Opportunity

Maker Faire is a gathering of makers, essentially anyone who builds stuff such robots, electronics, clothes, tools, and equipment.  It’s a very heterogeneous culture of people young and old, and includes do-it-youselfers (DIYs), teachers, engineers, scientists, hackers, and geeks.  Think of Maker Faires as hamfests for makers.  I attended Maker Faire New York City this year, my first Maker Faire.  Think of Maker Faire NYC as the Dayton Hamvention of hamfests.

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Any drive into The City, as we call it around here, is adventurous.  This Faire was located at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) in Queens.  You couldn’t park anywhere near the event, but there were numerous public mass transit options and two offsite parking areas with shuttle buses.  We chose to park at Queens College and take the shuttle in.

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The Faire consisted of mostly outdoor and some indoor exhibits, including ones that are part of NYSCI.  I can’t do this event justice with the pictures I took, but there’s a pretty good slideshow on the Maker Faire site.

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The most popular area, at least judging by the line of people awaiting to enter, was the Radio Shack booth, believe it or not.  They had a build your own drone activity that people seemed to be falling all over themselves to get in.  If only Radio Shack could get lines like this in their stores.

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The coolest contraption in my humble opinion was a toasted cheese sandwich machine.

On the Faire map I was pleased to see an area labeled Amateur Radio.  I donned my baseball cap embroidered with my callsign, normally reserved for the annual Dayton pilgrimage.  The way the map was labeled, I expected to find a whole row of amateur radio stuff.  There was one booth with two pop up canopies, manned by perhaps four hams.  One side of the booth had a portable rig mounted in a plywood enclosure with some accessory boxes, perhaps a digital station.  The other side of the booth had two tables with components and some kids soldering.

I want to be careful not to diminish or criticize the efforts of these amateurs and the organization they represented.  After all, these guys made the effort and had an amateur radio booth (which is more than I can say for other organizations).  But admittedly I was disappointed.  I was really dismayed there weren’t more booths, especially considering the number of amateur radio operators there are in NYC, probably more in a five mile radius than I have in my entire rural county in PA.  This is undoubtedly the largest gathering of people on the east coast who are interested in how things work, how to build things, and they’re smart people.  Wireless for many makers is just a shield that you buy and plop on an Arduino or a USB dongle you plug into a Raspberry Pi.  Amateur radio has so much to offer.

ARRL needs to have an exhibit at this event, in a big way, and not in the fashion they do at Dayton.  There needs to be interactive hands-on displays by enthusiastic high energy amateurs.  Not hardcore contesters or DXers, but amateurs who build stuff and can talk about practical applications that these makers can relate to and integrate into their existing projects and pursuits.  Even CW displays would be interesting for this audience, it just needs to not be presented as a code proficiency course or a rite of passage, but something that is fun.  Retro tech intrigues these people.  Vacuum tubes would be considered cool by many makers, especially if you had some homebrew rigs built on plywood with filaments lit up and some RF meters dancing around or big old speakers crackling with the sounds of code or sideband coming from a direct conversion receiver.  Fox hunts.  This crowd would eat that up.  Make a crystal radio with six components.  There are plenty of high power AM stations in NYC that you can receive on a simple crystal radio.  Kids holding Arrow antennas and listening to a satellite passing over.  There’s just so much that could be done to showcase amateur radio at this and other Maker Faires, and draw people into the hobby.  We’re missing a huge opportunity.  Huge.

This article was originally posted on Radio Artisan.

Dayton 2016

Another year, another Dayton in the history books.  This was my third Hamvention trek, but this year was a bit different for me as I attended with my girlfriend.  She somehow coaxed me into it, despite my concerns she would be bored out of her mind.  However, we both had a great time.

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Happy Hamventioners

I didn’t take as many pictures this year.  At times I felt I could have recycled photos from the last two years and no one would notice.  But there were some new sights to see….

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Mannequintenna? 

 

Yaesu was handing out truckloads of free “Yaesu 60th Anniversary” hats and other logo-adorned swag as usual.  I was tempted to alter a hat to say “Yaesu FT-817 60th Anniversary” as the long-in-the-tooth rig continues to be offered with no modern update in sight.  Ride that pony, Yaesu.  As Jeff KE9V reported, no, the FT-891 is not an 817 replacement.  It’s not an FT-897 replacement, either, so don’t ask.  The FT-817 continues to be the Keith Richards of amateur radio rigs.

 

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Required Equipment in Hara Arena Bathrooms

The Kenwood booth actually had visitors in contrast with last year when there were more tumbleweeds than attendees.  Their newly announced super duper digital VHF/UHF rig undoubtedly attracted inquiries, though shame on their product line management people for not having it ready to sell at Dayton.  In Kenwood’s defense, Yaesu’s new FT-891 wasn’t available for purchase, either.

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When All Else Fails, Make a Daiquiri 

 

The crazy rig-selling train known as Elecraft continues barreling down the track.  As everyone is undoubtedly well aware now, they released the KX2 at the Hamvention.  No, this isn’t an X-rated version of the K2, or two K1s merged together, it’s a smaller KX3 without 6 meters or 2 meter add-on capability.  This rig could have been a Yaesu FT-817 killer if it had VHF and UHF capability and reasonable pricing.  2 meter capability especially would have made sense to include considering this rig has the size and essentially the form factor of an HT.  No doubt Elecraft will sell a ton of these rigs, but then again if they released a new version of the K1 packaged in a 55 gallon drum, they would sell them by the dump truck load.

I question how much longer Elecraft can keep up this sales momentum which I often feel is fueled by unreasonable customer loyalty.  (Full disclosure: I own three Elecraft rigs.)  Last year’s big announcement was the K3S, an improved K3, which teed off new K3 owners. This year’s release was a repackaged KX3.  Elecraft seems to be innovating less and recycling products more.

 

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Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

 

I’m pleased to report there was a robot competition area and a local Makerspace representative booth.  It’s good to see more Maker-oriented vendors and displays, which is really going to be the key to growing amateur radio after our older amateurs go silent key in the next decade.  Hamvention folks, please, keep increasing this type of content.

 

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Mendelson’s Flea Market Tent Family Planning Center

The flea market appeared to be the same size, with many long standing attendees selling the same junk, I mean, classic wares.  I think there were less amplifiers for sale this year.  That’s just a gut feeling, but I seem to recall many more amps last year.  The same goes for rigs.

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No Hamvention report would be complete without mentioning the condition of Hara Arena.  Yes, good old Hara Arena.  This is the final year for Hara.  Seriously.  I’m going on record and predicting it now.  Really.  This is it.  Seriously.  Last year’s announced multi-million dollar renovation plan fell through.  I can’t imagine the facility can continue operating in its ever-worsening condition as it’s become a human safety nightmare that would cause any sane insurance company underwriter to run away screaming like their hair was on fire.  Expect something to happen prior to the next Hamvention, either the occupancy permit being revoked, or the building turning into a pile a rubble on its own or by wrecking ball.  Last year.  Trust me.  That being said, I left late afternoon Saturday sadly waving bye to Hara Arena thinking this may be the last year, like I was losing a dying friend.  But the Hamvention is not Hara Arena, and Hara is not the Hamvention.

National Amateur Radio Equipment Manufacturers Recommendation

Last week the National Amateur Radio Manufacturers’ Association met in Orlando, Florida.  The annual invitation-only event is an industry get-together of major companies that make amateur radio equipment where trends in technology, standards, and the overall direction of amateur radio is discussed.

This year the industry group released an official recommendation regarding amateur radio equipment obsolescence, urging all amateur radio operators to replace all their rigs on an annual basis.  Several manufacturers spoke about the recommendation and the reasoning behind it.

Elecraft spokesman Ed Jabloski advised hams to follow the recommendation due to performance concerns.  “We released the K3S in May 2015 to address the now mediocre performance of the K3.  The K3S, which is nearly a year old, is approaching obsolescence.  We intend on releasing the K3S+ soon in which we improve several key performance metrics by at least a two tenths of a dB.  Amateurs not using this new and modern technology risk their QSOs while using substandard and aging rigs, like the K3.  But also, regardless of new model releases, having new rigs each year will insure that you have the latest and best performance from new components and software.”

Kenwood representatives had a different take on the annual rig replacement recommendation.  “We see it as more of something that gives hams peace of mind.” stated John Finley, of the Kenwood sales and marketing group.  “Take for example the Kenwood TS-590S.  That rig had a RF output power spike bug.  While we have a factory modification to correct the power spike issue, we released the updated TS-590SG which doesn’t have the nasty power spike.  Do you really want to be on the air with a rig with a output power spike problem?  I mean, it’s just very, very risky….very scary.  If you have a TS-590S you really should destroy it and buy a brand new TS-590SG.  And really, do this each year with all your transceivers.  It’s irresponsible to sell old rigs on Ebay.”

Baofeng attended the manufacturer event for the first time this year.  “We already support the annual rig replacement methodology.” noted Alex Taylor, a US Baofeng representative.  “Our rigs tend to last about a year anyway, and getting a new, fresh rig annually is common for our customers.  We’re proud that we have supported the annual rig replacement initiative from day one.”

The recommendation will undoubtedly have radio amateurs scrambling to refresh their hamshacks with new rigs, and may have a positive impact on Dayton Hamvention 2016 vendor sales and attendee numbers.  All manufacturer representatives at the National Amateur Radio Manufacturers’ Association event stated they were ramping up production to be able to support the recommendation and meet the demands of hams.

 

AO-73 Funcube and AO-85 Fox 1 Satellites Collide

In a shocking turn of events in the amateur satellite community, AMSAT-NA is claiming AMSAT-UK steered their AO-73 Funcube satellite into the AMSAT-NA AO-85 Fox 1 bird.  NORAD satellite tracking confirmed at 0200Z a combined debris path consistent with the orbits of both satellites.  Both satellites are silent and assumed totally destroyed.  AMSAT-NA officials in a press conference called the move by AMSAT-UK an “act of war” and promised swift retaliation but wouldn’t give details on the next move.  AMSAT-UK officials taunted AMSAT-NA with several incendiary tweets.

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In other satellite news, North Korea announced their plans to launch the first of many amateur radio satellites.  The satellites were described as being “worthy of Supreme Leader” and will feature outrageously over-modulated audio similar to North Korean state run television so that North Koreans can properly understand each other when communicating through the satellites.

 

The Sub-Hobby

 

It’s often been said that amateur radio is a hobby consisting of many sub-hobbies.  This is true when you consider the different modes we use (like RTTY, CW, PSK), technical endeavors like equipment design and building, special operating techniques like satellite and moonbounce, different bands each with their own characteristics and fans like LF, HF, VHF/UHF, and microwave, and activity based sub-hobbies like contesting and DXing.  It’s multidimensional and there is often overlap between the various sub-hobbies.

Unfortunately there’s a detrimental sub-hobby that’s been around a long time, perhaps as far back as when there was spark and a new mode called CW was emerging.  It’s complaining about what everyone else is doing or how they’re doing it.

I was reminded of this on an unnamed social networking site that starts with the letter F and rhymes with the word crook.  Perhaps you’ve been there.  A poster in an amateur radio group couldn’t make sense out of people sending and receiving CW using computers, and quipped that operating this way was taking the “radio out of radio”.  Never mind that you can’t do this sort of operating without a radio.  The most vocal complainers in amateur radio tend to rant about amateurs who don’t operate CW, so it was ironic that this complaint was about people actually operating CW but not in a way that the poster and others like to do it.  As expected, the discussion was lively with many people lamenting over this operating method, and a lesser few defending it.

Any time I look an amateur radio activity, I ask a few basic questions:

  1. Is someone getting enjoyment out of it?
  2. Is it not harming anyone else and not detracting from anyone’s enjoyment of the hobby?
  3. Does it positively reflect amateur radio, both within the amateur radio community and the general public, or at least not reflect negatively on the hobby?
  4. Is it spectrally and resource efficient, and reasonable from an engineering perspective?
  5. Is it consistent with the spirit and nature of amateur radio?

If you can answer YES to all of these questions, I see no reason to complain about the activity.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years about amateur radio, it’s that if you’re more concerned about what others are doing, and not what you’re doing, and having fun doing it, it’s a sure fire way to be unhappy in amateur radio.

New Heathkit Antenna Offering

The reincarnated Heathkit company has a new product offering, the Pipetenna, a 2 meter and 440 antenna.  Heathkit claims the antenna is stealth and high performance, featuring a colored, rounded end PVC tubing sort of look.  It’s really not that difficult to build a stealth at VHF and UHF frequencies due to the short wavelengths involved.  The specifications of the antenna lists the gain on 2 meters as 6 dBi, which doesn’t scream high performance.  Puzzlingly, no gain figure is listed for 440.

Heathkit proclaims the antenna has multiple patents filed for many inventions in its design and is waterproof, yes waterproof.  I thought all antennas should be waterproof in the first place, or at least not be affected significantly by rain.  To Heathkit’s defense they go on about how it can be used on a ship or by the ocean where there is corrosive saltwater.  But this isn’t a really novel antenna feature.  What is perhaps a truly novel feature is the choice of colors, currently Light Sky Blue and Olive Green, with other colors such as Terracotta and Camouflage Green listed but grayed-out on the order form.

The antenna sports an N connector, with Heathkit citing that it eliminates an impedance bump, presumably when compared to the common UHF connector.  While this is technically true and the N connector is overall a better connector, the impedance bump of a UHF connector at 2 meters and 440 is negligible.  Furthermore, most of the target audience of this product probably have never dealt with an N connector before.  Perhaps more amateurs should become familiar with the N connector, but it’s overkill for this application.

The Pipetenna has me and presumably others scratching their heads, much like their premier offering, a pricey speaker-lacking TRF AM radio kit.  Overall the Pipetenna is heavy on marketing but light on compelling technical reasons to buy, in my opinion.  Amateurs wanting to learn about VHF/UHF antennas who aren’t so interested in a vintage Heathkit experience could better spend their money constructing a ground plane or J pole antenna.

While the new owners of Heathkit undoubtedly need to take baby steps in building what is essentially a new company from the ground up, these initial product offerings are disappointing and somewhat bizarre.  Some people probably have unrealistic expectations of Heathkit bringing back original tube radio kits from decades ago.  It’s not out of the realm of possibilities for Heathkit to release an updated HW-9 QRP rig or some new minimalist handful-of-2N2222s QRP rig.  Even if an “HW-10” design wasn’t significantly improved or a minimalist rig offering wasn’t a great performer, the QRP community, known for its rabid appetite for new rigs, would buy a new HW offering in droves.  Such a rig would be more true to Heathkit’s roots and legacy than the eclectic AM radio product.  The level of marketing is troubling as well.  The products need to speak for themselves and Heathkit needs to build a community of users that extoll the virtues of their products, something Elecraft has masterfully done and assumed the throne once occupied by Heathkit.  I don’t want to be a naysayer and I truly would love to see Heathkit succeed.  I think we all do.

Heathkit Pipetenna is a registered trademark of Heathkit.

This article originally appeared on Radio Artisan.

Answers to Top 10 Amateur Radio Questions on Social Media

With questions omitted:

10. No, that’s not a contest you heard on that WARC band.

9. You should probably study.

8.  Yes, the bands are dead and it’s not your rig/antenna/coax/ears/QTH.

7. Whatever rig/logging program/medication best fits your needs.

6. No, not all young people are lazy.

5.  Yes, that QSL/awards system is a PITA, but you’ll eventually figure it out like we did.

4.  It just is.

3.  Yes, we’ve heard the LIDs on that frequency and, no, you’re not the first person to hear them. Yes, the FCC knows about them, and no, you’re not going to stop them with your crusade/monitoring/recordings/complaints/hand-wringing/prayer group.

2. No one shops at that store anymore. Yes, it sucks and has for several decades. Don’t go to that store.

1. Google.

We Need a Better UHF Connector

The venerable UHF connector was developed in the 1930’s.  It has withstood the test of time and for the most part is a good connector for HF and VHF applications in amateur radio.  It’s fairly inexpensive, has somewhat intuitive assembly, and is mechanically robust.  From an RF perspective it’s not bad at HF and VHF, but despite the UHF name it exhibits an impedance bump at UHF frequencies and is usually avoided for UHF applications.

The UHF connector suffers from two problems, in my opinion.  One is that it’s not weatherproof.  You absolutely, positively should not have a UHF connector outdoors without weatherproofing.  If you do not weatherproof it, you will have water intrusion into the connector and probably into the braid of the coaxial cable.  Weather. Proof. It.  Connectors like the N connector  (a very common connector in commercial RF applications) which sports rubber gaskets on the mating surface and within the body of the connector are weatherproof, although it’s still advisable to use weatherproofing with the N connector.

The second issue is the difficulty in soldering the braid.  The holes in the body of the UHF connector expose the ground braid and you’re supposed to solder through these holes to make a positive connection between the braid and the connector body, and provide mechanical strength and stability.  Some folks pre-tin the ground braid before inserting it into the body, others do not.  You need a high wattage iron to do this properly and the heat required can melt the dielectric in the process.  I think many people don’t solder this well and some avoid doing it at all.

K3LR demonstrated an alternative method of soldering the braid to the PL-259 in this video:

I’ve tried this technique and for the most part it works.  (I prefer to use heat-shrink tubing around the exposed soldered braid.)  However, as you can see from the video it’s not pretty as it requires increasing the diameter of the dielectric with electrical tape, and there is not a snug fit between the connector body and the soldered braid and the coax jacket.  This technique in my opinion does provide a better braid electrical connection than most mere mortals can accomplish using the proper solder hole method, as the connector is intended to be used.

I think a PL-259 connector needs to be designed for this technique.  The body of the connector should have a smaller inner diameter in order to fit the diameter of the RG-213 dielectric.  The outer part of the connector body where the braid is soldered to it could be of a smaller diameter as well and perhaps have a gnarled surface in order to promote better adhesion of the solder.  I would like to see some sort of rubber gasket employed with the threaded sleeve for some weatherproofing, however I can’t think of a good way to implement this without affecting the electrical connectivity to the body.

Unfortunately I’m more a software guy and not very good at fabricating metal parts.  Someone with manufacturing experience could probably design this connector and perhaps make a small fortune.  It’s problem waiting to be solved.

1000

The Radio Artisan group reached a milestone recently, surpassing 1000 members.  While I acknowledge some of these 1000 are undoubtedly inactive or spammer accounts, I consider this an accomplishment after starting this discussion group three years ago.  Originally intended as a support group for my Arduino open source amateur radio projects, I’m hoping to continuing expanding the group into general discussions involving DIY projects involving amateur radio and software code, Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, and open source, and in cutting edge areas such as satellites and DSP.  I’m seeing more discussions in areas like this, especially with using Arduinos to automate shack functions.  My ultimate goal is to have this group continue regardless of my projects or participation.

I’m pleased that I’ve been able to keep the group friendly, civilized and free of mode wars, politics, and other nasties that tend to pollute some amateur radio forums.  There are a lot of smart and creative people from all around the world.  It’s great when we can all share in this great hobby.  (What is a radio artisan?)