30 April 2023

Building The Bomb

No, not that bomb. I've set out to build what I consider the ideal field computer for Amateur Radio use. I guess in this case I shouldn't use the term 'the bomb', but instead, 'da. bomb', as in 'this computer is gonna' be da' bomb!' When the grid goes down, this bomb needs to keep on ticking.

This little project is an extension of my experience with tablet computers (discussed here), and my frustration with any ham radio manufacturer's inability or unwillingness to deliver a ruggedized full featured field radio that doesn't cost more than my camper (which, if you're curious, set me back $22,000). Any rugged field computer would need to be accompanied by an equally rugged computer to run digital modes, CAT control software, etc. While Icom or Yaesu still can't get the radio side done, at least Dell can get the computer side done.

I've come to really like the Dell Latitude line of ruggedized computers, particularly their tablets - the 7212 and 7220 line. The 7212 went out of production last year, and the 7220 is about to be replaced in Dell's lineup with the 7230, but good used examples of both tablets - the 7212 and 7220 - are available on eBay and from on-line resellers like Bob Johnson's Computer Stuff out of Delaware. (Side note - I've bought from Bob Johnson's in the past and can highly recommend them.)

Dell Latitude 7220 in all its naked glory

I was fortunate enough to have evaluated the 7212 at work, and of all the tablets I tested I found it to be the best in overall performance and design. There's nothing unique or spectacular about the guts of these Dell tablets - they are run-of-the-mill i3, i5 or i7 processor units with on-board graphics, 8 or 16 gigabytes or RAM and up to 1 TB of storage. There are dozens of tablet manufacturers that can deliver the exact same specs and performance. The big difference with the Dell units is how those specs are delivered - the design and manufacturing of the overall tablet. This is where Dell excels. From the port covers to the battery design to the folding stand and how the removable keyboard integrates, Dell just does it better. The best example is the detachable folding stand. For most rugged tablet manufacturers, a folding stand (if they even offer one) is a kludgy after-thought. Yet everyone I know who uses a tablet wants one. Dell thought about this from the start, and designed the rear of the tablet around the folding stand. It's an extremely simple yet very well executed design. 

And of course, the 7212 & 7220 are IP65 and MIL-STD 810G rated, so they can withstand some rough handling and wet weather. Take the hint, Icom & Yaesu...

A bit of sniping on eBay got me a like new condition 7220 at a great price. That was just the tablet, and I needed a detachable keyboard, folding stand (as discussed above) and a carrying handle, all Dell accessories. Once again, eBay helped a here. A few non-Dell accessories like a screen protector, USB port extender and microSD card for additional storage came from Amazon. 

The next step was to test it in the real world. That started with loading common productivity apps like Microsoft Office and LibreOffice, followed by ham radio apps. The list of ham radio apps I wanted to have available on the 7220 was extensive:
  • Fldigi
  • Ham Radio Deluxe
  • Winlink
  • Vara
  • JS8Call
  • VarAC
  • Log4OM
  • Ion2G ALE
  • RTSystems programming apps for the IC-7300, IC-705 and the ID-52 and the Yaesu FT-3DR
  • Black Cat WEFAX and SSTV apps
  • VSPE - virtual serial port emulator
  • NetLogger
  • uBlox GPS management software
  • SCSChat 
  • SDRSharp
Little of this software gets used regularly. Most of it is loaded (and regularly updated) for just-in-case situations. In the field it's mostly Winlink, VarAC, Vara, Fldigi and occasionally Log4OM. While I pay an annual subscription for Microsoft Office (the family plan), my experience is that LibreOffice does better in the fully disconnected mode. Even without internet, Microsoft Office keeps trying to 'phone home' and sync with OneDrive. It can be a PITA, and consume computer resources you might need for something else. LibreOffice is mature, stable, compatible with Microsoft Office file formats, free, and has no internet dependencies. 

This grid down setup still needs some hardware add-ons. The Dell detachable water resistant keyboard is one of the best of its genre for typing, but the trackpad leaves something to be desired. A good Bluetooth mouse is in order. The attached stylus that Dell provides (it stores in the carrying handle) is quite good, but it's a bit cramped for regular use. A larger stylus helps for pointing duties when you are not using the mouse. Like most tablets, the 7220 is 'port challenged', so you'll need a USB-C based port extender. For headphones I toss in a set of C.Crane's excellent earbuds. I also bring along my ZumSpot USB DSTAR dongle, a USB isolation dongle, a u-Blox GPS/GLONASS dongle and a small handful of  USB thumb drives for data exchange with other operators. And don't forget spare batteries for your mouse, pen and any other battery powered devices. And then you've got to schlepp all this stuff around. A good quality, rugged computer bag is an absolute necessity. 

So how does it all work in the field? Pretty darned good. Battery life is excellent. I routinely get five hours of continuous use with two batteries installed. This is with screen brightness turned up for use in full sunlight, and using the detachable keyboard (which draws power from the tablet). Replacement batteries can be hot swapped, so I can snap in a spare fully charged unit and keep running almost indefinitely. Another great feature of the 7220 is that can charge via the USB-C port. This goes a long way in helping to move as much of my field gear as possible to USB-C connectivity and charging. One high capacity 3 amp USB-C charger can keep a lot of gear running in the field - my phones, iPads, Android tablet, this Dell tablet, my Surface Pro and Go, and more. Sadly, the only equipment manufacturers that haven't caught on yet are the ham radio manufacturers. They are still stuck on micro and mini(!) USB ports. C'mon guys, get with the program. But I digress.

I've used this tablet as a daily driver computer for a few months now. Not just for ham radio use, but as a home and work computer. It's a great all-around unit and really shines when out in the field. With all the ports buttoned up I don't have to worry about dust, pollen, heavy humidity or a light rain shower, and when the sun comes out I can bump up the screen brightness and not have to worry about finding shade. If I bang it into something (which I have) I'm not worrying about screen damage. It's a high performance, worry free device. Is it as good as a dedicated business laptop? No. I'm not going to try to fool anyone - there are plenty of cheaper computers that make better home and office units. My Surface Pro 7 is a better all-around business machine. Except when I drop it. Or leave it out in the rain. Or the battery dies. Or the sun comes overhead. That's when the Dell 7220 chuckles and says "hold my beer".

W8BYH out.

16 April 2023

Behold The Lowly Tuner

Antenna tuners* get little love. Every ham needs one, most have at least one, but they rarely get talked about in glowing terms, like a good radio, or great antenna design, or a fine cigar. Instead they are viewed mostly as lumps - lumps of metal or plastic that sit nearby and make sure the finals on your precious $2,000 radio don't burn up because you keep trying to put a 100 watt full duty cycle signal into an antenna that's a 10:1 mis-match.

The tuners built into most radios designed for Amateur Radio use are pretty anemic - handling (at best) a 4:1 mis-match. About all they'll do is lightly tweak a nearly resonant antenna. There are exceptions, like the internal tuners Elecraft builds for it's KX line of QRP radios. These remarkable units can tune the bumper on my wife's Hyundai. And I have to admit, Chinese manufacturers like Xeigu have put very good tuners in their radios almost from the beginning. This begs the question - if the Americans and Chinese are building really good internal tuners for their radios, why can't the Japanese? Has advanced tuner technology not made it across to that part of the Pacific rim yet? Geeze.

There is a single tuner that keeps popping up whenever I need to run a portable HF radio at 100 watts with a sub-optimal antenna. I've had it for several years, and bought it when I owned a Yaesu FT-891. I wanted something that could run off of batteries and handle just about any antenna I hooked up to it. This tuner worked great with the FT-891, and when I needed a tuner for an FT-991A it worked great for that, too. Then I got my hands on an Icom IC-7200, followed by an IC-7100, and guess what? It worked great with those radios. When I got my IC-705 and didn't want to pay Icom's outlandish price for the AH-705, I saw Ham Radio Outlet (HRO) was offering my tuner in a 'special IC-705 configuration'. I emailed the manufacturer and asked what made the tuner 'special'? In about an hour I got an answer back - all HRO was doing was bundling the tuner with a 3.5mm audio jack cable, to serve as the control connection between the radio and tuner. Like most hams, I had a several 3.5mm audio jack cables laying around. I hooked the tuner to the 705 and, sure enough, it worked! Seems the tuner was '705 ready' before the 705 was even a glimmer in Icom's eye. 

Most recently, I've begun testing the Icom IC-7300 for use as a field radio and needed a tuner that could handle antenna mis-matches greater than 4:1 (about the limit of the 7300's internal tuner). Once again, I grabbed this tuner and it worked great.

Recognize the tuner? It's the LDG Z-100 Plus. It's an unlovely lump - just a black metal box with some LEDs and a tune button. But what it lacks in aesthetics it makes up for in performance and versatility. It's relatively compact, runs on internal power (via a AA battery tray mounted inside), is rugged, reliable, fairly priced, and has tuned just about everything I've hooked up to it. 

The Z-100 Plus with an ID-52 for size comparison. Sorry for the goofy color balance - I
shot the tuner on a green tray, underneath a red umbrella. The sensor in my camera
must have gone nuts trying to get it all balanced out

LDG offers Icom and Yaesu specific cables for this tuner so they'll interface with your rig - hit the tune button on your radio and the Z-100 Plus wakes up and runs a tune cycle. The tuner will also work with just about any other radio by putting out a low power CW carrier and tapping the Tune button on the tuner. If there's any weakness in the system it's in the Icom control cable (which works with any tuner in the LDG line). I've gone through three due to broken or poorly crimped pins on the Molex connector that mates with the radio. Thank goodness the cables are reasonably priced. My advice is, if you are going to use this with an Icom rig, have a spare cable (or two) on hand.

Operating off grid? No problem. Just stuff a handful of AA batteries into the internal tray

If you are looking for a compact, internally powered 100 watt tuner with a proven track record that will interface neatly with Icom and Yaesu radios, check out the Z-100 Plus. LDG as a company has been around for a long time and they make quality products. This tuner may not be much to look at, but it performs great and is as reliable as a hammer. Almost as heavy as one, too.

*Ok, ok, ok, antenna tuners don't tune antennas. They just make the antenna look like a 50 ohm match to the transceiver. But 'tuner' is the commonly used descriptor for what we're talking about here, so we'll use it.

W8BYH out

09 April 2023

A View From The Bench - 09 April 2023

Happy Easter!

The way things are going, I'll be dead before I get all my ham radio projects out of the way. I'm guessing that's a that's a good thing? It means I'll be busy right up until the end.

The view from the bench is... messy

I've already told my employer that I intend to retire around Christmas 2023. The retirement finances are lining up (as long as the current administration doesn't screw things up even more) and my wife and I have decided it's just the right time.  There's so much stuff we want to do while we are physically able to do it.

That includes more radio projects. The way these projects are stacking up, I'm beginning to think I should have retired a few years ago.

  • I've built a HobbyPCB HardRock50 amplifier for use with my Yaesu FT-818, KX2 and IC-705. The kit I bought from a seller on QRZ.com was new-in-the-box. It seems to work fine with the FT-818, but now I need to finish putting together the tuner. It's a project I've been putting off, and off. Time to finally get it done so I can test it with the Icom IC-705. That's a radio badly in need of a good 50 watt amplifier/tuner.
  • How about a TNC for the IC-705? I'm still trying to figure out how to get my Mobilinkd TNC3 working with the IC-705, so I can do VHF packet (and maybe APRS?) on it. Any ideas?
  • As for APRS, there's more to do be done. I'm increasingly curious about APRS and its potential use for emergency communications. Sadly, there are few good out-of-the-box solutions. The biggest issue is the difficulty of composing and managing messages. This is where the Yaesu FT-3DR (and, I suspect, the FT-5DR) fails. Spectacularly. To be fair, offerings from other manufacturers like the otherwise great Kenwood TH-72D and 74 had the same issue: lousy messaging interfaces. The best solutions I've seen so far are third party apps like APRSDroid for Android and APRS.fi for iOS, linked by Bluetooth to a TNC like a Mobilinkd TNC4
  • Speaking of Yaesu, Kenwood & Icom, things have been very quiet on the new announcement front. While not normally a bad thing, these are not normal times. Yaesu has done a good job of keeping interest going in their radio lineup with some new releases like the FT-5DR, the FT-DX10 and the FT-710, but there's been almost nothing out of Icom, and Kenwood has been silent on new releases since before the pandemic. With the announced demise of the IC-7100, Icom has a huge hole in their HF/VHF offerings. Specifically, Icom has no high power HF DSTAR offering, a significant market gap for a company that has hitched it's ham radio star to DSTAR (pun intended). All eyes are on Hamvention!
  • Web map development. The ARES Southeastern US Situational Awareness Map is slated to receive a major clean-up, where I'll be pulling selected data layers from the map to improve performance. Many of the more esoteric layers that get little, if any, use will be dropped in an attempt to improve map load and refresh times
  • I've about finished my hunt for the perfect laptop for use during outdoor activations, and I've got an upcoming post on the topic. After spending over a year testing and evaluating I've found my ideal. And it's not just good - as Tony the Tiger says, "It's great!"
  • I'm getting back to an earlier interest in HF-based off-grid emergency communications. I covered the topic in some depth a few years back, but the new player on the scene - VarAC (Vara Chat) - looks like it's lapped the previous HF chat application leader, JS8CALL. Back in October I did a short post on it, but since then the pace of development on VarAC has been almost frantic, as the author and his supporting developers rush to incorporate new features. As a result the application interface has gotten a bit messy. My feeling is that the developers now need to take a pause and work on the interface and do an overall look and feel improvement
  • And last, sometimes the simplest works just fine. Yesterday I had a limited window of opportunity to 'play radio' in my back yard before a cold front with rain pushed through. I wanted to do some Winlink and if possible a few VarAC sessions, but I got caught up in some antenna issues. After fumbling with various configurations I just said 'screw it' and stuck a 17' Chameleon collapsible whip on a tripod with one counterpoise. I was surprised to find that combination worked just great on 10 - 40 meters (using a tuner, of course). I was hitting Winlink RMS nodes up to 400 miles away on 10 watts. I'll take that!
Chameleon 'mini' base with a 17' collapsible whip
and one counterpoise

The battery powered Ryobi fan does a great job of
keeping the little biting buggers away and the
operator cool. Runs almost all day on a
4 ah battery

Have a great day! W8BYH out.

27 March 2023


Over the past several years I've accumulated a number of tablet computers. A few I've bought out of pocket (mostly iPads for family members), some have flowed my way for evaluation by my employer, some have been given to me (usually older units that still had a bit of life left in them), and I've even been known to buy 'junkers' on eBay just to play around with. I've developed a good base of experience with tablets, and find them an interesting segment in the personal computing world. 

Most folks under 40 think that the tablet format was born when Steve Jobs announced the iPad back in 2010, but the concept of a computer tablet predates the iPad by at least a decade. I won't attempt to lay out the history of tablet computers - there's a very good Wikipedia page on the topic

Apple's big achievement was to refine the concept of a touch-capable tablet into something that was not just commercially viable, but redefined how individuals and businesses viewed tablet-based computing. If it hadn't been for the iPad, tablet computers would still be very 'niche-y' devices, used by geeks and techno-wonks but not by soccer moms or bank executives. Overnight - literally, overnight - Steve Jobs and Apple made it cool to be a tablet user. The rousing success of the iPad pulled the entire tablet market up with it. In less than a year of the iPad release, Samsung and Google hit the market with very capable Android-based devices that took off. 

Microsoft stumbled (badly) in the tablet operating system space for several years, first trying to convince the world that Windows CE was what everyone needed, then trying to force-fit a butchered version of Windows 7 onto small devices, then putting out Windows 8 and claiming it was engineered specifically for mobile computing. Windows 8 was the Windows Vista of its time, a rousing disaster. Many thought Microsoft would just walk away from the mobile operating system market, as they had recently done in the smartphone market. But Microsoft got real smart real fast about tablet operating systems, and under pressure from new corporate leadership (which was threatening to lop off heads), quickly followed Windows 8 with Windows 10. With Windows 10, Microsoft finally got it right. Windows 10 wasn't just a good tablet OS, it ended up being a great tablet OS. And it's Windows 10 that brings us to the real start of this discussion - the emergence of a fully capable Windows OS running on a tablet, and the application of Windows-based tablets in Amateur Radio.

Is a tablet a better Amateur Radio computing device than a laptop? To be honest, not in most cases. Market forces have made Windows-based laptops downright cheap affordable. For a few hundred bucks you can buy a quality laptop that's more than capable of running all of the Amateur Radio-related software; Fldigi, Winlink, WSJT-X, JS8CALL, Vara, VarAC, any of the logging programs. Plus, with a laptop you get a keyboard and, in most cases, a larger screen and more connection ports - USB, HDMI, etc. Heck, last year MicroCenter was selling a $70 Windows laptop that could be charged using a 12 volt battery, and reports were they worked pretty good. Ham radio operators were buying them like they buy their Krystal burgers - by the sack-full.

While Windows tablets are niche devices in Amateur Radio, they do have virtues that recommend them to the larger ham radio community. They tend to be smaller and lighter than laptops, making them easier to carry on POTA, SOTA and other outdoor operating activities. Most models offer all the processing power needed to handle the Amateur Radio applications listed above. They can be dual-use devices; use it like a tablet to watch your streaming content, add a keyboard and mouse and run it like a conventional laptop. 

Negatives? Yes. To start, you'll pay more for less. Compare laptops and tablets that share the same hardware specs, and the tablet will invariably cost more. With a tablet you need to add a keyboard and mouse. In the rush to make their products lighter and thinner, most tablet manufacturers are eliminating things like audio jack ports, full-size USB-B ports, and more. Many tablets are down to a single USB-C/Thunderbolt port. Most tablets have significantly smaller screens than laptops, and the Windows desktop can seem 'cramped'. Also, tablets tend to have batteries that just don't last all that long when running locally installed apps like Winlink, JS8Call, logging programs, etc. Most are optimized to stream content through a browser window, not run WSJT-X for hours at a time.

Pile-O-Tablets. Lower center - Surface Go 3. Left - Surface Pro 7. Upper right - Dell 7220
sitting on a DT Research Trimble T-10 (yellow case) and at the bottom, a Panasonic
Toughbook CF-19, a somewhat goofy laptop/tablet combo

At the time of this post there's a lot of interest in the Microsoft Surface line of tablets for ham radio field use. I'm a long time user of the Surface line, starting with the original Surface Go, then the Go 2 & 3 models, and the Surface Pro line, the 3, 5 & 7 versions. In fact, I'm writing this post using a Surface Pro 7 hooked up to a docking station running dual monitors. My experience is that, with the Surface tablet line, Microsoft flubs it, gets it right, then flubs it again. The original Surface Go running Windows 8 was a joke, and damned near killed off the product line. Then Microsoft got it right with the Surface Go 2, an ideal combination of size, processing power and battery life. Then they botched it (badly) with the Surface Go 3. It was a minor upgrade to the Go 2 that didn't add anything in terms of performance, but ended up cutting usable battery life by over 20% when compared to the Go 2. The minor upgrade was actually a downgrade. That's too bad, because the form factor of the Go 3 is ideal - small and light, with a great touch interface and a very good type cover. The Surface Go 3 is still for sale, and Microsoft is still telling users to stop believing their lying eyes and that the Go 3 battery lasts just as long as the Go 2 battery. But the user community figured it all out early on, and the Go 3 has developed a reputation as something of a turkey due to the ridiculously short battery life. I own a Go 3, and can confirm that useable battery life running installed apps is about 2 hours. I'm not joking when I say you can sit and watch the battery status indicator drop in real time. It's like watching the old Windows XP software installation progress meter, but in reverse.

The Microsoft Surface Pro tablets are the same mixed bag. Early models suffered from serious battery issues. Out of the box the battery life for all of the models wasn't bad, but the Pro 3 & 5 both had a reputation for eating their batteries fairly early in the life of the device. In fact, Microsoft was exchanging a lot of them under warranty because of faulty batteries. Microsoft seems to have finally gotten the battery issue put to bed with the Surface Pro 7, and I have to admit that the battery life is impressive. My Pro 7 has the i7 CPU and when new the battery would last up to 5 hours under load. After three years of almost daily use I'm starting to see some battery performance issues, but considering the age of the device and how I use it, that's perfectly acceptable. I've come to admire the Surface Pro 7 and can recommend it if you are looking for a tablet that can fully replace a laptop. My Pro 7 is provided by my employer, and when I retire at the end of this year I'll be looking for one as home desktop computer replacement.

Discussion of the Surface tablet line brings us to one of the main points of this post - batteries. Batteries are the Achilles heel of all tablets. Only with the last generation or two of tablet devices have the manufacturers finally gotten battery issues figured out. Every manufacturer, from Apple to Microsoft, put out devices that had serious battery issues. To make matters worse, most of these devices, particularly the Microsoft tablets, could not be opened up for a battery replacement, not even by the manufacturer. Imagine that - a $1,000 (or more) tablet that can't be opened for a battery replacement. Talk about hubris. 

This is why I no longer buy tablets or laptops for field use that don't have easily replaceable batteries. I'm talking about user-replaceable batteries - open up a battery compartment, pull out the old one and slide in a new one. In my experience, user replaceable batteries add at least a year to a device's useful life. It's usually battery issues that cause an otherwise perfectly good tablet to be tossed in the electronics recycling bin. 

Recently, I've started using a tablet that finally impresses me across the board - great performance and battery life, extremely rugged, lightweight, a very well thought out detachable keyboard and stand, and enough legacy ports to keep me happy. It's the Dell Latitude Rugged Extreme 7220 tablet. I was drawn to the Dell tablet based on my experience with my Dell 5414 rugged laptop. The 7220 is specifically designed to be used outdoors. In fact, the 7220 is IP65 and MIL-STD 810G rated, so it can survive drops and a pretty good rain shower. Dell has done an outstanding job with the design and execution of their rugged computers, and I think they have beaten Panasonic at their own game.

Some of the other benefits of using a tablet (from any manufacturer) specifically designed for outdoor use include

  • a sunlight readable screen
  • a wider range of connection ports
  • integrated GPS (becoming more common on tablet devices)
  • SIM card capability for use with wireless data plans - an option, but a very handy one
  • and, of course, multiple user replaceable battery options
While small compared to the overall sales of tablets, the ruggedized tablet market is still pretty big. Government agencies at all levels buy these in bulk (your tax dollars at work), and many of them end up on the used market after a few years. Some look like they've been dragged behind a HMMWV (and probably were), and some look like they were never taken out of the box. EBay has page after page of rugged tablets from a wide variety of resellers on offer. 

One last bit of advice. When you go looking for a rugged tablet, new or used, make sure you can get reasonably priced replacement batteries for it. This is an issue that works in favor of the major manufacturers like Dell and Panasonic. Batteries for their rugged tablets are available just about everywhere, and are reasonably priced. Need a battery for a 10 year old Toughbook? No problem, someone has a new production model available, and it won't cost a fortune. I say this because there are a number of really good rugged tablets made by smaller manufacturers for which batteries are either no longer available, or very expensive. A good example is the yellow framed tablet in the picture above. It's manufactured by a company called DT Research, which makes a lot of custom tablets for vertical markets. The tablet is sold by the survey equipment manufacturer, Trimble. It's a great tablet - an excellent screen, and i7 processor and lots of system memory. But replacement batteries for it run $350.00. Yes, three hundred and fifty bucks. And there are no cheap versions available on eBay or AliExpress. Great tablet on not, I'm not going to invest in a device that requires $350 replacement batteries.

That's it! If you are using a tablet for your ham radio activities I'd love to hear about your experiences. What tablet(s) are you using? How is it working out for you? Inquiring minds want to know!

W8BYH out

22 March 2023

Paper Maps

I'm a GIS (Geospatial Information Services) professional. I've been 'doing' computer-based mapping  since the late 1980s, and my conventional GIS experience goes back to my undergraduate days in the late 1970s. Today I run the largest GIS program in the US civilian airport industry, at the world's busiest airport. I also do a lot of GIS work to support Amateur Radio activities at the state and regional level. If you've ever seen the ARES Southeastern US Situational Awareness Map, that's mine. I use web-based maps every day, build them for customers almost every week, and I work on very complex projects that embed GIS mapping technologies into other applications. I understand the GIS technology inside and out, I'm a huge promoter of the uses and benefits of GIS, and I've built a pretty good career on it.

And I still use paper maps.

Computer-based GIS is a very vulnerable technology. Everything comes to the end user via a web browser (with a few exceptions, but they are minor). This implies internet access, power, and a working computer. When any one of those three goes away, your access to digital GIS maps goes away. Consider:
  • Hurricane Maria - Puerto Rico
  • Japan - the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami
  • Turkey - the February 6th earthquake along the Turkey - Syria border
  • California - the 2019 Kincade wildfire
In each of these events, modern web mapping services were available. But power and internet outages meant these mapping services could not be accessed for days or weeks within the affected areas. Even after power and internet were restored, there were still limitations on available bandwidth. This meant limited access to web maps, even for first responders using prioritized networks. 

Closer to home, my radio club has long supported the National Weather Service forecast office in Peachtree City, GA. Our job is to contact storm spotters via Amateur Radio. Many of these spotters live in remote parts of the state that have very vulnerable infrastructure. Power and internet outages are a feature of life in rural Georgia, and services will be out for hours or days. Prior to 2019 that wasn't too big of an issue. Most spotters who were Amateur Radio operators had battery back-up for their radios and could keep operating and submitting reports. At the NWS forecast office, state-level street atlases could be seen at all the forecaster workstations, and we always had one at the spotter station. They were all the same, the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for Georgia. We also encouraged storm spotters to use the DeLorme atlas. This commonality was important. DeLorme overprints a grid on each map - a simple x, y grid that makes it easy to identify location. For example, a spotter might call in and say, "I'm at the intersection of Pine Road and Sandy Street in Eastman." We'd ask him if he had a DeLorme atlas and if he did, to give us his location by page number and grid box. That way we could easily and quickly identify his location. This only works if, a. everyone has an atlas and, b. everyone has the same atlas.

This post isn't an advertisement for DeLorme product. It's just what Georgia Skywarn adopted years ago. Other atlas products put out by companies like National Geographic or Benchmark can serve just as well. The important point is that everyone needs to be using the same atlas.

Around 2019, and with the arrival of COVID, how we support the forecast office changed. A lot more support is remote, and everyone started using NWS Chat to post spotter reports. But NWS Chat suffers from the same vulnerability web maps do - no power or internet, no NWS Chat. We can still communicate and take reports via Amateur Radio, but without a map it's difficult to visualize where the incidents occurred and start connecting the dots. 

When the internet isn't available (for any reason) it's back to paper maps. While paper maps and atlases are a back-up to on-line web maps, they are a critical back-up. In ARES and Skywarn we should be standardizing the paper-based map tools we use as back-ups, and focusing some training activities around the assumption that all power and internet is out, and paper maps are all we have available. Remember, only one end of the radio conversation needs to be without power or internet for both operators to have to revert to paper maps.

So take it from this GIS guy - at some point Mother Nature will have her way, and either you or the spotter at the other end of the radio link (or both) will be operating in the dark, with a flashlight, using a car battery to power your rig. You're going to be glad to have that paper map.

W8BYH out

12 March 2023

Backyard NVIS

Yesterday between yard care sessions (I'm refusing to surrender my Bermuda sod to the weeds), errands and other duties, I found the time to give an initial try to something I've wanted to test for a while now - using a lightweight off-center fed dipole (OCFD) in NVIS mode with either my Icom IC-705.

A few months back I bought a lightweight 10 - 80 meters OCFD from Tim Ortiz, N9SAB (check his eBay store here). This antenna was getting pretty good reviews, and for a time Chameleon was selling them (heck of an endorsement right there). 

Once I got it I began to think, would there be a way to deploy this in my yard, without having to sling lines in trees? Then I spied a small pile of fiberglass electric fence stakes I'd used on another project and thought, "... hmmm, why not give an NVIS seup a try?" So, off to Tractor Supply for more electric fence stakes. In ham radio one can never have too many electric fence stakes. When I laid out the antenna I realized that it was too long to fit in my back yard! I would have to lay about 15' of the antenna over the chain link fence at the back of my property. That wasn't going to work. I ended up dog-legging the last 20 feet or so of the antenna. I figured that would make for an interesting radiation pattern!

Aerial shot of my house showing the dog-leg layout. The blue dot is the feedpoint

Setup was quick and simple - just place the fence stakes at regular intervals and drape the antenna wire over them. The feedpoint was set close enough to my deck that I could reach it with 20' of RG-58.

One end of the OCFD. If you look close you can
see the rest of the stakes stretching out in the distance

The far end of the OCFD, at the end of the 'dog-leg'.
That's my Davis weather station in the background,
which you can monitor on APRS.fi
(just search for W8BYH)

Here's the feedpoint of the OCFD, with a small common mode choke

The feedline is lashed to a deck rail using a large
Nite-Ize gear tie - very handy

In the end I had the antenna set up only 3' off the ground, right up against a stone retaining wall and dog-legged at the far end. Would it tune? Would it get a signal out? Will Ross and Rachel ever get married? (Oops, sorry - the XYL's been binge-watching Friends and that stupid show's just stuck in my brain.)

I hooked up my IC-705 I did some SWR testing without the tuner. I was surprised and delighted to find that this antenna is well below 1.5:1 on 10, 20 & 40 meters, and just a bit less than 3:1 on 80 meters. In fact, on 40 & 20 the SWR was almost dead flat. 

Next it was a trial with Winlink on 40 meters using just the IC-705 factory battery (meaning only 5 watts or less output). The Winlink propagation prediction window said it was a lousy time for 40 meters, at best a 60% chance of hitting any station. But what's life without challenges, eh?

IC-705 running 'barefoot'. I'm guessing my ERP was probably
just 2 - 3 watts

OK, I'll admit it, connecting to a gateway on 40 meters was tough. but I did manage to get to the AJ4GU gateway (about 50 km) and W4MRB (200 km). Because of time constraints I did not get to hook up the tuner and try for an 80 meter gateway. I'll try that another day soon.

What are the take-aways from this? First, that NVIS does work, and works on low power digital modes. The second is that with a handful of fiberglass electric fence stakes I can set up an effective NVIS antenna just about anywhere. And third, this is just a whole lot of fun!

W8BYH out

04 March 2023

Mother Nature Will Have Her Way

Japan is a highly developed, wealthy, highly cultured and thoroughly modern nation. Japan is also no stranger to earthquakes and tsunamis. In fact, Japan leads the world in earthquake-resistant construction techniques, earthquake prediction, and advanced warning systems, and the entire Japanese population is highly tuned to the threats of both earthquakes and tsunamis. They live with earthquakes as part of their daily lives, they plan for them, run endless drills to respond to them, and have built their infrastructure to be earthquake resilient.

And yet... March 11th, 2011. A magnitude 9.1 earthquake 70 miles east of the Oshika Peninsula, deep in the Pacific Ocean, instantly overwhelmed Japan's ability to respond. Now known as the Great Tohoku Earthquake, it was the most violent ever recorded in Japan, and the resulting tsunami crested at over 130 feet in some areas. To make matters worse, a 50' high wall of water hit the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, knocking cooling systems off-line and ultimately causing a melt-down in three of its four reactor cores. Japan is still dealing with the mess today.

I recently stumbled on this video put together in 2021 by the Japanese public broadcaster NHK. It is 49 minutes of mostly raw, unedited film footage of the disaster, and the few days following. It's clear the Japanese authorities, despite their best efforts, were immediately overwhelmed. Nothing could have prepared them for a disaster of this scope and scale. In the video you'll witness food & water shortages, shelter shortages, fuel shortages, medical shortages, even shortages of blankets and warm clothing (at one point workers at a shelter was pulling curtains off the windows to use as blankets), 

I don't care how good FEMA or your state and local EMAs are, at some point nature will rear her ugly head and we'll be dealing with a situation that quickly spins out of control. The Japanese learned the hard lesson: Mother Nature will have her way. This is San Francisco (1906 earthquake), New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina), Puerto Rico (Hurricane Maria). Each time the authorities were confident they could handle it. Each time, Mother Nature made fools of them.

What's the point in all of this? Preparedness. Not just communications, but preparedness and security in all its aspects. Food & water security, shelter security, energy & power security, financial security, physical and personal security. Watch the video. Absorb the lessons. 

W8BYH out