Effective Pneumatic Antenna Launcher be?

First, I'll define 'effective' as any launcher that can toss a 4 ounce tennis ball to a height of at least 150 feet towing a fishing line. That is pretty adequate for our purposes.

The smallest launcher that meets this criterion that we have built is the CSV17 shown above in the PADS kit. This is a 17 inch long model. The popular CSV19 Compact Low Cost Sprinkler Valve Antenna Launcher and the Quick Exhaust Valve Launcher are only a little larger. At about six pounds, these are small enough to fit into a Rubbermaid tote box, or less than 19 inches in length. There is plenty of room left in the tote box for line, antennas, feedline, and other equipment.



The CSV19 Compact Low Cost Sprinkler Valve Antenna Launcher is assembled from plumbing parts most of which are available from local plumbing or home improvement stores for under $100. Some machining is required to make them fit together as shown above. The dark grey barrel is SDR21. Schedule 40 also works, but the ball is very tight. SDR21 fits better but is harder to find. This is the lowest cost simple to construct launcher I have designed (the CSV17 variant is a little easier and even less costly). The link above has fairly complete construction instructions. The collection shown above is shown complete with Saunders Zip Reel with yellow Spectra type synthetic line, and a couple of prepared Tennis Balls sitting on a Rubbermaid 10 gallon tote. The gear fits into the tote with room to spare.
QE19 Photo
The QE19 Quick Exhaust Valve Launcher is the smallest and lightest of my launchers. It is based on an industrial quick-exhaust air valve (the silver item in the photo, linked above). This is an easy launcher to homebrew, but due to the industrial and brass parts costs somewhat more than the model above, about $100. The link above has construction information. This launcher is sitting on top of one of the Rubbermaid (tm) 10 gallon tote boxes that I use to carry equipment to field. There is room for lots of gear in there in addition to the launcher.

The lightest launcher we've done to date for Tennis Ball Antenna Line Launching is Eric's Trident which uses soda bottles for the air pressure reservoir and weighs a litte less than five pounds. Eric also came up with a nice mount for an archery fishing line reel that fits around the barrel and feeds line very smoothly. Check out Eric's website at wd6cmu.antennalaunchers.com for his Saunder's Zip-reel mount and Trident Launcher.

The Launcher on the left is the Quick Exhaust model, here shown in the 28 inch configuration with a spinning reel mounted just below the forward end of the barrel (hard to see against the foliage in this photo). This photo was taken before it was shortened to the 19" version shown above. The two launchers in the photo were used on Field Day 2003 to put up numerous antennas. Field Day is an Amateur Radio 'Emergency Drill' essentially, setting up and operating in field conditions for a couple of days. It is a lot of fun and a good test of our equipment and technique, both radio and Antenna Launching.


More Pneumatic Antenna Launcher Examples

High Performance in a compact package: DV19

This model packs a pair of one inch sprinkler valves in to a Rubbermaid sized tote package. It doesn't take much pressure for this unit to reach 150 feet of height! Building this is quite a challenge with all the plumbing parts packed in tight. There are the two 1" sprinkler valves, a quick exhaust valve trigger, two check valves, a paddle trigger valve, and some specially adapted (shortened) PVC fittings. It was made with fairly minimal tools - a drill press and a belt sander, plus a radial arm saw. None of these tools are absolutely required - this design can be made with hand tools. It is a bit heavy, around 10 pounds. As shown below it includes the Saunders Zip Reel and a removable barrel extension that improves the efficiency of the launcher. For more info on this launcher see A Tale of Two (Compact) Launchers.

DV19 Photo

Ultra Performance in a Compact Package: DFTV19

This six pound model packs a tremendous capability in a very lightweight package. It fits in the Rubbermaid containers as well. The Darn Fast Turbo Valve is a 1.2" ported homemade piston valve with a self-venting and turbo actuation features that make it low cost, light weight, and incredibly effective. The only disadvantage to this design is the requirement for precision machined parts in the valve. I purchased a small lathe (www.Grizzly.com) and made them with no prior machine shop experience, so it isn't all that hard. More info is available in the The DFTV Story.

DFTV19 Photo

More Examples can be found via links in the "More Information" section below.

How is Launch Pressure developed?

The pressures and volumes involved are similar to a bicycle tire, so automotive or bicycle air pumps are just about right. The portable 12 volt electric ones are great. They run from a car battery or are even more portable with a Gel Cell. Hand or foot pumps work well also, and have the benefit of a good aerobic workout. Some folks use CO2 systems which are very convenient at greater cost. I recently have been testing two CO2 systems - a Paintball cylinder and regulator, and a Bicycle tire filler using 12 gram cylinders. CO2 systems cost a bit more to own and operate, but they are pretty amazingly effective and fast.

I tested a 6 gallon compressed air tank recently and starting with 100 to 110 psi was able to get about 15 shots at 50 psi from it with the CSV19 launcher. The smaller chambers on the CSV17 and QE19 would get even more launches per fill.

Here is a portable battery powered filling station similar to the one I have. This has become a favorite for charging the launcher. It takes about one minute. Mine has a 12 volt 17 amp gel battery and a compressor and was under 50 bucks at Harbor Freight tools. After you launch the antenna you can hook up to the 12 volt gel battery and run the station!

Jumpstart Box Photo

Detailed Antenna Launcher Construction Articles

The Compact Sprinkler Valve and Quick Exhaust Valve models have fairly construction details on their web pages. I wrote a complete construction article on the TBL-U37 pictured above (lead-in photo and electric actuated above). It was published in the QRP Quarterly magazine, Spring 2003. A pdf version is available here. Note that changing to pneumatic actuation makes a large performance improvement in this launcher. A similar launcher that has good performance is the Field Day Special. Information on this model is available on the Modelling page.

Can I buy an Antenna Launcher already built?

We supply plans and kits and also build launchers, see www.AKBeng.com for details.

SpudGun Technology builds launchers: The SpudGun Technology Center. They sell components and complete units (without reels or launch balls). Look under the "Launchers, Low Power Pneumatic" links. UPDATE - the SpudTech business is open again. The TBL500LP with a 24" barrel and 12" by 3" chamber is about the right performance level. (Disclaimer - I have not used any of SpudTech's launchers.)

Where can I get More Information about Pneumatic Antenna Launchers?

There is a lot more info on the web. Most of it is not directly Antenna Launching related, but much can be learned there that is applicable. If you find the information on this website useful and have a website of your own, please include a link to this page to help others find it. If you have related information and want a link here on my page drop me an email!

Other Launcher Construction Websites (Not necessarily Antenna oriented)

Or Search the Web:

The following links perform Google web searches with various arguments that produce lots of hits for this topic. (We have no control over the results of these searches).
Production News and Ordering Pages
Antenna Launching Home Page

Send e mail regarding this page to Alan via AKBiocca at AKBeng dot com

Updated 8/2010