Ham Radio Company Wins Big

It is sort of the American dream: start a company in your garage and have it get crazy big. After all, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and even Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard did it. Seems hard to do these days, though. However, one ham radio company that has been pushing the edge of software defined radio appears to be well on the way to becoming more than its roots. FlexRadio has teamed with Raytheon to undertake a major project for the United States Air Force.

The Air Force has given Raytheon and FlexRadio $36 million to develop an HF radio based on the existing SmartSDR/Flex-6000. ARRL news reports quote FlexRadio’s CEO as saying that the investment in the military radios will pay dividends to the firm’s ham radio customers.

Honestly, that would not surprise us, as ham radio has always gained a lot both from military technology and surplus. In addition, military radio makers such as Collins have a long history of also making amateur gear. We would imagine the potential market for an SDR would be far larger for the military so this could make more powerful gear available at a lower price.

The Flex6000 appears in the video below. The receiver uses a digital direct sampling technique on receive and a direct upconversion on transmit. Different members of the family have different ranges, but typically the radios can go from 300 kHz to 77 MHz and sometimes also 135 to 165 Mhz.

FlexRadio has a lot of competition lately in the ham radio SDR space with players ranging from big manufacturers to small businesses all taking a piece of the pie. The military connection for FlexRadio may let them give individual hams a better product.

As you might expect at this price point, this gear isn’t quite an RTL-SDR. If you want to roll your own or just understand things better, don’t miss [Mike Ossmann’s] workshop on RF design.

37 thoughts on “Ham Radio Company Wins Big

    1. You /are/ that smart. We all are. Just at different things.

      Yes, I mean all, and in the literal sense. I am aware of mental disorders, disabling (at least in the legal sense) and otherwise, that give people lower IQs. I myself have Asperger’s, and although that does not (thankfully) affect my mental acuity, at least in a negative sense, it has shaped my life in certain ways.

      My remark applies to those with mental disabilities and disorders as well as everyone else… some of them are very smart at counting change or working simple factory or service jobs. Even working at Wal-Mart, Dollar Tree, or McDonald’s requires smarts of a sort. The phrase “unskilled labor” is badly misleading at best, as anyone working a job in that sector will tell you if you ask. All jobs require some sort of skill or intelligence, straight down to being a Wal-Mart Greeter — it’s just that our society respects and values certain skills and smarts far more than it does others.

      By way of example… I went to college at a small liberal arts school, and there was a lady named Ruth who worked in the cafeteria. Ruth, when I was there (I graduated in 2009) was a youngish Black lady, probably in her mid-30s, employed mostly in a janitorial role, although she also helped out by bringing condiments and small dishes to people or helping students and faculty/staff carry their lunches to a table (we all ate together there) — and she was always smiling. “Ruthie”, as we all called her, had Down’s or something very similar. She will never be an astrophysicist, of course — heck, she will never even be able to drive herself to work — but Ruthie was /very/ smart at being nice, at being helpful, and at cleaning up messes and spills. You could tell she was happy, and that she cared about you, regardless of the fact that she was physiologically incapable of comprehending most of what was taught at that school.

      As a more apocryphal example… mostly because I don’t care to try and find ther source at the moment… I once read a news article about a young man whose name (IIRC) was Joe. He ran his own restaurant, literally named “Joe’s Place”. Joe had Down’s, the article specifically said it. Between you, me, and the proverbial Narnian Lamppost… running a restaurant, from what I hear, is /not/ an easy task, even for someone with a relatively normal thinker in their skull. But somehow this guy managed to do it… /literally/ so, since he owned and operated the place, and he had staff.

      As I said. We are all smart… just at different things.

      “Shoot for the moon… even if you fail, you’ll land amongst the stars.” ;)

  1. You left off Steve Wozniack(not sure about his last name spelling). Steve and I were members of the Homestead High School Amateur Radio Club(1967-1968). We both graduated in 1968 at Homestead High School, Cupertino, CA..

    My late father (Philip C. Tuttle) used to park right next to Dave Packard (1959). Dave held a W6 call out of Palo Alto.

    Steve Wozniack was the hardware engineer side of the business, much like Dave Packard.

    Respfully,

    Kelly C. Tuttle
    WB6AAJ
    San Jose, CA
    wb6aaj626@gmail.com

      1. You need to look again. There are multiple thin clients that are the user interface including their Maestro, iOS devices and a light duty Windows app. Check them out on their web site.

    1. Sometimes it’s a small world Kelly. My wife was born in Palo Alto, grew up in Los Altos, and graduated from Homestead having been there the same time as Jobs. She also recalls Chris Espinosa, a friend of her younger brother, often visiting her house. Chris was Apple employee number 8 in those early garage days.

  2. My Flex6400 is awesome. I have it in an outdoor enclosure near the antenna. A good ethernet connection allows operation from my shack. My SOTA rig is an elecraft kx2, another SDR that is a great portable rig. Both are very different rigs for different applications. de AI6XG

  3. Some of the legendary ham companies of the past old to the military.

    Hallicrafters, Hammarlund, Collins, and National , most!y started selling to hobbyists, but in the long run were sustained by government/military contracts. Probably WWII coming along did that, amateur radio shut down for the duration, but need for military equipment made use of the company’s expertise.

    Ham radio was a niche market, selling to the military provided income to allkw the companies to stay in the ham market. Collins equipment was expensive, but the KWM-2 and S-line had a long production life because government and companies bought it too. Collins was bought up, but the other three faded in the seventies, some of it a change to solid state, competiont from Japan, but also military contracts dying off.

    Even later companies like Drake had equipment sold to maritime and other markets, some equioment getting a repackaging. When Drake, and later Ten-Tec had commercial grade receivers, they were offered to them hobbyists, but likely designed for commercial use. So any sales to hobbyist of such expensive receivers was icing onnthe cake ratger than primary market.

    But it was expertise fronm the ham market that mived them into more lucrative markets.
    The surprise here is that a “small” company is now moving upward, when it’s been a long time since that happened in radio.

    Michael

    1. Hallicrafters built one of the jamming systems (ECM) used on B-52’s. I don’t recall anything else by a traditional communications company mentioned. Westinghouse, on the other hand, made ECM pods.

      1. All four I mentioned manufactured or at least designed equipment that had military designations.

        Some were maming fairly high end equipment before WWII, so the government went to them. Legend has it that Hallicrafter and Collins ham transmitters were pressed into early service, and then they designed and built equipment for the military. Hammarlund and Hallicrafters had some receivers with mikitary designation, and Hammarlund after the war had the SP-600 that was almost top level for almost two decades. Collins after the war designed tge 75A series of ham receivers, and the 51J series of general coverage receivers with a similar design. One if the latter got an R-388 military designation. And during the Korean War, Collins designed the famous R-390 receiver with the mechanical digital dial, that even today is considered one of the top level receivers.

        But we know about these because they were made in large numbers, and surplus later.

        National had military contracts, but some of it was so esoteric that mere mortals never really knew about them. And tbere was also mundane equioment designed by all four, too simple to be noticed, though sometimes other companies got the manufacturing contract.

        Lots of other companies had government contracts, but since they didn’t start as ham companies, we only see them as supplying commercial equipment.

        Anyone making high end equioment at the very least relies on sales to governments to make the specific equipment viable. So embassies and expeditions and intelligence organizations bought up high end receivers in the past, and today likely buy from Japanese companies that we know about because kf their ham equioment, but also supply marine and two way radios.

        Michael

        1. ah. you mentioning that made me realize rockwell still exists in forms. i just recall my grandfather working for them on the shuttle program and then boeing taking over shortly before or after he retired.

          wikipedia excerpt: “So in the end, there are: A) Four (4) publicly traded companies (Meritor, Rockwell Collins, Conexant, Rockwell Automation (the former Allen Bradley is the nucleus of this)), B) one sale of “Aerospace & Defense” to Boeing, C) one sale of “valve & meter division” to BTR, D) one sale of the “printing press division” to internal management.”

          invoked the recollection of some fond memories.

  4. I really like Flex’s products and think they are one of the key influences that has driven the advance of communication technology over the past decade across the industry. I Do want on of their radios.

    My problem with them is that they failed to pass the inherent BoM savings of SDR technology on to consumers. Their radios, for the most part, share a price point with other rigs available in the market that rely on costly hardware solutions – especially things like fine-tuned inductors. “For the most part” because there are WAY more expensive rigs out there, but in terms of general capabilities, their pricing is market-driven by function and not supply-driven by cost to produce with a fixed markup. They would have sold many more units had they come off that price point even a little bit.

    1. You can get a far better radio, like the Icom 7610, built in antenna tuner, built in GPS, all mode, all band, dual receivers for far less $$. I’m just saying… reputation counts for a lot. I’d like to see a comparison, but the Icom is clearly superior in every way. This article seems to be nothing more than an advertisement. Boo! Boo Hackaday!

      1. The 6600 has built in dual SO2R… I save the cost of buying bandpass filters at the radio ($1k a pop for 100w) and the cost of a second physical radio, and the associated outboard switching of audio/ptt/cw/etc.

    2. But they are aiming at the perfirmance market, which is probably why tgey are niw getting government interest. You can get those cheap USB SDR gizmos, but they are designed for wideband tv. You can buy cheap shortwave receivers with SDR, but no top level specs, and not as programmable as more expensive receivers. Everyone is going to SDR because it’s cheaper, Collins stopped making mechanical filters a few years back because h because they were a premium item and few companies were still making receivers that used them.

      Like many things, SDR can make things cheaper, but higher performance can still be expensive, and the cost limits sales.

      Good receiver design says filtering should be done as close to the antenna as possible, and unless yiu have a high range A/D converter, that still holds true. Good front end filters aren’t something that comes in an IC, so that drivesup cost, while USB SDR and cheap SDR shortwave receivers just leave them out, on top of lower dynamic range A/D conversion.

      So SDR can mean a big range of receivers. SDR can make some things cheaper, but for high performance some costs remain.

      Michael

  5. Software defined radio sounds interesting for general use, but what happens when your network infrastructure and/or computers are down (as often happens in disaster/emergency scenarios where people turn from cell phones and VOIP)?

    1. Forty years ago when I’d see theory articles about SDR, too expensive for hobbyists the needed computer was fairly substantial. But now much better computers are less expensive and a smaller package. DSP ICs have also shifted the work off the CPU.

      So nowadays an SDR can be self-contained, no need for an external computer or networking. Indded, there is demand for SDR equipment to look and act like traditional equipment. So except where the label says “SDR Inside”, you may not know tgat it’s an SDR.

      Michael

    2. The members of our Ham radio club (Cedar Rapids Iowa…many retired Collins engineers !) are always bringing up ” what if your network goes down?” In the case of SDR and DMR. Chances are, the Internet is still up somewhere, barring a widespread EMP attack. If it’s EMP we’re pretty much all hosed. But if you have a friend or two at a local university or community college, those places might still have a functional on ramp to part of the network backbone. It might not be in the gigabit range, but 1200 baud or even slower still gets a message across !

    3. It is possible to stream the output of SDR (or of antique vacuum tube radios, for that matter) over the Internet. But it’s not necessary.

      SDR doesn’t depend on the Internet any more than your car’s computerized engine control unit depends on the Internet. Both continue to function when the utility companies’ service is interrupted.

  6. The USAF needs to follow this up with a requirement that air crews use HF radio more often. I talked to two C-17 pilots who never used theirs. Sat phones are easier and less troubled with static. If some less-friendly nation takes out those satellites, they won’t know what to do. Ditto with GPS.

  7. Hopefully they keep ham ecomm in mind when they plan this out. Be nice to have one head station or control station that allows configuration and adjustments. Motorola, ratheon, and Harris seem to be the only ones in that market that work well. Really need a open source protocol so that integration is simplified across the baord.

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