Andy’s article caused me (yes, I blame him) to wax nostalgic about the popular FT-817 transceiver. You see, I owned one of the first production models of the FT-817 in 2001 when I lived in the UK.
At the time, there was nothing like it on the market: a very portable and efficient HF, VHF, UHF, multi-mode general coverage QRP transceiver…all for $670 US.
In 2001? Yeah, Yaesu knocked it out of the ballpark!
In fact, they knocked it out of the ballpark so hard, the radio is still in production two decades later and in demand under the model FT-818.
I sold my FT-817 in 2008 to raise funds for the purchase of an Elecraft KX1, if memory serves. My reasoning? The one thing I disliked about my FT-817 was its tiny front-facing display. When combined with the embedded menus and lack of controls, it could get frustrating at home and in the field.
When I told Andy about my ‘817ND purchase, he asked if I’d like to help him test the FT-817 Buddy board versions. How could I refuse?
Andy sent me a prototype of his Version 2 Buddy board which arrived in late November. I had to source out a few bits (an Arduino board, Nokia display, and multi-conductor CAT cable). Andy kindly pre-populated all of the SMD components so I only needed to solder the Arduino board and configure/solder the cable. I did take a lot of care preparing and soldering the cable, making sure there was no unintentional short between the voltage and ground conductors.
Overall, I found the construction and programming pretty straight-forward. It helped that Andy did a remote session with me during the programming process (thanks, OM!). Andy is doing an amazing job with the documentation.
I do love how the board makes it easier to read the frequency and have direct access to important functions without digging through embedded menus. While there’s nothing stopping you from changing the program to suit you, Andy’s done a brilliant job with this since he’s an experienced FT-817 user.
The Nokia display is very well backlit, high contrast, and easy very to read.
“Resistance is futile”
I mentioned on Twitter that, with the backlight on, the FT-817 Buddy makes my ‘817ND look like it was recently assimilated by The Borg.
Don’t tell any Star Trek captains, but I’m good with that.
Andy has a rev3 board in the works and it sports something that will be a game-changer for me in the field: K1EL’s keyer chip!
For more information about the FT-817 Buddy, check out Andy’s website. At time of posting, it’s not available yet, but as Andy says, “it’s nearly there!”
Of course, we’ll keep you updated here as well. Many thanks to Andy for taking this project to the next level. No doubt a lot of FT-817 users will benefit from this brilliant project!
Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Andy Webster (G7UHN), who kindly shares the following guest post:
Yaesu FT-817 companion display
by Andy Webster (G7UHN)
Like so many I love getting out portable with my FT-817 but I do seem to spend so much of my operating time fiddling through the soft-keys because my most used functions (CW narrow filter, power and keyer settings to tune an ATU, A/B, A=B, etc.) are spread across different “pages” of the A,B,C assignments. Compared to the sublime experience of using my Elecraft K2 the FT-817 can be a little frustrating!
Last month, inspiration struck and I thought I could cobble together a small microcontroller and a little OLED display with some buttons to provide some extra soft-keys for the radio using the CAT serial port. Nothing particularly original here (I’ve seen articles of people using PICs for this purpose) but it seemed like a nice sized project for me to play with and build some experience doing PCBs (I’ve only done this once before at home). A little bit of discussion with Michael G0POT (FT-817 and SOTA guru), some Google searching and we were looking over KA7OEI’s excellent reference page (http://www.ka7oei.com/ft817_meow.html) and thinking about our favourite FT-817 commands…
As it happened I was lucky to have the right bits (Arduino Nano, small OLED display, buttons, prototype board and an 8-pin mini DIN cable) lying around the house to see “first light” from my FT-817’s serial port that evening. The Arduino Nano is a good place to start because it works at 5V so can work directly with the FT-817 levels on the ACC port. What followed next was some late nights of hacking on Arduino code to send and receive the data for my favourite commands and more experimentation on prototype board.
I tried a couple of cheap OLED displays and they look great indoors but weren’t quite up to the job in full sunlight which is fairly typical in my portable operations.
Daytime readability issues with an OLED display
By this point I had also realised the utility of having an auxiliary display on top of the radio as a much easier thing to view than the 817’s own display on the front panel. I’d also experienced some interference from the unshielded prototype board coming through as clicking sounds on the radio’s receiver so it looked as though some isolation between radio and my circuit might be necessary. Guided by many Internet tutorials, I switched to using a Nokia 5110-style LCD for better daylight readability and lower power consumption. Adding an ADUM1201 digital isolator and a B0505S-1W isolated DC-DC converter to the prototype board (modules acquired very quickly from eBay suppliers) gave me some isolation and lowered the interference which I guessed would disappear when I made the design on PCB with good ground planes around the signal lines.
Screen capture showing the schematic (click to enlarge)
With a (mostly) working prototype it was time to hammer the Internet tutorials again, this time to learn how to use KiCad, a free open-source PCB design tool available on Linux, Windows and Mac. I’ve done one PCB for home projects before using Autodesk EAGLE and I found learning Eagle pretty hard going, it seems like it carries 20 years worth of baggage and dogma in the user interface. In fact I started using EAGLE on this project but spent 3 hours on the first evening just trying to change the labels on the ADUM1201 chip that I couldn’t find in an EAGLE library… so I gave up and thought I’d try KiCad which I’d seen some recent good reports on. I’m happy to say after finding an excellent tutorial on KiCad I had drawn the schematic and my PCB layout in about 15 hours working time spread over a few evenings.
I should add that the 15 hours of KiCad time did include several hours of agonising over the choice of slide switch so a PCB can be done much quicker than that once you’ve got your favourite parts sorted!
That’s pretty impressive for my first go with KiCad as a near-beginner to PCBs, I heartily recommend it, it was so much easier than EAGLE and quite an enjoyable tool. Right, PCB design done and uploaded to JLCPCB for manufacture. 5 PCBs with DHL shipping cost me less than £20 and arrived from China within 5 calendar days. Other PCB fabs are available… 🙂
Click to enlarge
So that brings us to today, pretty much. The PCB was assembled very quickly (!) and there is no sign of noise from the serial data lines creeping into the 817’s receiver now it’s on PCB. Some lessons have been learned through the construction (e.g. brown 6mm push buttons are less “clicky” than the black ones and that’s a good thing!) and I now have my companion FT-817 display/buttons in field trials. I’ve no plans to sell this, it’s a trivially simple design, but it does make a great home project to polish your skills in microcontrollers, PCBs and construction. I’ll post a write-up on my website in due course.
In use, the device works just as I’d hoped, I can do everything I want to on my FT-817 without having to fiddle through the awkward button presses. The frequency display is also in a much better position for me now (as most FT-817 owners will know as they jealously eye the KX2, KX3, etc…!) and I think I used it for the whole session when I took it to the field on Saturday. If only my CW had been so slick!
Next steps are to work on the Arduino code. My code is pretty rubbish (my coding style involves a lot of Stack Overflow and copy/paste!) and not safe for public consumption. There are also some health warnings to be noted in manipulating the FT-817’s EEPROM (required for some of the functions I wanted), explained on KA7OEI’s page but there have been a few volunteers on Twitter to help with the software which is great. Also I may do a “Rev 2” board with an Arduino Pro Mini to lower the drain on the FT-817 battery before sharing the PCB files. Other than that it’s now time to get back outdoors and enjoy the new improved interface to my smallest radio! 😀
Andy, I absolutely love this project! A wonderful addition to the FT-817/818 and I’d hardly call it a “trivial” design–!
I purchased the original FT-817 shortly after it was introduced. At the time, I was living in the UK and travelled extensively throughout Europe. I loved the ability to simply throw this little rig into my carryon and play radio pretty much anywhere my work travels took me. In the end, I did less ham radio work with the FT-817 and more SWLing.
Still, I eventually sold my FT-817 for the very same reason that motivated you to build a companion display: the front panel is too small and my most used functions require too much menu digging.
Your companion board is an elegant homebrew solution. I love the Nokia LCD screen–superb readability in the field.
Thank you again and once you do a write-up on for your website, we’ll be sure to link to it on the SWLing Post!
The Yaesu FT-817nd general coverage QRP transceiver
“I would like to suggest another candidate that is really hard to beat and is fantastic value when you buy a used one – The Yaesu FT-817 Low Power Transceiver.
It has outrageously good General Coverage performance and a massive LF – UHF coverage receiver. It has the same paperback footprint as many of the travel radios you review and a built in battery pack albeit a fairly low capacity one.
When it comes to extracting weak signals out of noise and interference it is head and shoulders above the rest with a switchable pre-amp, variable RF gain and attenuator, pass-band tuning, narrow filters etc.”
Anil, you’re right. The FT-817 is a very compact, full-featured radio and certainly easy to pack.
I was an early adopter of the ‘817, having purchased mine in 2000 or 2001. I was living in the UK at the time and traveled extensively throughout Europe for my employer. I looked to the FT-817 as a means to play ham radio on the go. It easily fit into my carry-on bag at the time.
Like you, I was very pleased with the receiver though I had nothing to compare it to at the time.
I kept the FT-817 for about five years, but eventually sold it. I started using the Elecraft KX1 as its replacement. I found that, for me, the ‘817’s front face was a little too small and some of the multi-function knobs could be a little frustrating to use while on the air. Those were relatively minor criticisms, though–the ‘817 continues to have a large fan base and is enjoying very long product life.