An Autonomous Drone For Working Rare Squares

Amateur radio is an extremely broad church when it comes to the numerous different activities that it covers. Most of the stories featuring radio amateurs that we cover here have involved home-made radios, but that represents a surprisingly small subset of licence holders.

One activity that captivates many operators is grid square collecting. The map is divided into grid squares, can you make contact with all of them? Land-based squares in Europe and North America are easy, those in some more sparsely populated regions a little less so, and some squares out in the ocean are nigh-on impossible. As an attempt to solve this problem, the Jupiter Research Foundation Amateur Radio Club have put an HF transceiver and associated electronics in a WaveGlider autonomous seagoing vehicle. The idea is that it will traverse the ocean, and you can work it, thus getting the contact you require to add those rarest of grid squares to your list.

The transceiver in question is a commercial portable one, an Elecraft KX3, and the brain of the payload is a Raspberry PI. It’s operating the FT8 mode, and will respond to a call on 14074 kHz in an automated fashion (Or it would, were its status page not telling us that it is offline due to power issues). It’s currently somewhere in the Pacific ocean, having been at sea now for a couple of months.

We spotted this through a spirited online discussion as to whether working an automated station is really a proper contact at all, with one amateur commenting that it might be a way for him to keep on going post mortem. But the ethics of the contact aside, it’s an extremely interesting project and one we hope eventually will come back online.

Thanks Sotabeams, via [AE5X].

20 thoughts on “An Autonomous Drone For Working Rare Squares

  1. Is this thing running wspr as well? I noticed that there is 4000 squares that report hearing spots, but 10000 squares that transmitted. So obviously something is roaming around using wspr as position reporting.

      1. I find it interesting from the autonomous craft and seagoing radio perspective. But yes, the amateur radio part isn’t really my thing. Never been a square collector.

    1. “But each to their own, I don’t count contacts without a human in the other end.”

      Why? What are the challenges in contesting? Building a station that can send signals too and receive signals from some remote part of the globe? Keeping your butt in the seat long enough that you are there when that illusive path opens up? Straining to make out the other callsign through the static? (I’ve been told people don’t really do this one anymore, that most hams just ignore the weak signals in favor of the strong booming ones)

      Doesn’t making a contact with a bot prove you have done all that just as much as making contact with a human? If anything maybe it’s better. Perhaps it will return a real signal report instead of just the standard 5/9!

      – Disclaimer, the most contesting I have done is to man the club radio for an hour or two at a time during field days.

    1. If it hooks up to a printer when it returns to port, maybe. ;)

      This raises the question of whether AI could be considered a contact. If you don’t know it’s not a human on the other end.. I mean, even something as primitive as ELIZA could hold up a conversation with all the subtle sophistication of your average contesting contact.

      1. For contest purposes, and even things like meteor scatter or moonbounce, a minimal exchange is required. There’s a formality to it, so I’m not sure it matters that a computer is at the other end. The computer can at least see the signal strength and give a “599” that better reflects the incoming signal.

        I know there have been stories about automated stations in the ham magazines decades ago. But they were fictional, though I don’t know if the authors considered their work as anticipating the future, or mocking the idea that an automated station could be “real” ham radio.

        But who’s in control? A ham station needs to be under the control of a licensed ham. Does this thing have someone who can shut it down if needed?

        As for QSLs, I gather a lot of that is disappearing, webpages taking over to verify contacts.

        And isn’t the mode used kind of automatic anyway? There was a story last year I think about this FT8 thing, some false contacts due to faulty software. And a more recent story about how it’s taking over ham radio.


  2. It sounds like a cool project, however the radio transceiver used (Elecraft KX3) is definitely not a cheap piece of equipment. I know that Elon Musk can throw a Tesla roadster into space and this is several magnitudes cheaper, however wouldn’t it have been better to use something cheaper?

    1. Hams just like to spend money on these things. I think that has to be it.

      Back in the heyday of hackerspaces and ambitious makers sending baloons up to the edge of ‘space’ (really the stratosphere) I remember this annoying guy who was involved in a launch. He liked to talk about it in ‘show and tell’ meetings at the local hackerspaces and would go on and on about how stupid it was to use APRS and ham radio. He would talk about how much lighter it was to just use an Arduino with a cellular shield.

      I thought this was horrible. Why use a subscription based cellular service when the APRS network is free? Also, with APRS the whole local community can be involved in the tracking. Even people who never knew you were going to launch a balloon but happen to run APRS nodes will see it. It’s a way to encourage more making!

      His argument made little sense to me. He was after all still using a radio, essentially that is all a cellular modem is. He was actually using a more complicated protocol to send the same information. Why should it be heavier or more expensive?

      But… cellular modems are small, dedicated one use radios. Hams at the time were launching their own multi-hundred dollar HTs and handheld GPS receivers connected to tracker units that by themselves used up as much weight and space as the entire arduino+GPS+GSM shield solution! Why?

      Where was/is the narrowband single channel FM transmitter/FSK modem board on an Arduino shield that can be programmed for the appropriately APRS frequency and easily replace the GSM shield?

      Why do hams like sending their expensive toys into hazardous places they may never come back from? The world may never know!

    1. Seriously, I don’t get contesters and their hangups.

      Radio contact with a bot proves one sent/received signals across the distance but does not require a second human being. Isn’t it the long distance radio contact that is the point?

      So… if it’s that second human being that contesting is all about for you, not the sending and receiving of radio signals across long distances then tell me, why not Echolink? Or for that matter Skype? Hell, why not go really old school, lose all the electronics and go make a few ‘contacts’ at the local bar?!?!

      I think the same thing when they whine and complain about remote stations. So long as the location of the actual transciever, not the PC is given as the QTH what difference does it make?

      Considering that someone can order a factory built antenna and a factory built transciever, which they had nothing to do with designing or building. wire them together according to the included manuals and be a ‘contest hero’ what’s really the point anyway?

      Now, two homemade bots sporting two homemade transceivers contacting one another from opposite oceans… That would be a technical feat worthy of a contest!

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