Tuesday, October 6, 2015

An Arduino arrived

Monday brought a pleasant surprise in the mailbox...our first Arduino! The $5 board from eBay arrived as promised, and it was just as simple to use as everyone said it would be. My youngest daughter and I quickly had it doing a few minor tasks prior to me running off to a fire department meeting. Our next task is to get it to work with a temperature probe. This looks like a very simple and fun little platform. I'm excited!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The builder bug

It looks like I'm coming down with another case of the "builder bug". That's what I call it when I get the urge to make stuff. For the last couple of years, I've been content playing with digital repeaters I've cobbled together, or wiring up a TNC for a Raspberry pi in recent months. But now, I'm looking at Arduinos. These boards are a little lower level than the full-blown Linux system I've come to love with the pi. The Arduinos have incredible potential because of their simplicity. With very lower power consumption, and nearly instant power up, I can see many uses for these wonders of the 21st century. My youngest daughter is working on a project to provide weather data from the high school's crop test plot 4 miles away. That led us to looking at building a weather station from scratch, which led to Arduinos, which then led to...well you get the point. I've now found at least four other projects that I could accomplish with these little microcontrollers. I placed an order for an $4 UNO last night. Let the fun begin!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Project updates

The last few weeks have been very productive on the ham radio front! I cleaned up the coax routing for my Icom 2820 I had installed in the new pickup. While it was only slightly messy, the extra tie wraps and cable management make me feel better. I also installed a GPS puck antenna so the 2820 now shows my position on every D-STAR transmission I make. I had this setup with the 880 in the previous truck, but never had this setup on the 2820. It was very simple - plug in the antenna, change a few settings, and you're good to go. I used a $10 antenna from Amazon.

I moved the antenna for my FlightRadar24.com ADS-B feed radio to a higher location at the end of the pole barn. This required also moving the ubiquiti 2GHz data radio I use to provide internet access to the radio. Luckily I had enough spare mast clamps and hardware to turn this into a nice afternoon project.

At the WX9WX D-STAR homebrew repeater site, the building owner called and wanted our AREDN mesh antenna moved a bit higher. The initial request was for the antenna to be low enough that it couldn't be seen from the road. Now we needed to move it higher so that workers on the roof wouldn't be at eye level with the transmitter. Having worked in the corporate world for quite some time, changing requirements or expectations is something I'm used to. So up to the roof we went, and up another 6 feet went the antenna!

This week Tom KJ9P and I moved the repeater to its newly coordinated frequency. Changing the frequencies on the Motorola radios was a piece of cake thanks to software and a laptop. Re-tuning the duplexer at the site was more of a challenge. I've tuned quite a few duplexers in the last three years, but never one at a site. I found that without a portable signal generator that could go down in the microvolts, it was difficult to do the precise tuning I normally do on the bench. Luckily a quick phone call to Fred KC9REG, who was 27 miles away, resulted in an EXCELLENT weak signal for final testing!

The next projects involve cleaning up the shack. Does anyone ever finish cleaning up the shack? Maybe I should lower my expectations. Finally, I must get an antenna up for 160m before the winter. Plans for a skywire loop are underway. Now to find 600' of 12 gauge wire and some ladder line...

Thursday, August 20, 2015

FSQCALL for quick messages

In the September 2015 QST magazine, there is an article about FSQCALL. This is an interesting digital mode with some free software to send quick, short messages between other hams. It's meant to be more conversational than PSK - you type a sentence, hit enter, and away it goes. It has some selective calling features that let you address stations individually.

I loaded the software on my Windows 10 desktop, turned on my KX3, and was up and running on 30M with 5 watts in about 5 minutes. The software is pretty simple, especially after watching a couple of videos on YouTube first. I ran into Jim, W1PID, and also talked with Maine, and Texas.

For me, this is a great place to just hang out and see who's around. No expectation of making endless CQs on 14.070, or sharing signal reports on JT65.

The simplest application for FSQCall is that it provides a 'watering hole' for a group of friends who wish to keep in touch and chat occasionally. Experience has shown that leaving your equipment running on 7105 kHz during the day, and 3580 kHz at night, will provide fairly reliable communications over about a 500 - 1000 km range. Depending on propagation, 40m may well work day and night. Only modest power is required. You can leave a message for your friend if they aren't available, and even use one friend to relay a message to another. The software will tell you who is currently available.
I'm going to play with the message store/forward functionality next. If you didn't see the QST article, you can read more  from ZL1BPU. Or, take a look at this video:

Friday, July 24, 2015

Control of Your Transmitter?

Are you really in control of your transmitter? I visited another radio club last night. It was interesting to hear the discussion about two new repeater projects the club is working on, including swapping the RF and control decks out with Yaesu's Fusion offer. I could write a book on the pros and cons of the Fusion offer...today's post isn't about that.

What was interesting to me is that the club wasn't concerned that they wouldn't have remote control of their repeater transmitters the way that they do today. They are planning on running the repeaters in analog mode for output, and maybe dual mode for input. The comment that stuck with me is that they didn't see any need for the repeater controllers they have today. The ability to make remote changes to the configuration, or to be able to shut the system down (and turn it back on) were not of interest to any of the members.

I've only run repeaters for a couple of years now. It has been quite the adventure. During that time, I had a cheap controller go belly up in such a way that it held the transmitter keyed down. The transmitter would overheat, shut off, cool off, then key down. Rinse and repeat. Over and over. The controller wouldn't respond to any commands. It was a week before I could get to the site to replace the defective board. Since then, I've got a remote controlled power strip like we use in corporate data centers that allows me to power cycle equipment over the internet.

The thought of putting a repeater on the air without being in positive control is crazy. Sure, it's very unlikely that the FCC is going to find you and fine you. That's not the point...is it good practice to throw a system on the air that you can't control? There are plenty of great solutions here that can be used. Put a second radio with a dtmf decoder on receive side of cans that controls the power. Use the internet and a $50 remote control power strip. Whatever solution you choose, please do something!

In this club's case, the repeater guys are all retired and have easy walk-in access to the sites. In my case, the three repeaters I work on all required coordinated access, can't be reached without taking man lifts or elevators, and two can only be accessed during my work day. Remote control - and positive control of the transmitters - is extremely important.