How Low Can You Go? The World of QRP Operation

Newly minted hams like me generally find themselves asking, “What now?” after getting their tickets. Amateur radio has a lot of different sub-disciplines, ranging from volunteering for public service gigs to contesting, the closest thing the hobby has to a full-contact sport. But as I explore my options in the world of ham radio, I keep coming back to the one discipline that seems like the purest technical expression of the art and science of radio communication – low-power operation, or what’s known to hams as QRP. With QRP you can literally talk with someone across the planet on less power than it takes to run a night-light using a radio you built in an Altoids tin. Now that’s a challenge I can sink my teeth into.

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Sage Advice for the New Ham

If you’re on the edge about getting your amateur radio license, just go do it and worry about the details later. But once you’ve done that, you’re going to need to know a little bit about the established culture and practices of the modern ham — the details.

Toward that end, [McSteve] has written up a (so far) two-part introductory series about ham radio. His first article is fairly general, and lays out many of the traditional applications of ham radio: chatting with other humans using the old-fashioned analog modes. You know, radio stuff.

The second article focuses more on using repeaters. Repeaters can be a confusing topic for new radio operators: there are two frequencies — one for transmitting and one for receiving — and funny control tones (CTCSS) etc. This article is particularly useful for the new ham, because you’re likely to have a relatively low powered radio that would gain the most from using a repeater, and because the technology and traditions of repeater usage are a bit arcane.

So if you’re thinking about getting your license, do it already. And then read through these two pages and you’re good to go. We can’t wait to see what [McSteve] writes up next.

A Geek’s Revenge For Loud Neighbors

It seems [Kevin] has particularly bad luck with neighbors. His first apartment had upstairs neighbors who were apparently a dance troupe specializing in tap. His second apartment was a town house, which had a TV mounted on the opposite wall blaring American Idol with someone singing along very loudly. The people next to [Kevin]’s third apartment liked music, usually with a lot of bass, and frequently at seven in the morning. This happened every day until [Kevin] found a solution (Patreon, but only people who have adblock disabled may complain).

In a hangover-induced rage that began with thumping bass at 7AM on a Sunday, [Kevin] tore through his box of electronic scrap for every capacitor and inductor in his collection. An EMP was the only way to find any amount of peace in his life, and the electronics in his own apartment would be sacrificed for the greater good. In his fury, [Kevin] saw a Yaesu handheld radio sitting on his desk. Maybe, just maybe, if he pressed the transmit button on the right frequency, the speakers would click. The results turned out even better than expected.

With a car mount antenna pointed directly at the neighbor’s stereo, [Kevin] could transmit on a specific, obscure frequency and silence the speakers. How? At seven in the morning on a Sunday, you don’t ask questions. That’s a matter for when you tell everyone on the Internet.

Needless to say, using a radio to kill your neighbor’s electronics is illegal, and it might be a good idea for [Kevin] to take any references to this escapade off of the Internet. It would be an even better idea to not put his call sign online in the future.

That said, this is a wonderful tale of revenge. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, either. Wikihow, Yahoo Answers and Quora – the web pages ‘normies’ use for the questions troubling their soul – are sometimes unbelievably literate when it comes to unintentional electromagnetic interference, and some of the answers correctly point out grounding a stereo and putting a few ferrite beads on the speaker cables is the way to go. Getting this answer relies entirely on asking the right question, something I suspect 90% of the population is completely incapable of doing.

While [Kevin]’s tale is a grin-inducing two-minute read, You shouldn’t, under any circumstances, do anything like this. Polluting the airwaves is much worse than polluting your neighbor’s eardrums; one of them violates municipal noise codes and another is breaking federal law. It’s a good story, but don’t do it yourself.

Editor’s Note: Soon after publishing our article [Kevin] took down his post and sent us an email. He realized that what he had done wasn’t a good idea. People make mistakes and sometimes do things without thinking. But talking about why this was a bad idea is one way to help educate more people about responsible behavior. Knowing you shouldn’t do something even though you know how is one paving stone on the path to wisdom.
–Mike Szczys

Hams in Space: Project OSCAR

In early December 1961, a United States Air Force rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California carrying a special payload. The main payload was a Corona surveillance satellite, but tucked just aft of that spacecraft was a tiny package of homebrew electronics stuffed into something the looked like a slice of cake. What was in that package and how it came to tag along on a top-secret military mission is the story of OSCAR 1, the world’s first amateur radio satellite.

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Decoding data hiding in Star Trek IV

1986: The US and Russia signed arms agreements, Argentina won the world cup, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home hit the theaters. Trekkies and the general public alike enjoyed the film. Some astute hams though, noticed a strange phenomenon about halfway through the film. During a pivotal scene, Scotty attempts to beam Chekov and Uhura off the Enterprise, but has trouble with interference. The interference can be heard over the ubiquitous Star Trek comm link. To many it may sound like random radio noise. To the trained ear of a [Harold Price, NK6K] though, it sounded a heck of a lot like packet radio transmissions.

cray-2By 1989, the film was out on VHS and laser disc. With high quality audio available, [Harold] challenged his friend [Bob McGwier, N4HY] to decode the signal. [Bob] used the best computer he had available: His brain. He also had a bit of help from a Cray 2 supercomputer.

[Bob] didn’t own his own Cray 2 of course, this particular computer was property of the National Security Agency (NSA). He received permission to test Frequency Shift Keyed (FSK) decoder algorithms. Can you guess what his test dataset was?

The signal required a lot of cleanup: The original receiver was tuned 900 Hz below the transmission frequency. There also was a ton of noise. To make matters worse, Scotty kept speaking over the audio. Thankfully, AX.25 is a forgiving protocol. [Bob] persevered and was able to obtain some usable data. The signal turned out to be [Bill Harrigill, WA8ZCN] sending a Receive Ready (RR) packet to N6AEZ on 20 meters. An RR packet indicates that [Bill’s] station had received all previous packets and was ready for more.  [Bob] called to [Bill], who was able to verify that it was probably him transmitting in the 1985 or 1986, around the time the sound editors would have been looking for effects.

That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, especially considering it was 1989. Today, we carry supercomputers around in our pockets. The Cray 2 is roughly equivalent to an iPhone 4 in processing power. Modern laptop and desktop machines easily out class Seymour Cray’s machine. We also have software like GNU Radio, which is designed to decode data. Our challenge to you, the best readers in the world, is to replicate [Bob McGwier’s] work, and share your results.

Hacking When It Counts: The Great Depression

In the summer of 1929, it would probably have been hard for the average Joe to imagine the degree to which his life was about to change. In October of that year, the US stock market tumbled, which in concert with myriad economic factors kicked off the Great Depression, a worldwide economic disaster that would send ripples through history to this very day. At its heart, the Depression was about a loss of confidence, manifested in bank failures, foreclosures, unemployment, and extreme austerity. People were thrust into situations for which they were ill-prepared, and if they were going to survive, they needed to adapt and do what they could with what they had on hand. In short, they needed to hack their way out of the Depression.

Social Hacking: Welcome to the Jungle

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Bindlestiffs ambulating down the high iron. Source: Wikipedia

One reaction to the change in the social contract in the 1930s was increased vagrancy. While homelessness was certainly thrust upon some people by circumstances – in the depth of the Depression in 1933, something like 25% of men were unemployed, after all – life on the road was clearly a choice for millions. A typical story was that of the bored teenage boy, facing no prospects for a job and wishing to relieve his large family of the burden of one more mouth to feed. Hitting the road with a few possessions in his “bindle,” he learned the craft of life on the road from more experienced vagrants. And thus another hobo was created.

The popular image of the hobos as unique to the Depression is a little awry. Economic upheaval certainly swelled their ranks, but in America, hobos had first appeared after the Civil War, with war-weary veterans riding the rails looking for work. By the time the Depression hit, there was an extensive hobo culture in the United States, complete with its own slang and a rough code of ethics.

Hobos were top of the heap in the vagrant hierarchy, the “knights of the road.” They were migrant workers, generally unskilled, willing to stay in one place for a paying job but unwilling to commit to settling down. When the job was done or he had made enough money, he moved on. Tramps were the next step down – wanderers who were willing to work but only when absolutely necessary. Lowest in the pecking order were the bums who stayed put and relied on the kindness of strangers for their survival. Regardless of rank, all the vagrants had one thing in common – the road. More or less constantly on the move, they had to quickly learn how to provide for themselves without the creature comforts, which before the Depression hit had begun to include many modern conveniences.

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Hobo stove in action. Source: Log Cabin Cooking

Cooking arrangements were one thing hobos excelled at, whether on the road or in one of the many hobo camps, or jungles, that sprung up at railroad crossings outside of towns. A campfire in a ring of rocks is the traditional view of outdoor cookery, but the hobos quickly learned that it’s not terribly fuel-efficient. One solution to this problem was the hobo stove, an ancestor of the rocket stove. Relying on convection to draw a huge volume of air into a combustion chamber, hobo stoves were easily fabricated from tin cans and other metal scraps that were easy to come by in a world before recycling and large municipal landfills. Most were assembled on the spot and served for a meal or two before being abandoned, but some actually had insulation between double walls and clever arrangements of the fuel shelf to feed automatically as the fuel burned away. Scraps of wood, pinecones, newspapers and cardboard – a hobo stove will eat almost anything, and burn hot enough that even damp fuel isn’t a problem.

Often finding himself with time on his hands, many a hobo kept himself busy with arts and crafts projects in camp. Making hobo nickels was a popular way to pass the time, and often resulted in a trade item far more valuable than the base value of the starting material. The Indian head figure on the US Buffalo nickels of the day were modified with tools fabricated from old nails and files; metal was pushed around the coin to create features on the figure, usually a bowler hat and facial hair. A ‘bo could trade the miniature bas-relief sculpture for a good meal; today genuine hobo nickels from the Depression era command high prices from collectors.

Radio: Razor Blades and Copper Pipe

Unless the hobo was flopping in town or at a really well-equipped jungle, chances are pretty good he wasn’t listening to the radio too much. From our 21st century outlook, it’s sometimes hard to appreciate how new and exciting radio was and the impact it had on everyday life in America during the Depression. Radio connected the nation in a way no other medium ever had. That the Depression did not kill this infant technology in its cradle is a testament to both its power as a medium – families would stop making payments on almost everything else so they could keep their radio sets – and to the tenacity of early electronics hobbyists, who learned to keep radios alive and even to fabricate them from almost nothing.

CrystalRadio
CrystalRadio” by JA.Davidson

Although tube-type superheterodyne receivers were widely available all through the Depression, crystal sets were still a popular and sometimes necessary hacker project during the Depression. Relying on nothing more than a tuned circuit and a detector connected to an antenna and high-impedance headphones, a crystal set was able to pick up strong AM broadcasts and sometimes even shortwave stations. The earliest detectors were crystals of galena probed by a tiny “cat’s whisker” wire, but metal oxides could also form the necessary rectifying junction, leading to detectors built out of razor blades and safety pins. Crystal radio skills would serve many a Depression-era farm boy well during the next decade as they went off to war in Europe and the Pacific; there they created foxhole radios to listen in on broadcasts without the risk of a more sophisticated radio set, whose local oscillator could be detected by the enemy.

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VE7SL’s replica 1929 TNT transmitter, a close relative of the Hartley. Source: The VE7SL Radio Notebook

Receivers weren’t the only area in which Depression-era hackers made an impact. As commercial broadcasting took off, so did amateur radio, and few commercial transmitters were available to satisfy the burgeoning ham market. Depression-era hams had to home-brew almost everything and came up with some beautiful designs that modern glowbug hams recreate with loving attention to detail. A popular transmitter back in the day was based on the Hartley oscillator (PDF link). Using only a single triode tube and a tuned circuit with coils wound from 1/4″ copper tubing, Hartley transmitters could be built on a literal breadboard from scraps and widely available parts. Tuned to the 40- or 80-meter band, or even down to the 160-meter band, a Hartley or the closely related Tuned-Not-Tuned (TNT) or Tune-Plate-Tuned-Grid (TPTG) continuous-wave (CW) transmitters could put out enough power to work coast-to-coast contacts, or QSOs. Modern hams pay homage to the Depression-era pioneers of amateur radio with regular “QSO Parties” using replica Hartleys – most with bypass capacitors to keep the lethal voltages their forebears had to deal with off the coils.

The Great Depression lasted through the 1930s in America, finally dissipating just before the country mobilized for World War II. With factories suddenly working beyond capacity to supply the war effort, unemployment figures quickly plummeted, and the austere practices of the Depression were generally rolled back. Hobo culture declined and amateur radio was shut down by the federal government for the duration of the war, but neither the war effort nor full employment could kill the hobo spirit — modern hobos still ply the rails to this day. And the skills and mindsets developed by Depression-era social and electronics hackers paved the way for a lot of what was to come in the post-war years.

Original Hackers’ New Satellite in Orbit

Ham radio put another satellite in orbit, the FOX-1A. Not many groups have the long-term hacking credentials of hams. Their tradition extends back to the first days of radio communications, which puts the group well over a century old. This newest satellite launched in the early hours of October 8th and, after deployment, was heard later the same day. Anyone with the ability to listen on the 2m band can hear FOX-1A. Tatlas-v-rocket-launches-nrol55-cubesatshose licensed as hams will be able to communicate using a 70cm transmitter while listening on 2m.

This satellite is using the cube-sat format and ‘ride sharing’ through a program offered by NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Twelve other nano-satellites rode along with the FOX-1A. These 10 cm cubes are used for commercial, educational, and non-profit projects. The purpose of today’s satellites covered not only ham radio but educating students in satellite construction, land management by American Indian tribes, and space to ground laser communication. Yeah, what’s cooler than space lasers? Video about the FOX-1A after the break.

We’ve seen some interesting ideas for cube-sats. And if you want to think about the ground portion of a system like this, check out the SatNOGs story — winners of the 2014 Hackaday Prize.

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