Sunday, April 26, 2009

Cushcraft R8 assembled (minus radials)

R8 construction was essentially completed today. The radials have been left off for convenience until the final assembly of the tower stack (tower + mast + antenna).

The R8 is a beast when fully assembled - a 9m long droopy ungainly thing when laid out horizontally - a bit like a fish out of water. No doubt it will translate into a being a more majestic looking thing when lofted into the vertical :-)

The assembly went pretty well. The instruction manual organises the assembly process into logical phases/sections. There were a couple of errors in the manual, but nothing serious. These were:

  • An incorrect length given for one of the main radiating elements. It's fairly obvious which element is required though, from its diameter, drilled holes and slotted ends.
  • One jubilee clip is unmentioned in the latter stages of construction, appearing in neither the instructions nor the bill of materials for the step. It does however appear in the requisite diagram (and it's pretty obvious that its required to attach an assembly).

Next steps are to prepare one end of the feedline (LMR-400) and get this connected to the feedpoint on the R8 matching network box. The R8 comes with a small supply of silicone gel to inject into a little plastic boot that covers the connecting PL-259 in order to keep moisture out of the top of the coax.

The tower can also be assembled now (bolted together) in more or less the location for raising it. The mast can be installed in the top section with about 3 foot or more above the top of the tower to achieve the > 8ft above the root apex for an optimum radiation pattern. When the R8 is eventually attached to this, the coax can be strapped with nylon ties down the mast and tower to a level suitable for feeding in under the eaves.

Cushcraft R8 assembly

I've started assembly of a Cushcraft R8 multiband HF antenna.

This will (hopefully) grace the top of the tower once assembled and raised. To begin with though I have the fun of playing with the giant 'Meccano' set that is the kit of parts for constructing the antenna.

The R8 is nicely and neatly delivered packed in an approx. 2m long box. The metal work for radiating elements and radials is more or less loose in the box, with the pre-manufactured matching network box secured in bubble-wrap at one end of the box, and the other small components (nuts and bolts, plates, brackets, etc.) all nicely organised by construction stage and double bagged to survive transport. This latter precaution is just as well as one of the outer bags containing small pieces of hardware was indeed chaffed and holed, presumably through contact with some sharp edges on the radiating element tubes. Otherwise, all these small parts seem to have arrived as they should.

So far, the assembly instructions seem to be very clear, with extra sidebars for cautions (such as "take care not to use the X nut here instead of the Y nut"). The instructions seem to have been carefully considered in light of how people will actually go about practically assembling the antenna - perhaps they had some 'guinea pigs' try it all out and observed the common mistakes along the way.

The only oddity discovered so far is that one radiating element section appears to have a different length to that suggested in the parts manifest and assembly instructions. Otherwise, this element seems to have the correct diameter and pre-drilled hole placement as that expected. Perhaps the antenna design was modified, without an update to the instructions?

Anyway, more assembly of the R8 tomorrow, but so far so good.

Electrical conduit as a mast

Further to the note about masts and the availability, or lack thereof, I now how a 'mast' procured from a local Home Depot.

I was advised that folks use fencing poles as masts, and indeed Home Depot stocks galvanised metal poles in the fencing section. When I mention the purpose however, the Home Depot associate who pointed out the fencing section to me also noted that the electrical section had similar poles used as conduit. Taking a look at these, I noticed that the conduit came in appropriate sizes (2", 1.5" and 1.25") and was more or less the right length for my requirement. So, I picked up a length of 1.5".

Unfortunately, on getting the 1.5" back, I found that it doesn't quite fit in the sleeve of the tower top section. It does fit within the diameter of the sleeve, but annoyingly the sleeve is constructed with a bolt halfway down its length in order to secure the mast. There's a small plate protruding into the sleeve that contains the thread for this bolt which partially obstructs/restricts the sleeve to somewhat less that 1.5". Thus, although the tower documentation (er... flyer) says it accepts 1.5" diameter masts, this would not be possible unless this bolt/plate is removed.

So, I returned to Home Depot and picked up a 1.25" pole of the same length. This does appear to fit in the tower and will be secured with the aforementioned bolt. To my eye, it looks a bit weedy - especially compared to the 2" aluminium mast I brought from the UK - and I'd far rather this was of aluminium construction, rather than galvanised steel. Still, this appears to be my best bet, given all the advice - I guess it is what it is and I'll just get on and use it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tower Assembly

Well, it's time for some more tower assembly at the weekend.

The footing has nicely cured and should be ready to take the load of the tower when it is raised.

Unfortunately some more accurate measurements of the position of the eaves stand-off bracket suggest that I'm going to have to have it slightly further out from the house than originally thought, in order to avoid the ridge shingles on the roof, which extend a little further than my original estimate. The more accurate measurements suggest that I might have the tower displaced 6cm or so off true vertical, given where the footing is now laid! While unfortunate, I don't think it should be too bad (6cm in 700+cm will end up inclining the tower a mere half a degree off vertical which I'm sure can be tolerated). Fingers crossed, anyway.

One other odd discovery during the preparations for assembly of the tower is that you don't seem to be able to source pipes for radio masts too easily in North America. The tower will take a 1.5" diameter mast at the top, which unfortunately disqualifies the rather nice 2" aluminium mast I brought with me from the UK 9 years ago. That mast was procured from one of the UK radio equipment vendors and delivered direct to the door. Looking at the online catalogues for the UK radio stores reveals that they continue to sell aluminium mast in various dimensions. However, trying to find such hardware in North America is a different experience, and the advice from most people is "go to a hardware store and get a length of pipe or a fence post"! So, tomorrow I'm off to do just that - cruise one of the biggest hardware stores in Vancouver for anything that might fit.

One more unexpected job regarding the tower has to do with the stand-off bracket. This is made of fairly chunky galvanised steel (I think). It is designed to fit up under the eaves and be fastened to the soffit boards. On my house, the pitch of the roof there is almost exactly 45 degrees, yet the bracket is delivered with the two arms barely off the horizontal. This seems a little odd considering the purpose, and will require that I find a way to twist the metal neatly to the required angle without otherwise putting it out of shape. I've enlisted the help of my neighbour here (who knows a thing or two about working metal), and certainly I'm not equipped with even a sturdy vice in which to anchor the arms to apply the required twist. Hopefully my neighbour will have some ideas and/or tools to get this sorted out. Once this is the right shape, then the bracket can be installed with 8 lag bolts and should be ready to receive the upper reaches of the tower when raised.

Aside from the tower construction, the antenna needs assembling - and hopefully this too will have a good start tomorrow. The full antenna is 9m long with several traps/resonators along its length. There are also two sets of radials. In all probability, I'll work toward having the entire length (from tower, to mast, to antenna) assembled on the ground - sans extras such as radials and feedline. Then, probably next week, I'll do final checks, install the feedline (and strap it to the mast/tower with nylon ties), attach the radials and rig the tower to be raised with some ropes through eyes in the eaves.

The sheer length of the whole contraption, at around 20m, fairly boggles the mind as something that must be lifted to the vertical in a controlled way and then lifted onto the base plate and secured. Still, this is not a large tower in the grand scheme of things, and presumably good preparation and then enough pairs of hands during the raising will be the keys to getting this up safely and effectively. Fingers crossed (again)!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Radios and computer connectivity

Amateur Radio is a hobby that was founded on innovation and its continuance. Even though ongoing discovery of theory and practice in the use of radio continues thankfully to be important, it is not the be all and end all of what has become a broad church. Having returned to the hobby after a decade and a half its quite curious to see that things have moved on and what have not.

I've already mentioned PSK31, APRS and D-Star as begin 'new' (to me). It's interesting also to note things that have surprised me by not changing very much. Among these are computer-transceiver integration.

The last time I owned a full base station transceiver - a Yaesu 736R, it supported computer tuning via a TTL-level serial CAT interface. Now, I'm just getting to know a new Icom transceiver that includes digital processing as part of the signal path within the radio (i.e. DSP processing). This radio seems to be bristling with computer connectivity at a cursory glance - you can spot a USB port, a RS232 DE9, a CI-V port and even a ethernet socket. With the provision of 'high-speed' connectivity and the DSP internals, you would be forgiven for thinking that the radio could be tightly and directly integrated with a computer for control, digital audio and decoded output of digital signals. Unfortunately, the truth isn't quite (yet) so rosy.

It turns out that each of these connectors has some very specific raison d'etre. For instance, the USB is intended for connecting a keyboard and the RJ45 ethernet is really only for firmware upgrades. What hits me here is that there's a huge opportunity missed for integration that could help drive innovation - the tight coupling of the radio with the computer. Ideally, the radio offers specific hardware for receiving and transmitting various modes on the amateur bands. It also offers appropriate and well-honed ergonomics for operating (including physical knobs, buttons and lights that are designed to strongly support the workflow of finding contacts. The computer, as usual, offers an almost unbounded capability as an organiser, and operating assistant, as well as potentially providing real benefits in the (at least) audio signal path. Properly coupling these two up - the device and the computer - would seem to be the obvious thing to do to maximise all the potential. Yet, I'm surprised to discover how slowly this is happening. I have seen some steps being made in Software Defined Radios (SDRs) and some transceivers with no user controls on the box - intended for exclusive computer control, but looking at my Icom, it seems that only the most basic computer connectivity is supported (the CI-V protocol, and ASCII out for decoded digital modes).

Hopefully, this isn't the sign of a true schism. I'd like to think that the quality Icom radios, maintaining their excellent control ergonomics can 'grow' the remaining connectivity to be used in new highly-flexible ways with a computer. In many cases, surely this is mostly a case of firmware enhancements (unless the current firmware is already filling the available flash PROM).

I'm sure full SDR's will gain increasing acceptance with a new generation of operators, so long as their radio componentry and overall quality can match that of the traditional products, but it will be a shame (opportunity lost) if we can't have the best of both worlds - particularly with many radios now having so much internal DSP power as a fundamental part of their design.

I'd certainly love to see Icom provide control and audio data supported via the ethernet port on the radio. The 'protocol' could remain very simple - especially for control, with this perhaps being no more than the existing CI-V protocol available via a Telnet/SSH service hosted by the radio. An audio interface may require something a little more, and maybe open UDP ports for audio out/in, but surely this too isn't beyond the wit of Icom.

Friday, April 17, 2009

VX-8R charging again


I left the tuned to the APRS beacon frequency for most of the afternoon, with its occasional beacon Tx turned on. For APRS you need to turn off the Rx power saver feature (so that sections of packet transmissions are not lost when the receiver circuitry is temporarily cycled off).

At 6:30pm just as I was leaving for the North Shore Amateur Radio Club meeting, the mini-meter on the main display showed full bars. When I got back at 10pm, the radio was apparently off. The radio is supposed to draw 240mA on dual receive mode (as it was). I had the volume turned right down, so I can only imagine this cut the current requirement somewhat. The standard battery is nominally 1100mAh, so I would probably expect to get over 4.6 hours of use in this mode, which I think I did quite easily.

From its supposedly depleted state, I placed the radio on the fast charger and it immediately turned back on. The charger also indicated that it was charging the battery (solid red light). By 2am, the radio was fully charged (according to the steady green light on the charger), so I turned off the radio for the night.

So far then, no repeat of the odd refusal to fast-charge problem I experienced. Maybe the battery is 'normalising'.
Tomorrow I will try operating the radio from its base (which I think is the condition it was in on the occasion that the battery ran down and refused to charge in the fast-charger). It it goes a day or so in use like that, I'll be more inclined to the belief that the bad experience was an aberration and move on!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

VX-8R charging strangeness

Had a strange experience with my new VX-8R yesterday.
The radio was set in its 'fast charger' cradle, but when I went to use it the battery was dead.

I took the radio off the charger and plugged the power adaptor directly into the DC socket on the side of the radio instead. Charging this way causes the VX-8R to show a power bar on the display, and sure enough there were no bars. Leaving the battery to charge through the radio's charging circuit had it back up to full capacity within 3 or 4 hours. This came as something of a relief as it suggests the radio is OK, and so too (probably) the battery. I ran the radio enough to drop the battery EMF by a half volt or so, then put the whole radio back on the charger. After about an hour on the fast charger, the red light was blinking with about a 50% duty cycle and the battery was quite warm to touch. Checking the battery voltage showed 8.2V, the same as the full charge through the radio. I replaced the radio on the fast charger, and after only a few minutes, the red light duty cycle dropped and then (gradually) the green "charged" light illuminated.

So this last behaviour could be construed as normal, but I still wonder:
- Why was the battery dead when the radio was left on the charger in the first instance?
- Why did the uninterrupted fast charge never quite reach 'green' (charged) until I temporarily removed the battery from the charger then replaced it?

Clearly, the radio is working (the the fast charger charges the battery directly anyway). The fast charger is providing a charging current capable of charging the battery at least from some parts of its charge regime (mostly charged). Perhaps there is some odd tolerance mismatch between the this fast charger and this brand new lithium ion battery that prevents the charger from successfully charging it from a mostly depleted condition?

I'm wondering if I left the radio on when it failed to charge on its charger, but then (and assuming it doesn't charge when being concurrently lightly loaded by the radio - which I'm not sure about) wouldn't the radio switch off automatically when the battery charge crossed some lower threshold and wouldn't it begin charging at the full rate at this point? When I found it completely depleted, it failed to turn on at all.

The 'manual' (single side of paper) that came with the charger, and the full radio manual give no clues as to what might be up here, providing only the sketchiest and 'obvious' description of how the battery can be charged. There's not even any mention of the flashing red 'charging' light which seems to illuminate steady when the battery is being charged at the full rate, and then flashes (with a reducing duty) as the battery nears its fully charged condition. Only "red" and "green" are mentioned.

I guess more experimentation will be needed before I can confidently say whether I've experienced a chronic problem with some component(s), or whether this was just some aberration due to odd dynamics of a brand new battery.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tower Footing Laid

I laid the concrete footing for the tower on Easter Monday, so I have started checking some of the To Do's off the list!
The ground was pretty rock hard where the tower needs to be placed - which I assume is a mixture of the mountain (bedrock) being just a few feet down and perhaps the odd bit of hardcore left over from when the house was built/extended. I decided I didn't need to go overboard with the float, so it's only about 3' long x 2' wide x 1'6" deep.

Even though the scale of the footing was hardly anything to write home about, not being the kind of guy whole engages in too many construction projects it still gave me plenty to ponder, check and recheck. Where to position the base laterally? How to determine the distance from the wall (given the stand-off bracket to be assembled 2 storeys up at the eaves)? Luckily, I believe the project doesn't require millimetre precision, as there's a long rise of tower and some tolerance for small misalignment. Nevertheless, a mistake will be costly in time and materials (to say nothing of frustration). So, time will tell, but hopefully nothings too pear-shaped just yet!

One of the things I've never done before is mount anchor bolts into concrete. I was advised to try to find a kind of bolt used to create formers for concrete called a ready-bolt. The local hardware store had none however, so instead I decided to risk a 6" long heavy duty coach bolt. I'm assuming that nicely cured, well mixed concrete ought to hold a regular bolt of this kind with enough buried length for good adhesion, with the head providing enough of an additional anchor to prevent turning. Again, time will tell.
A practical problem was how to embed the bolts in fresh concrete at the correct positions for mating with the tower base. Eventually I suspended the base over the pit, with the bolts loosely fastened with nuts through the base plate, dangling into pit at the correct location. Then I partially filled the pit with concrete to about halfway up the bolts and left the concrete for about 30 minutes to set just enough to offer some support to the bolts. Then I carefully unbolted and removed the base plate and with better access then proceeded to complete the footing and level it with a slightly wetter mix. This approach seems to have worked - at least the concrete is now nicely curing with the bolts looking just right.

I should probable leave the concrete to cure as much as possible before attempting to properly bolt down the base (maybe a week). In the meantime, the important business of assembling the entire tower, complete with the connecting mast, antenna and its feed line needs a bit of planning.

The next independent step will be to attach the stand-off bracket to the eaves right under the roof apex, and also to install a couple of rings to the wall under the eaves though which rope can be passed to help steady the tower (and maybe take a little load) when it comes time to raise it.

I had wondered earlier when considering this project whether the tower could be constructed from the bottom up, section by section, and then finally the mast and antenna added at the top. The challenge of taking a 9 meter antenna up a three storey high ladder, then transferring it to the top of a tower that is meters above seems however a little too great. The only practical alternative is to assemble the whole shooting match on the ground and then rotate the whole thing up to the vertical and manhandle it into position on the base before making firm the attachment to the stand-off bracket under the eaves.

To be safe, that operation will require a many pairs of strong hands, and a way to temporarily anchor the bottom of the tower to a spot on the ground so it doesn't lift when the fulcrum (the burley guys pushing the tower up) moves past the centre of gravity. Hopefully, with the addition of ropes passed through the high rings for added stability and some additional leverage, the tower can be lofted to the vertical without incident. Anyway, that's the current plan, but having never erected a tower before this is all by nature of invention than of experience!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Setting up HF

My station's HF capability is in the making, but rather requires that I set up a decent antenna before I can get operating. Everything about HF is "in the large" when compared to the basic requirements for getting going on VHF - for which my VX-8R is already serving well for the simple task of getting into repeaters and digipeaters.

In the UK I had a 6m/2m/70cm vertical which was compact enough to be securely installed with two stand-off brackets anchored into the brick (yeah, I used to have a house made of brick like most in the UK - these days it's made of dead trees).

No such simplicity is going to work now - both due to the sheer size of the HF vertical I'm planning to erect, and the structural integrity of the building material. Rather, a light-weight tower will be installed up the 3 storeys to the roof apex, with a bracket at the eaves. While this isn't a large tower installation in the grand scheme of things, it will be the largest antenna installation I've made, and hoisting it will be a challenge requiring a bit of forward planning as well as a lot of care and attention while handling a length of metal (including antenna) circa 17m in total length!

The first order of the day will be to build something of a footing for the tower base to rest on. This will also need to include some anchoring rods through the cement/concrete of the footing that will anchor the tower base. Once this is set, the tower can be assembled with the antenna attached and carefully hoisted into place with the help of a few extra pairs of hands.

The plan for stage 1 - the setting of the base is as follows:

  1. Prepare work area
  2. Raise ladder to roof apex and install a pair of strong rings under the eaves near the apex.
  3. Install a small ring/hook on the centreline near the apex and run a plumbline down to just above ground level.
  4. Plan a footing relative to the plumbline (bearing in mind stand-off/clearance at the eaves/roof apex for the upper part of the tower)
  5. Dig a sufficiently large footing trench, and place bars through the trench, including the vertical threaded ones that should present themselves through the top of the tower base plate, and in the correct triangular configuration. The tower should present one edge of the triangle section parallel to the wall.
  6. Mix sufficient cement and fill trench.
  7. Ensure level and correct positioning of bars. Recheck as cement hardens.
  8. Once cement is hardened, install base plate and secure with bolts on threaded bars.

Getting past this to stage 2 will be definite progress!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

APRS - a mitigation of my disappointment about amateur packet radio

I've already noted how I was surprised and disappointed to find that packet radio has apparently withered on the vine in amateur radio - perhaps the victim of the limited availability and convenience of transceivers with UHF bands above 70cms, or maybe other reasons why broader-band approaches can't be practically deployed in order to meaningfully increase the data rate. It looks like D-Star is available on 23cm in a solution from Icom, but I'm not sure yet if this is anything like the 'open' packet I used to enjoy tinkering with - it looks more like a closed system (to all intents and purposes), even ignoring the unfortunate use of AMBE.

My initial disappointment has been tempered however by the discovery that since I've 'been away' a system called APRS has been maturing and making excellent use of the otherwise paltry bandwidth of 1200 bps packet.

Back in the early-to-mid-nineties when I was last active, I remember that people were experimenting with internet (in its general meaning) gateways. The internet per se had yet to become ubiquitous, but some lucky folks, for instance at academic institutions, had access to the high-speed wired network over decent-speed leased lines, and local hams were experimenting. If you could construct a valid path for your connection, then even back then you could do some interesting things with some of the bridges that were in place between packet nodes around the world.

Part of the problem with AX25 'back then' was dynamic routing. You might know your destination address, but you couldn't reliably automatically route packets to it IIRC. Part of the issue here was the typical number of hops involved (each with potential issues of reliability), and the lack of a fast and also reliable means to propagate network metadata (e.g. active nodes with their lists of reachable adjacent nodes). The notion of geo-locality and therefore likely repeater paths was also missing.

While I'm still only beginning to learn about APRS, it seems that it solves most of these problems using the high-speed internet backbone for end-user message propagation and network metadata. Like other amateur amalgams of internet facilities with radio (e.g. IRLP), the internet provides a super-fast global conduit for network maintenance and administration as well as long-haul transmission, leaving the user access points using radio as the transmission medium. This reminds me a little bit of my daughter's comment "Why do you need radio Dad, when you have the internet?"... but of course she's missing certain aspects of the point ;-)

For somebody stuck in a time-warp regarding packet radio for 14 or so years, messaging across APRS seems like magic. I recently signed up with as a nice portal through which to begin playing with the technology, and part of the sign-up in order to use certain features requires the validation of your call sign via radio. This entails the sending of an automatically generated key back to the openaprs system. To my amazement it took me much longer to type the dozen or so characters of the key into the radio than it did to send and receive an acknowledgement over the APRS network.

What I've yet to understand about APRS is whether the infrastructure allows me to make point-to-point connections across the network - essentially tunneling a normal AX25 connection. That will be the subject of some research in due course.

Yaesu VX-8R

A Yaesu VX-8R recently appeared in my shack ;-)

This little rig is fairly packed with features to explore. As well as 6m, 2m and 70cm transmit bands, the radio supports ARPS with automatic positioning provided with an optional GPS unit. The ARPS features were one of the main attractions for me.

I'll detail some of my learning curve on APRS in another entry, but for now, I'll highlight some early thoughts about this radio, mostly of a very general nature.

In common with most of my experience (though until now, this has been almost exclusively Yaesu), the control interface is exceptionally busy. Of course, with a rig that is this diminutive, and offering so many features, there have to be some tradeoffs. The display is a reasonable size and quite readable when the backlight is on, but the keypad is awash with labels - each key is overloaded with functions that depend on current modes/settings and whether the function is 'shifted' with the 'second function' key.

The nature of this kind of interface is that it isn't particularly intuitive. Perhaps if you have been 'trained' on other similar radios from the same manufacturer, then some of the labeling will be consistent. However, if you are new to the radio, keeping the manual close to hand so you can refer to it when accessing features for the first few times is probably essential.

None of this is unusual, of course, if you have had any experience with radios, but personally I think things need to evolve here and while manufacturers engage somewhat in a game of bundling ever more features into a product while maintaining a certain price point my opinion is that it's high time they started thinking more about the interface. Even if this initially adds something to the cost of radio, it would be worth having as far as I am concerned.

On a related note, another personal annoyance with the smaller radios is that few support any kind of computer connectivity. Inside most radios today is a digital controller, and the cost of adding a mini-USB port and a control protocol is pretty minimal in the grand scheme of things. The VX-8R supports bluetooth (for headsets) with an optional daughter card, and perhaps this could also have served as a serial interface for just such a purpose. With a CAT interface, and particularly one that supported a standard interconnect such as USB or bluetooth, we might reduce the pressure to come up with a more expensive control interface on the radio itself - which could remain the somewhat baroque if you only needed to use it for common operations. Perhaps then, when I'm at home, I would normally drive the radio's controls from my desktop. When I'm away from home, I might have the option of using a laptop, or even an iPhone or other device.

Leaving aside that pet-peeve, which I've probably gone on about for too long now, the VX-8R does have a relatively consistent menu/control screen structure once you've learnt which keys get you into a function and which keys navigate about the editable fields on a screen. Again, the navigation keys are not obviously labeled as such (the "Band" key moves left, and the "Mode" key moves right for instance!), but otherwise the actual editing of values and text is relatively painless (though still not at the level of usability as even the average cell phone).

Yaesu have 'set mode' concept - a linearly numbered list of parameters covering the radios feature set. There's a set mode for the main radio features, and a separate one for the APRS features. This seems to work quite nicely for the current volume of features in the radio as there is just one place to go to change a setting parameter (or preference), and the manual provides a quick reference to each numbered setting. Certainly, most of the actual work configuring the radio is straightforward with this system.

Basic navigation of the radio functions, such as switching between the two active frequencies, setting frequencies and initiating scanning are all easy to use. I like the button/lights arrangement that the VX-8R has to both switch between monitored frequencies and monitor when the squelch is open or the radio is transmitting (useful for the digital functionality).

So far, configuring the radio is about all I have done, and I'll have other notes as I get more experience operating it.

One final comment of a general nature concerning features in the VX-8R. It's both amusing and a little irritating to find features that are completely proprietary and restricted to the manufacturer (or indeed only a small subset of their radios). The VX-8R has a number of these features:

  • The WIRES internet repeater system.
  • The "Message Feature" er. feature. This only works on the VX-8R, VX-3R and FTM-10R/SR radios, says the manual.

I'm a big fan of open standards, and while these often originate as the innovation of a single vendor, I feel that companies like Yaesu would do better to choose existing/emerging technologies and then use their expertise and research dollars to extend and improve these (preferably as a collaborative effort with the community of users). Of course, the temptation to try to make money by packaging up a solution they maintain control over is just too great! At this point, I don't know how prevalent the WIRES system is, but it seems that IRLP has become quite popular.

Some observations and plans

Getting back into something after a long absence is an interesting experience. The very familiar is mixed with the forgotten and with the brand new. Amateur Radio encompasses a range of knowledge and skill. Some is immutable (the laws of physics!). Some subject to times and places (regulations and procedure). Some is just good practice and courtesy. Its a very broad church, and there's plenty to interest whether you have more technical or more social leanings.

Given that my earliest passion in amateur radio was packet, I have quickly set about learning how much progress packet/digital has made in 14 or so years. That was somewhat disappointing. Here's the good, bad and indifferent:

  • Regular packet technology in the amateur bands has hardly evolved at all.

    • The speed is still mostly 1200, with only a little 9600 and nothing really faster.
    • Packet is still to all intents and purposes locked into the 2m and 70cm bands, with the attendant challenges on bandwidth/speed. There has been no real push to a higher frequency to better accommodate high-speed comms.
    • AX.25 is still prevalent. TCP/IP is still around, but only as much as it ever was 14 years ago it seems, which is hardly at all!

  • APRS has created a nice worldwide packet service with real utility.

    • APRS is quite exciting as a service and is fun to use.
    • It's still slow though.

  • D-Star has arrived! This looks very promising as a digital technology for the amateur community. But...

    • It uses some proprietary technology for digital voice encoding (ouch!)
    • It is not exactly ubiquitous, having yet to be adopted by some of the big radio manufacturers
    • It is still mostly available on 2m and 70cm radios and frequencies, rather than being offered as a high-speed mode on a higher UHF band. Maybe this is in the works. [UPDATE: I see that Icom offer the ID-1 on 23cm, but apparently it's a tad expensive!]

  • PSK31 has taken off on HF. This looks like a really interesting text message mode for long distance and one that I'm sure to look into closely.

Modern backbone high-speed digital comms (the internet) has augmented amateur services in very interesting ways. For instance:

  • APRS can marshal packets on and off the internet for high-speed routing and delivery world-wide. Very sweet!
  • IRLP links repeaters around the world by VOIP on the internet. This allows DX'ing with your VHF rig at any time!

Other observations:

  • Computer connectivity is still poor with most radios

    • CAT interfaces are still mostly RS232 based or proprietary systems requiring the purchase of an adaptor. Whither USB?
    • Few mobile and handheld radios support computer control

  • Most radios' panel UIs and operation remains pretty awful IMO. As manufacturers pack ever more features into their shrinking radios, the operator interfaces are getting ever more tortured. Some are worse than others, but many models could do with a rethinking in terms of their control ergonomics.

So, a fair amount has changed in 14 years, but things I expected to improve in leaps and bounds (i.e. packet modes) have not.
My agenda for experimentation:

  1. APRS
  2. IRLP
  3. PSK31 as soon as I have my HF installation working

Besides these new-fangled things I have a feeling that I'll be enjoying good old SSB on HF this time around - with some new equipment and if I'm lucky perhaps some sun spots will even start appearing soon ;-)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

VA7LWE calling...

Here's a blog on the subject of Amateur Radio and my experiences getting back into the hobby after some years... mmm, OK about 14 years!

First a retrospective about how I got into the hobby in the first place.

I was about 12 when my family returned to the UK from living abroad for a number of years. These are formative years, but I already knew that I was hooked on science and particularly technology at that point. I read and re-read my encyclopaedias and poured over copies and 'annuals' of the children's science magazines that my parents bought for me. I sat glued to the BBC TV programme "Tomorrow's World" each week to revel in how quickly the world was changing with the apparent unlimited opportunities that new technology would bring. It was a brave new decade (the 80's!) and I was part of a new wave - microcomputers, Prestel and dial-up information systems, video recorders, microwaves and CB! If it was technological and it offered me ways to do new things that the previous generation had only dreamed of - then I wanted to be a part of it!

My father would occasionally bring home cool 'toys' that had become defunct at work - mechanical adding machines, calculators with neon orange gas discharge displays, and from business trips to Japan came other bounty - sleek PLL tuned scanner radios and other electronic toys. All of these paled compared to the microcomputer revolution that broke in the UK at this time, and it wasn't long until I persuaded my parents to loan me the money to buy my first computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

While getting hooked on computing, from which I would forge a career, I was also fascinated by communications technology. The simplest way to experience 2-way radio as a teenager in 1981 was to join all the excitement around the newly legalised CB radio. Somehow I acquired a rig and to begin with set up a mobile antenna on an upside-down biscuit tin on a flat roof beneath my bedroom window! CB offered only limited satisfaction in terms of learning the technical aspects of radio - though the fact that the UK offered both a HF and UHF band for CB introduced some interest as these frequencies had noticeably different characteristics.

My CB went with me into student digs when I moved out, though it had become rather unused due in equal measure to my focus on computing and also the fact that the average quality of CB operators had really taken a nosedive. Radio dropped off the list of interests for a while, until one of my house mates revealed that he had obtained his UK Class B license and was running a packet radio station. For me, the demo was electric. It combined the heady mix of technologies that we now take for granted - the computer as a communication device and information terminal; a gateway to the world. This was well before the web of course. The internet was largely available only in academic environments and even dial-up access to information services like AOL was brand new (old-style BBS' were still in abundance). Suddenly, here was an 'always on' digital communication system that allowed its users to exchange mail and other data country-wide (and even further abroad with various tricks). In short... I had to have me one!

I took my City and Guilds Radio Amateur's Exam (RAE) in 1990, and was licensed with my own Class B call sign (G7JIB) within days of receiving my certificate in the mail. While having a good chat on the radio was an occasional pleasure, my passion was digital comms, and that meant I was almost exclusively interested in packet on VHF. At the time, a Class A license was only attainable with a morse qualification, and while I perceived this as an interesting challenge (and the prize of HF was somewhat alluring) it paled compared to the draw of packet.

As the nineties rolled by, we moved house, my career took off (with attendant international travel), and my family 'grew'.
Playing radio dropped off the agenda in the maelstrom of activity. My PC also grew new powers, thanks to the arrival of channel bundled ISDN. Email as we know it appeared, and the web was born. Computers were becoming 'always connected' and were implicitly communications devices, in the same way that had grabbed my interest years before with packet radio.

Wind the clock forward to 2009, and its almost 10 ten years since we moved to Vancouver Canada. I had moved here because of my job, and everyone knows that many qualifications are going to be unrecognised whenever relocating internationally. Thus, I retook my driving test - but my ham license just wasn't in the category of priority things to 'convert' to Canadian 'currency' (and besides I was a little narked at having to do this at all!). However, with a little more time on my hands I was going through some old equipment and found an old radio: a Yaesu VX-1 miniature handheld transceiver. I turned it on and heard some interesting local chatter on a 2m repeater, but it occurred to me that I had no right to join in! That simple thought, perhaps indignation(!), ignited a desire to get relicensed and led to a weekend of research into the Canadian rules and exams. Industry Canada provide a rather nice downloadable test application that allow you to test your mettle against 'real' exams (the questions all being drawn from a standard published pool).

A few runs through the exam provided sufficient confidence that the Canadian qualification was attainable with a bit of technical polish here and there, plus some reading up on the local regulations. The question of how to sit the exams was answered quickly by the outgoing BC and Yukon regional director of RAC, Ed Frazer. The local club (North Shore Amateur Radio Club) had two accredited examiners and one of them Adam Farsen replied to my email within minutes. Thanks to Adam, I was at his home taking my exams within a few days, and my new Canadian call sign VA7LWE was issued a week later.

So, I'm back in the saddle. I can already see the hobby has changed in the last 14 years and my adventures (or at least some of them) in catching up will be recorded here.