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.

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