15 July 2022

A Metaphor Of Sorts

Yesterday I stumbled on a YouTube video discussing a new vehicle that's coming to market, the INEOS Grenadier. The concept for the Grenadier was born of serious off-road enthusiast frustration with the lack of purpose built 4x4 vehicles that offered great performance with little fluff and at reasonable cost. I understand the turning point was the 2020 re-introduction of the Land Rover Defender, which is just an uptown 'lifestyle' schlepper better suited to the Kardashians than Katmandu. Land Rover devotees were disgusted with the new Defender concept and turned away in droves.

Not long after the Defender was announced, Jim Ratcliffe, the founder of INEOS and an adventure enthusiast, sat down with some buddies at the Grenadier Pub near London and sketched out the requirements for a true off-road vehicle. The result was the INEOS Grenadier. Based on what I read on-line and find posted on YouTube, the vehicle is getting very strong positive reviews, especially from the Australians, who take their off-roading seriously. According to reviews the Grenadier gets just about everything right:
  • A design that emphasizes ruggedness, off road mobility, reliability and survivability
  • Only a very minimum of 'bells and whistles'
  • Powertrains optimized for rugged off-road performance
  • A conscious selection of lower tech options (ex: coil spring suspension vs suspension air bags) to better fit the vehicle's mission requirements of reliability, mobility and survivability
  • Virtually zero accommodation for 'lifestyle' options: entertainment systems, built-in wi-fi, seat-back entertainment systems, etc.
  • An easily modifiable design
  • A serious effort to keep the whole package reasonably affordable
In the Grenadier's latter development stages, INEOS directly solicited public input by shipping pre-production examples around the world and demonstrating them to off-roading enthusiasts and the automotive press, something that's almost never done in the automobile industry

The INOS Grenadier. When Land Rover screwed up, INEOS stepped up

So what's all this have to do with ham radio? A lot, actually.

How much money have you spent on Icom, Yaesu or Kenwood products over the years? If you are like me, the answer is 'thousands'. Have you ever been contacted by a rep from any of these companies and asked about the features you'd like to see in a new radio? Have you ever offered your input at hamfests and had it seriously considered? Has a manufacturer's rep ever asked for your contact information so they could get back to you for more input? I'm guessing... no.

If you are an outdoor enthusiast, and like to play radio on a mountaintop rather in your ham shack, how many IP67, or even just IPX3 HF radios do you own? How many carry a MILSPEC ratings for ruggedness? Sure, today we can buy small portable HF radios like the IC-705, the Yaesu FT-818, or the Elecraft KX2 or KX3, but how many would survive a light rain shower or a short fall from a park bench?

The feature laden Icom IC-705 is the ham radio equivalent of the 2020 Land Rover Defender. Very capable but packed full of fluff, sporting awkward ergonomics, and so expensive that many owners are afraid to take it outdoors.

How about a radio built with user input, that leaves out all the fluff, delivers top notch voice and digital performance in an all-in-one package, and can take a licking and keep on ticking? 

What ham radio needs is its own version of the INEOS Grenadier.

W8BYH out

10 July 2022

ARES Southeastern US Situational Awareness Map

This is a bit of a coming out party. So, noisemakers and party hats all around!

Last month I put up a post about the Situational Awareness Map, highlighting some changes I had made, and some future plans. Well I'm happy to announce that the map is now out of beta development and is available for general use. A lot of the changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. But the changes and improvements are significant enough that a quick overview is warranted.

Perhaps the biggest change is that the map is now focused on the entire southeastern US, not just Georgia. I've talked with key users of this map for some time and the thought is that a regional focus makes more sense; weather systems and radio signals don't respect political boundaries, and we are often called on to support our fellow ARES members in adjacent states. But how do we define 'southeastern US'? Well, the most logical way is to follow FEMA, and use FEMA Region 4 as the definition. This makes a lot of sense since organizations like SHARES, DHS, CISA, NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies structure their disaster response frameworks in relation to FEMA regions. So FEMA Region 4 it is!

Other key improvements come in how the map (data) layers are structured in the map. Data structure is tightly focused around individual states. This give each state the ability to focus/display only the data pertinent to their states. There is a lot of regional/national data in the map, but that's only for map layers that by design must span the region. The best example is NOAA weather radar. This is a national-level data feed and it is impossible to segregate it out by state.

Another serious issue that is starting to push to the forefront is map performance. At this time there are over 45 separate data layers in the map, everything from severe thunderstorm warning polygons to PSAP 911 service areas. Every data layer, even if it's turned off, imposes a performance penalty in the map. Let's use the HIFLD fire/EMS station dataset as an example. This is a national-level dataset with tens of thousands of point (station locations). Before the map can display just fire stations in state of Florida it must first pull across the entire dataset, apply a dynamic filter against the data to select just fire stations that fall inside of Florida, apply a complex symbology rule against those points and then dynamically display them in the map so the fire station symbols remain the same size regardless of the zoom level the user selects. That's a lot of work to ask a web browser to handle. Multiply this one example by 45 or so data layers and you start to understand why map performance is an issue that must be carefully managed. This map is starting to push the performance limits of what Chrome, Firefox and Edge can reasonably handle. For that reason I've imposed some rules that users need to be aware of:

  • With the exception of the Severe Thunderstorm Warning and Tornado Warning polygons (provided by NOAA) all other data in the map is turned off by default. When the map opens, it opens to a blank screen that shows just the state and county outlines. It's up to the individual user to tailor the map to his/her needs by turning on the data layers they want. Therefore it's very important that you review the available map layers and practice turning layers on/off
  • Requests to add new data layers will require some serious justification from the requester. You will have to provide a compelling operational need for the data layer you are requesting. Remember, every data layer imposes a performance penalty. During real-world events like hurricane disaster response I'll add whatever data is needed without too many questions, but for non-operational use I'll have to be very selective about what gets added
  • Data layers that don't get used will get dropped. I can track individual data layer requests, and if I see a particular data layer just isn't getting used, especially if it's a national or regional layer, it'll get deleted from the map
A few days ago I held the first training/familiarization presentation on this new map, and using Google Meet's new recording functionality I was able to save the presentation to YouTube. Although the video is long (about an hour and eight minutes - sorry, I like to ramble), it provides a good overview of most of the features in the map. I encourage you to view it, and feel free to use it as a presentation for your own ARES and EMCOMM meetings.

 W8BYH out

08 July 2022

If The Big One Hits, Be In Syracuse!

Last month the Antique Wireless Museum released a 1951-era industrial movie made by General Electric that highlights how the city of Syracuse, NY used mobile radio for disaster response after a nuclear strike. Conveniently, General Electric's mobile radio division was headquartered in Syracuse, so this is really an early version of an infomercial. But it's a well done infomercial, and actually tells a useful story about how to create what we call today an emergency operations center, or EOC.

I'm surprised at how little has changed in terms of EOC operations between 1951 and today. Today we have fancier communications systems, software, computers, the internet, smartphones, and better looking firefighter helmets 😄, but most of the basic roles and functions we have in an EOC today were there in 1951. From that perspective the movie is quite interesting.

What I particularly liked was the use of  an early 'GIS' (geographical information system) - a map table with push-pins around which all coordinating activity revolved. Today we have fancy computer-based GIS systems, but paper maps and pushpins are still in wide use. It's still a very effective way to maintain situational awareness. 

I was also really struck by the emphasis the movie places on Amateur Radio as an integral part of any emergency communications system, and an integral part of EOC operations. Quite impressive, really.

So have a seat, strap on your way-back goggles, and enjoy EOC operations as they were over 70 years ago!

W8BYH out

07 July 2022

Something Interesting From Yaesu

Everyone else is jumping on the prognostication bandwagon, so why not me?

Yesterday the word came out that Yaesu is releasing a new HF rig in August. Called the FT-710, it appears to be about the size of the Yaesu FT-991A, but it's HF only (no UHF/VHF capability). Now, the 991A is no diminutive little mobile rig, and the 710, based on the announced specs, is actually just a smidge bigger all around, so this isn't a SOTA rig by any measure. Some have observed that this is likely Yaesu's newest 'entry level' SDR rig, and is likely designed to go head to head with the Icom IC-7300. That sounds about right to me, because the radio incorporates Yaesu's newest SDR technology (which is getting great reviews). What little we know of the feature set so far looks good:

  • High resolution touchscreen interface
  • Build-in tuner
  • A DVI port on the back (for out-boarding the digital interface)
  • Two USB ports. 
  • SD card slot 

What's NOT been released yet is any mention of a built-in soundcard interface. However, Yaesu makes mention of a 'Preset' mode for things like FT8, and since you need a soundcard to run FT8 I'm guessing the soundcard interface is there.

The things I don't see but would like, beyond the soundcard interface, are:

  • Built-in GPS, and a GPS synched internal clock
  • Some level of industry standard environmental protection such as IPX5
  • A set of factory rack handles (a-la the IC-7200) would be nice, but if not I'm sure Portable Zero will be right along with a set
  • Yaesu traditionally 'gets it' when it comes to back-lit buttons (Icom? Icom? Icom?). Let's see if they continue the tradition
So far no power consumption numbers. I don't expect this thing to sip juice like the FT-817. After all there's a (relatively) power hungry digital interface in the mix. But Icom has proven with the IC-705 that digital interfaces and low power consumption are not incompatible concepts. Maybe Yaesu has incorporated some clever power management protocols and options into the radio. We'll have to wait and see.

The last thing I would ask for would be for Yaesu to please, for the love of God, clean up your awful configuration and settings interface. And please, don't make the dumbass mistake you made with the FT-891, and not provide an easy way to quickly switch between LSB and USB.

W8BYH out

04 July 2022

Chip Shortages - Still?!

 Thomas Witherspoon posted this a few days ago on his (excellent) SWLing Post blog:

Silly me. I thought we were about out of the Great COVID And Fire-Induced Chip Shortage Of 2020 - 2022, but I was wrong. I guess if the current administration can blame everything else on Putin (Putin's Price Hike, Putin's Inflation, Putin's Food Shortage, Putin's Baby Formula Shortage, ad nauseam), we can blame this current round of chip shortages on him, too. And actually, according to Thomas, there may actually be something behind blaming Putin for our current and ongoing chip shortage issues. It seems Russia and the Ukraine are the primary sources for several strategic minerals used in chip production. So we'll call this Putin's Chip Shortage.

I've got a wide assortment of shortwave receivers. Heck, just about every Amateur Radio HF transceiver I own is a top-notch shortwave receiver. But I'm of the age and stage where dedicated shortwave receivers are still fun to collect and play around with. Down through the years I've had some pretty good ones. The collection starts with a 1950's era Grundig tabletop model with the dial gloriously laid out not just with frequencies, but with the names of the exotic location where signal originate from - London, Berlin, Moscow, Tokyo. Spinning the dial was a trip around the world. And the collection reaches all the way to the present era, with the diminutive and remarkably good C.Crane Skywave SSB.

The one portable receiver I had that always brings back memories is the Sangean ATS-909 (also sold by Radio Shack as the DX-398). 

Based on reviews of the radio in publications like Passport to World Band Radio (sadly out of print, and badly missed), I picked up an ATS-909 just before heading back to Germany in 1998 for my second tour of duty there. At the time Central Europe was still a 'shortwave rich' environment, with powerhouse broadcasters like Voice of Russia (the old Radio Moscow), Deutsche Welle, and the BBC still pumping out content on shortwave. Additionally, I knew that many of the German FM broadcasters were switching to RDS, making the ATS-909's RDS decode capability a neat and useful feature.

While I can't say that the ATS-909 was a stellar performer on shortwave - most outlets rated its performance as just good to very good - the radio's build quality was outstanding and the ergonomics were excellent. Plus, it's performance on FM was considered best-in-class. That radio served me well in Germany, going along on a number of field exercises so my Soldiers could listen in on American Forces Network (AFN) broadcasts, local German stations, and the occasional radio show from the BBC. After the factory radio was stolen from our Volvo V70, the Sangean ended up doing service as an ersatz car radio. It slid perfectly into the gaping hole left in the center console where the Volvo radio used to be, and served well until I could get another radio installed. The ATS-909 eventually just gave up the ghost, too much time spent being rattled around in the car and sitting in the Georgia summer heat. I regretfully tossed it after the alkaline batteries belched up their contents in the battery compartment. I also kicked myself for not picking up one or two when Radio Shack closed them out a few years later.

For the past year or so I've been following the story of Sangean's replacement for the ATS-909, the ATS-909X and the 909X2. The ATS-909X was considered something of a disappointment - a bit deaf on shortwave reception when using the whip antenna (but a strong performer when using an external antenna), and some problems with AM sensitivity. The ATX-909X offered Sangean's usual excellent build quality and ergonomics, but with strong competition from lower cost mainland Chinese manufacturers like Tecsun, Sangean knew they needed to clean up the 909X's shortcomings (Sangean is a Taiwanese, not a Chinese manufacturer - there is a difference). So Sangean tweaked the ATS-909X's performance and renamed it the ATS-909X2 - just in time for chip shortages and COVID to hit. Talk about timing.

Reviewers really liked the improvements in the 909X2, but production was slow and prices for the radio, if you could find one, were high, with some retailers asking over $500. In the past six months production has increased, and the radio's price has settled down to about the $250 US level. Amazon now has regular stock of the radio and can deliver in a day or two.

But what about the lingering chip shortages? Some manufacturers like Icom have been very frank in their discussions about the impacts of the shortages. Production goes to the high demand/high volume customers like computer, military and commercial communications systems and automobile manufacturers. Low volume customers like ham radio and shortwave receiver manufacturers get low priority. This means the price and availability of the any radio - Sangean, Tecsun, Icom, Yaesu, Eton, Panasonc, etc. is in question. With this in mind I decided to go ahead and pull the trigger on the Sangean, and I placed an order with Amazon a few days ago.

A side-by-side comparison with the ATS-909X2's competition will have to wait. I've got several portable shortwave receivers to test against - the C. Crane Skywave, the Skywave SSB, the Tecsun PL-880, the Tecsun PL-310 and maybe one or two others hiding away. I'm particularly interested in seeing how well the Sangean performs on SSB compared to the PL-880 and the Skywave SSB, two radios that get high marks for sideband reception.

One thing became abundantly clear to me in the few hours I've used this radio so far - the ergonomics and build quality are outstanding. Anyone who's spent any time with a portable SW receiver will find the controls clearly marked and well laid out. You don't need a manual to get up and running with this radio (but if you do, the manual is excellent).

Sangean includes an external wire antenna, ear buds, and something few other manufacturers provide - a 'wall wart' power cube. The radio runs off of four AA batteries and can use alkaline, NiMH and NiCad chemistry types.

A word about external antennas. Many manufacturers, including Sangean, include an external antenna with their radios. Many folks feel that a portable radio shouldn't need an external antenna. For commercial FM and AM broadcast reception, I agree. But for shortwave and ham radio reception, an external long wire antenna is absolutely necessary. You wouldn't expect your expensive Amateur Radio HF rig to operate well on 80 meters using a 3' whip antenna. Why would you expect a consumer-grade receiver to do better?  Be realistic. If you buy a portable SW/HF receiver also pick up (or make) an external antenna to use with it.

OK, let's wrap this up. Over the next few seeks I'll be doing a side-by-side comparison of these radio on the Amateur Radio bands, focusing on 75 and 40 meter sideband reception. I'll be looking at overall performance, ergonomics and form factor. All the evaluations will be done using the factory supplied long wire antennas. Will a clear winner emerge? Stay tuned!

W8BYH out