Choices

Lately I’ve been thinking (again) about getting a new rig and replacing an older Kenwood.  I’ve actually cleaned up the shack a bit and have removed some little monoband rigs that I rarely use and have gotten down to the basics of just what I need.  I feel I need something new in the shack, I’m just not sure what.

The Elecraft K3 would be a no brainer choice.  While it’s a great rig, it somewhat has the makings of a fad for me, and I’ve never been a trend follower.

The KX3 is another option.  I kind of like the idea of a portable rig that has the potential for being a primary home shack rig at 100 watts.  But I still have concerns about the form factor, with the rig being so small and for portable backpack use it seems a bit fragile.  I don’t know if I could be satisfied with it as a home base rig.

I would love to try a Flexradio, however each day I’m leaning more towards Mac in the shack (gasps from the audience).  The last time I looked at Flex they still weren’t supporting Vista or Windows 7.  Perhaps that’s changed but support for OSX is likely light years away.

Nothing that Kenwood currently offers excites me.  Unfortunately I doubt I’ll ever buy a Kenwood HF rig again.

Maybe I should go with a Yaesu rig?  The FT-950 looks like a reasonable choice, though a bit uninspiring.  The price is right and it gets good reviews.  It appears to be a good performing rig without needless extravagance like multi-kilobuck contester rigs.  I’m quite pleased and familiar with the FT-817 and FT-897, so this rig would not be difficult to assimilate into the shack, though it doesn’t really get me into uncharted territory and it seems like a “safe” choice.

Perhaps it’s time I tried a Ten Tec?  The Ten Tec Jupiter is kind of spartan-looking, but interesting.  I like the clean look and under the hood it seems to have a lot of technology and power.  One downside I see is that the MARS mod is not readily available.  I modify all my rigs for DC to daylight transmit for emergency use and so I can use them as signal generators.  I’ve never used a Ten Tec but I know they are legendary performers.

I’ve used Icoms and I can’t say anything bad about them, they’ve just never been on my radar.  I’m not sure why.

Any thoughts from the studio audience on what’s a good $1K – $2K HF-6m rig these days?

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi, which is a 700 Mhz ARM-based single board computer targeted at providing computing hardware to poor countries is going to be going into production soon.  Two models called “A” and “B” are being offered, at approximately $25 and $35 (US).  Options to purchase boards and donate money to provide units to needy folks around the world will be available.  

The concept of single board computers isn’t new, but the horsepower and price point of these units are.  At this price range it puts the boards squarely in Arduino territory, but unlike the Arduino and other microcontrollers it will run a full blown OS.  Several Linux distributions will be supported immediately and presumably BSD variants won’t be far behind.  It will not run Windows or Windows emulation, like WINE.  (Yes, I know WINE is not an emulator).

The board is equipped with a USB port that obviously can be used to interface with a multitude of devices, however it also includes a General Purpose I/O port or GPIO that supports, PWM, Serial UART and I2C capability.  This will open the board up to hardware hackers like us.  Sweet!

I’m pondering what amateur radio applications this could run.  It has enough horsepower to do DSP.  It would make a nice logging and contest appliance, with  some well-designed software.  How about an EchoLink or digimode appliance?  Considering the low price it’s almost disposable and could make a powerful hot air balloon radio payload system controller.  I may port my keyer code over to it for giggles.  It will be interesting to see what uses radio artisans come up with.

Kudos to CQ

Often I complain about what we’re doing wrong or what we should be doing.  This time is one of those exceptions where I have to pass kudos along.  CQ Magazine has announced a “Maker” column which will be edited by Matt Stultz, KB3TAN, and will appear in several issues this year.  The so-called maker movement has always been around, it’s just recently become more “hip” with the “maker” moniker and like with amateur radio the Internet provides a means for tinkerers to network, exchange ideas and information, and come together as a more organized movement.  In my opinion amateur radio missed two prime opportunities with techie movements in the past, that of the open source world / Linux, and the wifi boom in the late 90s, early 2000s that led to wireless ISPs and got a lot of geeks interested in wireless but without amateur radio.

It’s great that CQ recognizes the opportunity and is taking advantage of it to bridge the maker and amateur radio worlds, and it just makes sense from a technical standpoint to introduce amateur radio to makers.  Maker projects often have an element of mobility or remote control — projects that need wireless for control or data telemetry.  Rather than just purchasing a mystery “black box” radio unit off-the-shelf and incorporating it into a project, makers have the opportunity with amateur radio to understand what’s going on inside the box, or bettet yet build that black box themselves.  Introducing amateurs to the maker world will be beneficial as well, hopefully encouraging more amateurs to build and perhaps build projects outside of the normal QRP rig projects we tend to do.  Overall this is a win-win situation for radio amateurs and makers.

Back to the Lab

Here’s a project I’ve been working on which kind of started on a whim a few days ago.  I’ve had two NJQRP DDS Daughtercards lying around, the older versions without the output amp update.  I decided to interface one permanently to an Arduino and build a dual 10 and 6 meter beacon.

Is your lab as messy as mine?

The Arduino alternates the DDS frequency between 28 Mhz and 25 Mhz and CW keys the amplifier board.  For the six meter transmitter chain I’m doubling the DDS 25 Mhz output to create the 50 Mhz six meter signal.  Output power on each band will probably be around 250 mW.  I’m probably going to put the unit in a weatherproof box, install it in the backyard, and attempt to power it with solar power.  In addition to doing the CW keying and DDS programming, the Arduino will also measure and announce the battery voltage and perhaps the solar panel charge current.  For antennas I’m thinking of simple wire loops.

Several years ago I ran a 100 mW ten meter beacon.  I like lower power beacons; it’s more of a treat when people report hearing them.  The previous ten meter beacon got quite a few DX reports from Europe during the last solar cycle.

Yaesu Digital Voice

Yaesu has been in the news recently for the digital salvo they fired over the bow of the D-STAR ship.  In theory I think this is a great move, and others are praising Yaesu’s announcement.  My concerns with D-STAR’s proprietary AMBE vocoder algorithm and hardware, the essentially one vendor market for D-STAR equipment (Icom), and the relatively dated and unscalable D-STAR protocol are no secret to anyone who reads this blog regularly.  But looking at the Yaesu digital voice whitepaper, it’s somewhat a half-baked initiative, in my opinion, where Yaesu has a new hammer and everything looks like a nail.

Most of the paper focuses on the modulation technique of D-STAR, GMSK, and pits it against Yaesu’s (errr….. Motorola’s)  C4FM.  While better RF and data throughput performance can be had with better modulation techniques, the big issue with D-STAR isn’t its modulation technique, it’s the layer two protocol.  Yaesu doesn’t even mention its layer two protocol and network that would presumably be used, Wires II.

Yaesu’s case for C4FM superiority beyond it being used in commercial networks falls flat.  In the paper there are specifications of selected D-STAR and C4FM radios compared, with some highlighted parameters.  There’s also a graph comparing various modulation techinques, but the big takeaway is D-STAR has a rate of 4800 baud versus 9600 baud for C4FM.  I’ve used the somewhat archiac term of baud rather than kpbs intentionally to illustrate just how lame the comparison is.  Furthermore, while D-STAR is clearly in the crosshairs of Yaesu, there is no mention of D-STAR’s 128kbs data mode or how Yaesu’s solution beats that data rate.

All in all this whitepaper and initiative which some are praising appears to me to be a rather sophomoric effort, and one more concerned with selling retreaded commercial rigs in amateur radio.  Aligning amateur standards with commercial ones isn’t a bad thing especially when secondhand commercial gear can be re-purposed for amateur use, but there needs to be other compelling reasons to adopt a commercial modulation technique. Even with the best layer one modulation technique, if the layer two protocol and the supporting network is badly designed the digital voice standard is doomed for failure.  Yaesu needs to be making a case for its system by explaining the entire network, how it is open and non-proprietary, and how it will scale in the future.  I hope Yaesu does successfully launch a competing digital voice solution, and I hope organizations like ARRL and RSGB get involved and insure that the standard is consistent with the spirit of amateur radio.  Unfortunately to me this new initiative looks like another D-STAR in the making.

(D-STAR is a registered trademark of Icom Incorporated.)

2012

What would a blog be without the traditional year-in-review-and-here-are-my-New-Year’s-resolutions post?  For a general overview of amateur radio in 2011, Jeff, KE9V, has a rather excellent summary over at KE9V.net worth reading.  From a personal standpoint, it was a year that I spent less time on the air and more time tinkering with stuff.

Much of my activity was centered around the Arduino CW Keyer.  I’m especially proud of the Winkey emulation mode which enables interfacing to many logging and contest programs and the PS2 Keyboard code.  It’s been really satisfying to hear from folks, especially DX, who are using the code in their shacks.

Another project was the Yaesu Rotator Controller Emulator which interfaces most any rotator (not just Yaesus) to a computer for control via a terminal session or logging/contest program.  It’s cool to be running Ham Radio Deluxe and just point-and-click to where you want to go and have the beam rotate automagically.  Yea, I’m amused by simple things.

One of my 2011 resolutions was to do Summits On the Air or SOTA in a big way.  I ended up doing only three SOTAxpeditions, but I’m finding outdoor operation much more interesting than sitting in a shack trying to bang out cookie-cutter QSOs.

I tried Weak Signal Propagation Reporter or WSPR.  It’s an interesting novelty, but I’m not sure it will hold my interest for long.

My blogging suffered a bit.  Quality over quantity has always been my goal and my post drafts folder continues to be littered with unfinished posts, half-baked ideas, and posts that never saw the light of day because I felt they were too controversial or critical for the intended tone of this blog.

My summary of 2011 wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the influence of G4ILO on my daily thought.  Julian’s announcement of a statistically-incurable brain tumor was a shock to all of us here in the amateur radio blogosphere, myself included.  His writings in both his amateur radio blog and One Foot In The Grave have helped me remember what is really important in life and how valuable our time is.  Now that I’m in my forties I’m realizing I need to start figuring out how to better spend my finite time here and do rather than just dream.  Julian, I wish you the best for you and Olga in 2012, and know that your insights have helped this radio artisan.

So what’s on the roadmap for 2012?

Many more SOTA expeditions and outdoor operating in general.  I’ve been talking for years about doing a spring Appalachian Trail overnight expedition.  Time to just get some friends together and do it.

VHF Contest Mountaintopping.  This goes along with the outdoor operation theme.  Just do it.

Arduino CW Keyer.  I may add more features in 2012, like LCD display support and CW decoding, but I’m probably going to focus my efforts on facilitating community efforts to build complete units.  Oscar, DJ0MY, who has been helpful in suggesting and testing keyer functionality has recently been working on an “open source” design PC board and an enclosure.  Perhaps kitting would be the next logical step.

Build an Az-El satellite antenna array using cheap homebrew yagis and a homebrew Frankenstein rotator setup with my Arduino rotator interface.  That should make the neighbors wonder what I’m doing.

Develop the RadioCubeCache idea further and see where that goes.

Build an Arduino-based automatic antenna tuner.  This one has been on my list for awhile.  Like the keyer I think I can build something as good as commercial offerings and offer it to the community.

Try JT6M, JT65, and all the JT modes.  I think this is going to be the bulk of my home on-the-air time in the new year.

Anyway, thanks for reading and have a Happy New Year!

Imagine…

…if every radio amateur in the world had a QSO today…

…a sunny island beach, a vertical stuck in the sand, a little rig, and 10 meters is open…

…what a radio wave sees bouncing around the globe…

(Post your ‘imagine’ thoughts in the comments below…)

Things I Wish I Knew When I Was a Young Radio Artisan

(This is an updated repost from my previous blog, The K3NG Report.  Occasionally I will repost notable articles that are of a timeless nature.  Reduce, reuse, recycle as they say.)

With antennas, it’s not about the feet and inches (or meters), think in terms of wavelength.

Don’t worry about the orientation of a dipole when it’s less than a half wavelength above ground.

In multi-multi contesting and big gun DXing it’s often more a battle of bank accounts than operator skill.

You’re going to go through several phases in your radio artisan career.  Don’t spend too much money until you’re sure you like the phase you’re in.

Don’t gauge your success by the number of awards you have on the wall.

Your money is better spent initially in antennas than amplifiers.  When you have the best antenna your budget and lot will accommodate, then go for an amplifier.

There are good CBers and bad CBers.  More amateurs than you think got started on CB.

Don’t be nervous.

There are jackasses in amateur radio.  You cannot identify them by license class, age, years licensed, call area, operating mode, education, or income.

When the bands are open any goofy antenna will make contacts.  People will think this makes a goofy little antenna a good antenna.  Not so.

The perception of amateur radio that the general public holds is much different from the perception within amateur radio.  We’re in a strange, esoteric and sometimes archaic hobby that most of the world doesn’t understand.  Welcome to our secret society.

It’s not that extra one or two dB that makes the difference, it’s the first 50 dB that really matters.

Girls actually dig letters written in Morse code while you’re dating.

Save your money and buy a crank up or tilt-down tower.

Six meters.

You can operate anywhere you live, no matter what the restrictions.  About any piece of metal can be loaded up with a tuner.

You buy an HF quad only once.

Low SWR doesn’t mean it’s a good antenna.  Dummy loads have a low SWR.

Don’t get your start on 2 meter repeaters.

It’s not difficult to become a proficient operator.  It’s listening and learning that people often find difficult.  You need to listen to what others who are successful do.

Ladder line.

Homebrew it, even if you’re not some master electronics designer.  When building equipment, don’t worry about not being a EE or building the perfect circuit.  Don’t bother making printed circuit boards, you can build just about anything you want Manhattan style.  Experiment.  You will learn more from your building failures than your successes.

Don’t fall in love with one brand of radio. 

Don’t limit yourself to one mode.

Join a club.  Do what is fun and what you want to do in the club.  As soon as others tell you what you should be doing, it’s time to leave.  When being involved in a club feels more like a chore, get out.  If the club is on life support and you can’t revive it in three years, pull the plug.  Move on.  Don’t look back.

QRP isn’t difficult.  It requires persistence and patience….and knowing when to go QRO or when to QSY.

Life’s too short to argue with enlighten people who say life is too short for QRP.

If you are in a club you don’t like and you want to leave that club to create a new or rival club, list on a piece of paper why you don’t like that club.  This list is why you shouldn’t start a new club.

Don’t do CW because you want to impress others.

Get an ARRL life membership (or whatever your national amateur radio organization is) as soon as you can afford it.  Don’t worry, you will get angry at ARRL at some point, but you’ll save money on the magazine subscription.  (And ARRL is about the only reason amateur radio is still around in the US.)

It’s never what you don’t know that bites you, it’s what you don’t know you don’t know that gets you into trouble.

Walk away when you need to.

In amateur radio do what you like, like what you do.

You’re in a great hobby for life.

Broadband “Weekend at Bernie’s” Continues at FCC

The FCC has released a second Report and Order, affirming its rules for Broadband Over Powerline (BPL).  The document is available here.  It’s quite a lengthy mind-numbing read, but skimming through it, it appears the FCC has rejected changes to its previous findings over the past several years.  Undoubtedly ARRL will have much reporting and analysis over the next few days.  

After eight years of trying to take hold, Internet access BPL has for all intents and purposes become a dead technology, not even being mentioned in recent FCC broadband reports.  The BPL industry has been attempting to make inroads into so-called Smart Grid technology which will upgrade and automate electrical distribution networks.  I haven’t been following this industry closely, but last I had looked they didn’t appear to be having much success.  However the love affair with BPL at the FCC, and the OET in particular, lives on.