Foundations of Amateur Radio
About this podcast
Starting in the wonderful hobby of Amateur or HAM Radio can be daunting and challenging but can be very rewarding. Every week I look at a different aspect of the hobby, how you might fit in and get the very best from the 1000 hobbies that Amateur Radio represents. Note that this podcast started in 2011 as "What use is an F-call?".
About this podcast
Starting in the wonderful hobby of Amateur or HAM Radio can be daunting and challenging but can be very rewarding. Every week I look at a different aspect of the hobby, how you might fit in and get the very best from the 1000 hobbies that Amateur Radio represents. Note that this podcast started in 2011 as "What use is an F-call?".
Foundations of Amateur Radio
Here be Dragons, venturing into uncharted territory ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Sometimes when you head into uncharted territory, you gotta laugh at yourself from time to time. Last weekend I participated in a contest, something I enjoy doing as you might recall. To simplify the process of setting up in a vehicle I'd proposed a bold plan to save space and reduce complexity. I was anxious about reducing the amount of technology because I'd come up with a plan to use a paper log to track my contest contacts. I had visions of operating for the best part of 24 hours and making hundreds of contacts. This was based on the fact that in 2016 I'd done this same contest on my own and made a 138 contacts and scored 18221 points, having moved 17 times. I'd also done the contest in 2018 and for reasons I don't recall, I made one contact over 8 hours. That right there should have been a warning sign that I might not quite get the result I'd been fearful of. Blissfully unaware of the adventure that was unfolding, after driving to the first location, I called CQ for the better part of an hour. Then I called some more. When I was done with that, I called CQ more. 90 minutes in, I made my first contact. That pretty much set the pattern for the next nine hours. At one point we feared that the radio had packed up, but then I made a 2900 km contact with the other side of the country between me in Perth in VK6 and Catherine VK7GH in Tasmania. Around five pm we packed up, having moved location six times, making eight contacts and claiming 64 points, having worked three of the six states I heard. Talk about overblown fears. Looking back, even documenting 138 contacts on paper doesn't seem nearly as daunting after the fact, but that's for another day. I did learn some other things too. I was worried about logging the band correctly, since using a computer that's not connected to the radio requires an extra step when you change band. Using paper the issue wasn't the band, it was remembering to record the time. We didn't have the opportunity to test all the gear before the contest. I was bringing in some extra audio splitters, which didn't work with the set-up we had, testing before hand would have revealed that. We knew that there was a risk associated with not testing before and decided that in the scheme of things it didn't matter and we were right. It didn't. We hadn't much planned for food and pit-stops, but having a GPS and an internet connection solved all those issues almost invisibly. Of course that wouldn't work in an unpopulated area, but we were well inside the metropolitan area of a big city, well, Perth. Using a head-set worked great, though it didn't have a monitoring feature, so my voice got louder and louder and Thomas VK6VCR who took on the tasks of navigating and driving became deafer and deafer as the day progressed. I keep coming back to wanting a portable voice-keyer, a device that you can record your CQ call into and then at the press of a button, play it back so you don't lose your voice whilst calling CQ hour after hour. The challenge seems to be that you need to find a way to incorporate it into the existing audio chain so it doesn't introduce interference. Winning a contest requires contacts and that can only happen if there are other participants. This time around there didn't seem to be that many on air making noise. I think I heard a grand total of 13 stations. Some of that was due to propagation conditions which were nothing like I've ever heard before, but perhaps if I stick around for another solar cycle, that too will become familiar. Atrocious is one word that comes to mind. Continuing our learning, the weather, not just space-weather, actual earth weather, snow, rain, hail and in our case sun. Neither of us thought to bring a hat since the forecast was for intermittent rain. We had no rain, instead had the opportunity to bask in the winter sun. Yes, it's winter here in Oz when it's Summer in Europe. As it happens, our winter temperatures are like your summer ones, but I'll leave it to you to confirm that for yourself. Finally, we have a local phenomenon in VK6. When the sun goes down, the 40m band comes alive with the sounds of Indonesia. Among the radio amateurs are plenty of pirate stations with massive AM transmitters enjoying the conditions, chatting, chanting and what ever else comes to voice. Not conductive to being on-air and making noise, but as far as I can tell, not commonly heard outside of VK6. That said, the Indonesian radio amateur community must have the patience of saints putting up with the interference that their non-licensed countrymen cause on a daily basis. My hat off to you! As I've said all along, this radio thing is about getting on air and having fun and I can tell you, we did. What did you get up to? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Removing technology for a change
Foundations of Amateur Radio My first ever interaction with amateur radio was a field day on Boterhuiseiland near Leiden in the Netherlands when I was about twelve. The station was set-up in an army tent and the setting was Jamboree On The Air, or JOTA. My second field-day, a decade ago, was a visit to a local club set-up in the bush. At that point I already had my licence and I'd just started taking the first baby steps in what so-far has been a decade long journey of discovery into this amazing hobby. A field day is really an excuse to build a portable station away from the shack and call CQ. A decade on, I vividly remember one member, Marty, now VK6RC, calling CQ DX and getting responses back from all over the world. From that day on I looked for any opportunity to get on air and make noise. Often that's something I do in the form of a contest. I love this as a way of making contacts because each interaction is short and sweet, there's lots of stations playing from all over the planet and each contest has rules and scores. As a result you can compare your activity with others and look back at your previous efforts to see if you improved or not. As you've heard me repeatedly say, I like to learn from each activity and see if there are things I could have done differently. I tend to think of this as a cycle of continuous improvement. A few months ago a friend asked me if I was interested in doing a contest with him. For me that was a simple question to answer, YES, of course! Over the last few months we've been talking about how we'd like to do this and what we'd like to accomplish. For example, for me there's been a regular dissatisfaction that during portable logging I've made mistakes with recording the band correctly in the log and having to manually go back and fix this, taking away from making contacts and having fun. To prevent that, I wanted to make sure that we had electronic logging that was linked to the radio in the same way as I do in my shack, so it didn't happen again. It was a small improvement, but I felt it was important. Doing this meant that we'd either need to sort out a computer link, known as CAT, or Computer Assisted Tuning for his radio in the vehicle, or bring my radio, CAT control, power adaptors as well as bring a laptop, power supply and last but not least find space in the vehicle to mount all this so it would work ergonomically for a 24 hour mobile contest. The vehicle in question is the pride and joy of Thomas VK6VCR, a twenty-odd year old Toyota Land Cruiser Ute with two seats, three if you count the middle of the bench, and neither of us would ever be described as petite, so space is strictly limited. In playing this out and trying to determine what needed to go where, we discovered that this wasn't going to work and I made the bold proposal to go old school and use a paper log. This would mean that we could use the existing radio, without needing to sort out CAT control, the need for any power adaptors, no space required for a laptop, no power for that, no extra wiring in the vehicle, and a whole lot more simplicity. So that's what we're doing, paper log and a headlamp to be able to see in the dark. I must confess that I'm apprehensive of this whole caper, but I keep reminding myself that this too is an experience, good or bad, and at the end of the day, we're here to have fun. I might learn that this was the worst idea I've ever had, or I might learn that this works great. It's not the first time I've used a paper-log, so I'm aware of plenty of pitfalls, not the least of which is deciphering my own handwriting, the ingenuous project of three, or was it four, different handwriting systems taught to me by subsequent teachers in different countries. There's the logistics of being able to read and write at an odd distance, trying to work out how to operate the microphone with the wrong hand, though we are trialling a headset and boom microphone with a push to talk button, and then there's the radio, one I've used before, but not in a contest setting and not whilst driving around on the seat of a 4WD hell-bent on rattling my teeth from their sockets. On the plus side, I've done a contest with my friend before and he is familiar with my competitive streak and we're both up for a laugh, so I'm confident that despite the challenges that lie ahead, we're going to make fun and enjoy the adventure. I can't wait to find out if simplifying things will result in a better experience and only trying it will tell. I'll let you know how it goes. When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone and what did you do? How did it work out? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
What radio should I buy as my first one?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Recently a budding new amateur asked the question: "What radio should I buy?" It's a common question, one I asked a decade ago. Over the years I've made several attempts at answering this innocent introduction into our community and as I've said before, the answer is simple but unhelpful. "It depends." Rather than explaining the various things it depends on, I'm going to attempt a different approach and in no particular order ask you some things to consider and answer for yourself in your journey towards an answer that is tailored specifically to your situation. "What's your budget?" How much money you have set aside for this experiment is a great start. In addition to training and license costs, you'll need to consider things like shipping, import duties and insurance, power leads and a power supply, coax leads and connectors and last but not least, adaptors, antennas and accessories. "Should you buy second hand or pre-loved?" If you have electronics experience that you can use to fix a problem with your new to you toy this is absolutely an option. When you're looking around, check the provenance associated with the equipment and avoid something randomly offered online with sketchy photos and limited information. Equipment is expensive. Check for stolen gear and unscrupulous sellers. "What do you want to do?" This hobby is vast. You can experiment with activities, locations, modes and propagation to name a few. If you're looking at a specific project, consider the needs for the accompanying equipment like a computer if what you want to explore requires that. You can look for the annual Amateur Radio Survey by Dustin N8RMA to read what others are doing. "What frequencies do you want to play on?" If you have lots of outdoor space you'll have many options to build antennas from anything that radiates, but if you're subject to restrictions because of where you live, you'll need to take those into account. You can also operate portable, in a car or on a hill, so you have plenty of options to get away from needing a station at home. "Are there other amateurs around you?" If you're within line of sight of other amateurs or a local repeater, then you should consider if you can start there. If that doesn't work, consider using HF or explore space communications. There are online tools to discover repeaters and local amateurs. "Is there a club you can connect to?" Amateur radio clubs are scattered far and wide across the planet and it's likely that there's one not too far from you. That said, there are plenty of clubs that interact with their members remotely. Some even offer remote access to the club radio shack using the internet. "Have you looked for communities to connect with?" There is plenty of amateur activity across the spectrum of social media, dedicated sites, discussion groups, email lists and chat groups. You can listen to podcasts, watch videos, read eBooks and if all that fails, your local library will have books about the fundamental aspects of our hobby. "Have you considered what you can do before spending money?" Figuring out the answers to many of these questions requires that you are somewhat familiar with your own needs. You need a radio to become an amateur, but you need to be an amateur to choose a radio. To get started, you don't need a radio. If you already have a license you can use tools like Echolink with a computer or a mobile phone. If you don't yet have a license, you can listen to online services like WebSDR, KiwiSDR and plenty of others. You can start receiving using a cheap RTL-SDR dongle and some wire. "Which brand should you get?" Rob NC0B has been testing radios for longer than I've been an amateur. His Sherwood testing table contains test results for 151 devices. The top three, Icom, Kenwood and Yaesu count for more than half of those results. This means that you'll likely find more information, more support and more local familiarity with those three. I will point out that Rob's list has 27 different brands on it, so look around and read reviews both by people who test the gear and those who use it. And finally, "Why are you here?" It's a serious question. Different things draw different people into this community. Think about what you like about it and what you want to do more of. Take those things into consideration when you select your radio. As you explore the answers to these questions, you'll start building a picture of what amateur radio means to you and with that will come the answer to the question: "What radio should I buy as my first one?" If there are other questions you'd like to ask, don't hesitate to get in touch. My address is email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Bringing chaos into order
Foundations of Amateur Radio One of the questions you're faced with when you start your amateur journey is around connectors. You quickly discover that every piece of equipment with an RF socket has a different one fit for purpose for that particular device. That purpose includes the frequency range of the device, but also things like water ingress, number of mating cycles, power levels, size, cost and more. As an aside, the number of mating cycles, how often you connect and disconnect something is determined by several factors, including the type of connection, manufacturing precision and the thickness of the plating. That said, even a so-called low cycle count connector, like say an SMA connector lasting 500 cycles will work just fine for the next 40 years if you only connect it once a month. Back to variety. My PlutoSDR has SMA connectors on it as do my band pass filters, my handheld and one RTL-SDR dongle. The other dongle uses MCX. Both my antenna analyser and UHF antenna have an N-type connector which is the case for my Yaesu radio that also has an extra SO239 which is what my coax switches have. My HF antenna comes into the shack as an F-type and nothing I currently own has BNC, but stuff I've previously played with, does. When you go out on a field-day, you mix and match your gear with that of your friends, introducing more connectors and combinations. Invariably you acquire a collection of adaptors. At first this might be only a couple, quickly growing to a handful, but after a while you're likely to have dozens or more. My collection, a decade's worth, which currently includes more than 25 different combinations is over a hundred individual adaptors and growing. For most of the time these have been tossed into a little tool box with a transparent lid, but more and more as the collection and variety grew I started to realise that I was unable to quickly locate an adaptor that I was sure I had, since it had been used in a different situation previously. In addition to coming to the realisation that the reason I couldn't find a connector was because it was still in use, I began to notice that I had daisy chains of connectors. For example, my HF antenna has a PL259 connector that is adapted to an F-type connector with an SO239 barrel, a PL259 to BNC and a BNC to F-type adaptor. At the other end of the RG6 coax that runs from outside into the shack, the reverse happens, F-type to BNC and BNC to PL259. If you're counting along, that's five adaptors to get from PL259 to PL259 via F-type. At this point you might wonder why I'm using RG6 coax. The short answer is that I have several rolls of it, left over from my days as an installer for broadband satellite internet. RG6 is very low loss, robust and heavily shielded. Although it's 75 Ohm - a whole other discussion - in practice that's not an issue. What is a problem is that the only connectors available for it are F-type compression connectors. To get those to PL259 requires a step sideways via BNC. My point is that the number of adaptors is increasing by the day. I should acknowledge the existence of so-called universal connector kits. The idea being that you go from one connector to a universal joiner and from that to another connector. Generally these kits have around 30 connections, giving you plenty of options, but in reality more often than not, you only have half a dozen universal joiners, so your money is effectively buying you half a dozen conversions, great for a field day, not so great for a permanent installation. You could build your own collection and use something like SMA or BNC as your universal joiner, which is something I'm exploring. To keep track of my collection, recently I started a spreadsheet. It's essentially a list showing the number and types of connections. If you make a pivot table from that you'll end up with a grid showing totals of adaptors you have. You can use this grid to fill a set of fishing tackle boxes and all of a sudden you've got a system where everything has its own place. If you start this process you'll quickly notice that the table only needs to be half filled, since a BNC to SMA is the same as an SMA to BNC adaptor. This leaves you space to do some fancy footwork where the bottom right hand of the triangle can fit into the top left of the empty space, but I'll leave you to figure that out. My table also includes things like TNC and MCX adaptors, but I don't use those very often, so at the moment I'm putting them in their own box together with T-adaptors and other weird and wonderful things like FME and reverse SMA. For setting the order, I've gone for alphabetic, but if you have a better suggestion, I'm all ears. My email address as always is firstname.lastname@example.org. What ideas have you come up with to organise the chaos that is your sprawling connector library? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Streaming a dozen repeaters with an RTL-SDR dongle
Foundations of Amateur Radio A while ago as part of my ongoing exploration into all things radio I came across a utility called rtlsdr-airband. It's a tool that uses a cheap software defined radio dongle to listen to a station frequency or channel and send it to a variety of different outputs. Originally written by Tony Wong in 2014, it's since been updated and is now maintained by Tomasz Lemiech. There are contributions by a dozen other developers. The original examples are based around listening to Air Traffic Control channels. I know of a local amateur who uses it to listen to and share the local emergency services communication channels, especially important during local bush fires. While sophisticated, it's a pretty simple tool to use, runs on a Raspberry Pi, or in my case, inside a Docker container. It's well documented, has instructions on how to compile it and how to configure it. Before I get into what I've done, as a test, let's have a look at the kinds of things that rtlsdr-airband can do. First of all, it's intended to be used for AM, but if you read the fine documentation, you'll learn that you can also make it support Narrowband FM. It can generate output in a variety of different ways, from a normal audio file, to an I/Q file - more about that at another time, and it can also send audio as a stream to a service like icecast, broadcastify or even to your local pulse audio server. If that last one doesn't mean much to you, it's a local network audio service, popular under Linux, but it runs on pretty much anything else thanks to the community efforts of many. So, on the face of it, you can listen to a channel, be it AM or Narrowband FM, and send that to some output, but I wouldn't spend anywhere as much time on this if that was all there was to it. The software can also dynamically change channels, support multiple dongles, or simultaneously listen to several channels at once and output each of those where ever you desire. Another interesting thing and ultimately the reason I thought to discuss it here is that rtlsdr-airband also supports the concept of a mixer. You can send multiple channels to a single mixer and output the result somewhere else. Using a mixer, in addition to setting cut off frequencies and other audio attributes, you can set the audio balance for each individual channel. This means that you can mix a channel exclusively to the left ear, or to the right ear, to both, or somewhere in between. Now, to add one extra little bit of information. In my location there's about a dozen or so amateur repeaters most of which can be heard at some time or another from my QTH. The frequency spread of those dozen repeaters is less than 2 MHz. A cheap RTL-SDR dongle can handle about 2.56 MHz. Perhaps you've not yet had the ah-ha moment, but what if you were to define an rtlsdr-airband receiver that listened to a dozen amateur radio repeaters - at the same time - and using the audio balance spread those repeaters between your left and right ear, you could stream that somewhere and listen to it. I'm sitting here with my headphones on, listening to the various repeaters do their idents, various discussions on different repeaters, a local beacon, incoming AllStar and other links, all spread out across my audio horizon, almost as if you can see where they are on the escarpment, though truth be told, I've just spaced them out evenly, but you get the idea. My original Raspberry Pi wasn't quite powerful enough to do this in the brute force way I've configured this, so as a proof of concept I'm running it on my main computer, but there's nothing to suggest that doing a little diligent tweaking won't make my Pi more than enough to make this happen. As for audio bandwidth, it's a single audio stream, so a dial-up connection to the internet should be sufficient to get the audio out to the world. I will point out that there may be legal implications with streaming your local amateur repeaters to the world, so don't do that without checking. For my efforts, this is an example of: "I wonder if ..." As it turns out, Yes you can. As it happens, my next challenge is to use this code on a PlutoSDR where the bandwidth is slightly larger, mind you, I'll have to do some fancy footwork to process the data without overwhelming the CPU, but that's another experiment in my future. What kind of crazy stuff have you tried that worked? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Soldering Irons and Software
Foundations of Amateur Radio The activity of amateur radio revolves around experimentation. For over a century the amateur community has designed, sourced, scrounged and built experiments. Big or small, working or not, each of these is an expression of creativity, problem solving and experimentation. For most of the century that activity was accompanied by the heady smell of solder smoke. It still makes an appearance in many shacks and field stations today, even my own, coaxed by an unsteady hand, more and more light and bigger and bigger magnification, I manage to join bits of wire, attach components and attempt to keep my fingers from getting burnt and solder from landing on the floor. I've been soldering since I was nine or so. I think it started with a Morse key, a battery and a bicycle light with a wire running between my bedroom and the bedroom of my next door neighbour. In the decades since I've slightly improved my skill, but I have to confess, soldering isn't really my thing. My thing is computers. It was computers from the day I was introduced in 1983 and nothing much has changed. For reasons I don't yet grasp, I just get what computers are about. They're user friendly, just picky whom they make friends with. When I joined the amateur community, it was to discover a hobby that was vast beyond my wildest imagination, technical beyond my understanding and it was not computing. Little did I know. Computing in amateur radio isn't a new thing. For example, packet radio was being experimented with in 1978 by members of the Montreal Amateur Radio Club, after having been granted permission by the Canadian government. In 2010 when I came along we had logging, DX-clusters and the first weak signal modes were already almost a decade old. Software Defined Radio has an even longer history. The first "digital receiver" came along in 1970 and the first software transceiver was implemented in 1988. The term "software defined radio" itself was 15 years old when I joined the hobby and truth be told, it's a fascinating tale, I'll take a look at that at another time. When I started my amateur journey like every new licensee, I jumped in the deep end and kept swimming. From buying a radio, to discovering and building antennas, from going mobile to doing contests and putting together my home station, all of it done, one step at a time, one progressive experiment after another, significant to me, but hardly world shattering in the scheme of things. Now that I've been here for a decade I've come to see that my current experiments, mostly software based, are in exactly the same spirit as the circuit builders and scroungers, except that I'm doing this by flipping bits, changing configurations, writing software and solving problems that bear no relation to selecting the correct combination of capacitance and reactance to insert into a circuit just so. Instead I'm wrestling with compilers, designing virtual machines, sending packets, debugging serial ports and finding new and innovative ways to excite transceivers. For example, today I spent most of the day attempting to discover why when I generate a WSPR signal in one program, it cannot be decoded by another. If that sounds familiar, that was what I was doing last week too. This time I went back to basics and found tools inside the source code of WSJT-X and started experimenting. I'm still digging. As an aside I was asked recently why I want to do this with audio files and the short answer is: Little Steps. I can play an audio file through my Yaesu FT-857d. I can receive that and decode it. That's where I want to start with my PlutoSDR experiments, so when I'm doing this, I can use the same audio file and know that the information can be decoded and that any failure to do so is related to how I'm transmitting it. Back to soldering irons and software. In my experience as an amateur it's becoming increasingly clear that they're both the same thing, tools for experimentation, with or without burning your fingers. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Getting started on WSPR with a PlutoSDR
Foundations of Amateur Radio As you might recall, I took delivery of a device called a PlutoSDR some time ago. If you're not familiar, it's a single-board computer that has the ability to transmit and receive between 70 MHz and 6 GHz. The system is intended as a learning platform, it's open source, you get access to the firmware, compilers and a whole load of other interesting tools. I used it to play with aviation receive using a tool called dump1090 which I updated to use Open Street Map. If you're interested, it's on my VK6FLAB github page. Over the past few months I've been steadily acquiring little bits and pieces which today added up to a new project. Can I use my PlutoSDR to transmit WSPR? This all started because of an experiment and a conversation. The experiment was: "Using my FT-857d on 70cm can I transmit a weak signal mode like WSPR and have my friend on the other side of the city decode the transmission?" The answer to that was a qualified "Yes". I say qualified, since we weren't able to transmit a WSPR message, but using FT8 we were happily getting decodes across the city. We're not yet sure what the cause of this difference is, other than the possibility that the combined frequency instability at both ends was large enough to cause an issue for a WSPR message, which lasts about two minutes. On the other hand, I learned that my radio can in fact go down to 2 Watts on 70cm. I've owned that radio for over a decade, never knew. Now that I have a band pass filter, some SMA leads and the ability to talk to my Pluto across the Wi-Fi network, I can resurrect my Pluto adventures and start experimenting. I mentioned that this was the result of an experiment and a conversation. The conversation was about how to create a WSPR signal in the first place. At the moment if you run WSJT-X the software will generate audio that gets transmitted via a radio. All fine, except if you don't have a screen or a mouse. Interestingly a WSPR transmission doesn't contain any time information. It is an encoded signal, containing your callsign, a maidenhead locator - that's a four or six character code representing a grid square on Earth, and a power level. That message doesn't change every time your transmitter starts the cycle, so if you were to create say an audio file with that information in it, you could just play the audio to the nearest transmitter, like a handheld radio, or in my case a Pluto, and as long as you started it at the right time, the decoding station wouldn't know the difference. As an aside, if you're playing along with your own Pluto, and far be it for me to tell you to go and get one, you can set the Pluto up using either USB, in which case it's tethered to your computer, or you can get yourself a USB to Ethernet adaptor and connect to it via your network. If you have a spare Wi-Fi client lying around, you can get that to connect to your Wi-Fi network, connect the Pluto via Ethernet to the Wi-Fi client and your gadget is connected wirelessly to your network. I can tell you that this works, I'm typing commands on the Pluto as we speak. As is the case in any experiment in amateur radio, you start with one thing and work your way through. At the moment I want to make this as simple as possible. By that I mean, as few moving parts as I can get away with. I could right now fire up some or other SDR tool like say GNU Radio and get it to do the work and make the transmission, but what I'd really like to do is actually have the Pluto do all the work, so I'm starting small. Step One is to create an audio file that I can transmit using the Pluto. It turns out that Step One isn't quite as simple as I'd hoped. I located a tool that actually purports to generate an audio file, but the file that it builds cannot be decoded, so there's still some work to be done. On the face of it the level of progress is low, but then this whole thing has been going for months. The experiment on 70cm lasted half an hour, the discussion took all of a cup of coffee. So far, I've spent more time on this project making the Wi-Fi client talk to my network than all the rest put together and that includes finding and ordering the Pluto in the first place. You might well wonder why I'm even bothering to talk about this as yet unfinished project. The reason is simple. Every day is a new one. Experiments are what make this hobby what it is and every little thing you learn adds to the next thing you do. Some days you make lots of progress, other days you learn another way to not make a light bulb. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Ergonomics in your shack
Foundations of Amateur Radio In my day job I work in computing. For many years that consisted of going on-site and fixing stuff. Invariably this involved me fixing servers that were installed into a room the size of a broom closet with an optional air conditioner screaming in my ear. The experience often included sitting on a crate, or the floor, holding a keyboard and if it was a Windows Server, rolling a mouse on my knee in order to click on stuff barely discernible on a tiny screen that likely sat a meter too high above my eye line with Ethernet wires going diagonally from one end of the room to the other. These days with ubiquitous internet connectivity that kind of experience is mostly a thing of the past. That said, operating a radio during a contest in many stations I've used over the years is not far from that kind of layout. Often a traditional shack starts off with a radio on a table with a notepad to record contacts. Over time that gets expanded with technology like a computer. It's common to have to juggle the radio display and keyboard, to find a spot for the mouse that doesn't interfere with the desk microphone, or to have to reach over to change band and to activate a different filter, select another antenna, use the rotator or some other essential tool that's required for making that elusive contact. Some stations have multiple monitors, sometimes they're even together, but more often than not they're a different size, sitting too high and the radio sits as a road-block between your eye line between the screen and the keyboard. I'm raising this because over the years I've not actually seen anyone spend any energy on discussing how you might improve this experience. If this was your workplace, the occupational health and safety police would be all over you and for good reason. You could argue that amateur radio is a hobby and that OH&S is of lesser concern, but to that I'd like to point out that you have the same risk of self injury at work as you do in your shack, especially if you're doing a contest for 24 or 48 hours. Not only is there a risk of injury, why make the experience harder than it needs to be? Ergonomics is the process of designing or arranging a workplace to fit the user. It's a deliberate process. You have to actually stop to consider how you are using a space, in this case your shack. At the moment I'm experimenting with different aspects of the layout of my shack. For example, I started with a layout of the computer, counter intuitive perhaps, since we're talking about a radio shack, but given that I'm spending much of my time doing contests and digital modes, the computer is used much more than the radio is, even if the radio is what's making all the on-air noise. After making sure that my keyboard, mouse and screen were in locations that actually helped me, I started trying to figure out where to put the radio and what role it actually plays in making the contact. If during a contest you're using search and pounce, which is when you hunt up and down the bands looking for a contact, you might argue that you'll need access to the radio to change frequency, but if you already have your computer connected to the radio, you can change frequency from the keyboard or by control with your mouse. Another way I'm looking on reducing the amount of stress to my body whilst operating my station is by sorting out audio. Almost every radio has a speaker on it, but if you've got more than one going at the same time it becomes really difficult to determine which one is actually making noise and even harder if multiple stations are on different frequencies on different radios at the same time. You could wear headphones and select a radio, one at a time, either by plugging in a particular radio, or by using a selector. If you're using digital modes, the audio might already be going into the computer, which offers you the ability to select from different sound cards, but there are other options. I'm working on plugging the audio from each radio into an audio mixer that will allow me to set the level for each radio independently, mute at will, set the tone, the balance between left and right ear and a few other things. For a microphone I plan on using the same mixer and I'm working on how to have my digital audio coming from the computer incorporated into the same audio environment, because the digital audio could just as easily be a voice caller using the same system. For push to talk I settled on a foot switch a couple of years ago. That said, if I'm on my own, I tend to use VOX, or voice operated switching, which turns on the transmitter when microphone audio is detected by the radio. This will need some careful planning if I'm going to connect multiple radios, since I don't want to transmit the same message across each radio at the same time, but with computer control, that too can be addressed. My point is that we have lots of technology available to us as radio amateurs to achieve what ever we need to. It takes extra effort to decide how you might go about making your environment a place where you can safely sit and operate without making life harder than it needs to be. What kinds of different techniques and technologies have you used to make your shack a more comfortable environment? Do you spend your days hunting DX, doing contests or making digital contacts, or something else? Have you considered how you might improve the layout of your shack to suit your particular use-case and when was the last time you checked to see if the decisions you originally made are still valid today? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
How much bandwidth is there?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Have you ever taken a moment to consider the available bandwidth on the various amateur bands? As an entrant into amateur radio in Australia as a Foundation licence holder you have access to six different amateur bands, the 80m band, 40m, 15m, 10m, 2m and 70cm. If you add the bandwidth from each of those bands together, you end up with 26.65 MHz worth of bandwidth to play with in Australia. I can tell you that's a big chunk of bandwidth, but until I give you some context, 26.65 MHz isn't likely something that you can picture. You might think of things as being pretty crowded. For example, on the 40m band during a contest it's common to hear wall to wall signals. There's barely enough room to call CQ and not interfere with anyone else. But how crowded is it really? Let's start with an SSB signal, typically it's 2.4 kHz wide. On the 40m band, with 300 kHz of bandwidth, there's room for about 125 SSB signals side-by-side. On the 10m band, there's space for over 700 SSB signals side-by-side. Across all the available bandwidth for a Foundation license holder in Australia, there's room for over 11-thousand different SSB signals side-by-side. While we're on the subject of crowding, there's talk about the massive influx of FT8, some call it a scourge. FT8 channels are transmitted within a single SSB channel and each takes up 50 Hz. That means that within an SSB channel of 2.4 kHz, there's room for 48 different FT8 channels, and if you take into account the odd and even time-slots, that doubles to 96 different signals, all within the same single SSB channel. So while FT8 is popular and growing, let's not get too excited about how much space it's taking up. From the perspective of an Australian Foundation license holder, it's taking up exactly six separate SSB slots of those 11-thousand across the six available bands, room for 576 separate FT8 signals, taking up a total of 14.4 kHz, or 0.05% of the available bandwidth. Let's look at this another way, of the 26.65 MHz available bandwidth, 20 MHz is from the 70cm band alone, that means that all the other bands put together, fit inside the 70cm band three times over. Let that sink in for a moment, adding the 80m, 40m, 15m, 10m and 2m band together fit inside the 70cm band three times. You can use the 70cm band alone for 800-thousand FT8 signals, remember that there's two time slots, so you get two for one. If this makes your mind explode, then consider that a carrier wave signal is considered to be about 25 Hz wide, so on the 70cm band you could have 800-thousand individual CW signals. You could allocate a personal CW frequency to every one of the amateurs in the United States in the 70cm band and still have room for expansion, not that I'm advocating that, just to give you a sense of scale. I should note that the 70cm band in the United States is even larger than it is in Australia, but I don't want to get bogged down into the various band plans across the world at the moment. You might ask yourself why am I getting so excited about this? Amateur radio is about experimentation. I've been telling you about HF propagation and using techniques like FT8 to determine just how far your signal goes, but you could use the same techniques to build a 70cm communication network with the amateurs within your city and share information across the city, perhaps even build a mesh network using your 70cm hand-held and an FT8-call network. It could be used to distribute propagation information, or messages in case of an emergency, or form the basis of something completely different. If that doesn't whet your appetite, consider that the 1mm amateur band, which runs from 241 to 250 GHz is ready for you to experiment when your license permits. The current world distance record is 114 km, set in 2008 by Brian WA1ZMS and Peter W4WWQ, it has 9 GHz bandwidth and has room for 360-million FT8 signals, or 60 exclusive FT8 channels for every amateur on the planet. My point is that as radio amateurs we have access to a massive chunk of radio bandwidth and it's just sitting there waiting for you to experiment with. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
The massive physics phenomenon just over eight minutes away ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio If you've been around radio amateurs for a little while you're likely to have heard about the Solar Cycle and that it affects radio propagation for HF or High Frequency, also known as shortwave communications. The frequencies in the range of around 3 to 30 MHz, or 100m to 10m wavelength. One of the main ways it's used is for is for long distance or global communication and one of the most common ways that's done is using the ionosphere around the globe to refract a radio signal. In September 2020, the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel, announced that Solar Cycle 25 had commenced in December 2019 and radio amateurs around the globe rejoiced. The first question for me was, why Solar Cycle 25? You might think of the Sun as a stable light in the sky. As it happens, the bright light hides all manner of ferocious activity. One of the measures of this activity is the number of dots observed on the surface of our Star. These dots are called sunspots. As Solar activity increases, the number of sunspots increases. The activity is cyclical, it increases and decreases over time. Each increase and decrease combined is known as a Solar Cycle. On average a cycle lasts about 10.7 years. Simple maths gives you that Solar Cycles started somewhere around 1750. That seems a little strange. Our Sun is 4.6 billion years old. There are paintings on the rocks at Ubirr in the Northern Territory of Australia that are 40 thousand years old. The pyramids in Egypt are 45 hundred years old. The Solar Cycle has been going for a lot longer than the 7 million years there have been humans on the planet, let alone dinosaurs who experienced the Solar Cycle 66 million years ago. Using fossil records we've determined that the Solar Cycle has been stable for at least the last 700 million years. Chinese astronomers recorded Solar activity around 800 BC and Chinese and Korean astronomers frequently observed sunspots but no known drawings exist of these observations. The first person to draw sunspots was John of Worcester on the 8th of December 1128. Five days later, half a world away in Korea on the 13th of December 1128, the astronomers in Songdo reported a red vapour that "soared and filled the sky", describing the aurora borealis in the night sky that resulted from those very same sunspots. In the early 1600's there was plenty of activity around the recording of sunspots. Thomas Harriot appears to have predated Galileo Galilei by more than a year with notes and drawings dated the 8th of December 1610. There's plenty of other names during this period, Father and son David and Johannes Fabricius and Christoph Scheiner to name three, but I'm moving on. The Solar Cycle, was first described by Christian Horrebow who more than a century later in 1775 wrote: "it appears that after the course of a certain number of years, the appearance of the Sun repeats itself with respect to the number and size of the spots". Recognition of the Solar Cycle was awarded to Samuel Heinrich Schwabe who noticed the regular variation in the number of sunspots and published his findings in a short article entitled "Solar Observations during 1843" in which he suggested that the cycle was 10 years. Stay with me, we're getting close to Solar Cycle number One. In 1848 Rudolf Wolf devised a way to quantify sunspot activity. His method, named the Wolf number, is still in use today, though we call it the relative or international sunspot number. In 1852 he published his findings on all the available data on sunspot activity going back to 1610 and calculated the average Solar Cycle duration as 11.11 years. He didn't have enough observations to reliably identify Solar Cycles before 1755, so the 1755-1766 Solar Cycle is what we now consider Solar Cycle number One lasting 11.3 years with a maximum of 144.1 sunspots in June of 1761. Until 2009 it was thought that there had been 28 Solar Cycles between 1699 and 2008 with an average duration of 11.04 years, but it appears that the 15 year Solar Cycle between 1784 and 1799 was actually two cycles, making the average length only 10.7 years. I should also point out that there have been Solar Cycles as short as 8 years and as long as 14 years. With the announcement of Solar Cycle 25 comes improved propagation for anyone who cares to get on air and make noise. The current predictions vary depending on the method used, ranging from a very weak to a moderate Solar Cycle 25. There are predictions for the Solar maximum, the time with the most sunspot activity, to occur between 2023 and 2026 with a sunspot range between 95 and 130. By comparison during the previous Solar Cycle, in 2011 the first peak hit 99 and the second peak in 2014 hit 101. I have purposely stayed away from electromagnetic fields, geomagnetic impacts and the actual methods for HF propagation, I'll look at those another time. I can tell you that we've gone a little beyond counting dots on the Sun to determine activity and we have a whole slew of satellites orbiting our Star doing all manner of scientific discovery, all of which helps our understanding of what's going on in the massive physics phenomenon 8 minutes and 20 seconds away by radio. That said, Solar eruptions are still pretty unpredictable, much like the weather around us. Not because we don't want to know, but because this is a very complex one to solve, much like ionospheric propagation is hard to forecast, much easier to measure actual performance and much more accurate. So, if you want to know how well propagation is going to be today, turn on your radio and have a listen. If you want to know how great it's going to be tomorrow, look at the forecast, but bring an umbrella, or an FT8 transmitter. I'm Onno VK6FLAB.
The dynamic nature of your shack
Foundations of Amateur Radio If you have the opportunity to build your shack, it might start off as a table in the corner where you plonk down a radio, plug into nearby power and run coax to. That's pretty much how most shacks start, mine included. For me the step of running coax was an activity that took weeks of planning and procrastination and days of climbing on the roof. After actually completing that and getting two runs of coax to my planned shack, one for HF and one for UHF and VHF, the shack building itself was pretty simple. I had to get power to the location, but an extension lead took care of that. In the interest of space I put the power supply on the floor, a wooden floor that ensured good circulation, unlike carpet, perhaps a topic for another day, I plugged my coax into the radio, plugged in the 12 Volt power and was up and running. Over time that space continued to grow. Looking at it right now, it has two computer monitors, a laptop, three radios, two coax switches, a keyboard, mouse, digital interface, two speakers, and a fan to cool the radio when I'm calling CQ on FT8. I'm not a messy person, but I do like to have my tools convenient. It's not a pristine environment by any stretch, but it's orderly as shacks go. An hour ago it wasn't, actually, looking at the clock, that was four hours ago. Time flies when you're having fun. My shack is the centre of my radio activities. I might receive a gadget from a friend to test and I'll put it on my desk ready to go. The same is true for a foot pedal that I found when looking for something else, as is the audio adaptor that I used in the desk mixer that I'm experimenting with. Over time each of these bits and pieces accumulate on the surface. When I noticed that my radio was running hot, or in my mind uncomfortably warm, given that I'm using 5 Watts, I decided to invest in a fan, clipped to the edge of the desk requiring yet another wire. It's not limited to small bits. I'm testing a new radio, that comes with removable head, a microphone, cables to join those to the main body, two antenna port cables, a coax switch and a power lead with two cables. Over time you have coax mixed with 12 Volt DC and 240 Volt AC, audio leads, USB leads, video leads, grounding wire, remote control switches, microphone leads, CAT leads and more, all running all over the place. Making a minor change can become a big hassle, making it hard to determine what goes where, not to mention that each cable generates it's own little slice of RF, wanted or not. The four hours I've just spent consisted of taking everything except the bolted on computer monitors off the desk and starting from scratch. I also did this when I first added a second radio, but that was so long ago that the "system" I implemented then was unrecognisable. Doing it again today I made better use of the environment and changed some things around. I started with the 240 Volts requirements, then the coax, then 12 Volts, then audio and finally USB, using cable ties for semi-permanent things like power boards and hook and loop straps for things that move more frequently like audio wiring and video cables. It's not perfect. I'm looking for some flexible coax patch leads, there's USB cables going every which way, the laptop keyboard isn't used, so why use a laptop, no doubt I'll discover more. My point is that this is dynamic and every now and then it pays to spend a little while putting things back together. My next project is to use an audio mixer to bring all the audio together in one place so I can use one headset for everything and give me the opportunity to plug in a tape recorder as my regulator suggests for monitoring emergency communications, though I might have to come up with something a little less 1980 for the actual recording. If you're going to do this, move the desk at least a meter from the wall so you can get at the back of your shack, you can thank me later. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
When you just have to try things ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio A little while ago I was gifted a new radio, well, new to me. A Kenwood TS-480HX. It's an all mode HF transceiver with 6m. Does 200 Watts, but you know me, I'm into QRP, low power, so I first had to figure out how to dial the transmitter down to 5 Watts and that was after figuring out how to feed the dual power supplies from one source and have the fuses work as expected. When I received the radio, I took stock of all the bits that it was packed with, all complete, all the accessories, even the user manual was laminated. The previous owner, Walter VK6BCP (SK) whom I never met was an amateur after my own heart. I've talked about how he meticulously documented his alterations to a power supply for example. Previously I've taken this radio on holidays to operate portable in a field day. The experience was underwhelming, in that I didn't hear anyone and nobody responded to my CQ calls. At the time I put it down to a poor antenna and unfamiliarity with the radio, despite reading the manual, well, at least scanning it. Today I finally set some time aside to do some more testing. I decided that the first step would be to actually set it up in my shack, next to my trusty Yaesu FT-857d and see how it performs in comparison. So, I plugged everything in, found a coax switch so I could switch the antenna between the two radios and learned that the audio connector that I've been using for digital modes on the Yaesu is actually compatible with the Kenwood. Now I need to make another adaptor for this radio, but in the meantime I can move the audio plug between radios when I swap. In doing this I learnt a few things. One is that there's plenty of scope for things to break. For example, I was reaching over the desk to plug a connector into the coax switch when I leaned on the keyboard and touched the space bar. This caused the radio that I was working on to start its tuning cycle without an antenna connected. Fortunately I was using 5 Watts and I caught it within seconds, so no white smoke this time around. It does remind me to turn off the radio when fiddling with connectors though. I'm embarrassed to report that I thought I'd learnt that lesson already, nothing like a refresher course in transmitter safety and dumb things not to do in the shack. Then there was the thing about using remote control. In my naivety I thought that the connector that the Yaesu uses for computer control is also used on the Kenwood. Turns out that it isn't. Fortunately I read the manual before plugging that in. The Yaesu has a specific digital mode with individual gain and filter characteristics, which seem to be completely lacking on the Kenwood. I'm still attempting to learn the differences in receive performance between the two. I started this process by running WSJT-X and listening to WSPR or Weak Signal Propagation Reports and testing how both radios decode things. I cannot yet do this side-by-side, but for now I can swap and see signals coming in on either radio. This is not the first time I've put a different radio on my desk to see how it works and it's not going to be the last time. What I'm looking to achieve is to swap over from the Yaesu to the Kenwood in my shack, so I can put the Yaesu back in the car and have a mobile shack operating again because I have to admit, I do miss that. What kinds of testing regimes to you have when you're trying out a new radio? I'd love to hear your thoughts. My email address as always is email@example.com. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Portable experiences ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio Last weekend was memorable for all the right reasons. Filled with 24 hours of amateur radio, spent with friends, in a park, making noise and having fun, marking the first time I recall setting up in a park for that length of time with so few extra resources. Normally we'd be decked out with tents, or in my case a swag, we'd have camping stoves, perhaps even a caravan or two, tables, cutlery, the whole shebang. This time we brought none of that. Just radios, antennas, batteries, water with a few snacks and folding chairs. This was like nothing I've experienced before and it has me asking myself: Why did I wait so long to operate like this? It was wonderful. We spent it being on-air and making noise during a 24 hour contest which is specifically intended to celebrate and reward portable operation. In case you're wondering, the John Moyle Memorial Field Day is to encourage portable field day operation and provide training for emergency situations. It was created in memory of John Moyle, the long term editor of Wireless Weekly, who served in the RAAF with distinction. He's said to be responsible for a number of innovative solutions to keeping radio and radar equipment working under difficult wartime conditions. I've participated in this contest plenty of times before. This was the first time I did it in a park, in the city, and as experiences went it was fabulous and recommended. As you might know, I like operating portable. I've been operating from my car for years, from camp-sites in remote locations for just as long and I've activated several parks and peaks in Summits On The Air, or SOTA, and World Wide Flora and Fauna, or WWFF activities. I've also set-up during field days in local parks and I regularly drive to a local park to get on-air and make noise. With that as background, you might ask yourself, what is different? Let's start with setting the scene. The park that we used is located in a suburb about 10 km out from the city centre. It has a river running through it and on the banks there are plenty of trees with lawn. Dotted throughout are picnic tables with wooden gazebos. All very civilised. From a radio perspective, it was RF quiet, that is, no local electrical noise, away from cars, from a footpath, close enough to parking where we could get our gear out of the car and walk it to the site. All that alone would have made for a great experience, but this went beyond that. For example, dinner consisted of ordering from the local fish and chips shop five minutes away and picking up some amazing seafood. While there collecting some extra water and most importantly dessert from the supermarket next door. During our activities we had visits from local amateurs. Over the 24 hours we had a steady stream of interested hams coming out and having a chat. Some took the opportunity to bring food, dips and crackers, thermos flasks of tea, even ice cold beer. One amateur came along at the end of our activation and helped pack-up. All this made for a very enjoyable social experience. Another thing that was different was that the operator could wear headphones without stopping anyone else from hearing what was going on. We achieved that by connecting a headphone splitter to the radio, piping the audio to some external speakers for local monitoring whilst the operator wearing headphones would not be affected by conversations taking place around them. We did have some challenges. Our logging tool of choice was, for reasons we don't yet understand, switching bands which meant that sometimes the numbers we were giving out were not sequential. Generally in a contest situation you exchange a piece of information in addition to a signal report. In this case it's supposed to be a sequential number and because there were multiple operators, the sequence is supposed to be per band. The trees provided shade, but were not quite up to the task of being sky-hooks able to hold up wire antennas, fortunately we brought squid poles for that purpose. It was hot. 38 degrees Celsius. It turns out that even though wearing a black long-sleeve T-shirt is not a suitable fashion choice from a temperature perspective, it was perfect in preventing sunburn and for that I was immensely grateful. As you might know, we track what we bring in a spreadsheet, one row per item. A column for each time we go out. Over time we learn what's used and what's not. Our list is getting better and better. I'll admit that I felt some trepidation in relation to this location, but I'm so glad that I took a leap of faith and went with the experience. What a blast! What kind of activities have you been up to that gave you a blast? I'm Onno VK6FLAB
The remote edge...
Foundations of Amateur Radio The landscape of remotely operated amateur radio is changing by the day. Once the territory of home brew DTMF decoders and remote controlled radio links, now more often than not it's a Raspberry Pi with an internet connection, or some variation on that. Before I continue, I must point out that amateur regulations vary widely around the globe, especially in this area. It appears mostly due to the rapidly changing nature of remotely operated radios. For example, most, if not all software defined radios are technically remotely operated. You run software on your computer, the radio is connected to a network, you twiddle a setting on your computer and the radio responds. The computer is not part of the radio, but without it there's not much radio to be had. There's no need for both to be in the same room, let alone the same building. Similarly, a Kenwood TS-480 and a Yaesu FT-857d are both radios that have a removable face with knobs and a display. The main body of the radio is a nondescript box with sockets for power and antenna, connected to the face essentially via a serial cable that can be a few centimetres long, or a few meters. There's solutions like RemoteRig that replace this serial cable with a virtual cable, allowing you to put the face in one location and the body in a different one, connected to each other across the internet. With the introduction of Starlink internet, a low earth orbit satellite based network, a connection to the internet can be made anywhere on earth, making it possible to have your station sitting somewhere far away from interference, powered by batteries and solar panels and connected to the internet. You might not even need to go to satellite based internet, the mobile phone network in many places is often more than sufficient for making such a station viable. If you're a member of a radio club, you might consider your club station. Often this station is the work of many volunteer years effort with multiple radios, antennas, filters and the like and often it sits idle most of the time, only getting fired up during club meetings or the weekend. What if you connected that station to the internet and offered it as a service to your members? Depending on license requirements, you might consider amateurs who have limited ability to build a shack but would love to be on air making noise. A remote club shack might be just the ticket for getting them on air. It could even become an income stream for your club. You might be able to offer access to trainees, or let them monitor the station without transmit ability whilst they're preparing for their license, or you might operate a 48 hour contest in shifts, all using the same transmitter, but from the comfort of your home. The landscape is full of different solutions, like RemoteRig, which I've already mentioned, RigPi Remote Station Server is a tiny computer that controls your radio and allows you access via a web browser or remote desktop connection. There's Remote Hams, a ready made solution for putting your shack on air with access control and remote management. You can connect specific radios, like the Elecraft K3 Remote System, or a Flex Radio Maestro, there's even web browser remote control projects like Universal Ham Radio Remote by Oliver F4HTB, each making it possible to get on air and make noise using a radio in a different location across the internet. All of the solutions I've named make it possible to fully use your radio, that means CW, SSB, FM, antenna control and the like. You can use it for FT8 or RTTY, the choice is yours. The interface might be the face of your radio, a special console, computer, phone or a tablet and you can operate it wherever and whenever the mood takes you. No longer do you need to have a shack in your home with coax snaking through the walls to an antenna whilst dodging the local authorities, or fighting the engine noise from your car. You can make the ultimate shack anywhere without taking up space in your home or car. One final comment. This is a moving feast. The level of functionality is increasing by the day. For me this journey started with a steel toolbox in my garage with a radio inside it and coax running from the box to my antenna. I have operated my radio and hosted my weekly net like this. The radio in the garage, me in my office connected via Wi-Fi over a virtual serial cable. You don't need to start this in the middle of nowhere, six hours drive over the back roads to fix a problem, you can start this project today at home. Where on this journey are you and what issues have you come up against? Let me know. My address as always is firstname.lastname@example.org I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Foundations of Amateur Radio Amateur radio is an environment for infinite possibilities. I've spoken about the way that contacts can happen, seemingly out of the blue, how propagation has so many variables it's hard to predict what will happen at any given moment. During a contest you might scan up and down the bands looking for an elusive multiplier, a contact that's worth extra points, or a missing DXCC country, in your quest to contact a hundred or more. It's easy to get swept away in the excitement and disappointment that comes with success and failure. I'm mentioning this because it's pretty much how many people in our community go about their hobby, me included. I've likened making a contact to fishing, taking your time to get the rhythm of the other station, understanding that there's a human at the other end. Taking stock of what they're hearing, which stations they're responding to, how they respond and if they give out hints about making a successful contact with them. The other day I came across a request to decode some Morse on an image showing long and short lines joined together in some form to serve an artistic purpose. Others pointed out that this wasn't Morse. I took an extra moment to point out that Morse had four individual attributes. It has a dit, a dah, a spacing between the letters and a spacing between the words, and since this image didn't have that it couldn't be Morse code. A few days later it occurred to me that I hadn't been paying attention. Morse actually has five attributes, it also has a spacing between each tone. I updated my answer and began to think about this interaction. It's not the first time that I've stopped to consider what's happening. For example, if I change bands on FT8, a digital mode that is very helpful for determining current propagation, I have a look at the level of activity. I'm generally not in a hurry, so I tend to leave it on the same band for a while, sometimes an hour, sometimes less, sometimes more. If the band is in full flight with every slot filled, it's easy to tick the "CQ Only" box and hide all the noise, or rather extra messages that form the exchange, but sometimes that noise has a whole lot of interesting information. You can determine if one of the stations calling CQ is actually answering anyone or if they're just an alligator, all mouth, no ears. You can see individual people attempting to get each other's attention, making a local or a long distance contact. You can type in an interesting grid locator that accompanies most CQ calls and see just how far it is from you and in which direction. I will also point out that using FT8 to observe a so-called dead band can be just as illustrative. It allows you to see signals in the waterfall, it decodes things that are barely visible and it will give you a feel for how your station at that location on that band at that time is performing in real-time. For example, it showed me that the squelch on my radio was turned on and blocking any chance of receiving weak signals, something that I wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't taken the time to observe. Another example. During a contest I often take some time to listen to a pile-up that surrounds a massive station to see what stations I can hear, who is coming in strong and who is coming in weak. I keep a mental or actual note of what cracks the S-meter with an indication of signal strength and what only turns up as audio, perfectly readable, but not exciting the needle in any way. I might not speak with any of those stations, but I know that there are stations in a particular location that I can hear. It's easy to get swept up in all this massive excitement that is our hobby, but sometimes it pays off to take a breath, to wait a moment, to take a look and have a listen to learn the lay of the land and understand what is happening and consider the implications. Within that moment of calm you might find an unexpected jewel in the rough. That's for example how I managed a contact with South Sudan several years ago during a massive pile-up in a club station during a contest. I'd love to hear what you have stumbled upon serendipitously like that. You can always get in touch, email@example.com is my address. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Word of the day: software
Foundations of Amateur Radio Every community has its own language. As a member of that community you learn the words, their meaning and their appropriate use. For example, the combination of words "Single Side Band" have a specific meaning inside amateur radio. Outside of radio, those same words are random words with no relationship. Sometimes a term like "FM" can be heard across many communities with similar understanding, though not identical. It gets tricky when a word is used widely but doesn't have a common understanding at all. A word like "software" for example. A question you might hear in amateur radio is: "Can I buy a software defined radio or SDR that has digital modes built-in?" It's a perfectly reasonable question, the radio runs software, the digital modes are software, so the answer is obvious, right? What about: "Can the hundred or more computers in my car play Solitaire?" Aside from the perhaps unexpected fact that your car has computers on board, you most likely know the answer to that. No, since the computers are specialised for different tasks - and if you're driving a Tesla right now, yes, you can play Solitaire, but I'd recommend that you keep your eyes on the road instead. My point is that not all software is created equal. The software inside an SDR is essentially doing signal processing, often by several components, each running software, transforming an antenna signal into something, that can be used somewhere else, likely sound. The applications WSJT-X and fldigi, both software, use a computer running Linux, MacOS or Windows, software, to decode and encode digital modes while providing a way for you to interact with it. Software running on software. You might well argue that we should be running applications like that directly on our radio and on the face of it that sounds perfectly reasonable, except that to achieve that, you'd also need to build a system to install and update different types of applications, so you could run SSTV, APRS, RTTY, PSK31, FT8 or any of the other hundreds of digital modes and new ones as they are developed. If you did that, you'd also have to provide a way to manage the operating system, to connect to the Internet and provide security. You'd need to develop a user-interface, perhaps a keyboard and mouse solution, a screen, etc. Before long you'll have developed a whole computing infrastructure, much like the one we already have in the form of the computer on your desk or the phone in your pocket. Computers are getting faster and faster every day. This allows for the software on them to become more and more complex. The inter-dependencies are increasing by the second, but that doesn't mean that specialisation isn't useful. A software defined radio likely has a Field Programmable Gate Array, an FPGA on-board that is great at processing data in streams. It too runs software. Your microwave is running software, as is your television, your smart-watch, your battery charger, the gearbox in your car and your electric tooth brush. Making a distinction between the various types of software is helpful to understand what is possible and what is not. Being a computer nerd, I must point out that I've only barely scratched the surface of software here, in-case you're curious, microcode, firmware, hardware abstraction, the rabbit hole goes very deep. Not all software is created equal and every now and then it's a good idea to remember that when you talk about a word in one community, it might mean a completely different thing in another and sometimes the distinction is significant. As for having an SDR that runs WSPR, no. You can transmit from a computer though, but that's a whole other thing. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
How many hops in a jump?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Amateur radio lives and dies with the ionosphere. It's drilled into you when you get your license, it's talked about endlessly, the sun impacts on it, life is bad when the solar cycle is low and great when it's not. There's sun spots, solar K and A indices, flux, different ionosperic bands and tools online that help you predict what's possible and how likely it is depending on the time of day, the frequency, your location and the curent state of the sun. If that's not enough, the geomagnetic field splits a radio wave in the ionosphere into two separate components, ordinary and extraordinary waves. All that complexity aside, there's at least one thing we can all agree on. A radio wave can travel from your station, bounce off the ionosphere, come back to earth and do it again. This is known as a hop or a skip. If conditions are right, you can hop all the way around the globe. I wanted to know how big a hop might be. If you know that it's a certain distance, then you can figure out if you can talk to a particular station or not, because the hop might be on the earth, or it might be in the ionosphere. Simple enough right? My initial research unearthed the idea that a hop was 4000 km. So, if you were attempting to talk to a station at 2000 km or at 6000 km you couldn't do that with a hop of 4000 km. If you've been on HF, we both know that's not the case. If you need proof, which you really should be asking for, you should check out what the propagation looks like for any FT8 station, or any WSPR beacon over time and you'll notice that it's not 4000 km. Just like the crazy network of interacting parameters associated with propagation, the distance of a hop can vary, not a little, but a lot. In 1962, in the Journal of Geophysical Research D.B. Muldrew and R.G. Maliphant contributed an article titled: "Long-Distance One-Hop Ionospheric Radio-Wave Propagation". They found that in temperate regions such a hop might be 7500 km and in equatorial regions even 10,000 km. I'm mentioning this because this was based on observations and measurements. They used frequency sweeps from 2 to 49 MHz though they called them Mega Cycles, using 100 kHz per second, that is, over the duration of a second, the frequency changed by 100 kHz, so each sweep took nearly 8 minutes using only 15 kilowatts, so substantial gear, not to mention expense and availability. Oh, computers, yes, they used those too. A three tonne behemoth called an IBM 650, mind you, that's only the base unit, consisting of a card reader, power supply and a console holding a magnetic drum unit. You know I'm going somewhere with this right? Today, you can do the same measurements with a $5 computer and a $20 receiver. For a transmitter, any HF capable radio will do the trick, though you might not be transmitting long if you stray outside the amateur bands. For power, 5 Watts is plenty to get the job done. My point is that there is a debate around the future of our hobby and why modes like FT8 are such a controversial topic in some communities. I'm here to point out that since that publication in 1962 our hobby has made some progress and we can improve on the work done by people who came before us. We could build a glob-spanning real-time propagation visualisation tool, we already have the data and modes like FT8 keep feeding in more. If you're inclined, you could even make such a plot in real-time for your own station. So, how long is a hop? You'll just have to find out. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
You Can't Always Get What You Want
Foundations of Amateur Radio One of the things about amateur radio that I find intensely fascinating and to be honest sometimes just as frustrating, is that you don't know what the outcome of an experiment might be at any one time. Not because you cannot control the experiment, or because you don't know what you're doing, but because the number of variables involved in most meaningful amateur radio experiments is pretty much infinite. I've spoken about this before, the idea that if you were to make a simple dipole antenna and fold the ends on each other, you'd have infinite variation in antennas with just a so-called simple antenna, since you can vary the shape of it in an unending variety of ways. The other day I was doing an experiment. An amateur radio one to be sure, but I was doing this within the realm of computing. I have been playing with digital modes for some time now and along the way shared some of what I've learnt. It occurred to me that I've been assuming that if you had the chance to follow along, you'd have access to the required hardware, simple enough, a $20 RTL-SDR dongle, but none-the-less, extra hardware. What might happen if you rule out that dongle and instead used a web-based receiver like WebSDR, or KiwiSDR, or any number of other such sites where you can pretty much tune to any band and frequency and see what's going on at a particular antenna location. For one it might allow you to decode something like APRS remotely, or decode an FT8 signal, perhaps even your own FT8 signal. Unfortunately most, if not all, of those sites include only the bare bones decoders for things like CW, AM, SSB and FM. After that you're pretty much on your own. You could do some funky stuff with a web-browser, linking it via some mechanism to the tool you use to actually decode the sound and there's some examples of that around, none that I really warmed to, since it requires that I open a web browser, do the mouse-clicky thing and then set-up some audio processing stuff. What if I wanted to figure out where the ISS was right now and wanted to listen to a receiver that was within the reception range of the ISS as it passed overhead, and automatically updated the receiver in real time as the ISS was orbiting the earth? For that to happen you'd need something like a command-line tool that could connect to something like a KiwiSDR, tune to the right frequency and extract the raw data that you could then decode with something appropriate. Turns out that I'm not the first person to think of this. There's even a project that outlines the idea of following a satellite, but it hasn't moved anywhere. There's also a project that is a command-line client for web-based KiwiSDR sites, but after spending some quality time with it and its 25 clones on github, I'm not yet at the point where this will work. Mainly because the original author made a design decision to record data to a file with a specific name and any clone I've found thus far only allows you to define what name to use. None so far actually appear to send their stream to something that can be processed in real time. Of course I could record a few minutes of data and process that, but then I'd have to deal with overlap, missing data, data that spans two files and a whole host of other issues, getting me further and further away of what I was trying to do, make a simple web-based audio stream digital mode decoder. As the Rolling Stones put it, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" And to me this sums up our hobby in a nutshell. When you call CQ, or go portable, or test an antenna, or attempt to build something new, there's going to be setbacks and unexpected hurdles. I think that it is important to remember that amateur radio isn't finished, it's not turn-key, no matter how much that appeals, you cannot find a one size fits all solution for anything, not now, not yesterday and not tomorrow. This hobby is always going to test boundaries, not only of physics, but your boundaries. It's after all one giant experiment. So, next time you don't get what you want, you might try something you find, and get what you need. Also, apologies to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger for butchering their words, a rockstar I am not. I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Running out of things to do ...
Foundations of Amateur Radio So, there's nothing on TV, the bands are dead, nobody is answering your CQ, you're bored and it's all too hard. You've run out of things to try, there's only so many different ways to use the radio and it's all too much. I mean, you've only got CW, AM, SSB, FM, there's Upper and Lower Side-band, then there's RTTY, the all too popular FT8, then there's WSPR, but then you run out of things. I mean, right? What about PSK31, SSTV, then there's AMTOR, Hellschreiber, Clover, Olivia, Thor, MFSK, Contestia, the long time favourites of Echolink and IRLP, not to forget Fusion, DMR, D-STAR, AllStar, BrandMeister or APRS. So far I've mentioned about 20 modes, picked at random, some from the list of modes that the software Fldigi supports. Some of these don't even show up on the Signal Wiki which has a list of about 70 amateur modes. With all the bands you have available, there's plenty of different things to play with. All. The. Time. There's contests for many of them, so once you've got it working, you can see how well you go. Over the past year I've been experimenting with a friend with various modes, some more successful than others. I'm mentioning this because it's not difficult to get started. Seriously, it's not. The most important part of this whole experiment is getting your computer to talk to your radio. If you have FT8 already working you have all the hardware in place. To make the software work, you can't go past installing Fldigi. As a tool it works a lot like what you're familiar with. You'll see a band-scope, a list of frequencies and a list of decodes. It's one of many programs that can decode and generate a multitude of amateur digital modes. If this is all completely new to you, don't be alarmed. There are essentially two types of connections between your computer and your radio. The first one is audio, the second is control. For this to work well, both these need to be two-way, so you can both decode the audio that the radio receives and generate audio that the radio can transmit. The same is true for the control connection. You need to be able to set the transmit frequency and the mode and you need to be able to read the current state of the radio, if only to toggle the transmitter on-and-off. If you already have CAT control working, that's one half done. I've spoken with plenty of amateurs who are reluctant to do any of this. If this is you, don't be afraid. It's like the first time you keyed up you radio. Remember the excitement? You can relive that experience, no matter how long you've been an amateur. Depending on the age of your radio, you might find that there is only one physical connection between your computer and the radio, either using USB or even Ethernet. You'll find that your computer will still need to deal with the two types of information separately. Notice that I've not talked about what kind of operating system you need to be running. I use and prefer Linux, but you can do this on any operating system, even using a mobile phone if that takes your fancy. Getting on air and making noise using your microphone is one option, but doing this using computer control will open you to scores of new adventures. I will add some words of caution here. In general, especially using digital modes, less is more. If you drive the audio too high you'll splatter all over the place and nobody will hear you, well, actually, everyone will, but nobody will be able to talk to you because they won't be able to decode it. If the ALC on your radio is active, you're too loud. WSJT-X, the tool for modes like FT8 and WSPR, has a really easy way of ensuring that your levels are right, so if you've not done anything yet, start there. Another issue is signal isolation. What I mean by that is you blowing up your computer because the RF travelled unexpectedly back up the serial or audio cable and caused all manner of grief. You can get all fancy with optical isolation and at some point you should, but until then, dial the power down to QRP levels, 5 Watts, and you'll be fine. A third issue that was likely covered during your licensing is the duty cycle. It's the amount of time that your radio is transmitting continuously as compared to receiving only. For some modes, like WSPR for example, you'll be transmitting for a full 2 minutes at 100%, so you'll be working your radio hard. Even harder might unexpectedly be using FT8, which transmits in 15 second bursts every 15 seconds, so there may not be enough time for your radio to cool down. Investing in a fan is a good plan, but being aware of the issue will go a long way to keeping the magic smoke inside your radio. I'm sure that you have plenty of questions after all that. You can ask your friends, or drop me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll be happy to point you in the right direction. Next time there's nothing good on TV, get on air and make some digital noise! I'm Onno VK6FLAB
What's in a prediction?
Foundations of Amateur Radio Over the past little while I've been experimenting with various tools that decode radio signals. For some of those tools the signals come from space. Equipment in space is moving all the time, which means that the thing you want to hear isn't always in range. For example. The International Space Station or ISS has a typical orbit of 90 minutes. Several times a day there's a pass. That means that it's somewhere within receiving range of my station. It might be very close to the horizon and only visible for a few seconds, or it might be directly overhead and visible for 10 minutes. If it's transmitting APRS on a particular frequency, it can be decoded using something like multimon-ng. If it's transmitting Slow Scan TV, qsstv can do the decoding. I've done this and I must say, it's exciting to see a picture come in line-by-line, highly recommended. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA, has a fleet of satellites in a polar orbit that lasts about 102 minutes and they're overhead at least every 12 hours. You can use something like noaa-apt to decode the images coming from the various weather satellites, or a python script and I'll talk about that at some point. There is a growing cloud of cube satellites with interesting telemetry. They're in all kinds of orbits and you can attempt to receive data from each one as it's in sight. Keeping track of what's where and when is a full time job for plenty of people. As a radio amateur I'm happy to defer to the experts who tell me where a piece of equipment is and when I'm likely to be able to receive a radio signal from the transmitter I'm interested in. Previously I've mentioned in passing a tool called gpredict that does this heavy lifting for me. It presents a map of the world and shows what's visible at my location and when the next acquisition of signal for a particular satellite might occur. It talks to the internet to download the latest orbital information. It also has the ability to control a rotator to point your antenna, not that I have one, and it can update the transmit and receive frequency of your radio to compensate for the Doppler effect that changes the observed frequency as a satellite passes overhead. All this works with a graphical user-interface, that is to say, you have a screen that you're looking at and can click on. Whilst running gpredict, you can simultaneously launch the appropriate decoding tool for the signal that you're trying to receive. If you have a powerful enough computer, you can run multiple decoding tools together. You'll have separate windows for controlling the radio and antenna, for decoding APRS, SSTV, NOAA and if you're wanting to do sunrise and sunset propagation testing using WSPR, you can also run WSJT-X or any other decoder you're interested in. There are some implications associated with doing this, apart from needing a big enough screen, needing considerable computing power and burning electricity for no good reason, the signal that comes in from your radio will be fed to all the decoders at the same time and all of them will attempt to decode the signal, even when you know that this serves no purpose. That's fine if you don't know what you're listening to, but most of the time you know exactly what it is, even if the software doesn't. Manually launching and quitting decoders is one option, but what if the next ISS pass is at 3am? Aside from the computing requirements, so far this works fine with a standard analogue radio like my Yaesu FT-857d. The only limitation is that you can only receive one station at a time. If you replace the analogue radio with an RTL-SDR dongle, you gain the ability to record and decode simultaneous stations within about 2.4 MHz of each other. Another option is to use an ADALM Pluto and as long as the stations are within 20 MHz of each other, you can record and decode their signals. If you're not familiar with a Pluto, it's essentially a computer, receiver and transmitter, all in a little box, the size of a pack of cards. This is where it gets interesting. The Pluto doesn't have a screen, or a keyboard for that matter, but it's a computer. It runs Linux and you can run decoders on it. I've done this with ADS-B signals using a tool called dump1090. You'll find it on my GitHub page. One of the sticking points in decoding signals from space was the ability to predict when a satellite pass occurs without requiring a computer screen. Thanks to a command-line tool called "predict", written by John, KD2BD and others I've now discovered a way to achieve that. My efforts are not quite at the point of show-and-tell, but I've got a Docker container that's building and running predict on its own and using a little bash script it's telling me when the ISS is overhead. You'll find that on GitHub as well. My next challenge is to do some automated decoding of actual space signals. I'm going to start with the ISS, predict and multimon-ng. I'll let you know how I go. What space signals are you interested in? I'm Onno VK6FLAB