Tag Archives: Scanners

ARISS contact today: stream on the web or perhaps listen with your radio!

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson’s 7th Spacewalk (Image source: NASA)

Last night, my buddy Eric McFadden (WD8RIF) notified me that the International Space Station would be making a pass this morning and doing an ARISS contact with three schools in Belgium.

It appears this pass will create an opportunity for some of us at least in eastern North America (and elsewhere) to listen to the transmission live.

Eric notes:

The frequency of the downlink should be 145.800MHz. As the ISS climbs above your horizon, because of doppler-shift, listen on 145.805. Switch to 145.800 as the ISS approaches zenith. Switch to 145.795 as the ISS drops toward the other horizon. You’ll know when to switch frequency when the audio gets bad.

[…]The ISS runs real power so an HT with anything but the shortest rubber duck should be OK, particularly when the ISS is well above the horizon. A 1/2-wave whip on the HT is better.

The contact starts at 13:47 UTC (08:47 EST)–about one hour from time of this posting.

As Eric notes, pretty much any VHF handheld radio or scanner can easily receive this contact as long as you can tune to 145.80 MHz +/-.

Last time I was in a place to tune to the ISS, it was with my kids and we all got a kick out of hearing astronauts answer questions from children here on Terra Firma. I wrote a short post about this.

Don’t worry if you miss this ARISS contact–they happen all the time. Check the ARISS “Upcoming Contacts” (http://www.ariss.org/upcoming-contacts.html) page where future ARISS QSOs are listed. No doubt, it will pass over your part of the globe at some point!

Southgate ARC also posted the following announcement with a link to the live webcast:

ARISS contact webcast

On Thursday 12 January 2017, an ARISS contact is scheduled with three schools in Belgium.

Two schools will operate from the Euro Space Center.

The event will be web streamed live on:
https://www.facebook.com/eurospacecenter

The radio contact is scheduled at 13.47 UTC, which 14.37 CEWT.

The web streaming will start around 14.00 local time.

73,

Gaston Bertels, ON4WF
ARISS past chairman

Thanks again, Eric, for the tip!

Talking scanners…

Since I was a kid, I’ve always enjoyed listening to police, fire, public services/utilities, and aviation communications on scanners. Growing up, my father had a Regency Executive scanner in our living room, and he used it to listen to all of the local action before it was published in the newspaper the following morning. All so fascinating to a kid like me, listening in.  Ah, those were the days…!

Regency Executive Scanner (Image source: eBay)

The Regency scanner was populated with crystals, and I fondly remember accompanying my father to our local radio shop to purchase new crystals for various frequencies. My father still has and uses this scanner today––evidently, a few of our hometown services still use the same frequencies they used back in the 1970s.

But oh, how times have changed

As the years have passed, public services moved to more complex communications systems including trunking, and now a host of digital modes have come to the fore, some even encrypted.

My interest in scanner technology frankly waned during the 1990s.  I suppose this had to do with the amount of travel and moving I was doing at the time. In the 1990s, for example, I lived in at least seven different communities in two countries. Between 2000-2010, I lived in five different communities in three different countries. I always remained dedicated to shortwave radio, of course, because while frequencies changed, I could receive many stations in Europe that I could also receive in North America. I knew that scanner frequencies, by their very nature, vary community-to-community, so I didn’t bother.

Truth is, I simply lacked the patience to program (relatively complicated) scanners.  Not to mention, I was really put off by the idea of traveling with a scanner, thus requiring a thick frequency guide just to hear local services.

Welcome to 2017

In the past few years, technology has made a big leap forward in the scanner world. With robust on-board memory, GPS capabilities, and dynamic frequency databases searchable by postal code and/or GPS coordinates, keeping an up-to-date scanner is now a great deal easier––brilliant developments for a scanner newbie like me!

So, exactly why do I want a scanner all of a sudden?  I mainly want one to keep in the messenger bag I carry with me everywhere.  I’d like something to take on travels, perhaps help me listen in on traffic problems or simply eavesdrop on the local public service scene to understand what’s happening around me. Moreover, I find I love listening to aviation frequencies! And though I travel with other radios, the ability to tune NOAA frequencies would be super, too.

I started thinking about scanners last year when we experienced a forest fire in our community. We discovered the fire as we traveled home that day, and found our local road blocked to traffic for about an hour as emergency vehicles moved in. Fortunately, I carry a Yaesu VX-3R in my messenger pack and was able to find the frequencies the fire department was using to communicate with the fire-spotting plane circling overhead. It gave me some measure of comfort to hear that things were almost contained at under twenty acres. In truth, many of us were thinking through a possible evacuation scenario since, at the time, massive forest fires were flaring in various parts of the state.

So, here’s my question to readers in-the-know regarding scanners: can you help me find the perfect scanner for the following requirements…?

  • Handheld (not mobile/base)
  • Easy to program
  • GPS capability
  • Updated frequency databases that can be stored internally
  • Able to receive as many analog and digital modes as possible
  • Relatively durable and compact
  • Long runtime on batteries

A friend recommended the Bearcat/Uniden BCD436HP, a scanner that seems to have a lot of the functionality I seek.

I know that Uniden Homepatrol II is also recommended by many.

Also, the Whistler company has a number of scanners and a large following, as well.

Hmm…So many choices!

Post readers, can you help me out? What sort of scanner do you recommend, and why?

Holiday Deals: ARC scanner software packages 50% off

The AOR AR6000

The AOR AR6000

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Tom Ally, who writes:

NatComMag just posted on twitter that http://www.butel.nl/ is having a Black Friday Sale on their scanner programming software. [T]heir software is great for programming a ton of different models.

Page says this when you go to their site –

BuTel Famous Black Friday crazy sales is back!

The Dutchman is going crazy again!

All ARC software packages are 50% off this Black Friday!

Correct price will be shown at check out.

No extra discounts

All software sales are final, strictly no refunds !

Click here to view the sale at Butel.nl.

An SWL’s review of the Icom IC-R6 Sport 16 wideband handheld receiver

The following review originally appeared in the SEptember 2016 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


icom-ic-r6-angle

Over the past year, I’ve received a number of inquiries from readers who are considering purchasing a handheld wideband receiver. This is a market I’ve never truly explored because, to be honest, I’m partial to the HF part of the spectrum, and wideband receivers have always seemed more akin scanners than to shortwave receivers.

But lately, readers have specifically asked about the Icom IC-R6, a compact handheld receiver that covers from 100 kHz to 1309.995 MHz. What makes the IC-R6 appealing is that––at just $175 US––it is one of the least expensive wideband handhelds/scanners on the market that not only covers the shortwave bands, but also the AM broadcast, Longwave, FM broadcast, & NOAA weather frequencies.

Over the years I’ve read numerous reviews of the IC-R6 and other wideband receivers. Reviewers of this handheld receivers typically gloss over shortwave and mediumwave reception, and for good reason––it’s generally known that you just can’t have the best of both worlds in the sub-$300 price range. This makes sense, as there are invariably performance compromises when you pack wideband reception into such a tiny package: manufacturers usually put a performance emphasis on the VHF/UHF bands rather than on HF or mediumwave.

Still, I was curious enough about the IC-R6 to want to put it through its paces on shortwave and mediumwave, so I contacted Icom, who generously sent me an IC-R6 on extended loan for the purpose of this review

Usability/Ergonomics

Here I need to throw out a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of handheld radio (Handy Talky) ergonomics.

The IC-R6, like most other tiny handhelds, has a spartan array of buttons, all of which have multiple functions. Like its compact competitors, it also lacks a direct entry keypad-––after all, there’s simply no room for a keypad, and if there was one, it would obviously be too small to use.

icom-ic-r6-frequency

That being said, however, I must say that Icom has done a surprisingly good job of making the IC-R6 usable in the field.

If, like me, you’re the type of person who typically ignores the owner’s manual when you first receive a new radio, the IC-R6 may prove frustrating. Fortunately, the Icom user manual is superb, and well worth the read. It’s very well written, and takes you through each function step by step. The 80-page manual is entirely in English (the US version, at least) and even has a cut-out pocket guide in the end. Brilliant!

Once I spent a few minutes reading through the IC-R6 manual’s outline of its basic functions, I found most operations are simple and relatively easy to remember.

icom-ic-r6-leftside

What makes each operation handy is that the Function key––which helps toggle the four multi-function buttons––is located where the PTT (push to talk) button would be on an amateur handheld transceiver. It’s actually a great location for the button because it allows one hand to hold the radio and push the function button, permitting the other hand to push a front panel button. Though I initially felt I was keying up to “transmit” on an HT, it soon became apparent that this is a very logical key placement.

Tuning

Tuning with the IC-R6 is relatively easy and straightforward.

Simply select a band with the BAND button. Next, adjust the volume with the UP/DOWN arrow buttons, and the squelch (if needed) by holding the squelch button and turning the tuning knob. Then you may use the tuning knob to tune up and down the band.

icom-ic-r6-top

If you want to quickly skip to another part of the bands, hold down the function key while turning the tuning knob, and the R6 will tune in 1 MHz steps. I’ve found that this helps to move across the spectrum quite quickly and compensates for the lack of a direct entry keypad.

You can also easily change the tuning steps by pressing the TS button and using the tuning knob to cycle through selections (a total of fourteen possible step selections are available between 5 kHz and 100 kHz).

Over the course of a few months of using the IC-R6, I’ve learned a couple of methods to adapt to its lack of a direct-frequency entry keypad:

  • using the 1 MHz tuning steps, as mentioned above
  • loading the memory channels with band edges and your favorite frequencies (with 1300+ memory slots, there are many ways to manage your tuning)

Mediumwave/AM Broadcast Band Performance

Surprisingly, the IC-R6 has a tiny internal ferrite bar antenna for mediumwave/AM broadcast band reception. This is a welcome feature because there’s no need to remove the supplied rubber-duck antenna to connect an external antenna for broadcast listening.

icom-ic-r6-back

In terms of AM performance, I was happy with the IC-R6. I’m able to receive all of my local AM broadcasters with decent signal strength. I’m even able to reliably receive one 25-mile-distant daytime broadcaster; this truly surprised me, especially since the internal antenna must be minuscule.

Is the IC-R6 a good choice for a mediumwave DXer? Unfortunately, no. The AGC struggles with weak nighttime conditions, and frankly, with such a small ferrite bar antenna, nulling capabilities are minimal. If you’re a MW DXer, I would suggest carrying a small ultralight portable along with the IC-R6.

The IC-R6 also covers the longwave bands, but I would never use it even for casual longwave listening as the tuning steps are limited to 5 kHz increments.

Still: to have a respectable little AM receiver in a handheld scanner––? It’s great!

Shortwave Performance: Sensitivity

As I said, most reviewers gloss over shortwave reception on handhelds. I thought I’d put the IC-R6 through a more thorough test.

icom-ic-r6-in-hand

Note that, being fully aware of its limitations, I never used the stock rubber-duck antenna to test shortwave reception; instead, I used a long piece of thin co-ax attached to five- and ten-foot sections of wire. I tried longer and shorter pieces of wire, as well, but found that 5-10’ seemed to hit the sweet spot in terms of sensitivity.

To be honest, I had fairly low expectations of the IC-R6. I knew that the shortwave/HF bands are truly just an added feature on this rig, and realized that the R6 is more akin to a scanner rather than a shortwave radio. But in terms of sensitivity, I found I was rather impressed with the IC-R6.

The first morning I tested shortwave reception, propagation was, at best, mediocre. Yet I was able to copy WWV on 10 and 15 MHz without much trouble. I could receive all of the strong North American private broadcasters, like WTWW, WRMI and, of course, most frequencies occupied by Radio Havana Cuba and China Radio International––all of these are broadcasters that my shortwave portables can readily receive here in my region. Moreover, in the mornings, I’ve also been able to receive one of my staple shortwave broadcasters on the R6: Radio Australia. It’s nice to imagine that if I were camping, the little R6 could serve up my morning dose of news from Down Under.

All in all, I’m fairly pleased––and surprised!––by the IC-R6’s sensitivity.

Here’s an example of reception when tuned to WRMI, a strong station in my region. [Fun side note: I had no idea that, as I was recording, I would hear my buddies Mark Fahey and Jeff White on the air!]

Shortwave Performance: Selectivity

On the flip side, the IC-R6’s selectivity is unfortunately quite poor. I anticipated this.

Almost any of the strong signals I receive can be heard with equal fidelity when tuned off-frequency 5 kHz to either side of the carrier. You can pretty much forget discerning between two adjacent signals that are only spaced 5-10 kHz apart.

And yet while this would be a deal-breaker for me on a dedicated shortwave portable, this wouldn’t stop me from purchasing the IC-R6. Since we don’t have the crowded shortwave landscape we used to, selectivity is much less of an issue these days.

So, for some casual SWLing while say, backpacking? The IC-R6 does the trick!

The IC-R6 runs efficiently on a set of two standard AA cells.

The IC-R6 runs efficiently on a set of two standard AA cells.

I should note here that I never connected the IC-R6 to any of my large outdoor antennas. First of all, I didn’t want to risk damaging the front end of the receiver (especially since this is a loaner), and secondly, I knew the IC-R6’s poor selectivity would only be exacerbated if gain were significantly increased. I also want to caution readers from doing this, as I suspect the IC-R6’s front end will seriously overload on a large antenna.

Auto-Memory Write Function

The IC-R6 has a very cool scanning function similar to the ETM auto-scan on Tecsun portables, known as the “auto-memory write function.” Here’s how it works:

  1. Simply select the band you wish to scan.
  2. Set squelch level.
  3. Select the scanning range. There are several options here:
  4. Full scan, which scans the entire frequency range of the IC-R6 (you’ll want to grab a cuppa coffee, as this will take a while)
  5. Selected Band Scan, which only scans all of the frequencies with the band’s edges
  6. Programmed Scan, which scans between two user-programmed frequencies
  7. Finally, press the SCAN/MODE button to start the scan and the V/M button to engage the auto-memory write function..

The radio will then scan according to your selected scan mode, pausing for an interval of about five seconds on each signal it finds, and writing it to one of the auto-memory write channel groups (000-999) for your convenient access.

icom-ic-r6-display

 

To recall the auto-memories once scanning ends, simply press the V/M button to enter the memory mode, select the band with the BAND button, then use the tuning knob to scan through the signal catches.

Once you’ve experimented with this process a couple of times, it becomes second nature, and is very handy.

One negative: since the IC-R6’s HF selectivity is lacking, you could possibly get double or triple auto-memory writes for really strong broadcasters.

Programming software and cable

I’ll be frank here: if you plan to purchase an IC-R6 and load it with memory channels, you’ll be well-served to purchase programming software and a cable as well. Entering frequencies by hand is tedious, especially if you want alpha-numeric labels.

wcsr6-usb-2tI’m very partial to the cables and software offered by RT Systems. Besides having the most user-friendly programming software I’ve personally used, RT Systems also offers consistency in terms of set-up and application user-interface across their whole product line. For example, I own a Yaesu VX-3R which I’ve programmed with the RT Systems software; when I want to import all of my VX-3R frequencies into the IC-R6, it’s a simple process with the aid of RT Systems software.

RT Systems supports almost all programmable amateur radio transceivers and receivers on the market, which means that it makes for a great cross-manufacturer link between all of your gear.

Summary

Invariably, all radios have strengths and weaknesses; here’s a list of my notes from the moment I put the Icom IC-R6 on the air:

Pros:

  • Very compact, handy size with respectable ergonomics
  • Scanning
    • Frequency/Memory scanning very fast
    • Quickly scans AM/SW/FM/VHF/UHF bands
  • Acceptable shortwave sensitivity for most regionally-strong broadcasters (see selectivity con)
  • Great Auto Squelch function that seems to be effective even on the HF bands
  • Attenuation setting which helps the front end from overloading
  • Wide array of scanning options
  • Long operating time with AA batteries

Cons:

  • User interface
    • Very difficult programming without external software/programming cable
    • No keypad for frequency direct entry
  • Audio, via built-in speaker, is tinny; headphones help, but audio output is mono
  • Almost non-existent shortwave selectivity (see sensitivity pro)
  • Tuning steps are limited to 5 kHz increments, which may be insufficient on SW/MW and LW
  • No SSB mode (though no other wideband receiver in the under-$300 price range offers SSB)

Conclusion

icom-ic-r6-full

The Icom IC-R6 is one little powerhouse receiver with many, many listening possibilities. With this one radio, you can listen to everything from local VHF/UHF repeaters, to local law enforcement and emergency services, aviation frequencies, NOAA weather radio, the FM broadcast band, AM broadcast band––and, yes, even shortwave.

If you’re looking for an all-in-one receiver to take on hikes, to put in your 72-hour emergency (BOB) bag, to carry in your briefcase, or even to simply carry in your pocket, the IC-R6 is a great choice. Remember, if you do invest in one, you should also invest in programming cable and software to help you along.

This review focuses on broadcast listening with the IC-R6. While I didn’t cover traditional scanner functionality, I should note that the IC-R6 is not a trunking scanner. If you live in one of the many cities, counties or even even entire states/provinces in the U.S. and Canada that employ “trunking” radio systems for public safety communications, you’ll need a different receiver for this purpose.

Additionally, if you’re looking for a top-notch shortwave portable, you’ll want to buy a dedicated shortwave receiver, instead: they’re built with only HF reception in mind and will cost you much less, for better overall performance and more modes (SSB).

Of course, the IC-R6 is so modestly-sized that you could always carry it plus an inexpensive compact shortwave receiver (like the Tecsun PL-310ET, or the PL-380), and then…well, you’ll suddenly have the best of both worlds!

The Icom IC-R6 is available via Universal Radio $174.95 US with rebate through 12/31/16.

Mario snags a Memorex TrackTec Scannocular!

Photo source: Universal Radio

Photo source: Universal Radio

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mario Filippi (N2HUN), who recently wrote an article for the excellent Radio World magazine. His topic?  The Memorex TrackTec Scannocular! Mario writes:

Ever heard of a Scannocular?  Universal Radio used to sell ’em, they were for race fans, basically a scanner with surgically attached binoculars:

http://www.radioworld.com/article/whats-black-and-red-and-hears-all-over/279408

“I’ve always had a penchant for the weird, the off-beat, the non-mainstream. In high school I felt most at home with fellows who were ostracized by the general student populus, who acted and thought differently, had the intestinal fortitude to walk the road less traveled and were genuinely interesting individuals.

The same affinity goes for electronic devices; the weird stuff interests me. That’s why I recently acquired a Memorex Scannocular from an eBay auction.”[…]

Continue reading at Radio World…

Mario, I must say that I had never heard of the Scannocular–what an intriguing piece of kit! It sounds like a decent performer (especially for $26!). I’m surprised it actually has a proper BNC connector for an external antenna.

I just searched eBay, but had no luck finding a set of Scannoculars. Perhaps there’s been an increase in popularity–other members of the “bohemian brigade” who decided the Scannocular is the only item they’ll need to stand out among other race fans!

I always enjoy your articles and reviews, Mario! Thanks for sharing!