27 February 2022

A View From The Bench - 27 February 2022

Is it a dry spell, or am I just too busy? I honestly don't know for sure. Probably a bit of both. Sometimes you can get tired of writing and just need to turn your brain off for a bit. But I do have to say, on review, I do have a lot of little radio projects going on. 

  • DSTAR. I mentioned in January that our local DSTAR repeater is still operating, but has been disconnected from the internet. It was a business decision our club made after we lost use of a cheap Sprint hotspot for the wi-fi connection. The repeater will be back on the internet later this year, but until then if club members want to work the DSTAR reflectors they'll have to do it through a hotspot. Which is why I bought one. The ZUMSpot USB dongle finally arrived from HRO. I'm using PA7LIM's BlueDV application on my laptop to control the little gizmo, and I've got both my ID-51 and my ID-5100 mobile set up to talk through it. I gotta' say, it works pretty neat! I never really 'got' the need for a digital mode hotspot until recently, but I actually feel a bit better having one vs. having to rely on the local repeater. One more tool in the hurricane season toolbag!
  • Speaking of computers (were we?), my Winter Field Day experience, and the difficulty managing the Trimble T-10 (lousy keyboard, no backlit keys, doesn't stand on its own, not enough USB ports) has me re-engaging with my Dell 5414 ruggedized laptop. This means upgrading all the applications (like Winlink), adding new apps like BlueDV, transferring data over from the Trimble, etc. We'll see how it goes. I still like the Trimble - a LOT of capability in a small, exceptionally rugged package, but until I can come up with a better keyboard and stand solution I'll be using the Dell.
  • For the past few weeks I had been wondering why the ID-5100 in my shack was having difficulty getting a good signal into our local repeater (KK4GQ - 145.210). A few days ago I walked around the side of the house and found out why. The antenna was laying on the ground under an inch or two of leaf litter. Hmmm... maybe that had something to do with it? 😒 The antenna is an Ed Fong DBJ-1 that was hanging from a convenient tree limb. The tree limb decided it was time to give up the ghost, and down came the antenna. That I could hit the repeater at all is one heck of a testament to Ed's design. So on Sunday I went back out with my slingshot and put a line up over another, higher limb and the antenna is back up. The SWR is a touch higher that I'd like - about 1.8 on the repeater frequency, but for now I'm happy.
  • A few weeks ago a rare unicorn came up for sale on eBay at a very reasonable 'buy it now' price - an SCS 7800 P4Dragon Pactor modem. The seller wasn't giving it away - he knew what he had - but his asking price was about $500 below what a similarly configured new modem would cost. He was the original owner and was willing to chat about how he came into the modem and why he was selling it, and he assured me it was in like-new condition. That increased my sense of comfort that this was a good deal, so I took the leap and now find myself the owner of a shiny, nearly-new Pactor modem. I used a borrowed 7800 several months ago to test the new SCS ALE2 firmware, so I had a good base of experience with the modem and how it interfaces with Winlink (very nicely , thank you). I've got it set up with my IC-7200 'FrankenRig' (MARS mod, quiet scan mod) for testing. 

The modem works like a champ on Winlink, but I'm still working through some configuration issues on ALE. I'll have more on this topic in a later post.
  • Speaking of ALE, Devin Butterfield, the developer of the Ion2G ALE application released version this week. This release introduced a number of neat improvements and upgrades. I've said this before - Ion2G is hands down the best software-based ALE application available, and may even be better than the hardware based implementations in devices like the SCS modems (above). I've personally run Ion2G, the SCS ALE application and MARS-ALE (a derivative of PC-ALE). Ion2G is by far the easiest to get up and running, and offers the best support (via the Groups.io reflector). If you have an interest in ALE, there is no reason to not try Ion2G.

That's it for now!

W8BYH out

13 February 2022


 AAR - After Action Review. Yesterday I served as part of a communications support team for a 5K race held at a local nature preserve. This race is an annual event that we've supported for years. We know the course setup and the checkpoint locations, and are familiar with the communications requirements. The comms team was made up of local ARES members whom I've worked with a lot in the past. Everyone was professional, knew exactly what to do, and did a great job. It's a pleasure to work with experienced communicators.

This race follows an out-and-back course, so the starting line is very close to the finish. I just grabbed a picnic table near the finish line and set up. The course is very compact, so VHF simplex using handhelds is all that's really needed. 

Side note: most Amateur Radio operators underestimate the reach of VHF FM. Here in the US we indoctrinate our hams to think that VHF is only useful if it's routed through a repeater. Most new Technicians don't understand how far you can communicate using VHF simplex. Remember, the US military - Army, Navy, Marines & Air Force - have been using VHF simplex for tactical communications since World War II. They seem quite happy with its performance. My personal best is 65 miles, from Cartersville, GA to Cleveland TN, using a 30 watt mobile rig and a mag-mount antenna on the roof of my truck. I'll take that any day.

Back to the race. Like any good net control, I did a small AAR immediately after the event. I captured some general comments that applied to all operators - the need to dress warmly (it was COLD!), the need to have dual-band capability, the need to have a flashlight or head lamp, the need to wear a safety vest. Simple reminder stuff.

Personally, I learned a few lessons. Some were new, some were lessons I learned long ago but keep having to re-learn.

  • have an adequate event map
  • use something like a smartphone app to track both real time and race time
  • conduct regular radio checks with the comms team to make sure everyone is still up and operating
  • have an inclement weather (i.e., rain) plan for net control operations
  • keep your eye on the race director and emergency response personnel - know where they are at all times, and make sure they understand your role 
  • make sure your emergency communicators are easy for event participants to identify. A small 2" x 3" callsign tag isn't enough. Be loud and proud - orange or yellow reflective safety vests for everyone
  • have a computer or internet connected smartphone to maintain situational awareness for things like weather
  • during times of expected bad weather (which in Georgia means any time between March - September), a NOAA weather radio programmed for SAME alerts in the area where the event is taking place, or an equivalent system
  • have a back-up for everything

A net control station doesn't need to be big and fancy, it just needs to be effective

A brief comment about assured communications. A net control's primary duty is to communicate. If you can't communicate then you are useless to the supported agency or activity. That means enough comms equipment - radios, antennas, power supplies, cables, etc. - to span the event footprint and get the job done. I had enough confidence in our ability to communicate at this race site using simple handheld radios that I didn't bother to bring out more heavy-duty gear. I just ran cross-band operations through the dual-band radio in my truck with its roof mounted antenna. However, if I was running net control operations at a site I had little familiarity with I would have deployed with a 50 watt mobile VHF rig, an external antenna, power supply (or battery), coax, etc. Supporting an event where the sponsor is counting on your ability to do your communications job is not the time or place to try to prove how well you can get things done with a 'shoestring' operation. You may be hunting squirrels but you need to show up loaded for bear, just in case.

Know who your medical support is, and where they are, at all times

Can you spot the Amateur Radio communicator? Of course you can, and that's the point

Keeping track of both elapsed race time and real time is important. There are plenty of
clock and timer apps for smartphones you can use

And last but not least - have fun!

W8BYH out

07 February 2022


Last ditch radio, or LDR. Think about it. All around you has collapsed. Weather, earthquake, fire, terrorism, loss of civil order (which often follows all other forms of disaster). 

You need to communicate, not among yourselves (you've got that covered with handheld radios), but with family members, friends and emergency response personnel well outside of the impacted zone. You need a reliable radio that has enough capability to provide assured communications and can survive extended use in an austere environment - outdoors, in inclement weather, subjected to rough handling. Reliability trumps capability, but there are some things we can't live without. Let's look at the operational requirements.
  1. Long-haul voice and digital communications - a minimum 300 mile reach on each mode under current solar cycle conditions
  2. Direct interface with a computer via USB or wireless (WiFi, Bluetooth)
  3. Integrated soundcard interface for digital modes (no external soundcard hardware)
  4. Either integrated Automatic Link Establishment 2G (ALE2G) or the ability to operate in 'quiet scan' mode when driven by an ALE software application (PC-ALE, Ion2G)
  5. 50% duty cycle operations - can run long duration digital mode operations without overheating or component failure
  6. Provision for integrated battery power (either internal or in an attached and integrated case)
  7. Minimum 100 watt output on external power sources / 20 watt output on integrated battery power with 6 hours of 50% duty cycle operation from each power source
  8. Internal antenna tuner capable of handling a 10:1 impedance mismatch
  9. Wide-band TX on HF (the 'MARS mod')
  10. IP67 rated for water and dust protection (includes the microphone or handset)
  11. The radio, integrated battery, microphone, power and computer connection cables and documentation must fit in a Pelican 1520 or equivalently sized protective case
No Amateur radio on the new or used market meets all these requirements. A few do come close. However, to meet all of the requirements I've laid out you'd need to turn to the high end MILSPEC manufacturers such as Harris, Barrett and Codan, This means using off-the-shelf equipment from any of the 'big three' (Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood) amateur radio manufacturers will require some compromise.

The easiest requirement to meet is #1 - a 300 mile reach. Just about any radio on the market that has a 10 - 100 watt output will meet this requirement. Ten watt QRP rigs like the Elecraft KX series, the Icom IC-705, the CommRadio CTX-10, the Xeigu 5100, the Lab599 TX-500, and even the Yaesu FT-818 (6 watts max) can reliably reach out 300 miles, particularly on low power digital modes. Of course, the more TX power the the greater likelihood that you'll reach where you need to reach. One hundred watts of output can provide a much greater assurance you'll be able to make contact. A last ditch radio shouldn't be an exercise in QRP operations. As Tim the Toolman Taylor would say, "More power!"

The hardest requirement to meet, and one that NO current Amateur radio HF rig meets, is #10 - IP67 rating. Virtually all rigs on the market - new and used - are wide open to water and dust. I know some of you are screaming "What about the new Lab599 radio?!" Fair question. Clearly, the Lab599 TX-500 looks like it's fully sealed, and the manufacturer touts its weather resistance. But it's not IP67 rated. In fact, it doesn't carry any IP or other industry standard rating for environmental protection, which I find odd. Still, reports from the field so far seem to be good, and nobody reports any issues with water or dust ingress. So we'll say that the TX-500 likely meets the IP67 standard, but it also falls woefully short in other areas.

Some of the requirements are, I think, fairly obvious - sound card interface, internal tuner, integrated battery. But why the need for things like ALE capability and wide band TX? Let's start with wide band TX. When things go south I'm not going to be too concerned about staying within the Amateur radio band segments. I'm going to want the ability to come up on the HF frequencies used by DHS, FEM, SHARES, MARS, etc. Many Amateur radios on the new and used market can be modified for wide-band transmit. Most require a simple hardware mod (remove some diodes or create a solder bridge across some open pads), but I particularly like how Elecraft handles it for the KX line - it's just a simple firmware update. 

What about ALE - Automatic Link Establishment? Amateur radio operators don't play around all that much on ALE. There is a small and dedicated Amateur ALE community (hflink.com), but most Amateurs don't see a fit for ALE in how they operate. However, ALE is in wide use in the commercial, federal and military communications spaces, and is becoming increasingly important in the MARS and DHS SHARES communities. ALE simply adds another layer of assurance to any communications plan. When not actively communicating during a disaster event, you can run an unattended ALE monitoring and sounding session to better determine what frequencies work best at any given time. Many commercial and military HF radios have ALE built into their firmware. The best example I can give is the Icom F8101, a commercial mobile HF radio that does see some sales into the Amateur radio community. The F8101 has ALE G2 built into the firmware. You simply program the ALE frequencies you want to scan into the radio, and off you go. But no Amateur radio I'm aware of offers embedded ALE. The best we can hope for is driving a suitable HF rig using one of two ALE software options running on a connected computer - Ion2G or PC-ALE. What makes an Amateur radio 'suitable'? A suitable radio is one that operates in what's referred to as the 'quiet scan' mode when operating split mode. The quiet scan mode bypasses the band filter relays during scanning. You don't hear the constant 'clack-clack-clack' as the filter relays engage during the scanning process. Since many of these relays are mechanical, they can actually be worn out by the scanning process. A number of modern rigs (but not all) use diode switched filters instead of mechanical ones, and can be used for ALE even if they don't have 'quiet scanning' capability. This includes a variety of Kenwood, Yaesu and Icom radios (check the HFLink website for more details). In theory any modern Amateur radio can work on ALE if you are willing to put up with the noise. I'll do an in-depth discussion of ALE in a later post.

The last consideration is portability. You need to be able to carry the complete setup - radio, mic, cables, documentation - in one hand. The Pelican 1520 has proven to be an ideal size - large enough to accommodate most radios but easy to carry in one hand. Any hardened case of equivalent size will do, but keep in mind that this case also helps mitigate the fact that Amateur radios are not environmentally protected. The case becomes a surrogate IP67 rated enclosure, protecting against moisture, dust, shock, etc. It pays to buy quality. Pelican cases are actually industry rated for protection against moisture and dust intrusion. The Harbor Freight knock-offs, not so much.

When I started to write this post several months ago I really didn't have an ending in mind. The concept of the last ditch radio was just rattling around in my head and I wanted to get things down to see if I could turn it into a post. I've returned to the topic several times since, and finally decided it was a topic worth maturing out into a formal post. Part of it was my recent writing on hardened laptop and tablet computers. Part was my continuing investigation of ALE. Part was some recent world events like the volcano eruption near Tonga in the Pacific and the devastating tornado outbreak in Kentucky this past December. Mother Nature and human nature will have their way, regardless of the measures we take. It's up to us to be prepared.

In looking at my personal radio arsenal I've got several good candidates. Nothing I own comes close to fulfilling all the requirements, but one radio I own comes close. The Icom IC-7300. It checks most of the boxes:
  • As a 100 watt rig it has no problem meeting the 300 mile voice and digital requirement
  • Computer interface via USB is a snap
  • It has a built-in sound card interface
  • From the factory it runs in the quiet scan mode for use on ALE
  • It has a built in antenna tuner. The tuner only handles up to 4:1 impedance matches, but as long as the antenna is close to being resonant on the operating band the internal tuner handles it just fine. Otherwise I have to insert a more capable external tuner into the mix
  • It has the factory wide-band transmit 'MARS' modification (done by the retailer)
  • The radio, microphone, cables and documentation fit into a Pelican 1520 case. It's a snug fit, but it fits

Of course there's no integrated battery or power supply, and the radio is wide open to dust and moisture ingress. It needs to be used in a protected environment. But the same is true for every other Amateur radio I own - and it's the same for almost every Amateur radio on the market. For power, I have portable battery power systems (20 & 30 amp hour) that each will power the radio for up to 10 hours on 30 watt output. I can run on one while recharging the other. If band conditions are good I can crank the TX power down and improve battery run time,. If conditions are bad I can crank up the power as needed and just live with the fact that I'll need to charge my batteries more frequently.

Of course, a radio is useless without a power supply and an antenna and, if you are working digital modes, a computer. I've covered computers and operating systems for Amateur radio ad-nauseum, but power and antennas still need discussion. I'll cover those in upcoming posts.

But for today your assignment is to take a look at your personal radio arsenal and pick one that could  serve tomorrow as your LDR, and think about how you'd configure it, support it and protect it for the last ditch communications mission. Get to work. Spring storm and hurricane seasons are just around the corner.

W8BYH out

01 February 2022

A Comedy of Errors - WFD 2022

I know my fellow hams who live north of the Mason-Dixon line are going to laugh at this, but for the Atlanta region it was COLD. And - OH MY GOD - we got SNOW!

OK, temps down to around 20, and a very light dusting of snow. Laugh if you will, but dang, it was cold.

My XYL and I decided to spend the weekend camping at Chattahoochee Bend State Park southwest of Atlanta on the Chattahoochee River. The park is a short drive for us, and has become our go-to park if we're just looking for a quick get-away. 

I had even arranged a gathering of local hams at the park for an informal Winter Field Day event. A few hardy souls like us decided to camp, others just showed up for the day. Overall we had a good time, but for my wife and I it became a steady stream of forced and unforced errors:
  • A power outage at the park that left us without reliable heating in our camper, forcing a one-night evacuation back home just to keep from freezing
  • Realizing, at 0100 in the morning, that my lone antenna setup was mounted on my truck and the truck couldn't be moved without an emergency teardown, meaning we had to evacuate in the XYL's SUV
  • Camp stove problems - my venerable Coleman 425 started acting up and by the end of the weekend refused to work
  • Inadvertently leaving one of the under-camper storage doors open - the door that just happened to be right next to the water pump and fresh water storage tank. Yup - frozen water pipes
  • Plugging in a combined 20 amp load into a 15 amp circuit results in... no power (again)
  • Frozen black and gray water tank valves, meaning only a partial flushing of both tanks
I was so consumed with dealing with the various issues that I didn't get much operating done. Perhaps worse, I didn't get any good pictures of my campground or antenna setup.

So here's the one picture of me operating Winter Field Day, taking refuge from the cold inside my camper:

Out of camera shot is the large coffee mug full of wine, as I try to drown my sorrows and wait for the next unforced error of the weekend.

But hey, there's always Winter Field Day 2023!

W8BYH out