Tag Archives: Amateur Radio

A Field Day weekend of rain, shine, battery power, pile-ups, and radio improvisation

If you’ve been reading the SWLing Post for long, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of portable radio gear. Whether it’s a portable receiver, an SDR, or a ham radio, I believe radios are made to be taken outside––rain or shine; hence I love programs like Parks On The Air (POTA ) and Summits On The Air (SOTA), and I’ve always loved ARRL Field Day.

Of course, this ARRL Field Day was a bit different than years past due to Covid-19––there were more individuals on the air with their own Field Day stations, while there were relatively few clubs on the air. Typically, the opposite is true.

This year I’d planned to operate from the field at various POTA locations in western NC; some contenders were the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pisgah National Forest, and Mount Mitchell State Park. In the past few years, my buddy Vlado (N3CZ) and I––with spouses in tow––hit the field together, but this year he was out of town, and I planned to go solo.

I plotted a few hours of Field Day time at Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The night before, I had my antennas and the Elecraft KX2, KXPA100, Heil Pro Headset, and 15 aH LiFePo battery (all packed in my go-packs, of course), in the car and ready to go.

Saturday morning.  I woke expecting fairly nice weather: partly cloudy with a chance of showers. Turned out, it was chilly, gusty, with total cloud cover and fairly constant rain. I’ll admit, it dampened my enthusiasm for Craggy, because while it’s a gorgeous site, it’s well above 5000′ ASL, thus the winds up there can be seriously gusty and the weather can turn on a dime.

So, I decided to put up my feet in the shack  and operate class 1E, meaning on emergency/battery power.

I started calling CQ at the start of Field Day and, to my surprise, worked a constant pile-up for nearly an hour. Within that fairly short space of time I found I’d already collected about 90 or more stations on 40 meters.

After that, I hunted and pounced for maybe an hour, then took a break; later that night, I operated intensively again for 30 minutes or so.  Had I been at a Field Day site, I would have been a much more dedicated operator, but frankly, I’m not even sure I plan to send in my logs. Still, it was fun.

My set up on a damp picnic table at the Craggy Gardens Picnic area.

Sunday morning.  The weather was much more pleasant from the get-go, with sun and wind, though thunder showers were in the forecast. Around 11:00 or so, my wife suggested we pack up and head to Craggy Gardens for a little radio fun followed by some lunch and hiking.

We reached the site–it was beautiful, but ominous. Thick fog and Saharan dust (no kidding) covered the site and surrounding mountains.  Still, I set up the station and my new Wolf River Coils TIA portable vertical.

My daughter and I deployed the TIA vertical in a matter of 5 minutes.

I think I logged two stations before the misty clouds rolled up all around me; then (remember that change-on-a-dime weather?) a sudden––and torrential––downpour came from nowhere. My wife snagged all she could carry and ran for the car, and I quickly covered my gear with my raincoat and packed everything in my packs as soon as possible. I had to make two trips to the car to pack everything, and needless to say, with my raincoat in the service of my equipment, I was drenched to the skin. I literally looked like I had jumped into a lake with my clothes on.  Fortunately my gear––at least, the important gear––was only a bit damp, but internally fine. Herein lies one of the great things about being a pack geek: quality packs tend to be water-resistant, if not fully waterproof.

But. If I’m being completely honest, I’ll admit I was a bit miffed that I got so little radio time before the heavens opened. We knew there would be a risk of bad weather and, frankly, other than the hassle of packing and unpacking, we actually acknowledge the entertainment value of a little WX from time to time. After all, this is the hazard of operating under a wide open sky.

My wife, sensing my disappointment, suggested we go to another site to play a little radio, but at that point I just wasn’t feeling it. What I felt instead was the damp…wringing wet-level damp…and my spirits were dampened. too. I suggested we make our way back.

En route, I saw a sign for the Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace––a historic site that I knew was a POTA entity. I’d completely forgotten about this site, and decided to make a detour so I could scope out the site for a future activation. By now I’d warmed up a bit, and a bit of lunch helped revive my flagging spirits.

Turns out the site’s visitor’s center is closed on Sunday, but the gates are open so the public can enjoy the grounds. We drove up to their covered picnic area, although the cover was now peace of mind only, as the sun was again making an appearance. The setting was…well, ideal. And here I was. How could I not go ahead and activate this POTA site?

Zebulon B. Vance Birthplace (K-6856)

It was windy but warm, and while my wife spread out the packs, lunch cooler, and jackets to dry, I, too, found I was no longer dripping. By the time I set up the Wolf River Coils TIA vertical and my KX2/KXPA100, the togs were fairly dry, and indeed I was quite comfortable again. I hopped back on the air and worked a number of stations in short order, easily logging the ten needed to confirm the park activation.

The Wolf River TIA is outstanding in its field (sorry!)

Later, I discovered that the site was an “All-Time New One” (ATNO) in the POTA system. A bittersweet discovery, in a way, because Field Day is not the best time for POTA hunters to log a new site. Still, I wasn’t even calling CQ with POTA in mind; I just worked Field Day stations and had a great time.

Just as I finished, there was yet another downpour, but as the picnic area where I’d set up was covered, I no longer feared my gear getting soaked. This time, it was a sudden loud clap of thunder that gave me my cue to pack up quickly!

Still, all in all, I was very pleased with my weekend Field Day chase, and it was worth dodging rain storms for it. Sure, I would have loved to play radio at Craggy Gardens for a couple hours, but it was a pleasant surprise to fit in an ATNO activation before the end of the day. I’d have never guessed the Vance site was an ATNO, since it’s so accommodating and accessible. Indeed, I’ve discovered that, at this stage in POTA, most of the sites that haven’t been activated are either newly-incorporated into POTA or are very inaccessible. If you missed me there on Field Day, no worries: I plan to head out there again in the very near future.

Oh, and I did learn one more thing over the weekend: the Wolf River Coils TIA vertical antenna is incredibly easy and speedy to deploy. I’m very pleased with this recent acquisition!

Parkway and parks? I’ll be back soon. My radio’s already packed.

Did you participate in Field Day or put your receivers to the test by trying to log exchanges between stations?  Please comment!


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Radio in the field: Two new POTA activations this weekend!

This past weekend my wife suggested that I do a Parks On The Air (POTA) activation. I think she wanted me out of the house so that she could prepare a birthday and Father’s day surprise with my daughters.

Of course, I happily obliged. My motto in French: “Profitez-en bien!” or “Make the most of it!”

Hazel (our dog) made it crystal clear she wanted to join me as well. She’s a great hiking companion and also watches out for black bears while I operate in the forest!

DuPont State Game Land (K-6902)

I decided to activate the DuPont State Game Land which was about a one hour drive from my house. Not only was it a new park for me, but it was also an ATNO (All-Time New One) for the POTA program.

I arrived onsite around 10:15 AM local and the parking lot for the forest trail heads was already packed.

It was a gorgeous day and this part of the DuPont Forest is well-known as a great mountain biking spot. I was very lucky to find a place to park.

We’re still in full social distancing mode in North Carolina due to Covid-19, so I had no desire to be anywhere near other people. Hazel and I went off-trail and hiked in about 1/4 of a mile to a nice clearing.

I set up the EFT Trail-Friendly end-fed antenna and operated with the Elecraft KX2.

I called for quite some time before I was spotted in the POTA system. After being spotted, I quickly racked up more than the required 10 contacts for the activation to be considered valid.

Although the weather was amazing and my antenna deployment was near-ideal, the bands were rough and unstable, so it was challenging.

Hazel and I packed up, moved out, and made a detour to visit a waterfall near a site I hope to activate in the near future. Here’s a short video:

Kerr Scott State Game Land (K-6918)

Since Sunday, I’ve been visiting my hometown to help my parents with a few projects.

Yesterday, I had a four hour break in the day and decided to, of course, benefit from the beautiful weather and activate another new-to-me site. (Can you tell I’m addicted to POTA?)

I picked the Kerr Scott Game Land because it was “only” a 50 minute, rather scenic, drive.

It was quite easy finding a spot to park.  Like most game lands, though, you must be prepared to go through off-road conditions. Part of the driveway into the site was incredibly muddy and definitely required at least all-wheel drive.

I set up my station in the shade and easily deployed the end-fed antenna once again.

Lesson learned

This activation of Kerr Scott Game Land taught me an invaluable lesson: if you don’t have a “spot” of your activation on the POTA site, it’s like you don’t exist.

The POTA spotting network (much like popular DX spotting networks and clusters) is simply amazing. As a POTA hunter, you open the spots page and you’ll see a list of all of the current operators, their park numbers, and frequencies where last heard.

As an activator, your number one priority when you find an available frequency and start calling CQ is to be spotted on the POTA network.

If I have good mobile phone coverage at my site, I self-spot on the network. Within a few seconds of the spot posting, I’ll typically have a pile-up of a few operators trying to reach me.

If I have cell phone service, but no data, I’ll text my good friend Mike (K8RAT) and ask him to spot me on the network.

Kerr Scott, like most game lands, however, had no mobile phone service whatsoever, so I had no way to self-spot. In fact, this particular site was a good 15 minute drive from the nearest cell phone signal.

I called CQ for 30 to 40 minutes on my announced frequency, at the announced time, but not one single op come back to me.

Since I had just driven 50 minutes to reach this site, there was no way I was going to give up so easily. I had already set up my station in the trunk/boot of my car, so I simply secured it, disconnected the antenna and tied it to a tree branch (so it wouldn’t be in the way), and drove 15 minutes to a spot where I could send a quick message to Mike.

When I got back to the Kerr Scott, I hooked up the antenna, made one call, and had a pile-up of five operators I worked in rapid succession. In fact, I had my required 10 contacts within 8 minutes.

I do wonder how some of the most adventurous POTA activators manage to post spots while in remote areas. It’s such a key component of having a successful activation, I wonder if they use a satellite phone or satellite messaging device to text a friend for help. (If you’re a POTA or SOTA activator, I’d welcome your comments here!)

At any rate, I was very pleased to hammer out an activation so effortlessly once I was spotted on the network.

The CW secret weapon

I should add here that CW activators have a secret weapon that’s incredible effective: the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).

As a CW operator, the POTA spot system will read your callsign from the RBN as long as you have made an announcement on the POTA website in advance or have already been spotted to the POTA website. All you have to do is set up your station at the site and call CQ: the POTA system will auto-generate an accurate spot for you based on the frequency from the RBN.  It’s incredibly effective and more than enough reason for me to think I should start doing CW activations.

I can operate CW–in fact, I routinely make CW contacts in POTA and in other contests. However, I’m not quite brave enough to call CQ from a POTA site and work my way through even a modest pile-up.

I need to practice CW more, and I will!

This week, I also take delivery of my Wolf River Coils TIA antenna. I’m looking forward to having the TIA as an option when I need a self-supporting antenna that’s quick to deploy and can handle up to 100 watts when needed.

Post readers: Did you play radio in the field this weekend? I’d love your comments–especially if you simply took a receiver outdoors to enjoy some noise-free broadcast listening!


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Building the EA3GCY DB4020 Dual-band 40 and 20M QRP SSB Transceiver Kit

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Frank (ON6UU), who shares the following guest post:


Building EA3GCY’s DB4020 QRP Transceiver kit

by Frank Lagaet (ON6UU)

In May, I discovered via a newsletter that a new kit was available from Javier EA3GCY in Spain.  I was immediately sold as this was a kit from my favourite kit producer and it has 2 bands–it will also be able to do CW and there also will be a CW filter.

After building 2 MFT’s from Javier which work without problems, I needed to have the DB4020.  The MFT’s are for 20 and 40 mtrs and do DSB (double side band).  I did put them in a not-so-graceful box but they do what they are intended for which is QRP phone (SSB).   They came together without problems so I expected the same for the DB4020–I knew for sure when I saw the board:  all through-hole components (except for some capacitors which are factory soldered) and a lot of space on the board.   The board has been silk-screened with clear indications on where all components have to come and the manual has very clear instructions where each component has to be soldered with referral to a quadrant.  The manual provides a 252 quadrant page so it is a piece of cake to find where each piece goes.

What do you get?

Javier provides you with all components which need to be installed on the board and, of course, the kit board.  The components come in small marked plastic bags and all is well-wrapped up in bubble wrap.  The board is wrapped separately and that is put together with the component wrap which is then again wrapped up in bubble plastic.  All goes into an envelope.  Very well packed I must say.

Here’s a picture of the bags with components:

The silk-screened board:

I started with the resistors since that’s the easiest way. After that, I did the capacitors.  I like to solder in all flat components first, so next were the diodes and IC sockets followed by the elco’s.  The transistors were next together with all relays.  As you solder in the transistors one also has to mount the cooling heatsinks,  these cooling sinks are high and are ideal to protect the coils one has to make,  they also protect the polystyrene caps (which I always find vulnerable) when the board is upside down.

Many kit builders are afraid of winding the toroids in kits–don’t be!  It is easy.  Just take your time and follow the instructions given by Javier in the construction manual.  In this kit the builder has to wind 8 toroids:  6 are a single wire which goes through the toroid body,  1 is a toroid with 2 different windings, and 1 has a twisted pair which goes through the final toroid.  Be sure to measure the wire you need per toroid as instructed in the manual.  Javier gives some spare, so you can be sure.  You will also see that on next picture where the legs of the toroids have not been trimmed yet.  Once done I still had some centimetres of wire leftover.

Picture of the toroids ready to be soldered in:

Finally all other parts and pin headers went in,  jumpers were immediately put on where needed.

As I’m using a military-grade plastic box, I have to break-out some components like the display,  tuning encoder,  volume and rx control from the board.  I also have put an on/off switch on the box and already have the CW KEY connector ready installed. I also installed a loudspeaker in the box.  The SI5351 board and the Ardiuno Nano are the final components which go into the board after installing all wires.

Picture of the board:

I intend to attach a CW paddle to the box made out of a relay.  A HWEF tuner (from EA3GCY) which I was planning to incorporate in the box is I think a bit overkill. That HWEF tuner is already in a nice little box and would be a pity to dismantle,  also I’m running out of space in the box…  Maybe I can fit in a 9-1unun which would then give me good results on both bands…?

Maybe I will install a battery pack in the same box.

The box with board installed:

The box completed front side:

Mind you,  it still needs some additional switches for the CW part of the transceiver.

73
Frank (ON6UU)

Video


Brilliant, Frank! I really appreciate the video as well–sounds like the kit produces smooth audio and should serve you well. No doubt, that military box enclosure will survive even the roughest field conditions!

Click here to check out the DB4020 kit at EA3GCY’s store.

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FCC is crystal clear: Remote ham radio licensing exams are absolutely permitted

In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, amateur radio VECs in the US have been experimenting with remote testing sessions–meaning, administering ham radio license exams via real-time teleconference apps like Skype, Zoom, and Google Meet.

Amateur radio operators in support of remote testing have been contacting the FCC asking for formal approval of remote exams and the ARRL has also been exploring and experimenting with the process.

Today, the FCC posted a public notice, making it clear that FCC approval is not required to conduct remote tests:

We make clear here that nothing in the FCC’s rules prohibits remote testing, and prior FCC approval is not required to conduct remote tests.  The Commission provides flexibility to volunteer examiners and coordinators who wish to develop remote testing methods or to increase remote testing programs already in place.”

I’ve pasted the text from the body of the public notice below (click here to download the full PDF doc):


DA 20-467
Released: April 30, 2020

WIRELESS TELECOMMUNICATIONS BUREAU CONFIRMS THAT
AMATEUR RADIO SERVICE OPERATOR LICENSE EXAMINATIONS
MAY BE HELD REMOTELY

The Amateur Radio Service provides opportunities for self-training, intercommunication, and technical investigations for qualified persons of any age who are interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim and without pecuniary interest. To operate an Amateur Radio Service station, an operator must have an FCC license. The Commission issues three classes of operator licenses, each authorizing a different level of privilege. 1 The class for which each licensee is qualified is determined during an examination by the level of skill and knowledge in operating a station that the licensee demonstrates to volunteer examiners, who conduct this testing on behalf of FCC-certified volunteer examiner coordinators.

Many potential amateur radio test takers and volunteer examiners have contacted the Chairman and the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau to request that the Commission allow remote testing in light of current public health guidelines regarding social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. We make clear here that nothing in the FCC’s rules prohibits remote testing, and prior FCC approval is not required to conduct remote tests. 2 The Commission provides flexibility to volunteer examiners and coordinators who wish to develop remote testing methods or to increase remote testing programs already in place.3

We recognize that some volunteer examiner coordinators may not have the immediate capacity for widespread remote testing. We expect those volunteer examiner coordinators with limited remote testing capacity to work closely with those requesting such testing to prioritize any available remote testing slots.

– FCC –


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On The Air: ARRL’s excellent magazine for newcomers…only available behind their paywall

Cover of the new “On The Air” e-magazine from the ARRL

Today, the ARRL released their new electronic magazine for ham radio newcomers: On The Air.

The ARRL describes On The Air‘s mission:

“On the Air magazine is the newest ARRL member benefit to help new licensees and beginner-to-intermediate radio communicators navigate the world of amateur radio. Delivered six times a year, the magazine will present articles, how-to’s, and tips for selecting equipment, building projects, getting involved in emergency communication as well as spotlighting the experiences of people using radio to serve their communities, and those using it for enjoyment.”

I checked out On The Air and was quite pleased with the scope of the magazine. The first issue covers topics such as: understanding the ionosphere, choosing your first radio, building simple antennas, and much more. I love the fact that the articles are written with newcomers in mind, too; less technical jargon and more explanations.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been teaching a ham radio class to a group of high school students. Most of the students have now acquired their Technician licenses, and we’re even plotting a General class course for the fall.

Last month, I shared some copies of QST (the ARRL monthly member magazine) with my students. While they enjoyed looking through the pages of QST, many told me they simply didn’t understand the articles yet…There’s just not a lot inside a QST issue to grab the attention of a fifteen or sixteen year old who’s just gotten her ticket. Understandable.

Then, I learned about On The Air from a friend with the ARRL.  I was so glad to hear that the League was finally making a bi-monthly magazine aimed squarely at newcomers! I was also pleased it was an e-publication, because it will be that much easier to share with my class and propagate to prospective students.

But today, I discovered, to my dismay, that other than the premier issue, On The Air is for ARRL members only. Here’s a screen grab from the website:

But…”for members only”––?

Alas, in limiting access, the ARRL has essentially insured that most of their target audience won’t ever have the opportunity to read On The Air, and thus they’ve crippled the best ARRL recruitment tool I’ve ever seen. 

What a shame.

I’ve contacted my ARRL representative and asked that they reconsider the decision to hide this brilliant magazine behind a membership paywall. I’m pretty sure that ad revenue and membership fees could readily cover the cost of publishing this electronic edition. After all, On The Air could lead to a lot more ARRL members! And, indeed, I hope it will.

If you feel as I do, please contact your ARRL Section manager. It may be that those making the decisions are, in this case, a little out of touch with the future of amateur radio.

Update – To be clear about this post: I’m not implying anything bad about the ARRL here, I just think it’s a lost opportunity if they keep future editions of On The Air behind the member pay wall. I imagine that ad revenue alone could more than support this niche publication if they simply release it as a free PDF. The real benefit, though, could be an increase in ARRL membership as On The Air readers get a taste of what the League could offer! In other words: this is an opportunity!

What do you think? Should On The Air be free to anyone interested in amateur radio, or for members only? Please comment!

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Amateur radio connecting without judgement

I think this is a brilliant story from the CBC:

Almost every morning and night, Therese Mair can be found sitting on her favourite chair in her living room, in front of a ham radio.

Mair lives in Georgetown, P.E.I., but by fiddling with a dial and searching through static, she can speak with people from around the world.

On a recent evening, Mair reached someone on a ship in Scotland, who — to her delight — struck up a conversation.

“The main thing I’m hoping for is a connection with somebody else — even just for a few minutes,” Mair said.

“There’s no pressure at all. We’re never going to meet. So it’s just a chance to talk with somebody else from a different part of the world.”

As a self-described introvert living alone in a small town, Mair says amateur radio has opened a social part of her life she didn’t know existed.

It has also allowed her to meet people, free of judgment, she says.

“I don’t think I’m a normal person at all, and so finding ways of connecting with people face-to-face hasn’t always been the most successful,” Mair said.

“Once I come home from work and close my doors, I don’t really communicate with people very much at all. The radio is a way for me to make that connection without being judged at all.”

She first picked up her hobby in 2017, after hearing that ham radios were the only way people in Puerto Rico could communicate in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Mair says speaking with people around the world through her radio reminds her that there are caring people everywhere, “no matter what the news brings.”

“There are all these people around the world; they just want a human connection, just for a few moments, and then that fills you up, makes you feel really good.” she said.

“And then — great. On with the rest of the day.”

Click here to read this story and listen to the interview.

 

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IEEE Spectrum: “Is Ham Radio a Hobby, a Utility…or Both?”

Many thanks to a number of SWLing Post readers who have shared a link to the following article that follows the debate and discussion over an FCC proposal–RM-11831 (PDF)–to “Reduce Interference and Add Transparency to Digital Data Communications.”

The IEEE article, written by Julianne Pepitone, covers both sides of the debate:

Is Ham Radio a Hobby, a Utility…or Both? A Battle Over Spectrum Heats Up

Some think automated radio emails are mucking up the spectrum reserved for amateur radio, while others say these new offerings provide a useful service

Like many amateur radio fans his age, Ron Kolarik, 71, still recalls the “pure magic” of his first ham experience nearly 60 years ago. Lately, though, encrypted messages have begun to infiltrate the amateur bands in ways that he says are antithetical to the spirit of this beloved hobby.

So Kolarik filed a petition, RM-11831 [PDF], to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposing a rule change to “Reduce Interference and Add Transparency to Digital Data Communications.” And as the proposal makes its way through the FCC’s process, it has stirred up heated debate that goes straight to the heart of what ham radio is, and ought to be.

The core questions: Should amateur radio—and its precious spectrum—be protected purely as a hobby, or is it a utility that delivers data traffic? Or is it both? And who gets to decide?

Since Kolarik filed his petition in late 2018, this debate has engulfed the ham world. Fierce defenders of both sides have filed passionate letters and comments to the FCC arguing their cases.

On one side is Kolarik in Nebraska. In his view, it’s all rather simple: “Transparency is a core part of ham radio,” he says. “And yet, you can find tons of traffic from automatic[ally controlled digital] stations that are extremely difficult to identify, if you can identify them at all, and they cause interference.”

The automatically controlled digital stations (ACDS) Kolarik refers to can serve to power services like Winlink, a “global radio email” system.

Overseen and operated by licensed volunteers around the globe, Winlink is funded and guided by the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation, Inc. (ARSFI). The service uses amateur and government radio frequencies around the globe to send email messages by radio. Users initiate the transmission through an Internet connection, or go Internet-free and use smart-network radio relays.

On Winlink’s website, the service says it provides its licensed users the ability to send email with attachments, plus messages about their positions, and weather and information bulletins. Representatives of the service say it also allows users to participate in emergency and disaster relief communications.

But Kolarik’s petition argues two points: First, because such messages “are not readily and freely able to be decoded,” the FCC should require all digital codes to use protocols that “can be monitored in entirety by third parties with freely available, open-source software.” Secondly, he wants the rule change to reduce the interference that he says services like Winlink can create between amateur-to-amateur stations—by relegating the often-unattended automatic stations to operate solely on narrower sub-bands.

Loring Kutchins, the president of ARSFI, says he believes Kolarik’s petition is “well intentioned in its basis. But the fundamental conflict is between people who believe amateur radio is about hobby, not about utility. But nowhere do the FCC rules use the word ‘hobby.’”[…]

Click here to continue reading the full article on the IEEE Spectrum website.

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