Podcasts by VK6FLAB
Amateur radio is a living anachronism. We have this heady mix of ancient and bleeding edge, never more evident than in a digital mode called Automatic Packet Reporting System or APRS. It's an amateur mode that's used all over the place to exchange messages like GPS coordinates, radio balloon and vehicle tracking data, battery voltages, weather station telemetry, text, bulletins and increasingly other information as part of the expanding universe of the Internet Of Things.
There are mechanisms for message priority, point-to-point messages, announcements and when internet connected computers are involved, solutions for mapping, email and other integrations. The International Space Station has an APRS repeater on-board. You'll also find disaster management like fire fighting, earthquake and propagation reporting uses for APRS. There's tools like an SMS gateway that allows you to send SMS via APRS if you're out of mobile range. There's software around that allows you to post to Twitter from APRS. You can even generate APRS packets using your mobile phone.
In my radio travels I'd come across the aprs.fi website many times. It's a place that shows you various devices on the APRS network. You can see vehicles as they move around, radio repeater information, weather, even historic charts of messages, so you can see temperatures over time, or battery voltage, or solar power generation, or whatever the specific APRS device is sending.
As part of my exploration into all things new and exciting I thought I'd start a new adventure with attempting to listen to the APRS repeater on the International Space Station. I'm interested in decoding APRS packets. Seeing what's inside them and what kinds of messages I can hear in my shack. Specifically for the experiment at hand I wanted to hear what the ISS had to say.
After testing some recommended tools and after considerable time hunting I stumbled on multimon-ng. I should mention that it started life as multimon by Tom HB9JNX, which he wrote in 1996. In 2012 Elias Oenal wanted to use multimon to decode from his new RTL-SDR dongle and in the end he patched and brought the code into this century and multimon-ng was born. It's available on Linux, MacOS and Windows and it's under active development.
It's a single command-line tool that takes an audio input and produces a text output and it's a great way to see what's happening under the hood which is precisely what I want when I'm attempting to learn something new.
In this case, my computer was already configured with a radio. I can record what the radio receives from the computer microphone and I can play audio to the radio via the computer speaker. My magical tool, multimon-ng has the ability to record audio and decode it using a whole raft of in-built decoders. For my test I wanted to use the APRS decoder, cunningly disguised as an AFSK1200 de-modulator. I'll get to that in a moment.
The actual process is as simple as tuning your radio in FM mode to the local APRS frequency and telling multimon-ng to listen. Every minute or so you'll see an APRS packet or six turn up on your screen.
The process for the ISS is only slightly different in that the APRS frequency is affected by Doppler shift, so I used gpredict to change the frequency as required; multimon-ng continued to happily decode the audio signal.
I said that I'd get back to AFSK1200. The 1200 represents the speed, 1200 Baud. The AFSK represents Audio Frequency Shift Keying and it's a way to encode digital information by changing the frequency of an audio signal. One way to think of that is having two different tones, one representing a binary zero, the other representing a binary one. Play them over a loud-speaker and you have AFSK. Do that at 1200 Baud and you have AFSK1200.
When you do listen to AFSK and you know what a dial-up modem sounds like, it will come as no surprise that they use the same technique to encode digital information. Might have to dig up an old dial-up modem and hook it up to my radio one of these days.
Speaking of ancient. The hero of our story, APRS, dates back to the early days of microcomputers. The era of the first two computers in my life, the Apple II and the Commodore VIC-20. Bob WB4APR implemented the first ancestor of APRS on an Apple II in 1982. Then in 1984 he used a VIC-20 to report the position and status of horses in a 160km radius using APRS.
As for the International Space Station, the APRS repeater is currently switched off in favour of the cross-band voice repeater, so I'll have to wait a little longer to decode something from space.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
When you join the community of radio amateurs you'll find a passionate group of people who to greater and lesser degree spend their time and energy playing with radios in whatever shape that takes. For some it involves building equipment, for others it means going on a hike and activating a park. Across all walks of life you'll find people who are licensed radio amateurs, each with their own take on what this hobby means.
Within that community it's easy to imagine that you're the centre of the world of radio. You know stuff, you do stuff, you invent stuff. As a community we're a place where people dream up weird and wonderful ideas and set about making them happen.
Radio amateurs have a long association with emergency services. When I joined the hobby over a decade ago one of the sales pitches made to me was that we're ready to be part of emergency communications. In some jurisdictions that's baked into the license.
There was a time when a radio amateur was expected to be ready to jump into a communications gap and render assistance with their station. There are amateur based groups groups like WICEN, the Wireless Institute Civil Emergency Network in Australia, ARES, the Amateur Radio Emergency Service in the United States, RAYNET, the Radio Amateurs' Emergency Network in the United Kingdom, AREDN, the Amateur Radio Emergency Data Network in Germany, DARES, the Dutch Amateur Radio Emergency Service, AREC or Amateur Radio Emergency Communications in New Zealand and EmComms in Trinidad and Tobago to name a few.
Each of those manages their participation in different ways. For example, ARES offers training and certification where AREDN offers software and a how-to guide, in Trinidad and Tobago the Office of Disaster Preparedness Management is actively involved in amateur radio and maintains an active amateur radio station and five repeaters.
In Australia there's a requirement to record and notify authorities if you become aware of a distress signal as a part of your license. In fact in Australia you must immediately cease all transmissions. You must continue to listen on frequency. You must record full details of the distress message, in writing and if possible recorded by tape recorder.
While that scenario can and has happened, it's not common. An amateur station being used to provide an emergency link in the case of catastrophic failure has also happened, but in Australia I'm not sure if that was in my lifetime or not.
My point is that the idea that we're going to put up a critical radio link and be the heart of communications in an emergency is, in Australia at least, not particularly likely. That's not to say that you should ignore that potential, or that it's universally true, but it's to point out that there are other things that you can do with your license that might happen more readily and help your community more.
Outside our amateur community, there's plenty of radio in use as well. The obvious ones are volunteer bush fire brigades, state emergency services and the like. Less obvious might be the local marine rescue group, surf life saving or the local council. Each of those use radios as part of their service delivery and a radio amateur can contribute to that without needing to bring their station along. In fact, if you don't have an amateur license, but want to play radio, that's an excellent place to do it as a volunteer. I should mention that radio procedures are also in use in all manner of other professions, mining, policing, the military and aviation to name a couple, not to forget occupations like tour-guides, ferry operators and pretty much any place where telephones, fixed or mobile are not readily deployed.
Within those areas there are procedures and jargon that you'll need to learn and perhaps even need to be certified for, but you as a radio amateur have several skills that you can bring to the table because you already have a license.
For example, I learnt my phonetic alphabet many years before I ever heard of amateur radio. It was a requirement for my aviation radio ticket which in turn was required before I flew solo. When it came to making my first ever transmission on amateur radio, doing the phonetic thing was second nature, much to the surprise of my fellow trainees at the time. A thank you is due to both Neil VK6BDO, now Silent Key, and Doug VK6DB for making that training happen.
You can apply the skills you bring with you when you join an organisation outside amateur radio who deals with wireless communication in whatever form that takes. For example, just the idea that you know how to pick up a microphone and push the Push To Talk button and speak and let the button go after you're done, a pretty trivial activity in amateur radio, will be something that you have that most of the untrained general public have no idea about.
Amateur radio is a massive hobby. Playing with radio, or doing something serious with it comes in all shapes and sizes. Your amateur experience can help, but be prepared to learn different procedures and methods. The amateur way isn't the only way and it's not the only place where radio is used and sometimes it's good to have a look outside your comfort zone and see what the neighbours are up to.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
For decades I've been playing with every new piece of technology that comes my way. In amateur radio terms that's reflected in, among other things, playing with different antennas, radios, modes and software.
One of the modes I've played with is slow scan television or SSTV. It's an amateur mode that transmits pictures rather than voice over amateur radio.
A couple of months ago a local amateur, Adrian VK6XAM, set-up an SSTV repeater. The way it works is that you tune to the repeater frequency, listen for a while and when the frequency is clear, transmit an image. The repeater will receive your image and re-transmit it. It's an excellent way to test your gear and software, so I played with it and made it all work for me.
In 2012 I was part of a public event where local schools participated in a competition to have the opportunity to ask an astronaut on board the International Space Station a question as part of the City of Light 50th anniversary of John Glenn's first orbit. The event was under the auspices of a group called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station or ARISS, an organisation that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2020.
Assisting with the logistics behind the scenes first hand and the amount of equipment used I'd gained a healthy respect for the complexity involved.
The ISS has several radio amateurs on orbit. Among their on board activities are plenty of amateur radio friendly ones. In addition to ARISS, you'll also find repeaters, voice, packet and other interesting signals if you listen out for them.
In previous years I've made abortive attempts at using my station to listen and transmit to space, with varying degrees of success.
On a regular basis the ISS transmits SSTV using amateur radio. Often you'll find a series of images that commemorate an activity. During the final week of 2020 astronauts on the ISS celebrated 20 years of ARISS by transmitting a series of images on a rotating basis as the ISS orbits the earth.
One of my friends made a throwaway comment about listening to the international space station and decoding slow scan television. I'd heard about this event on various social media outlets but put it in the too hard basket.
Based on what I'd seen during my ARISS event, my own trials, and what local amateurs have been playing with in the way of interesting cross polarised antennas, rotators and the like, I'd decided that this was a long term project, unachievable with my current station.
My station consists of a dual-band vertical antenna for 2m and 70cm on my roof at about 2m above ground level. The radio is my trusty Yaesu FT-857d. Connected to a Debian Linux laptop running three bits of software, rigctld, gpredict and qsstv.
With a high level of apprehension I fired up my station, tuned my radio, updated the orbital information and radio frequencies and waited for the first acquisition of signal from the ISS. Imagine my surprise when a picture started appearing on my screen. It's a lot like the days of 300 baud dial up, getting a picture from some remote computer back in 1985.
With that I managed to receive several of the images by just letting it run for the next couple of days.
I'm glad my friend made their comment, because it spurred me into action to try for myself.
I'll be the first to admit that the image quality isn't broadcast ready, or that I made mistakes, or that I should have started listening at the beginning of the week rather than the last few days, but all that is just noise because I can report that it works and I have the pictures to prove it!
I now have most of the image series, number 2 is missing and I only have part of number 1, but there are some beauties among the 35 images I captured. I've published them on my project website at vk6flab.com, for you to have a look at and use as inspiration for your own seemingly impossible task.
This leaves me wondering what else I can hear from overlying spacecraft using this set-up. What have you heard and what equipment were you using to make that happen? Are there any impossible tasks that you've avoided?
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
The other day I wanted to know what kind of communication was possible between my station and the station of a friend of mine. We want to do some experiments and for that to be possible, we need to have a reliable communication channel.
Traditionally you would get in touch with each other and attempt to find a suitable frequency on a band to make a QSO or contact. That generally involves picking a band, then tuning around the band, finding a frequency that's not in use, then listening, asking if the frequency is in use, then telling your friend via an alternative method where you are, only to have them tell you that they have noise at that particular frequency. You go back and forth a couple of times, finally settle in on a mutually convenient frequency and have a contact whilst keeping note of the signal strength shown on your receiver.
On a good day that will take a few minutes, on a bad day that might take much longer or not work at all.
If you want to do this across multiple bands, you have the fun of doing this whole thing multiple times.
In case you're wondering, I've done this plenty of times and I will confess that it's an interesting combination of joy and frustration in attempting to get the answer to a pretty simple and common question: "Can I talk to my friend?"
In my shack there are plenty of tools, digital multimeters, LC meter, antenna analyser and the like. No doubt you have some or more of those. Perhaps you have an oscilloscope, a vector network analyser, or other gadgets.
None of those are particularly useful tools to solve this particular problem.
On the other hand, you are likely to have a receiver and probably a transmitter. If you're reading or listening to this, you're likely to have a computer as well.
Using a receiver and a computer as a tool to solve this problem might not have occurred to you. It hadn't occurred to me until recently that these are ideally suited for this particular repetitive task.
So, I fired up my copy of WSJT-X and set it to WSPR mode. Changed the band to 2m and set it up to transmit. The other station did the same. Within a couple of minutes the results were coming in. We could both see what the link quality was like between us. Then we changed to 70 cm and did it again. Rinse and repeat for 10m.
As it happens, the other station was receive only and they had to attend to some family activities and I was in my office earning a living, well actually, doing my bookkeeping, but you get the idea, you can do this test while you're doing something else.
I checked in a couple of times to see how it was going when he pointed out that I could see his actual results on the WSPRnet.org website.
I had been looking at the map with mixed results because it had been timing out for most of the day and when it did work, all I could see was that a message was decoded, not how well it was received. Randall VK6WR, the other station, then pointed me at the link to the database which I hadn't seen until then. If you're looking, it's at the top right.
Out pops a list of all the WSPR spots his station reported, and as a bonus, the spots reported by another local amateur.
If you know me at all it will come as no surprise that I used the opportunity to make a chart. Actually I made several, one showing the frequency drift between our stations, one showing the signal strength.
Between the three bands it looks like 2m gives us the best opportunity for experimentation, though 70cm does appear to have some possibilities. Sadly 10m isn't with the antennas currently in the air, but I saw an email the other day with reports of a new vertical at the other end, so we'll have a go at doing the 10m test again in the very near future, perhaps even today.
Right now from the WSPRnet.org website I'm downloading this month's WSPR reports from the Downloads section to see who else saw my signals. No doubt I'll make a chart or six. I'll keep you posted.
I must thank Randall VK6WR for pointing me at the database link on the WSPRnet.org website, because that made propagation and link testing so much more useful and repeatable.
Tools come in all shapes and sizes. What's one that unexpectedly helped you lately?
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Mark Twain is often misquoted in relation to reports about his death, pithy as always, he said: "The report of my death was an exaggeration." Similarly the death of amateur radio has been reported on many different occasions.
Letting amateurs near a Morse key, banning spark-gap transmitters, introducing transistors, integrated circuits, computers, the internet, software defined radio, the list grows as technology evolves. I can imagine our descendants decrying the death of amateur radio with the commodification of quantum computing at some point in the future of humanity.
Yesterday I had an entertaining and instructional play date with a fellow amateur. We discussed countless aspects of our hobby, things like how you'd go about direction finding if you had access to multiple radios and antennas, what characteristics that might have, what you'd need in the way of mathematics, how you'd write software to solve the problem and how you'd go about calibrating such a system. Could you use a local AM broadcast station as a calibration source, or do you need to generate a known signal?
We started talking about how you'd send data across the network so you could have a dozen devices in different locations that you could synchronise and share data. How would you control it, how would you make use of existing standards, were there other tools like this already and what were their limitations.
Then there was the conversation about using spectrum effectively, seeing current digital modes like FT8 and their level of effective use of a 2.5kHz slice of spectrum with 15 second time-slots and the theoretical bandwidth that you might achieve if you used that mode as a data transmission mode.
There was the conversation around how you'd use propagation tools to determine path openings on the higher bands without needing a beacon, just a computer and a radio.
Then we talked about how you'd go about making a simple WSPR beacon, based on a minimum component count and some readily available hardware, rather than a sophisticated transceiver like a PlutoSDR.
There was a discussion around E-class amplifiers and their characteristics and potential pitfalls.
We managed to cover a fair bit of ground in a few hours over our hot beverage of choice, a nice meal for lunch and despite me tripping over the threshold of my front door, banging my head against the wall and rolling my ankle. The head is fine, the ankle not so much.
My point is that the world of amateur radio is never done, it's never finished, there's never an end. There's always more to discover, more to explore, build and investigate.
How on earth could you contemplate that this was a hobby that had no relevance in the world today, let alone that of tomorrow.
I for one am very happy to call myself an amateur and looking forward to discovering what else there is to play with. Why are you an amateur and does this feel like the end or a new beginning every day?
The reports of the death of amateur radio was an exaggeration.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
One of the many vexing issues associated with getting on-air and making noise is actually making that happen.
So, let's look at a completely restricted environment. An apartment building, seven stories off the ground, no ability to make holes, an unsympathetic council, restrictive local home owners association, et cetera, et cetera.
On the face of it your amateur radio hobby is doomed from the start.
In reality, it's only just beginning.
So, to hear HF right now, today, you can go online and listen to a plethora of web-based software defined radios. There's the canonical WebSDR in Twente and a whole host of others using the same or similar software. There's KiwiSDR, AirSpy, Global Tuners, and many more.
This will give you countless radios to play with, coverage across the globe, the ability to compare signals from different receivers at the same time on the same frequency, the ability to decode digital modes, find propagation, learn about how contests are done, the sky's the limit. I'll add that you don't need an amateur license for many of these resources, so if you're considering becoming part of the community of radio amateurs, this is a great way to dip your toe in the water. Think of it as a short-wave listening experience on steroids.
I hear you say, but that's not amateur radio.
To that I say, actually, it is. It's everything except a physical antenna at your shack or the ability to transmit.
Permit me a digression to the higher bands. If you want to listen to local repeaters on UHF and VHF, listen to DMR and Brandmeister, you'll find plenty of online resources as well. You can often use a hand-held radio to connect to a local repeater which can get you onto the global Echolink, IRLP and AllStar networks. Failing that, there's phone apps to make that connection instead.
Of course if you want to expand your repertoire to transmission, beyond a hand-held, you can.
There are online transmitters as well. Many clubs have their club station available for amateurs to use remotely using a tool like Remote Hams. You'll get access to a radio that's able to transmit and you'll be able to make contacts, even do digital modes and contests. You will require an amateur license and access to such a station. Some clubs will require that you pay towards the running of such a service and often you'll need to be a member.
Then there's actually going to the club, you know, physically, going to the club shack and twiddling physical knobs, though for plenty of clubs that's now also a computer since they're adopting software defined radios just like the rest of the community is. Using a radio via a computer can be achieved directly in the shack, but there's no reason to stay on-site. You can often use these radios from the comfort of your own shack.
If you do want to get physical with your own gear, receiving is pretty simple. A radio with a wire attached to it will get you listening to the local environment. I have for example a Raspberry Pi connected to an RTL-SDR dongle that's connected to a wire antenna in my shack. It's listening across the bands 24/7 and reporting on what it hears.
If you want to use an actual transceiver and you don't have the ability to set-up an antenna, kit out your car and go mobile. Failing that, make a go-kit with batteries, which as an aside will stand you in good stead during an emergency. Take your go-kit camping, or climbing, or hiking. Plenty of opportunities to get on-air and make noise.
I hear you asking, what about having an antenna farm?
Well, you can set one up in a farmers paddock and connect to it remotely - you will need permission from the land-owner - there's plenty of amateurs who use their country abode as a remote station.
If you want to make noise at your actual shack, the antenna might be a piece of wire hanging from the balcony after dark, or an antenna clamped to the railing. You can use a magnetic loop inside your house. Some enterprising amateurs have tuned up the gutters in their building, or made a flagpole vertical, or laid a coax antenna on the roof. Have a look for stealth antennas, there's a hundred years of amateurs facing the same problem.
My own station is very minimalist. There's literally a vertical antenna clamped to the steel patio. Using that I'm working the world with 5 Watts, 14,000 km on 10m, no kidding.
Getting on-air and making noise doesn't have to start and finish with a Yagi on a tower. There's plenty of other opportunities to be an active amateur.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Over the past nine and a half years I've been hosting a weekly radio net for new and returning amateurs. Called F-troop, it runs every Saturday morning at 0:00 UTC for an hour. Feel free to join in. The website is at http://ftroop.vk6flab.com.
In making the better part of six thousand contacts during that time I've learnt a few things about how nets work and how there are built-in assumptions about how a contact is made. There are several things that seem universally accepted that are not actually supported by the evidence and repeating them to new amateurs is unhelpful.
For example, there is an assumption that on 2m there is signal reciprocity. By that I mean, what you hear is what the other party hears. On HF, contrary to popular belief, this is also not universally true due to massive power and antenna differences and signal reports on FT8 bear that out - for example, my signal is often reported at least 9 dB weaker than the other station.
The reason that on 2m this isn't the case is because in general there is at least one other transmitter involved, the repeater. If you're joining in via a remote network, either via RF or via the Internet, there are even more times when this isn't true, but let's stay with the simple scenario of a single repeater and two stations.
If I'm using a base-station with a fixed antenna, my connection to the repeater is rock-solid. If you are using a hand-held and you're on the move, your connection to the repeater is anyone's guess. It could be great, it could be poor or even non-existent.
Not only that, the repeater is often using higher power, sometimes much higher. On average the repeaters near me are using 30 Watts, the highest uses four times that, the lowest uses 10 Watts. In contrast, a handheld uses at most 5 Watts, but more likely than not, half that.
Receiving a strong signal on a hand-held is simple, transmitting a weak signal to a repeater is not.
The point is, you might be hearing me as-if I'm sitting next to you, but I might be hearing you on the other end of a really scratchy and poor, intermittent and interrupted link.
If you add other repeaters and links with differing volume or gain settings to the mix, you get the idea that a 2m conversation may in many ways act like a HF contact.
That implies that there are plenty of times when you should use phonetics to spell your callsign and anything else of interest, despite the often repeated assertion that you don't use phonetics on 2m.
Another assumption is that 2m is less formal than HF. The people you talk to on 2m are likely to be local, perhaps people you've met at a HAMfest, face-to-face. You recognise their voice, you know their situation, their station and their habits.
On HF however, you have contact with people across the globe, most of whom you've never met, will never meet, have no idea about, let alone have a relationship with. That's not to say that you cannot have a friend on HF, I have plenty of people whom I speak with on HF, often during a contest, whom I've never met, but whom I speak with regularly on air. I can similarly recognise their voice, their callsign and know what to expect.
The point is that the more you look at the differences between 2m and HF, the more you realise that they are the same. Interestingly, as an aside, a contact on 10m or 15m can on plenty of occasions sound like a strong local FM contact.
My advice is to not think of 2m as a "special" band, but to think of it as an amateur band with a set of conditions. By law you are required to announce your callsign every ten minutes and at the beginning and the end of each contact. Note that this doesn't mean at the beginning and end of each over. In case that doesn't make sense to you, a contact is the whole conversation from start to end. Each time a station transmits during that contact is an over.
You should vary how you identify yourself, using phonetics or not, at the minimum required interval, or on every over, depending on the circumstances, not depending on the band.
Look forward to making contact with you on what ever band. You can get in touch via email, [email protected] is my address and if you're into Morse, this podcast is also available as a Morse-code audio file.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
The other day I was adding an item to my to-do list. The purpose of this list is to keep track of the things in my life that I'm interested in investigating or need to do or get to finish a project. My to-do list is like those of most of my fellow travellers, unending, unrelenting and never completed. As I tick off a completed item, three more get added and the list grows.
Given some spare time and to be honest, who has that, I am just as likely to find an item on my to-do list that was put there yesterday as an item that was put there 10 years ago. Seriously, as I migrate from platform to platform, my to-do list comes with me and it still has items on it that haven't been done in a decade, let alone describe what project it was for.
Of course I could just delete items older than x, but deciding what x should be is a challenge that I'm not yet willing to attack.
Anyway, I was adding an item to the list when I remembered seeing something interesting on the shed wall of a fellow amateur. There were two pieces of printed paper with a list of to-do items on it. Looking pretty much like my to-do list, except for one salient detail.
Each to-do list was for a different project.
At the time I spotted it I smiled quietly to myself and thought, yep, keeping track is getting harder for everyone.
Bubbling away in the back of my mind this notion of a to-do list for a single project kept nagging at me. Yesterday it occurred to me why it was nagging.
If you have a to-do list for every project then once the project is done, the to-do list is done. Not only that, the items on a project to-do list don't really grow in the same way as an unconstrained to-do list does.
It also has a few other benefits.
The sense of satisfaction towards completing a project is amplified as each item is ticked off and ultimately the project is done.
I'm sure that project managers already know this, might even have a name and a process for it. No doubt there are aspects that I've not considered, like for example, the never ending range of projects or the trap of a miscellaneous catch-all project, but I'll cross those bridges when I run into them.
As of right now, this gives me an improvement on my stifling life to-do list and it brings great satisfaction when I can tick off a whole project.
No doubt you've gotten to this point wondering what this has to do with amateur radio?
If it hasn't occurred to you, consider what's involved into setting up a portable power supply for when you activate on a field-day, what you need do to get logging working, what needs to happen to get ready for a contest, what you need to do when you're selecting your next radio, how you're going to prepare for the park activation next week and so-on.
If you have insights into this, feel free to get in touch. [email protected] is my address. Speaking of me, did you know that "Foundations of Amateur Radio" is a weekly podcast and that we're up to episode 285? If you haven't already and you're itching to get your hands on even more content, before episode 1 there was another podcast, "What use is an F-call?"
It has 206 episodes and other than the name and my youthful self, the content is more amateur radio. If I've done everything right there won't be much in the way of overlap in those 491 episodes, other than the same unrelenting quest for new and exciting things to do with Amateur Radio, but then you already knew that.
Now where's my podcast to-do list?
* Tell you about "What use is an F-call?", tick. * Tell you that I'm nearly at 500 episodes, tick. * Finish recording this episode, tick.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
When one WSPR receiver just isn't enough
The other day during a radio play date, highly recommended activity, getting together with friends, playing radio, seeing what you can learn, we were set-up in a park to do some testing. The idea was an extension on something that I've spoken about previously, using WSPR, Weak Signal Propagation Reporter, to test the capabilities of your station.
If you're not familiar with WSPR, it's a tool that uses your radio to receive digital signals from WSPR beacons across the radio spectrum. Your station receives a signal, decodes it and then reports what it heard to a central database. The same software can also be used to turn your station into a beacon, but in our case all we wanted was to receive.
If you leave the software running for a while you can hear stations across many bands all over the globe. You'll be able to learn what signal levels you can hear, in which direction and determine if there are any directions or bands that you can receive better than any other.
We set up this tool in a park using a laptop, a wire antenna and a radio running off a battery. In and of itself this is not particularly remarkable, it's something that has been done on a regular basis all over the globe, and it's something that I've been doing on-and-off for a few years.
What made this adventure different is that we were set-up portable about a kilometre up the road from the shack, whilst leaving the main WSPR receiver running with a permanent antenna.
This gave us two parallel streams of data from two receivers under our control, using different antennas in slightly different conditions, within the same grid-square, for the purpose of directly comparing the data between the two.
Over a couple of hours of data gathering we decoded 186 digital signals, pretty much evenly split between the two receivers. More importantly, the stations we heard were the same stations at the same time which gave us the ability to compare the two decoded signals to each other.
One of the aspects of using WSPR is that it decodes the information sent by a beacon. That information contains the transmitter power, the grid locator and the callsign. After the signal is decoded, the software calculates what the signal to noise ratio was of the information and records that, additionally giving you a distance and direction for each beacon for that particular transmission.
I created a chart that showed what the difference was between the two, plotted against the direction in which we heard the decode. This means that you can compare which antenna can hear what in which direction in direct comparison against the other.
In telling this story another friend pointed out that the same technique could be used to compare a horizontal vs. a vertical antenna, even compare multiple bands at the same time.
It looks like I might have to go and get myself a few more RTL-SDR dongles to do some more testing. If you don't have a spare device, there's also the option of comparing other WSPR stations that share a local grid square, so you can see what other people near you can hear and if you like, use it as an opportunity to investigate what antenna system they're using.
WSPR is a very interesting tool and putting it to use for more than just listening to a band is something that I'd recommend you consider. I've already created a stand-alone raspberry pi project which you can download from GitHub if you're itching to get started.
Thank you to Randall VK6WR for continuing to play and to Colin VK6FITN for expanding on an already excellent idea. If you would like to get in touch, please do, [email protected] is my address.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Radio amateurs like to do new things, celebrate, remember, bring attention to, and overall have fun, any excuse to get on air. One of the things that we as a community do is setup our radios in weird and wonderful places, on boats, near light-houses, on top of mountains, in parks, you name it.
Another thing we do is create special callsigns to mark an occasion, any occasion.
For example, to mark the first time the then Western Australian Chief Scientist, Professor Lyn Beazley was on air she used the callsign VI6PROF.
When Wally VK6YS (SK) went on the air to educate the public about Rotary's End Polio Now campaign, he used VI6POLIO. More recently the Australian Rotarians of Amateur Radio operated VK65PFA, Polio Free Africa. When it's active, you'll find VA3FIRE to remind you of Fire Prevention Week in Canada, the Chinese Radio Amateurs Club operates B0CRA through to B9CRA which you can contact during the first week of May each year as part of the Chinese 5.5 Ham Festival.
We create callsigns for other things too.
Datta VU2DSI commemorates November 30th, the birthday of Indian physicist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose named by the IEEE as one of the fathers of radio science, by operating a special callsign AU2JCB in his honour for a couple of weeks around the end of November.
I mention this because it's not hard to achieve. It's called a "Special Event Callsign" and many if not all amateur licensing authorities have provision for such a callsign. Rules differ from country to country, some say that the callsign must be for something of special significance to the amateur community, others require that it's of national or international significance. In Canada for example, if you're celebrating an anniversary, it must be a minimum of a 25th increment.
Different countries have different formats.
The USA for example issues temporary one by one calls consisting of a letter followed by a digit followed by a letter.
The UK offers GB and a digit followed by two or three letters. There's also "Special" Special Event Stations, which can have a format like GB100RSGB.
In Canada there's a whole system based on what kind of event, what region it's significant to, who's operating it, and so on.
In the Netherlands you can have a normal prefix followed by at most eight characters and an overall maximum length of twelve characters and you can have it for at most a year and only one at a time.
In Germany you can use a standard callsign pattern with a four to seven character suffix, but only for a limited time.
In Australia there's the traditional VI and a digit followed by any number of characters, but remember if you make it massive, getting it in the log is not always easy and using a digital mode like FT8 might not work as expected.
What ever you want to commemorate, celebrate or bring attention to, remember that your callsign is only one part of the process. Consider who's going to actually operate the callsign, if you're going to issue QSL cards, if there are awards or a contest associated with the callsign, if there needs to be a website, if this is a regular thing, or a once-off.
Another thing you need to consider is how you're going to publicise this callsign. There's no point in going to the effort of obtaining a special event callsign with nobody knowing about it, that's the whole point.
No matter which way you jump, there's always a large range of special event callsigns on the air at any one time and making contact with one is often a massive thrill for the person operating the callsign, not to mention the person making the contact.
So, if you have a chance to have a go, I'd encourage you to get on air with a special event callsign and make some noise!
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
The idea of building a crystal radio occurred to me a little while ago. I committed to building one, supplies permitting, before the end of the year. I can report that I now have a crystal radio. It works, as-in, I can hear a local AM broadcast station, and it took a grand total of three components costing a whopping two and a half bucks.
Before I get into it, this isn't glorious AM stereo, or even glorious AM mono, this is scratchy, discernible, unfiltered, temperamental radio, but I built it myself, from scratch and it worked first time.
Before I start describing what I did and how, I'm letting you know in advance that I'm not going to tell you which specific components to buy, since your electronics store is not likely to have the same components which would make it hard for you to figure out what would be a solid alternative if you didn't understand the how and why of it all.
So, disclaimer out of the way, my aim was to build a crystal radio using off the shelf components without needing to steal a razor blade, shave a cat, sharpen a pencil or any number of other weird contraptions. Not that those aren't potentially interesting as life pursuits, though the cats I know might object strongly, I wanted this to be about learning how this thing actually works without distraction.
I set about finding a capacitor and an inductor combination that made a resonant circuit with a frequency range that falls within the AM broadcast band. If you recall, you can make a high-pass filter from either a capacitor or an inductor. Similarly, you can make a low-pass filter from either component. If you line up their characteristics just so, you'll end up with a band-pass filter that lets the AM broadcast band pass through.
Now notice that I said range.
That means that there needs to be something that you can adjust.
In our case you can either adjust the inductor, or the capacitor, technically you could do both. My electronics store doesn't have variable inductors, so I opted for a variable capacitor.
The challenge becomes, which variable capacitor do you select with which inductor?
I used a spreadsheet to show what the bottom and the top range for each capacitor would be if combined with each inductor. This gave me a table showing a couple of combinations that gave me a range of resonance inside the AM band.
The formula you're looking for is the resonant frequency for a parallel LC circuit. Take the inductance and multiply that by the capacitance, then take the square root, multiply it by pi and again by two, then take the inverse and you'll have the resonant frequency. You'll need to pay attention to microhenry vs millihenry, and picofarad vs nanofarad and you'll also need to confirm that you've got kHz, MHz or just Hz out the other end, otherwise you'll end up several orders of magnitude in the wrong spot.
If you do all that, you'll likely end up with a couple combinations of inductor and capacitor that will do what you want.
Then when you head to the electronics store, you'll find that the stock you're looking for is end-of-life and that the colour coding on them isn't right, but if you manage to navigate that swamp, you'll come out the other end with a few parts in your hands.
Final bit you'll need is a diode. It acts as a so-called envelope detector. I'm not getting into it here, I'll leave that for another time, but a Schottky or Germanium diode is likely going to give you the best results for this experiment.
Wiring this contraption is pretty trivial. Start with joining the inductor and capacitor to each other in parallel, they'll act as the LC circuit. You can change the resonance by tweaking the variable capacitor. Then attach a long antenna wire to one end and an earth wire to the other end. Finally, connect the diode and an amplified loudspeaker in series between the LC antenna end and the LC earth end and your radio is done.
For my experiment the loudspeaker has a built-in amplifier, it's an external PC speaker with a power supply. I also had to keep my hand on the antenna to create enough signal - since essentially I'm a large body of water - great for being a surrogate antenna.
The unexpected thrill of hearing a local announcer coming through into my shack from three components lying on my desk was worth the anticipation. Highly recommended.
What are you waiting for?
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
I'm looking at components. Not looking for, looking at. I have them sitting on the bench in front of me. A collection of six variable capacitors and six inductors. There's also a germanium diode, a breadboard, some connecting wires and two connectors.
I don't quite need that many capacitors or inductors and truth be told a breadboard is overkill, but I found myself getting into the spirit of things and for the tiny investment it seems like the thing to get whilst you're dipping your toe into the art of electronic circuit prototyping.
I am noticing something odd whilst I'm looking at these components, a familiar feeling in some ways, butterflies in my stomach. It's the exact same feeling as when I sit at the radio, getting ready to speak into the microphone just as I am starting a weekly radio net, something that I've now done about 480 times, not to mention the times when I did around 1600 interviews or broadcast live to the world, butterflies.
I'm mentioning this because in many ways this is a momentous event, not for the world, not for humanity, not even for the hobby, but for me. It's the first time I'm building a circuit completely from scratch, no pre-made circuit board, no pre-selected components, no building instructions, just me, some resonance formulas and the hope that I've understood what they represent and that the components I selected will do what my calculations say they should.
To make this even less exciting, there's no external power, nothing that's going to go boom or let magic smoke escape, nothing that will break if I get it wrong, but still.
The other day I received an email from Phil, WF3W. We have been exchanging email for a couple of years now. He's a member of the Mt Airy VHF Radio Club in Pennsylvania in the United States.
His email outlined an interesting question. What do new amateurs get excited about in this era of the ubiquitous world wide web? As a hobby we're attracting new members every day. Many of those are coming to the community by way of social media, rather than using things that are more traditionally considered radio like HF DX, making long distance contact using HF radio, rather than exchanging pithy emails or instant messages via the interconnectedness of the globe encompassing behemoth of the Internet.
The answer came easily to me, since last week we had a new amateur, Dave VK6DM who made his very first long distance HF contact between Australia and the United States. His level of excitement was contagious and that's something that I've found happens regularly.
Someone talks about magnetic loop antennas and the next thing six amateurs are building them. One person starts playing with satellites and before you know it YAGIs are being built and people are describing their adventures.
The same is true with my crystal radio. I've talked about it a couple of times and people are digging out their old kits and telling stories about how they grew up with their dad making a crystal radio.
That's what is exciting the new amateurs. The internet is just an excuse to find each other, just like F-troop is an excuse for people to turn on their communications tool of choice at midnight UTC on a Saturday morning to talk about amateur radio for an hour.
My excitement comes from trying new things and just like keying a microphone for the first time, there's this almost visceral experience of anticipation associated with starting.
I'm still working out how I want to build my new toy and how to go about testing to see if it actually works and what to look for if it doesn't. I'm trying hard to resist tooling up with crazy tools like signal generators and oscilloscopes, instead opting to use things I already have, like LC meters and my ears.
I can't wait until I can share how it goes.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Antenna testing in the field.
If you've been around amateur radio for any time at all, you'll know that we spend an awful lot of time talking about antennas. How they work, where to get them, how to build them, how strong they are, how cheap they are, how effective, how resonant, you name it, we have a discussion about it.
It might not be immediately obvious why this is the case. An antenna is an antenna, right?
Well ... no.
Just like the infinite variety of cars on the road, the unending choice of mobile phones, ways to cook an egg and clothes to wear to avoid getting wet, antennas are designed and built for a specific purpose. I've talked at length about these variations, but in summary we can alter the dimensions to alter characteristics like frequency responsiveness, gain, weight, cost and a myriad of other parameters.
If we take a step back and look at two antennas, let's say a vertical and a horizontal dipole, we immediately see that the antennas are physically different, even if they're intended for exactly the same frequency range. Leaving cost and construction aside, how do you compare these two antennas in a meaningful way?
In the past I've suggested that you use a coax switch, a device that allows you to switch between two connectors and feed one or the other into your radio.
If you do this, you can select first one antenna, then the other and listen to their differences. If the difference is large enough, you'll be able to hear and some of the time it's absolutely obvious how they differ. You might find that a station on the other side of the planet is much stronger on one antenna than on the other, or that the noise level on one is much higher than the other. Based on the one measurement you might come to the conclusion that one antenna is "better" than the other.
If you did come to this conclusion, I can almost guarantee that you're wrong.
Why can I say this?
Because one of the aspects of the better antenna is dependent on something that you cannot control, the ionosphere, and it is changing all the time.
I have previously suggested that you listen to your antenna over the length of a day and notice how things change, but that is both time consuming and not very repeatable, nor does it give you anything but a fuzzy warm feeling, rather than an at least passing scientific comparison.
A much more effective way is to set up your station, configure it to monitor WSPR, or Weak Signal Propagation Reporter transmissions using one antenna, for say a week, then doing it again with the other antenna.
If you do this for long enough you can gather actual meaningful data to determine how your antenna performs during different conditions. You can use that knowledge to make more reliable choices when you're attempting to make contact with a rare station, or when it's 2 o'clock in the morning and you're trying to get another multiplier for the current contest.
You don't even have to do anything different and spend little or no money on the testing and data gathering.
You can do this with your normal radio and your computer running WSJT-X, or with a single board computer like a raspberry pi and an external DVB-T tuner, a so-called RTL-SDR dongle, or with an all-in-one ready-made piece of hardware that integrates all of this into a single circuit board.
If you want to get really fancy, you can even use automatic antenna switching to change antennas multiple times an hour and see in real-time what is going on.
You also don't have to wait until you have two antennas to compare. You can do this on a field day when you get together with friends who bring their own contraptions to the party.
If there's any doubt in your mind, you can start with a piece of wire sticking out the back of a dongle. I know, I'm looking at one right now. I've been receiving stations across the planet.
One thing I can guarantee is that the more you do this, the better you'll get a feel for how the bands change over time and how to go about selecting the right antenna for the job at the time.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
Recently I made a commitment to building a crystal radio. That started a fevered discussion with several people who provided many helpful suggestions. This is the first time I'm building a crystal radio and to make things interesting I'm selecting my own components, and circuit diagram. What could possibly go wrong?
Crystal radios have been around for a while. Around 1894 Indian physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose was the first to use a crystal as a radio wave detector, using galena detectors to receive microwaves. He patented this in 1901. The advice I was given sometimes feels like it harks back to 1894, with suggestions of using cats whiskers, razor blades, and any number of other techniques that create the various components to make a so-called simple crystal radio.
At the other end of the scale there were suggestions to go to the local electronics store and buy a kit.
The first suggestions, rebuilding historic radios from parts made of unobtanium would mean many hours of yak shaving, just to get to the point of getting the components, rather than actually building the radio.
I realise that part of the experience is the journey and I'm sure that if my current project gets me hooked I'll look into it, but I really don't want to become that amateur who has a collection of home-brew crystal radios across the ages. Besides, I'm having a look at using my crystal radio as a front end to my software, so I want to keep sight of the radio part of what I'm doing, rather than the building part.
Before you get all hot and bothered, remember, amateur radio is a hobby that means different things to different people and for me I'm currently playing with software and I'm attempting to learn about the electronics principles that form the basis of our hobby.
As I said, the other end of the scale was to get a kit and build that. It has its appeal, but there's little in the way of learning and the construction part of things is pretty much putting together a kit which is something I first did when I constructed an LC meter kit a while ago. So that too doesn't really appeal to me.
Now comes the bit where I tell you what I've done to date.
On the physical side of things, nothing. On the thinking and learning and planning side, lots.
Here's where I'm at.
My current understanding of a crystal radio is that you need to detect the AM wave form of an RF frequency and pipe that into something that makes noise. Traditionally this is done with a crystal earpiece, but I saw someone use powered computer speakers with a built in amplifier, so I'm going to start with that as my first noise maker.
I should also mention that the crystal earpiece was a source of confusion. I thought that the crystal in crystal radio was referring to that one. It's not.
So, back to where I'm at. What do I need?
To start off, I cannot just connect an antenna to a speaker, since it will attempt to make sound for every known frequency, well, at least the ones that the antenna can handle that fit within the response envelope of the speaker and its amplifier. If you want to know what that sounds like, put your finger on the input plug to some powered speakers. Don't turn up the volume too loud, you'll regret it.
So step one is to make a way to only let specific frequencies through. I've previously discussed this. You might know it as a band-pass filter. You can make one using a capacitor and an inductor. If you make the capacitor variable, you can change what frequency passes. This is helpful because you don't want to be decoding more than one radio station at a time.
There are plenty of designs for crystal radios that offer hand wound inductors and home brew capacitors, but I'm not doing this to learn how to build those, I'm doing this because I want to learn how it works. I want to use readily available components from my local electronics store, so I started with building a spreadsheet that shows what the resonant frequency is for a combination of inductors and variable capacitors.
Today I learnt that I also need to pay attention to how wide this is, so I'll be revisiting this.
There are only two more components in my radio, a diode and another capacitor. The diode cuts off half of the information, since if you recall, AM uses two side-bands that are identical. At that point you have a signal that contains both the carrier and the audio signal. You need one last step, filter out the high frequency carrier. I've talked about that too, this is a low-pass filter. You can do this with a capacitor.
So, now we have the bare-bones of a crystal radio, made from four components, an inductor, a variable capacitor, a diode and another capacitor. My next challenge is to figure out what values they have so it will allow me to listen to my local AM radio station and do it using components off the shelf from my electronics store.
One thing I can tell you is that this is precisely why I signed up for this project. I don't want a ready-made radio from a kit and I don't want to have to learn how to chop down a tree in order to make a pencil.
I'll keep you posted. If you have additional reading material you'd like to suggest, feel free to get in touch.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
One of the more fundamental aspects of long distance radio communication is the impact of the ionosphere. Depending on how excited the Sun is, what time of day it is and what frequency you're using at the time will determine if the signal you're trying to hear from the other side of the planet makes it to you or is on its way to a radio amateur on Proxima B who is likely to hear this podcast in just over 4 years from now.
In other words, the ionosphere can act like a mirror to radio waves, or it can be all but invisible.
As luck would have it, this changes all the time. Much like waiting for the local weather bureau for the forecast for tomorrow's field-day, there are several services that provide ionospheric predictions. The Australian Space Weather Service, SWS, is one of those. You might have previously known it as the Ionospheric Prediction Service, but Space is much more buzz-word compliant, so SWS is the go.
If you're not a radio amateur, space weather can impact stuff here on Earth, like the ability to communicate, transfer energy across the electricity grid, use navigation systems and other life-essentials. The SWS offers alerts for aviation and several other non-amateur services.
If you're interested in HF communications, the SWS offers HF prediction tools that allow you to check what frequencies to use to communicate with particular locations using visualisations like the Hourly Area Prediction map.
If you're more of the Do-It-Yourself kind of person, you might be pleasantly surprised that you can have your very own ionospheric monitoring station at home. Not only that, it's probably already in place, configured and ready to go.
If you're using WSJT-X to monitor WSPR transmissions, then you'll have noticed that the screen shows all the stations you've been able to decode and you can scroll back as far as you like to the time when you launched WSJT-X.
If you want to do some analysis on that, copy and paste is an option, but it turns out that there's a handy little document being stored on your computer called ALL_WSPR.TXT that contains the very same data going back to when you installed and launched the first time.
This information represents what stations you heard, at what time and with what level of signal to noise at your shack, not some fancy station in the middle of nowhere with specialist hardware, your actual station, the one you use to talk to your friends, with your antenna, your power supply, the whole thing.
For my own entertainment I've been working on a way to visualise this. I created a map that shows the location every station I've logged, 30,000 of these reports in the past four months. It's interesting to see that I can hear most of the globe from my shack. Notably absent is South America but that is likely a combination of band selection and local noise.
In the meantime I've gone down another rabbit hole in figuring out if I can use an image file to visualise all this without needing fancy software, unless you consider a web-browser and bash fancy.
The idea being that a simple script could take the output from your station and convert that into a map you can see on your browser. In case you're wondering, I'm thinking that a style-sheet attached to a Scalable Vector Graphic or SVG might be just the ticket to showing just how many times I've heard a particular grid-square.
If you have ideas on what else you might do with this data, get in touch.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB
When you start playing with software defined radio, you're likely to begin your journey using something with a display that shows you a lovely waterfall, gives you a way to pick out a frequency, decode it and play it over your speakers all over the house. Likely your first effort involves a local FM radio station. These graphical tools come in many and varied forms available on pretty much anything with a display. Tools like SDR#, cuSDR, fldigi and WSJT-X.
That can be immensely satisfying as an experience.
Underneath the graphics is software that is essentially translating an antenna voltage to a sound, in much the same way as that happens in an analogue radio. There are the parts that get the signal, then they get translated and filtered, translated some more, decoded, and eventually you have sound coming from your speakers.
During the week I caught up with a fellow amateur who pointed me at the work of Andras HA7ILM who for a number of years has been quietly beavering away making various tools in the SDR landscape.
One of those tools has the innocuous name of "csdr", a command-line software defined radio digital signal processor. It started life on November 1st, 2014 and has had many updates and community changes since.
This tool has no graphics, no user interface, nothing visible that you can toggle with a mouse and yet it's one of the coolest tools I've seen in a long time and from a learning perspective, it's everything you might hope for and then some.
Before I explain how it works, I need to tell you about pipes. They're much like water pipes in your home, but in computing they're a tool that allow you to connect two programs together so you can exchange data between them.
One of the ways that you can think of a computer is a tool that transforms one type of information into another. This transformation can be trivial, like say adding up numbers, or it can be complex, like filtering out unwanted information.
The idea is that you take a stream of data and use a pipe to send it to a program that transforms it in some way, then use another pipe into another program and so on, until the original stream of numbers has become what you need them to be, creating a transformation pipeline with a string of programs that sequentially each do a little thing to the data.
That stream of data could be numbers that represent the voltage of the signal at your antenna and the final output could be sound coming from your speaker.
If you were to take that example, you could use one tool that knows how to measure voltage, pipe that to a tool that knows how to convert that into FM and pipe that to a tool that knows how to play audio on your speaker.
Converting something to FM is, in and of itself, a series of steps. It involves taking the raw numbers, extracting the part of the samples that are the station you want to hear, decoding those and converting that into something that is ready to be played on your speakers.
This process is fundamentally different from using a so-called monolithic tool that does everything behind the scenes. The person writing the software has decided what to do, how to do it, in what order and in what way. If you want to do something that the author hadn't thought of, like say listening to a new type of broadcast, you'll be waiting until they update the software.
In another way, this is the difference between making a cake from raw ingredients and buying it up the road at the shops
One final part of the puzzle.
There's nothing preventing you from piping the output of your program to another copy of the same program.
So, if you had a tool that knows how to do the maths behind filters, AM and FM decoding, translating Lower Side Band into Upper Side Band and vice-versa, band filtering, etc., you'd be able to set up individual steps that translate a signal, one step at a time, from raw antenna data into a sound you can hear. You would have all the building blocks for the fancy tools that you are used to.
csdr is such a tool.
For example, it knows how to set the gain of a signal, how to up and down sample, how to shift frequencies, how to decode them, it knows about RTTY, PSK, AM, FM and do about a hundred other things.
So far I've mentioned decoding, but there's nothing stopping you from starting with plain text, piping that into csdr and converting that to a PSK31 audio signal and transmitting that audio on your radio.
To make it even better, because it's so modular, you can look at the math behind what's going on and begin to understand what's happening behind the scenes.
Of all the tools I've found in the past decade, I have to confess, this is the one that has stopped me in my tracks.
Thank you to Randall VK6WR for introducing me to this tool and to Andras HA7ILM for writing it.
I'm Onno VK6FLAB