APRS Repeaters Get the Signal Out of Mammoth Cave

APRS Cave-Link uses the amateur radio’s Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) inside caves to get their position data (and other messages) out.

Imagine that you’re coordinating a large scale search-and-rescue mission in a cave. You need to know where all your groups are, and whether or not they’ve found anything. But how do they all communicate to the command center?

You’d guess radio, but you’d guess wrong. Radio doesn’t propagate well at all in a maze of twisty passages, all alike; rocks absorb radio waves, especially in the VHF/UHF range that’s best suited for most small radios. In the past, you’d run wire and transmit along it. This article runs through the options in detail. But adding miles of wire to your already heavy caving and climbing gear is a nuisance or worse.

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Tiny Radio Tracks Your Balloons

The name of the game in rocketry or ballooning is weight. The amount of mass that can be removed from one of these high-altitude devices directly impacts how high and how far it can go. Even NASA, which estimates about $10,000 per pound for low-earth orbit, has huge incentives to make lightweight components. And, while the Santa Barbara Hackerspace won’t be getting quite that much altitude, their APRS-enabled balloon/rocket tracker certainly helps cut down on weight.

Tracksoar is a 2″ x .75″ x .5″ board which weighs in at 45 grams with a pair of AA batteries and boasts an ATmega 328P microcontroller with plenty of processing power for its array of on-board sensors. Not to mention everything else you would need like digital I/O, a GPS module, and, of course, the APRS radio which allows it to send data over amateur radio frequencies. The key to all of this is that the APRS module is integrated with the board itself, which saves weight over the conventional method of having a separate APRS module in addition to the microcontroller and sensors.

As far as we can see, this is one of the smallest APRS modules we’ve ever seen. It could certainly be useful for anyone trying to save weight in any high-altitude project. There are a few other APRS projects out there as well but remember: an amateur radio license will almost certainly be required to use any of these.

APRS Tracking System Flies Your Balloons

Looking for a way to track your high-altitude balloons but don’t want to mess with sending data over a cellular network? [Zack Clobes] and the others at Project Traveler may have just the thing for you: a position-reporting board that uses the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) network to report location data and easily fits on an Arduino in the form of a shield.

The project is based on an Atmel 328P and all it needs to report position data is a small antenna and a battery. For those unfamiliar with APRS, it uses amateur radio frequencies to send data packets instead of something like the GSM network. APRS is very robust, and devices that use it can send GPS information as well as text messages, emails, weather reports, radio telemetry data, and radio direction finding information in case GPS is not available.

If this location reporting ability isn’t enough for you, the project can function as a shield as well, which means that more data lines are available for other things like monitoring sensors and driving servos. All in a small, lightweight package that doesn’t rely on a cell network. All of the schematics and other information are available on the project site if you want to give this a shot, but if you DO need the cell network, this may be more your style. Be sure to check out the video after the break, too!

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MicroModem, For Data Transmission Explorations

modemThem kids with those Arduinos don’t know what they’re missing. A serial connection is just too easy, and there’s so much fun to be had with low bandwidth modems. [Mark] made the MicroModem with this in mind. It’s a 1200 baud AFSK modem, capable of APRS, TCP/IP over SLIP, mesh network experimentations, and even long-range radio communication.

As the MicroModem is designed to be an introduction to digital wireless communication, it’s an extremely simple build using only 17 components on a board compatible with the Microduino. The software is built around something called MinimalProtocol1, a protocol that will be received by all other listening stations, features error correction, and automatic data compression. There’s also the ability to send TCP/IP over the link, which allowed [Mark] to load up our retro site at a blistering 1200 bps.

The code is extremely well documented, as seen on the Github for this project, with board files and even breadboard layouts included. [Mark] has three PCBs of his prototype left over, and he’s willing to give those out to other Hackaday readers who would like to give his modem a shot.

A Low-Cost Modular High Altitude Balloon Tracker with Mesh Networked Sensors

[Ethan] just tipped us about a project he and a few colleagues worked on last year for their senior design project. It’s a low-cost open hardware/software high altitude balloon tracker with sensors that form a mesh network with a master node. The latter (shown above) includes an ATmega644, an onboard GPS module (NEO-6M), a micro SD card slot, a 300mW APRS (144.39MHz) transmitter and finally headers to plug an XBee radio. This platform is therefore in charge of getting wireless data from the slave platforms, storing it in the uSD card while transmitting the balloon position via APRS along with other data. It’s interesting to note that to keep the design low-cost, they chose a relatively cheap analog radio module ($~40) and hacked together AFSK modulation of their output signal with hardware PWM outputs and a sine-wave lookup table.

The slave nodes are composed of ‘slave motherboards’ on which can be plugged several daughter-boards: geiger counters, atmospheric sensors, camera control/accelerometer boards. If you want to build your own system, be sure to check out this page which includes all the necessary instructions and resources.

Long-distance High Frequency APRS Tracking Using The FreeTrak63


If you dabble in the ham radio hobby we’re sure you’ve heard of GPS position monitoring or tracking using APRS packet data commonly transmitting over the VHF ham band and FM modulated. One of the issues you’ll face using this common method is range limitations of VHF. [Mike Berg] a.k.a [N0QBH ] tipped us off to his latest project to greatly increase the range of a standalone APRS system utilizing the HF bands on single-sideband (SSB).

There are some unique challenges transmitting packet data using SSB over HF bands.  High Frequency APRS has been around for decades utilizing FSK AX.25 packet transmissions at 300 baud, but it was quite susceptible to noise and propagation aberrations. More recently PSK-31 at the slower 31 baud speed helped alleviate many of these issues. [Mike] utilized the somewhat updated APRS with PSK-63 and the “APRS Messenger” program to overcome these challenges. [Mike’s] hardware solution consists of a PIC 16F690 micro which is coded to receive data from a GPS receiver, convert it into PSK-63 and then transmit on 30 meters over an attached HF radio. A second receiving station or stations at great distances can pick up and decode the transmission using the “APRS Messenger” program connected to the receiving radio over the computer’s soundcard. The program can then forward the tracking information, if good, to tracking websites like FindU.com and APRS.FI.

You can build your own FreeTrak63 by downloading [Mike’s] parts list, assembly code, HEX file, manual and schematic. The PCB is available on OSH Park if you don’t want to make your own or wire point-to-point. Let’s not forget to mention how hackable this hardware is, being really just an eight bit DAC, micro, serial in and radio out. One could reprogram this hardware to do other modulation schemes like AX.25 packet or MFSK16, the sky’s the limit. If short-distance on VHF with existing Internet linked receiver networks using an Arduino compatible platform is more to your taste, then checkout the Trackuino open source APRS Tracker.

APRS iGate built using a Raspberry Pi

The hardware seen above is used to bridge a local RF radio network to the APRS-IS network. The APRS-IS is an Internet Service that uses a web connection to communicate between APRS networks in different parts of the world. The Raspberry Pi is perfect for this application because of its ability to connect to a network, and its native use of Linux.

On the software side the majority of the work is done by a Python script. It is responsible for setting up and monitoring a connection with an APRS-IS server. To connect to the handheld radio unit a USB sound card was used. The Multimon package is used to send and receive audio packets through this hardware.

[Sunny] has a few upgrades planned for the system. The device needs to report its location to the APRS-IS server and the plan is to add functionality that will look of the WiFi AP’s location automatically. It may also be possible to get rid of the radio all together and use a DVB dongle as a software defined radio.