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?".
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, i
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 wro
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.
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 res
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
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
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 amat