Tag Archives: Mark Hirst

Mark is developing an Alexa skill to search shortwave broadcast schedules

I’ve been an owner of the Amazon Echo smart speaker since it was first released and even reviewed it here on the SWLing Post a couple years ago. Although it’s not a perfect device–and many feel IOT products like this invade their privacy (rightfully so)–it is a nice hands-free way to call up a radio station, set a timer, get the weather, set reminders and even do a little light research.

SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, decided he wanted to develop an Alexa skill to help him with shortwave radio listening. Mark writes:

I’m excited to share my ‘work-in-progress’ Alexa skill for searching shortwave broadcast schedules!

I’ve often stumbled over a station tuning the dial and have had to step away from the radio, grab a computer, go to a web site, type in a frequency… what a fuss – what if I could just ask my Echo dot….?

Since my day job involves chat bots, machine learning, and AI, I was recently asked to look into Alexa and suddenly I had a new home project!

Like they say, “the last 10% takes 90% of the time,” but it’s already functional enough to demo:

Click here to watch demo video.

That’s brilliant, Mark! I’m sure I’m not the only SWL who would love to add this Alexa skill to their Echo device.

Mark did add that this is very much in prototype development and he hasn’t sorted out a way to host it affordably, or better yet, for free if he publishes it publicly. If you have any suggestions about a host server, please comment.

I’m sure Mark would love any early constructive feedback readers might have. Please comment if this is an Alexa skill you would value.

Mark, please keep us apprised of your progress!

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Guest Post: Mark’s Micro Go-Box for the ICOM IC-7100

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, who shares the following guest post:


Micro Go-Box for the ICOM IC-7100

by Mark Hirst

You’ll be familiar I’m sure with the IC-7100 base unit and separate head unit design. It lends itself very nicely for vehicle installation.

Using it in any ‘portable’ situation however has always presented something of a challenge. A FT-857 or FT-891 can be carried as a single physical package with the head unit integrated into the body. The radios can sit and potentially operate on their tail in a backpack, with products like the Escort from Portable Zero making that process even easier.

I’ve had a few attempts at solving this portability conundrum, driven by a concern that there could be long term problems continually connecting and disconnecting the component parts for transport and operation, but knowing that a permanently assembled IC-7100 will always be an awkward dispersed structure.

My first solution was a Stanley 16 inch toolbox, which is fortuitously sized to accommodate the base unit and provides enough space to loop the original connecting cable and head unit. The box is not a bad fit, but certainly bulkier than necessary and leaves enough room for things to rattle around. When tilted vertically, the head unit can start moving.

Fast forward to this week when I discovered that the IC-7100 base unit will also fit inside a 5 litre XL storage box made by Really Useful Boxes:

http://www.reallyusefulproducts.co.uk/usa/
http://www.reallyusefulproducts.co.uk/uk/

The XL version of the 5 litre box has a taller lid, and as you can see from the accompanying photos, accommodates the base unit with the head unit sitting on top of it in a ready to use configuration. The tolerances for height are also exact, the VFO knob very lightly touches the lid, so don’t put something heavy on the box:

Once the lid has been removed, the radio can operate directly from the container:

To make the whole thing fit, I used a 25cm CAT 6 cable in place of the original connection cable and a significantly shortened power lead. As luck would have it, I created the shortened power lead a while ago because I often put the battery right next to the radio.

You can see that I removed a section between the power plug and the fuses, and now use the removed length as an extension should the battery be further away. Although it wasn’t my intention at the time, the main part is about 2 feet long, the secondary about 8 inches.

For transport, the power cable is coiled behind the head unit, ensuring the fuse holders sit in the void immediately behind it, while the microphone cable is coiled on top leaving the microphone resting inside its own coil. You can see the arrangement below:

In the next photo, you can see how the cabling emerges from the back of the base unit:

There’s just enough space for the power cable to leave the base and bend around without undue pressure, and likewise for the CAT 6 cable to curve round into the back of the head unit. Two angle connectors make the antenna ports accessible from above, while a short USB external drive cable provides access to the USB port for data modes and CAT control. A longer USB extension cable is attached to this short cable only when required, and the extension uses much more substantial ferrite chokes to mitigate noise from the computer.

To complete the transport package, I’ve cut out a kaizen style foam insert to make sure the base unit can’t move back into the cabling space, and another to make sure the head unit doesn’t slide towards the front.

The last problem of course is cooling. The fan is located in the front of the base unit, with slots along the sides and top to allow air flow. The box unfortunately is exactly the right size for the base, leaving no gaps for air to circulate. In the absence of a proper workshop or professional tools, I opted to use a hole cutter designed for putting pipes through wood panels. It turns out that plastic has a tendency to deform rather than cut under the blades due to friction heating. A sharp knife was essential in dealing with the effects of that deformation to produce the final smooth edges around the holes:

While I’m happy with the port exposing the front fan, the two holes on each side do not completely expose the side slots. Do I drill out the space between them knowing how tricky and flexible the plastic can be, and would a larger hole compromise the strength of the box? For now, I’m going to keep a careful eye for any temperature issues.

The current arrangement is to carry the box horizontally in a cheap travel bag:

Could the box be tilted vertically with the base unit nose down and carried in a back pack for longer excursions? Yes, but experience has told me that the lid latches on Really Useful Boxes have a tendency to pop open when you do that, so a luggage strap around the box may be required to prevent its very expensive cargo from spilling out. I’m also mindful that the box lid gently touches the VFO knob, so might put load on it in the vertical position.

The final result is something of a Swiss watch, and there isn’t much room for error. Things have to be arranged ‘just so’ to fit, but it does mean I can pack and pick the whole thing up in a handy container. The radio only needs a battery and antenna to be connected on site and then it’s ready to go.

There’s something oddly satisfying when unrelated objects come together like this. Who knew that this box was just the right size to fit the radio?

So, what do you think?


Thank you for sharing this project, Mark!

I love your Micro Go-Box: it’s practical, affordable and makes an otherwise awkward field radio easy to deploy and use. Looking at your photos, I realize that the IC-7100 does have one strong suit for field use. The IC-7100 front panel is tilted at a very comfortable 45 degree angle for use. 

Post Readers: What do you think?  Any other IC-7100 owners out there who take their rig to the field? Please comment!

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Listening to ARISS contacts last week

I get just as excited as my kids when I receive any communications from the International Space Station. This past week, we fit an ARISS contact fit into our hectic schedule during lunch break. I gave both of my kids a handheld radio and we all listened together as the ISS passed overhead.

Right on schedule, we heard NA1SS, but it sounded like they were struggling to make contact with KD2IFR at the Central Islip Union Free School District in Central Islip, NY.

I made a short video about one minute into the scheduled contact. I believe both parties were forced to move to their backup channel because we never heard an exchange–only NA1SS calling KD2IFR:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Still…we heard an astronaut live, so mission accomplished!

SWLing Post contributor, Mark Hirst, had much better luck last week monitoring an ARISS contact with King’s High School in Warwick, UK. Check out his excellent video:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Thanks for posting that video, Mark. By the way, I love your FT-817ND setup!

In fact, the King’s High School ARISS contact snagged some excellent publicity via the BBC.  Here’s an article via the Southgate ARC:

King’s High School ARISS contact on BBC TV

On April 19 student Eleanor Griffin led the live question and answer session between King’s High School (GB4KHS) and astronaut Ricky Arnold KE5DAU on the International Space Station (OR4ISS)

King’s High School strongly encourage their girls to develop their interests both inside and outside the classroom. This culture of empowerment led one of their girls to apply to ARISS Europe (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) for a highly prestigious link-up to the International Space Station.

Nicola Beckford reporting on the contact for the BBC – credit KHS

When Eleanor Griffin was selected to hold a space conversation with an astronaut, she was inspired to set up the Warwick Mars Project, for students across the Warwick Independent Schools Foundation, to further interest in Space Science. Eleanor says: “The moon landings belong to the generation of our grandparents, and the International Space Station to our parents. What will happen in our generation? Will Mankind travel to another planet?”

When asked what the incredible experience of the ISS contact had taught her Eleanor replied “Just do it! No one is going to stop you, if you just go and pursue your dreams, you really can do anything.”

Watch the BBC TV news item broadcast on Midlands Today @bbcmtd. Fast forward to 18:45 into the recording at
https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09z9tw6/midlands-today-evening-news-19042018

Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS)
http://ariss.org/
https://twitter.com/ARISS_status

King’s High School Warwick
https://twitter.com/KHSWarwick

If you missed these ARISS contacts, no worries! Check out the ARISS “Upcoming Contacts” page where future ARISS QSOs are listed. ARISS contacts are a great opportunity to show kids of all ages what you can hear with even a modest radio!

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