Category Archives: Tutorials

Guest Post: Decoding Inmarsat L-Band AERO and STD-C messages using the SDRplay RSP SDR

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mike Ladd (KD2KOG), who shares the following guest post. Note that the following tutorial is also available as a PDF (click here to download).


Basics to decoding Inmarsat L-Band signals using the RSP SDR

by Mike Ladd

Note: CHECK WITH YOUR LOCAL LAWS BEFORE DECODIING ANY SIGNALS FROM THE INMARSAT SYSTEM

Hardware used

SDR: RSP1a SDR from SDRplay? https://www.sdrplay.com/rsp1a/

Antenna: Modified GPS patch antenna for L-Band from SDR-Kits, model A154.? https://www.sdr-kits.net/L-Band-Receive%20Antenna

Software used

SDRuno v1.32
https://www.sdrplay.com/downloads/

VBcable (Donationware) vPack43
https://www.vb-audio.com/Cable/

VAC (Paid for use) v4.60
https://vac.muzychenko.net/en/

JAERO (Free) v1.0.4.9
https://github.com/jontio/JAERO/releases

Tekmanoid STD-C Decoder (Paid for use) v1.5.1
Requires Java JRE, check your local laws before using this decoder.
http://www.tekmanoid.com/egc.shtml

https://www.java.com/en/download/

Introduction

(some text taken and edited from the RTL-SDR Blog website)

This document is not a definitive guide to Satcom, L-Band transmission or the Inmarsat system. This is a collection of information that I have found scatter throughout the internet and re-compiled into a document, this document. My aim is to help you get started and hopefully guide you in the right direction. Expect typographical mistakes, inaccuracies, or omissions

Inmarsat is a communications service provider with several geostationary satellites in orbit. Inmarsat provides services such as satellite phone communications, broadband internet, and short text and data messaging services. Geostationary means that the Inmarsat satellites are in a fixed position in the sky and do not move.

The Inmarsat 3-F(x) satellites have transponders transmitting data in L-Band (1.5 GHz) that can be decoded. 

The modes we will cover in this document are Aeronautical (Classic Aero or ACARS) and Inmarsat-C (STD-C) using an RSP1a, RSP2/2pro or RSPduo connected to the SDR-Kits modified L-Band patch antenna. The Inmarsat system is not limited to only these types of networks. We are limited to the decoders available.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inmarsat

Some regions that use the I-3 satellite services moved and migrated to the Inmarsat I-4 Satellites.  See the following document.  https://www.inmarsat.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/INM_C_I3_I4_migration_guide_V3.0.pdf

Two of the most popular decoding applications are JAERO used for ACARS and Tekmanoid STD-C Decoder used for decoding STD-C NCS transmissions on the Inmarsat 3-F(x) satellites

https://www.sigidwiki.com/wiki/Inmarsat_Aero

https://www.sigidwiki.com/wiki/Inmarsat-C_TDM

Software installation

Virtual Audio Cable: A virtual audio cable allows you to pipe audio from application (SDRuno) into another application (a decoder like JAERO) digitally. I will assume SDRuno is already installed with your device attached and functioning properly. 

You can now download a virtual audio cable package.  If you already have a virtual audio cable package installed, you can skip to the next section. If you don’t have a virtual audio cable application installed, you only need to choose one and only install one of the two, either one works fine

Close any running apps, install the virtual audio cable and reboot your computer. When your computer boots back to your desktop, your computer will now have a virtual audio cable pair installed on the system. 

You can verify by going to your Control Panel and double clicking the Sound icon. VB-Cable and Virtual Audio Cable will only install a single virtual audio cable pair, one is for the input (Recording) and one is for the output (Playback). A single pair is all that is needed (as shown below).

JAERO

(some text taken and edited from the JAERO website)

JAERO is a program that decodes ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) messages sent by satellites (in this case Inmarsat) to Airplanes (SatCom ACARS). This is commonly used when airplanes are well beyond VHF range. 

JAERO also allows for decoding and demodulation of voice calls, due to local laws and privacy, I will not show or discuss how to do this. You can find more information about that JAERO feature online.

JAERO can be downloaded from the link provided on the first page of this document. After downloading the installer, simply double click the setup file and install it on your primary drive.

Tekmanoid STD-C Decoder

(some text taken and edited from the USA-Satcoms website)

Inmarsat STD-C is a data or message-based system used mostly by maritime operators. An Inmarsat C terminal transmits and receives on L-Band to various geosynchronous satellites that service each major ocean region. 

The Tekmanoid STD-C decoder will decode STD-C Inmarsat EGC (enhanced group call) and LES (land earth station) messages. Some of these messages contain private information. Reception of these messages may not be legal in your country; therefore, your local laws should be checked.

The Enhanced Group Call (EGC) service is a message broadcast service with global coverage (except the poles) within the Inmarsat-C communications system. Two of the services provided are:

FleetNET and SafetyNET

FleetNET is used to send commercial messages to individuals or groups of subscribers (for example, individual companies communicating with their own Mobile Earth Stations (MES). SafetyNET is used for broadcasting Maritime Safety Information (MSI) such as Navigational warnings, meteorological warnings, meteorological forecasts and other safety related information (including Distress Alert Relays) from official sources.

The LES station acts as an interface (or gateway) between the Inmarsat space segment and the national/international telecommunications networks. 

The Tekmanoid STD-C decoder requires Java JRE in order to run. The link for the Java runtime environment is on page 2 of this document. For information contact the developer direct admin@tekmanoid.com

There are alternatives to using the Tekmanoid STD-C decoder, but in my opinion the other decoders available do not perform as well on low end systems or even work without needing “helper” applications to be installed. Tekmanoid STD-C decoder is very easy to use and works great on my low-end system using minimal system resources.

Putting all the pieces together

ACARS and STD-C messages will transmit via the Inmarsat satellite deployed within your coverage area/region, you will need to choose the Inmarsat satellite that is closest to your coverage area. 

Note that only different frequencies are used between ACARS transmissions and STD-C transmissions. You will only need to receive from one of the available 3-F(x) Inmarsat satellites. 

L-Band ACARS transmissions are in the 1.545 GHz range but STD-C messages are on fixed frequencies (shown on page 8)

Since STD-C transmissions are broadcasted on fixed frequencies, we want to monitor the TDM NCSC channel, again these are fixed for the following Ocean Regions. Choose the region closest to your location (page 9).

Again, some regions that use the I-3 satellite services moved and migrated to the Inmarsat I-4 Satellites.  See the following document.  https://www.inmarsat.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/INM_C_I3_I4_migration_guide_V3.0.pdf

STD-C transmissions are broadcasted on fixed frequencies, NCSC channel. The NCSC frequency per region is noted below.

Inmarsat satellite: Inmarsat-4 F3 (AOR-W)
Direction: 98° West
Frequency: 1.537.70 GHz

Inmarsat satellite: Inmarsat-3 F5 (AOR-E)
Direction: 54° West
Frequency: 1.541.45 GHz

Inmarsat satellite: Inmarsat-4 F1 (IOR)
Direction: 25° East
Frequency: 1.537.10 GHz

Inmarsat satellite: Inmarsat-4 F1 (POR)
Direction: 143.5° East
Frequency: 1.541.45 GHz

I will assume you have located the Inmarsat satellite that covers your region. I suggest using a compass on your mobile phone to pinpoint the general direction. The direction is in ° (degrees). I am referencing true north, not magnetitic north (traditional analog compass). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_declination

You can also download an app for your smartphone called Satellite AR (Android and IOS). After you locate the correct direction of the Inmarsat satellite, you will want to place the L-Band patch on a flat metal surface. I have read that the receive pattern of this patch antenna is z (about 85-90°, straight up). Point the top of the antenna facing the Inmarsat satellite. Using the roof of my car worked just fine, just remember to point the front of the antenna at the satellite.

https://www.u-blox.com/sites/default/files/products/documents/GPS-Antenna_AppNote_%28GPS-X-08014%29.pdf

Launch SDRuno and click the PLAY button, remember that if the RSP(x) is in ZERO IF mode, give frequency separation between the VFO (top frequency) and LO (bottom frequency). In LOW IF mode this is not needed. I suggest running a sample rate of 2 MHz, larger bandwidths are not needed. 

The SDR-Kits patch antenna requires that the RSP(x) Bias-T be enabled. The Bias-T option is enabled within the MAIN panel of SDRuno. See the SDRuno manual located here. https://www.sdrplay.com/docs/SDRplay_SDRuno_User_Manual.pdf view page 17.

With the Bias-T enabled. Set the RSP(x) RF GAIN to max. The RF GAIN slider is located on the MAIN panel. See the SDRuno manual located here. https://www.sdrplay.com/docs/SDRplay_SDRuno_User_Manual.pdf view page 17.

For more information about the RF GAIN settings of the RSP(x)
https://www.sdrplay.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Gain_and_AGC_in_SDRuno.pdf

Select the Virtual audio cable as the output in SDRuno, this is selected via the RX Control panel. SETT. button and clicking on the OUT tab.

Have SDRuno’s Volume slider (RX Control) at about 35-40%

Upper sideband is recommended but I found the best mode to use for L-Band ACARS or L-Band STD-C decoding is DIGITAL with a filter width of 3k. 

Be sure to set a proper step size (right click the RX Control frequency readout). The step size is not important for STD-C transmissions because these signals are only on one frequency for the satellite in your region but L-Band ACARS signals will be on many frequencies. Setting the proper step size will avoid issues when you point and click on signals you want to decode using the JAERO decoder.

You will want to center the signal with a little breathing room within the AUX SP filter passband. The filter slopes are very sharp. Keep the signal centered and away from the extreme edges (red markers). 

Select your virtual audio cable within the decoder’s audio input preferences.

The Tekmanoid STD-C decoder sound properties are located under Settings in the toolbar menu.

JAERO’s sound settings is located under the Tools menu and Settings.

For STD-C decoding use the frequency from page 8 of this document, remember we only want to monitor the TDM NCSC channel in the Tekmanoid STD-C decoder.

For JAERO decoding, I suggest you start in the 1.545 GHz portion and observe the constellation in the JAERO decoder. 

The signal to noise ratio (SNR) needed for successful decoding in these decoders will need to be greater than 7dB. When working with a weak satellite signasls, try decimating the signal using SDRuno’s decimation feature. (MAIN panel, DEC).

Click here to view on YouTube.

Additional resources

Videos:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

SDRuno:

L-band frequency bank
https://mega.nz/#!jRFRiSaA!CcmRRRpjToxPzyGV9bf7MkDkKnqCYZCwwjC5curWj6g

PDFs:

https://www.inmarsat.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Aero_Service_External_Com_Kit_I3_to_I4_Transition_21AUG2018.pdf

http://seaworm.narod.ru/12/Inmarsat_Maritime_Handbook.pdf

Websites:

https://usa-satcom.com/

https://uhf-satcom.com/

I hope this document helps you get started decoding Inmarsat L-Band transmissions from the I3-F(x) satellites. I am sure I missed some key features, remember this is only a primer/basics to decoding these types of transmissions.

Warmest of 73,
Mike-KD2KOG


Many thanks for sharing your tutorial here on the SWLing Post, Mike! This looks like a fascinating activity that really requires little investment if one already owns an RSP or similar SDR. I’m certainly going to give L-Band a go!  Thank you again!


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SDR Academy presentation videos

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Alexander (DL4NO), who writes:

Parallel to the Hamradio fair in Friedrichshafen, Germany, there are talks and whole conferences. Over the last years, the “Software-Definded Radio Academy” (SDRA) was one of them.

You find the presentations on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6D0CPBQoIVpMflpSZFqbkmr2Xt_10D_Z

At least most of them are in English.

Thank you for the tip, Alexander! These videos are amazing! Wow–now I just need to find the time to watch them all.

I’ve embedded the videos and links below, for your convenience:

Markus Heller, DL8RDS: SDR-Academy @ HAM-Radio 2019 – A Summary

 

Dr. Carles Fernandez: An Open Source Global Navigation Satellite Systems Software-Defined Receiver

Mario Lorenz, DL5MLO: The AMSAT-DL/QARS Ground Stations for Qatar-Oscar 100

Mack McCormick, W4AX: FlexRadio: SDR Technology that Will Change How you Operate HF

Christoph Mayer, DL1CH: KiwiSDR as a new GNURadio Source

Manolis Surligas, SV9SFC: SDR Makerspace, Exploid SDR technology for space communications

Michael Hartje, DK5HH: Digital signal processing for the detection of noise disturbances

Prof Dr Joe Taylor, K1JT: Welcome Address and Questions & Answers

DL1FY, DC9OE, DG8MG, DL8GM: Charly25 SDR Transceiver

Alex Csete, OZ9AEC: SDR-Makerspace: Evaluation of SDR boards and toolchains

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Mike’s expanding collection of SDRplay tutorial videos

Besides making great receivers, one of the things I love about SDRplay is their focus on providing user documentation and tutorials. We’ve mentioned before that SDRplay’s Mike Ladd (KD2KOG) actively creates tutorial videos exploring a number of SDRplay topics. To date, he’s produced over 20 videos–!

If you own an SDRplay product, I’d strongly recommend checking out Mike’s video list even if you feel you’re already a pro user. The videos are easy to follow and are chock-full of SDRuno tips and tricks.

I’ve pasted the latest links to the Mike’s videos below but I would encourage you to check the SDRplay YouTube channel (link below) and this page for the latest episodes as they are regularly updated.

From the SDRplay Ham Guides page:

As SDRplay RSPs get used for more and more receiver applications, we felt we didn’t want to lose sight of the large number of people who love short wave listening and HF ham radio, so we have created “Ham Guides” as a place where we focus on providing tuition and help for all aspects of receiving radio signals at 30MHz and below. This includes set up and use of SDRuno, and tips and techniques on key related topics such as decoding, propagation and antennas.

The SDRplay Ham Guides YouTube channel can be found here, at  www.youtube.com/c/SDRplayHamGuides 

SDRplay Ham Guides complements the main SDRplay YouTube channel and all the documentation available via https://www.sdrplay.com/downloads/and the searchable resources in our Applications and Support Catalogue: https://www.sdrplay.com/apps-catalogue/

If you have ideas for what you’d like to see more of, then add your comments to the videos or email me at mike.ladd@sdrplay.com

  1. This is the first video of many to follow. Showing basic operation of SDRuno using a RSP1a SDR.https://youtu.be/ngv60EWiJ3U
  2. Minimum requirements for running SDRuno.https://youtu.be/Rn3tuiIOvmM
  3. Virtual audio cable basics in SDRuno.https://youtu.be/ZF86cK5vukY
  4. Shaping the sound of shortwave broadcast stations using SDRuno.https://youtu.be/smvfCGx6zO8
  5. Using SDRuno’s built in software notch filters.https://youtu.be/5K92dG2sedw
  6. SDRuno basics, MultiPSKhttps://youtu.be/tnqfJhsvGFA
  7. SDRuno basics, Import the free EiBi HF databasehttps://youtu.be/ZJlfxaudaNI
  8. SDRuno basics, The EX CONTROL panel part 1.https://youtu.be/1XdBqXcyuzw
  9. SDRuno basics, The EX CONTROL panel part 2.https://youtu.be/H0RJVy4u5Ro
  10. SDRuno basics, My HF frequency lists part 1.https://youtu.be/KiNjsvKHVeU
  11. SDRuno basics, My HF frequency lists part 2.https://youtu.be/Rx3B-6h_CIw
  12. SDRuno basic, Decoding WEFAX using Black Cat HF Weather Fax decoder.https://youtu.be/juTdBpTDVp0
  13. SDRuno basics, Removing wide band noise.https://youtu.be/_GtozskwFAY
  14. SDRuno basics, CSV user list browser.https://youtu.be/1vu5fAjdRHw
  15. SDRuno basics, RSPduo, dual tuner mode, listening and decoding signalshttps://youtu.be/1vu5fAjdRHw
  16. SDRuno basic, VRX-Virtual receivershttps://youtu.be/ndUPm6Nccb8
  17. Why I chose a loop.https://youtu.be/XesvzZG-Mi8
  18. SDRuno basics, decoding CTCSS/DCS toneshttps://youtu.be/PM3WOMF7_eM
  19. SDRplay user support options and resourceshttps://youtu.be/nXnrBaoKKjs
  20. RSRduo with dual W6LVP loops Part 1https://youtu.be/w5SrDtUxhQU
  21. RSRduo with dual W6LVP loops Part 2https://youtu.be/ikUymHFkCcY
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Radio Travel: A complete SDR station for superb portable DXing

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Don Moore–author of  Following Ghosts in Northern Peru–for the following guest post:


One of my favorite DXing locations was this little cottage at the El Rancho Hotel just outside San Ramon, on the edge of the Amazon jungle in Peru. At $18/night, including breakfast, the hotel was a bargain, and there was plenty of room for my delta loop.

A Guide To Vagabond DXing

By Don Moore

Ever since I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras in the early 1980s, Latin America has been my primary focus for both DXing and traveling. So when I retired in 2017, my main goal was to begin taking long annual trips . . . and I do mean long. From October 2017 to May 2018, I traveled through Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia visiting about fifty different towns and cities. This year, I’m on a five-month trip through southern South America. In Latin America you can get just about anywhere cheaply and easily by bus, so that’s how I get around. It’s also a great way to meet people and to see the countryside. But luggage can become a burden, so I limit myself to a single mid-sized wheeled suitcase and a large knapsack. And that means that my mobile DX shack has to be very carefully planned.

Your plans may not include multi-month odysseys like mine, but I think my experiences will help you prepare to DX on your next trip, wherever it might be. Of course, what makes a good mobile DX shack depends on what your DX interests are. I consider myself a station collector, in that I want to make loggings of lots of new and different stations and to build up an understanding of radio broadcasting in different regions. So on my travels I concentrate on the medium wave broadcast band and longwave beacons, with maybe little bit of shortwave utility DX. (There’s not much on shortwave broadcast that I can’t also hear at home.)

Take the DX Home With You

For years my standard DX travel gear was a Sony ICF-2010, a cassette recorder, and an old Radio West ferrite loop antenna. But listening time was always limited since it was a vacation. There were other activities on the agenda and I was generally too tired to get up early for DXing. I always went home with some interesting loggings and audio recordings, but once I left for home the DXing was done.

SDRs have changed all that and now my first rule of travel DX now is take the DX home. The best souvenir of a trip is the hundreds of hours of DXing that I take home with me. In a 2016 trip to central Colombia, I made about 300 MB of recordings of the medium wave band. While listening to them later I logged over 400 stations from twenty countries (and I still have about half the files to go through). I never would have even gotten close to that many stations listening on my Sony like an ‘old-fashioned’ DXer, hi!

Lately, I’ve been accumulating SDR files much faster than I could possibly go through them, so it’s a fair question to ask what the point is. When will I ever listen to them all? Like most DXers, I’m not fortunate enough to live in a perfect DX location. When conditions are mediocre, I’d rather spend my DXing time going through some more interesting SDR files.  And, I know I’ll have lots of good DX waiting for me years from now when I’m no longer able to travel the way that I do now. For me, SDR recordings make much better souvenirs that some cheap tourist trinkets that will gather dust on a shelf. It doesn’t matter whether your travels take you to a nearby park or to a distant continent. SDRs can preserve the DXing experience for years to come.

My Mobile DX Shack

This is my typical DXing setup with the Afedri. The rooftoop terrace at the Hotel Rosa Ermila ($10/night) in Cascas, Peru was the most elegant place I’ve ever DXed from, but reception was only average with the PA0RDT dangling from the railing.

The centerpiece of any DX shack is the receiver. On my 2017-18 trip, I had an Afredri SDR-Net with an SDRPlay RSP1 as a backup, but this year I replaced the Afedri with an Elad FDM-2. Together, my two SDRs are smaller than all but the smallest portable receivers. Of course I also need a laptop, but I’m going to take one anyway. An important consideration in selecting a travel SDR is to get something that is powered off the laptop’s USB connection so that it is easy to DX totally off battery power if line noise becomes an issue.

The other vital component of DXing is the antenna. A good on-the-road antenna for SDR DXing has to be small, easy to erect, broadband, and versatile. That sounds like a lot to ask, but the perfect DX travel antennas do exist.

For compactness and ease of use, nothing can surpass the PA0RDT mini-whip. How good is it? That’s what I used to log over 400 medium wave stations in Colombia in 2016. I just attached the unit to my coax and threw it about three meters up into a short tree. The antenna works best when mounted away from nearby structures, but sometimes I’ve gotten decent results placing the PA0RDT on balconies and windowsills of tall buildings. It’s mostly a matter of luck as to how bad the local noise levels in the building are and how much the building itself may block signals. Using a short support, such as a broom or a hiking pole, it may be possible to mount the unit a meter or so away from the building.

While it’s best to mount the PA0RDT away from obstructions, the antenna might give good results anywhere, even on the neighbor’s roof. (Just make sure it’s not likely to get stuck. Pulling the unit out of a stubborn papaya tree is no joke.)

The biggest drawback of the PA0RDT for serious MW and LW DXing is that it is non-directional. For a directional antenna, a Wellbrook loop is great if you’re traveling by car, but that one-meter diameter aluminum loop doesn’t fit in my suitcase. Fortunately, a few years ago Guy Atkins and Brett Saylor told me about an alternative: buy a Wellbrook ALA-100LN unit and attach it to a large homemade wire loop. Now my travel kit includes two nine-meter lengths and one eighteen-meter length of #18 stranded copper wire. The wires can be spliced together for loops of 9, 18, 27, or 36 meters circumference, according to what fits in a location. Erection of a wire loop is easy enough with a suitable tree branch. I just throw the wire over the branch and then form it into delta (with the bottom running just above the ground) using two tent stakes and some short cord to hold the corners. The ALA-100LN unit goes in the bottom center.

Items that go in my suitcase, left to right: tent stakes and wire for the Wellbrook loop, a small box with more adapters, another battery box, 50 foot coax, 12 foot coax, and my hiking pole. The pole doubles as a support for the PA0RDT sometimes.

The loop doesn’t have to be in a delta; that’s just often the easiest to erect. I’ve successfully used squares, rectangles, trapezoids, oblong diamonds, and right angle triangles. Any balanced shape with the ALA-100LN in the bottom center should be bi-directional in a figure-eight pattern. Non-balanced shapes will work equally well but with unpredictable directionality. Just keep the wire in a single plane and place the ALA-100LN unit someplace along the bottom.

Both the PA0RDT and the Wellbrook require a 12V power supply. The North American version of the Wellbrook comes with an excellent noise-free 110V power supply, but that’s of no use in 220V countries and also I want to be able to DX totally off battery power when necessary. Fortunately both antennas use the same size power connector, so I carry three eight-cell AA battery packs for remote power.

Contents of the DX box, clockwise from upper left: the two pieces of the Wellbrook ALA-100LN, the two pieces of the PA0RDT mini-whip, two 8xAA battery boxes and a set of batteries, USB and coax cables, a passive 4-way antenna splitter, battery tester, various adapters and cup hooks (for securing wires), 4TB hard drive, the SDRPlay RSP1, the Elad FDM-2, and more short patch cords.

My mobile DX shack is rounded out with everything that is needed to connect the parts together. I have at least four of every adapter and patchcord, since I know they won’t be easy to replace on the road. For lead-ins, I have 12-foot and 50-foot lengths of lightweight coax with BNC connectors. I also have a few F-to-BNC adapters so I could buy some standard TV coax if needed. A 4 TB hard drive provides plenty of space the SDR recordings I plan to make. (Before leaving, I fill it with videos that I can delete after I watch them or when I need space.) For DX references, I download various station lists online so that I have them available even if I don’t have an Internet connection. It’s also important to keep those lists with the SDR files from the trip so that if I’m listening to the files years from now I’ll have references which were current at the time.

Airport Security

A common concern for traveling DXers is getting through airport security. When I went to Colombia in 2016, I wrapped my DX gear in clothing for protection and then stuffed everything into my backpack. Security didn’t like what they saw and I had to empty the bag so that every single item could be examined and swabbed for explosive residue. The TSA lady was very nice about it, but I wanted to minimize the chance of that happening again.

At an office supply store I found a plastic storage box that fits inside the main pocket of my backpack. My SDRs, antenna components, and hard drive get wrapped in bubble wrap and all placed together in the box along with small cables, adapters, etc. Larger items – the wire, coax, and stakes for the loop – get packed in my checked bag.

The DX Box packed and ready to go.

At the airport, I slide the box out of my backpack, place it into a cloth shopping bag, and then send it through the X-Ray machine on its own so that the agent can get a close look at the contents. So far in about a dozen security checks in the USA, Peru, and Mexico, the box of gear hasn’t caused so much as a pause on the conveyor belt. And, if the box would get pulled for a closer look, at least I won’t have to empty the entire backpack again.

Most of my equipment fits in this plastic box which slides into my backpack.

Where to DX

A mobile DX shack isn’t worth anything without a suitable place to DX from. Hotels may work if you have a balcony where you can put a small antenna, but more likely than not there’ll be problems with RF noise. The best hotels are ones that are a collection of cottages or bungalows or that otherwise have an open yard-like space for an antenna. My favorite place to find possible DXing sites is on AirBnB. It’s often easy to find AirBnBs that are on the edge of town or even in the countryside with lots of space. Of course, since I don’t have a car, I need to make sure I can get there using public transportation.

While visiting Huanchaco, Peru with DX friends Karl Forth and John Fisher, we had a beach-front apartment with an adjoining rooftop terrace. We had excellent results with an oblong loop and the ALA-100LN on the terrace.

The key to selecting a DX location is to examine all the photos very carefully. Is there open space for the antennas? Are there trees or other potential supports? Is there a gazebo, terrace, or other space that could be used for DXing? Google satellite view and Google street view can be very helpful in scouting out a location (And it’s surprising how much of South America is now on Google Street View.)  And, I always look for possible noise sources. One place I almost rented in Colombia turned out to have high voltage power lines running next door when I found it on Street View.

I always tell the hotel staff or AirBnB host what I’m doing so that they understand why the gringo has wires running around. And I make sure not to put my antennas or coax anywhere that might interfere with the employees or other guests. Most of the time I’m able to erect the antenna near my room and run the lead-in into my room through a window. Then I can leave my laptop running all night to make scheduled SDR recordings. That’s the Holy Grail of DXing – catching the overnight DX while you sleep. But if my room turns out to have too much RF noise (as has been the case a few times), then I head out to the gazebo or terrace to DX using battery power.  That does mean I have to stay up late or get up early since I can’t leave the laptop outside on its own. But, some of the best DX that I’ve had has come from running off full battery power in gazebos.

My delta loop had plenty of space at the Posada de Sauce ($25/night with breakfast) in the jungle near Tarapoto, Peru. The lodge was totally powered by solar panels and was one of the quietest places I’ve ever DXed from.

Antenna security is another consideration. At one place I stayed I wasn’t comfortable leaving my expensive antenna components unattended outside all night. And then there was what happened on my first trip to Colombia in 2010. I knew that a place I would be staying at for two nights had an open field right behind it, so on that trip I took 500 feet of thin insulated wire for a mini beverage-on-the-ground. DXing was great the first night but terrible the second. When I went out the next morning to wind up the wire I learned why. The worker who had been weed-wacking the hotel gardens the previous day had also done the field, and in doing so he had cut my wire in three places. He had, however, very nicely tied the wires back together.

Share the DX

DXing off battery power in the gazebo in the Mauro Hilton Hostel in the mountains above Manizales, Colombia. The antenna was the PA0RDT thrown in a tree. I had great DX with the loop from my room, but I came here to enjoy the views one evening.

Finally, if you take an SDR on a trip and get some good DX, make a selection of your files available for download. Other DXers will enjoy hearing what the band sounds like somewhere else. Several dozen of my files from Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia are available for download in a shared Google Drive folder. If you see something you want, be sure to download it now. The winter DX season is just starting here in deep South America and in the coming weeks I’ll be replacing some of those older files with ones made in Argentina and maybe in Uruguay and southern Brazil. I’ve found a lot of places to stay that look to be perfect for a vagabond DXer.

Links

For fun, here are some of the better places I DXed from in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. The key thing to look for is an open place for the antennas:


Don, thank you so much for sharing your travel DXing expertise. This article is absolutely brilliant and so informative for anyone who wishes to make SDR field recordings. I love how carefully you’ve curated and distilled your portable setup and have given priority to having antennas for all occasions. I also think carrying spare parts and, especially, a spare SDR makes a lot of sense.

Post Readers:  As we mentioned in a previous post, Don is an author and has recently published “Following Ghosts in Northern Peru: In the Footsteps of 19th Century Travelers on the old Moyobamba Route” which is available in Kindle and print formats via Amazon.

Purchasing through this Amazon link supports both the author and the SWLing Post.

Click here to check out other guest posts by Don Moore.


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Video: The Secret Life of Radios

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Skip Arey (N2EI), who shared the following video on Facebook:

Any electrical spark creates radio waves and acts as a transmitter. You hear sparks on a radio as interference. That’s why lighting makes radios crackle, and even the tiny spark in a switch is enough to make a noise on the radio when turning on a light./blockquote>

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