The highly publicized event — the event of the month — went off with a bang! On Jan. 28th, the Nashua Area Radio Club paid a visit to MakeIt Labs to promote Amateur Radio with maker folks. It’s a natural union, if you think about. Technologists/scientists/engineers/self-taught DIY’sters and amateur radio folk are essentially one in the same beast. So why shouldn’t they be interested?
The idea was to set up the every-popular GOTA station, but also demonstrations of other amateur radio technology to hook the masses with. As a result, we had Fred’s digital amateur TV station, a table-top satellite station, and Mike Struzik brought along his homebrewed BitX20 transceiver complete with plans, schematics, and a demo keyer. (Talk to Mike for further details/websites. He’s awesome about answering questions and exposing people to what they need to do to get started.)
We spent a solid 6-7 hours at the facility, even roping in some new interest from folks who happened to see our advertisements for the event both online and in stores/businesses around Nashua. It’s clear that word is spreading about the work that the Nashua Area Radio Club is trying to do; we are engendering interest slowly, but steadily. Essentially, the trend is upwards.
We hope that down the road, we can enjoy a lasting partnership with MakeIt Labs and encourage more members of our club to drop in, see the facility, hang-out for a bit, and explain to new folks about how this hobby is damn close to one of the best hobbies out there!
So, until next time, and until my next posting (and hopefully that one will be a bit witty’er — didn’t have enough coffee today), make sure you eat, sleep, “repeat”! (That’s what my t-shirt says that my wife bought me)
Every so often, I drive Fred’s truck into work and people ask me what that big antenna on the back of the truck is for. I explain to them that it is for Ham Radio. But the reply is usually, why ham radio – isn’t that outdated technology? We have cell phones and IM, etc…what do we need Ham Radio for? So I thought I would put down my thoughts as a relatively new Ham about why I enjoy spending so much of my time with Ham Radio.
The number one reason we still need Ham Radio along with all the other technology we now have is for public service. When there is a disaster and cell phones, television, etc are all not working, Ham Radio operators provide the critical communication.
Ham Radio operators help locally to keep hospitals and first responders in contact with each other to help those affected by the disaster.
Hams also use our ability to communicate around the world on HF bands to help family members around the world to get in touch with loved ones affected by a disaster.
Ham Radio operators have been on the scene helping in every disaster from the earthquakes in Nepal to the recent flooding in California.
Technology and the Maker Movement
I only became a Ham 5 years ago but many of my fellow Ham Radio operators got their license when they were in their early teens and used what they learned to launch their careers. Many have had very successful careers in STEM fields, all launched by their interest in Ham Radio at a young age. As technology advances, so does the technology used in our hobby. We even have a nobel laureate, Joe Taylor K1JT who is a ham. Joe has developed weak signal digital communication modes that let us communicate by bouncing signals off the moon!
As technology has advanced, so has the use of it in Ham Radio. Most Ham Radio operators have one or more computers in their shack. Many also have a software designed radio (SDR), where much of the radio functionality is implemented using Software, we use sound cards to run digital modes, which are a lot like texting over the radio, and we use the internet extensively as part of operating. We can also make contacts through satellites orbiting the earth and even the International Space Station.
Most hams love do-it-yourself technical projects, including building a station, home brewing an antenna, building a radio or other station component. In my day job, I am a program manager for software development projects, but its been a while since I have built anything. As a Ham I taught myself how to code in Python and about the Raspberry Pi and I built the DX Alarm Clock.
One of the coolest things about being an amateur radio operator is that you can communicate with other hams all over the world. Ham Radio is an international community where we all have something in common to talk about – our stations and why we enjoy ham radio. The QSL card above is from a memorable QSO with Mal, VK6LC, from Western Australia, who was the last contact that I needed for a Worked All Zones award. I must have talked to him for 1/2 hour about his town in Australia and his pet kangaroos!
I have learned much about geography from being on the air and trying to contact as many countries as I can. There are 339 DX Entities, which are countries or other geographical entities and I have learned where each one is in order to understand where propagation will allow me make a contact. I have learned a great deal about world geography. Through exchanging QSL cards often get to see photos from so many areas of the world.
Achievement – DXing and Contesting
DXing and Contesting provide a sense of achievement and exciting opportunity for competition. Many Hams work toward operating awards. You can get an operating award for contacting all 50 states, contacting 100 or more countries, contacting Islands, cities in Japan, countries in Asia, or anything else you can imagine. Each of these operating awards provides a sense of accomplishment and helps to build skills. Contesting builds skills through competition among Hams to see who can make the most contacts with the most places in 24 or 48 hours. Contesting also improves our operating skills and teaches us to copy callsigns and additional data accurately.
Teaching Licensing Classes – Passing it On
Recently I have joined a team of club members who teach license classes to others who want to get licensed or upgrade their existing Amateur Radio licenses. Teaching provides a way to improve my presentation skills and also helps me to really understand the material that we teach about Amateur Radio. It is always a thrill at the end of the class to see so many people earn their licenses or upgrades.
For many years, I enjoyed chasing DX from my NH station with two towers, multiple beams, an 80-meter 2-element quad and a 160-meter Inverted L. I got spoiled with the AL-1200 hammer I used almost constantly whenever a DXpedition came on the air to bag it quickly. The setup allowed me to bust a contest pileup in just two or three calls. Ah, the good ol’ days.
I’ve been in FL now for 18 months in a covenant-restricted retirement community. I was fortunate to find a place with a fair amount of open property that allowed me to put up a couple of low inverted Vees and a multi-band vertical. The wire antennas drape off a pole on the back of the house, out of sight of most of my neighbors. The vertical is enclosed in a PVC flagpole with just the 80-meter “stinger” poking out the top. It may be an ugly flagpole but it falls within the covenant permissible guidelines and, more importantly, keeps the village aesthetic vigilantes off my back. I have about 32 radials fed from the base of the vertical in a ¾ pie-shaped field with lengths varying from 55 feet to 10 feet. While this is far from the standard practice of at least 100 radials of 65 feet or more (assuming 80-meter capability), it is better than nothing.
As one might expect, DXing has been a far cry from what I was used to. Hearing stations is a chore, even with a K3 over my old FT-1000MP. I often find myself irritated at the juicy spot reports from New England that I cannot hear. Part of the problem is geography; I am at a lower latitude and I line near Ohio longitudinally so gray-line effects are different. One might think the high threat of thunderstorms down here also generates a lot of noise but it has been dry and quiet during the fall and winter months when DX is most active.
So what is an old DXer supposed to do? Answer: back to the future. When I got my Novice license back in high school, I put up an end-fed long-wire antenna for 80 meters and a dipole for 40 meters, both of them much lower than 1/4-wavelength above ground. The long-wire was fed with 300-ohm line. Why? Because that is what my Elmer and high school buddy told me to do. I was clueless about matching, common-mode currents and RF in the shack. I had a Hallicrafters S-38 reconditioned tube receiver that had a barn door-wide filter for CW. You can understand why it was a thrill to work states west of the Mississippi. If nothing else, I learned to appreciate a QSO and to be patient when trying to work someone.
My present station has the advantage of all the technological improvements in signal processing and automation that have mushroomed since the tube days. Stations are still weak when I do hear them but I can work them if they aren’t too busy. Contesting is actually better since many stations crank up the amplifier and plead for stations late in the contest. Using an amplifier here is problematic. My vertical is about eight feet from the shack so RF saturation would be likely. Furthermore, I would need to run a 220 VAC line to the shack to avoid brownout when using 110 VAC with an amplifier. The worse thing, however, would be EMP effects on the neighborhood breaker systems. It seems building contractors have switched to breakers with a much lower RF tolerance than before.
So what a desperate DXer supposed to do? The easiest thing I can do is put down more radials. As I mentioned, my radial field is far from ideal, even if I had moist, loamy soil instead of sand. An ideal radial field would be a copper sheet surrounding the vertical. In the climate here, it would turn green in a few weeks so it would look like a California painted lawn, if it isn’t stolen first. I decided to double the radial field I have to provide more return paths for the RF currents. I have not modeled my antenna to see what kind of radiation pattern I have but it is a good bet that the so-called takeoff angle for bouncing off the ionosphere is 40 degrees or higher. Conventional theory says that a takeoff angle should be 15 to 20 degrees, values usually achievable with yagis mounted 1/4-wavelengths or higher. The hope is that I can pull down my takeoff angle enough to where I fall into the usual DX footprints.
When I installed my original set of radials, it was a time-consuming effort to work each wire down through the thick St. Augustine grass here. I finally got smart one day when trimming the walkways with my weed-whacker set up vertically. I found that I can lay out the wire and walk along it with the weed-whacker cutting a narrow slice through the grass. I then drop the wire down into the cut, add a few staples and close the grass around the cut. The cut will be completely grown over in about a month. (This technique will work in New England if you have a manicured lawn; the rocks in a natural lawn tend to mess things up.) To date, I have added eight radials so it is still a work in progress.
For those of you with a modest station, take heart. With today’s transceivers, propagation predictions, and worldwide spotting it is possible to achieve DXCC on several bands in less than a year. I have been fortunate to work them all when I was a “big gun”. As a “little pistol”, I’ve managed to work 176 countries with 144 confirmed.
The January Tech night was about getting the most out of your HF transceiver. Fred had an interesting PowerPoint presentation where he demonstrated how to do just that. For anyone else new to HF I wanted to comment on it here. In his presentation he described how you should use filtering first and digital signal processing (DSP) as a last resort. That’s the exact mistake I was doing. if you uses a lot DSP with a narrow filter selected the audio sounds hollow and really difficult to listen to. If you turn off the DSP select the narrow filter and then bring up the DSP if needed you get less noise and a pleasing audio output. Also turning down the AF gain can be your friend too!