I was having a chat recently with someone, and it surprised me that she had an amateur radio license. I suppose it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise; after all, getting a ham radio license is a pretty common rite of passage in the life of a hardware hacker. I guess it surprised me because she’d never mentioned it in our past conversations, and as we talked about it, I learned why. “I got my license because I thought ham radio was about building radios, ” she said. “But it’s not.”
In a lot of ways, she is right about the state of ham radio. There was a time that building one’s own gear was as central to the hobby as getting on the air, and perhaps more so. Now, though, with radios as cheap as $30 and the whiz-bang gear that can make reaching out across the planet trivially easy, building your own radios has slipped down a few notches. But homebrewing is far from a dead art, and as we’ll see in this installment of “The $50 Ham”, a WSPR beacon for the HF bands is actually a fun and simple — and cheap — way for the homebrew-curious to get a taste of what it’s like to build your own transmitter.
Continue reading “The $50 Ham: A Simple WSPR Beacon”
Everybody has a bucket list, things to be accomplished before the day we eventually wake up on the wrong side of the grass. Many bucket-list items are far more aspirational than realistic; very few of us with “A trip to space” on our lists are going to live to see that fulfilled. And even the more realistic goals, like the trip to Antarctica that’s been on my list for ages, become less and less likely as your life circumstances change — my wife hates the cold.
Luckily, instead of going to Antarctica by myself — and really, what fun would that be? — I’ve recently been getting some of the satisfaction of world travel through amateur radio. The last installment of “The $50 Ham” highlighted weak-signal digital modes using WSJT-X; in that article, I mentioned a little about the Weak Signal Propagation Reporter, or WSPR. It’s that mode that let me test what’s possible with very low-power transmissions, and allowed me to virtually visit six continents including Antarctica and Sweden-by-way-of-Alaska.
Continue reading “The $50 Ham: WSPR-ing Around The World”
As it is generally practiced, ham radio is a little like going to the grocery store and striking up a conversation with everyone you bump into as you ply the aisles. Except that the grocery store is the size of the planet, and everyone brings their own shopping cart, some of which are highly modified and really expensive. And pretty much every conversation is about said carts, or about the grocery store itself.
With that admittedly iffy analogy in mind, if you’re not the kind of person who would normally strike up a conversation with someone while shopping, you might think that you’d be a poor fit for amateur radio. But just because that’s the way that most people exercise their ham radio privileges doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Exploring a few of the more popular ways to leverage the high-frequency (HF) bands and see what can be done on a limited budget, in terms of both cost of equipment as well as the amount of power used, is the focus of this installment of The $50 Ham. Welcome to the world of microphone-optional ham radio: weak-signal digital modes.
Continue reading “The $50 Ham: Digital Modes With WSJT-X”
So far in the $50 Ham series, I’ve concentrated mainly on the VHF and UHF bands. The reason for this has to do mainly with FCC rules, which largely restrict Technician-level licensees to those bands. But there’s a financial component to it, too; high-frequency (HF) band privileges come both at the price of learning enough about radio to pass the General license test, as well as the need for gear that can be orders of magnitude more expensive than a $30 handy-talkie radio.
But while HF gear can be expensive, not everything needed to get on the air has to be so. And since it’s often the antenna that makes or breaks an amateur radio operator’s ability to make contacts, we’ll look at a simple but versatile antenna design that can be adapted to support everything from a big, powerful base station to portable QRP (low-power) activations in the field: the end-fed half-wave antenna.
Continue reading “The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands”
So far in this series, everything we’ve covered has been geared around the cheapest and easiest possible means of getting on the air: getting your Technician license, buying your first low-end portable transceiver, and checking in on the local repeater nets. That’s all good stuff, and chances are you can actually take all three of those steps and still have change left over from your $50 bill. Like I said, amateur radio doesn’t have to be expensive to be fun.
But at some point, every new ham is going to yearn for that first “real” rig, something with a little more oomph in terms of power, and perhaps with a few more features. For many Technicians, the obvious choice is a mobile rig, something that can be used to chat with fellow hams on the way to work, or to pass the time while on long road trips. Whatever your motivation is, once you buy a radio, you have to install it, and therein lie challenges galore, both electrical and mechanical.
I recently took the plunge on a mobile rig, and while the radio and antenna were an order of magnitude more expensive than $50, the process of installing it was pretty cheap. But it’s not the price of the thing that’s important in this series; rather, it’s to show that ham radio is all about doing it yourself, even when that means tearing your car apart from the inside out and rebuilding it around a radio.
Continue reading “The $50 Ham: Going Mobile”
In the last installment of “The $50 Ham” I built a common tool used by amateur radio operators who are doing any kind of tuning or testing of transmitters: a dummy load. That build resulted in “L’il Dummy”, a small dummy load intended for testing typical VHF-UHF handy talkie (HT) transceivers, screwing directly into the antenna jack on the radio.
As mentioned in the comments by some readers, L’il Dummy has little real utility. There’s actually not much call for a dummy load that screws right into an HT, and it was pointed out that a proper dummy load is commercially available on the cheap. I think the latter observation is missing the point of homebrewing specifically and the Hackaday ethos in general, but I will concede the former point. That’s why at the same time I was building L’il Dummy, I was building the bigger, somewhat more capable version described here: Big Dummy.
Continue reading “The $50 Ham: Dummy Loads, Part 2”
This is an exciting day for me — we finally get to build some ham radio gear! To me, building gear is the big attraction of amateur radio as a hobby. Sure, it’s cool to buy a radio, even a cheap one, and be able to hit a repeater that you think is unreachable. Or on the other end of the money spectrum, using a Yaesu or Kenwood HF rig with a linear amp and big beam antenna to work someone in Antartica must be pretty cool, too. But neither of those feats require much in the way of electronics knowledge or skill, and at the end of the day, that’s why I got into amateur radio in the first place — to learn more about electronics.
To get my homebrewer’s feet wet, I chose perhaps the simplest of ham radio projects: dummy loads. Every ham eventually needs a dummy load, which is basically a circuit that looks like an antenna to a transmitter but dissipates the energy as heat instead of radiating it an appreciable distance. They allow operators to test gear and make adjustments while staying legal on emission. Al Williams covered the basics of dummy loads a few years back in case you need a little more background.
We’ll be building two dummy loads: a lower-power one specifically for my handy talkies (HTs) will be the subject of this article, while a bigger, oil-filled “cantenna” load for use with higher power transmitters will follow. Neither of my designs is original, of course; borrowing circuits from other hams is expected, after all. But I did put my own twist on each, and you should do the same thing. These builds are covered in depth on my Hackaday.io page, but join me below for the gist on a good one: the L’il Dummy.
Continue reading “The $50 Ham: Dummy Loads”