PC at high altitude

Normal hard drives are unsealed and apparently unreliable above about 10,000’. Sealed and “ruggedized” HDDs are available (presumably at a fancy price) that are rated to work at up to 80,000’.

My question is whether/what other parts of a typical PC will have problems at high altitudes (say, up to 30,000’).

Sufficient airflow for cooling might be an issue. Other than that, I can’t immediately think of anything else which might be affected.

The reason hard drives become unreliable at high altitudes is that the heads require a certain amount of airflow under them so they can “fly” at the proper altitude above the platter surface. This doesn’t work well if there’s not enough air for the heads to float on.

All air-cooled components will be cooled less efficiently and may overheat. Not just the CPU, but also other large chips and voltage regulators.

There are ruggedized computer systems designed for aerospace applications, with conductive cooling for all components and solid-state disks instead of hard drives. But the price tag is in the “if you have to ask…” range. It may be cheaper to build a pressurized enclosure for the computer (I’ve seen it done for high-altitude reesarch balloon instruments).

Normal hard drives are unsealed and apparently unreliable above about 10,000’.**Run my home hard drive all the time at 11,200 feet with no problems. I have a camera with a tiny 500mb (it was big at the time) drive that stated it should not go over 6000’. No problems so far.

I work for a county IS department that is around 9,800’. About 500 computers. We don’t seem to have an issue with hard drives.

I am not an expert on this, and there are papers on it (google single event upset), but:

There is some concern that as semiconductor parts become more dense and faster, that they will become more susceptible to bit flips due to alpha particles and other high energy particles at higher elevations. There is case study on some chips made by Intel that were deployed in a server that suffered a significantly higher error rate in Denver than they did on San Franscisco.

Aviation folks are (or should be) concerned about this, especially considering the trends toward using more commerical parts which are usually not as radiation hardened as their mil-std predecessors.

We and others did have problems with SRAM flipping bits on RAM cards and small computers used on passenger aircraft. We got some old machines from American Airlines and were interested to see that they had cut up lead photographic film bags and stuck them over SRAM memory chips.

Since SRAM is known to have this problem, we were uncertain whether it was down to high altitude radiation or just one of those things.