The Hackers and the Hurricane

When natural disasters strike, particularly if they are in some of the less remote parts of the world, we see them unfolding in real-time on our television screens. They become a 24-hour rolling news exercise in disaster titillation, each fresh horror ghoulishly picked over by breathless reporters live-telecasting from windswept streets, and endlessly rehashed by a succession of in-studio expert guests.

Then once the required image of a dusty child being pulled from the rubble or a tearful mother describing her daughter being swept away is in the can, a politician somewhere is found in bed with a model or a tinpot dictator rattles his sabre, and the world moves on. The BAFTA or the Emmy is a certainty for this one, did you see the anguish!

Meanwhile on the ground, the situation remains the same. There is no power, no sanitation, no communications, no food, and help seems very far away. In the wake of the recent hurricane season across the Caribbean, there are millions of people whose worlds have been wrecked, and several international governments have faced significant criticism for their lethargic response.

In our world of hardware hackers and makers, we are on the whole practical people. We exist to make, and do, rather than to endlessly talk. Seeing the plight of the victims of Irma, Jose, or Maria leaves us wanting to do practical things to help, because that’s what we do. But of course, we can do nothing, because we’re thousands of miles away and probably lack whatever skills or training are in demand on the islands.

It’s heartening then to hear of just a few moments when our wider community has managed to be in the right place at the right time to offer some help. We’ve had a couple in our tips line lately we’d like to share.

[Csp3r] writes about the Derbycon conference held in Louisville, at which [Carlos Perez] and [Jose Quinones Borreros], information security specialists from Puerto Rico, were in attendance. They mentioned a need for emergency radios, and the community at the conference came together to raise money for much more than just a few radios. $15,000 was raised in all, spent on radios, solar chargers, generators, flashlights, USB battery packs, and tools. This amounted to a significant bulk, so Hackers For Charity helped secure some space on an aid flight to the island.

Then [Bruce Perens, K6BP] writes about a request from the American Red Cross to the ARRL for 50 radio amateurs to help with their relief efforts in Puerto Rico. They will perform the role you might expect of enabling essential communications, as well as to quote the ARRL: “help record, enter, and submit disaster-survivor information into the ARC Safe and Well system”. This is a request unprecedented in its scale, and reflects the level of damage across the island.

For most of us, the best we can do when helping out with these events will be to drop coins into an OXFAM or Red Cross collecting tin and leave it to the experts. But as we’ve noted above, for just a few of us the opportunity to do something a bit more useful presents itself. If you find yourself in that position, make it count!

We’ve looked at the role of amateur radio in public service before, and we’ve even featured it in one or two projects. This emergency box for example has all you’d need to provide this type of service.

Cyclone Catarina image from the ISS, [Public domain].

Amateur Radio Just Isn’t Exciting

As ARRL president, [Rick Roderick, K5UR] spends a significant amount of time proselytising the hobby. He has a standard talk about amateur radio that involves tales gleaned from his many decades as a licence holder, and features QSL cards from rare DX contacts to show how radio amateurs talk all over the world.

He’s delivered this talk countless times, and is used to a good reception from audiences impressed with what can be done with radio. But when he delivered it to a group of young people, as Southgate ARC reports, he was surprised to see a lack of interest from his audience, to whom DX or contesting just don’t cut it when they have grown up with the pervasive Internet. Writing in the 2016 ARRL Annual Report, he said:

“Change generally doesn’t come easy to us. But when I looked out at that group of young faces and saw their disinterest in traditional ham pursuits, I realized that I had to change. We have to change. It won’t come easy, but it’s essential that we get to work on it now.”

If you were to profile a typical group of radio amateurs, it would not be difficult to see why [K5UR] found himself in this position. It might be an unflattering portrait for some amateurs, but it’s fair to say that amateur radio is a hobby pursued predominantly by older more well-off men with the means to spend thousands of dollars on commercial radios. It is also fair to say that this is hardly a prospect that would energize all but the most dedicated of youthful radio enthusiasts. This is not a new phenomenon, where this is being written it was definitely the case back in the days when they were issuing G7 callsigns, for instance.

Were Hackaday to find ourselves in the position of advising the ARRL on such matters, we’d probably suggest a return to the roots of amateur radio, a time in the early 20th century when it was the technology that mattered rather than the collecting of DXCC entities or grid squares, and an amateur had first to build their own equipment rather than simply order a shiny radio before they could make a contact. Give a room full of kids a kit-building session, have them make a little radio. And lobby for construction to be an integral part of the licensing process, it is very sad indeed that where this is being written at least, the lowest tier of amateur radio licence precludes home-made radio equipment. Given all that, why should it be a surprise that for kids, amateur radio just isn’t exciting?

We’ve shown you some fantastic amateur radio builds over the years. If you have a youngster with an interest in radio, show them a BitX transceiver, or the world of QRP.

Header image: enixii. [CC BY 2.0]. We hope these snoozing kids aren’t in the middle of a lecture on amateur radio.

The ARRL Raises A Stink About Illegal FPV Transmitters

We have all been beneficiaries of the boom in availability of cheap imported electronics over the last decade. It is difficult to convey to someone under a certain age the step change in availability of parts and modules that has come about as a result of both the growth of Chinese manufacturing and Internet sales that allow us direct access to sellers we would once only have found through a lengthy flight and an intractable language barrier.

So being able to buy an ESP8266 module or an OLED display for relative pennies is good news, but there is a downside to this free-for-all. Not all the products on offer are manufactured to legal standards wherever in the world we as customers might be, and not all of them are safe to use. We’ve all seen teardowns of lethal iPhone charger knock-offs, but this week the ARRL has highlighted an illegal import that could take being dangerous to a whole new level as well as bring an already beleaguered section of our community to a new low.

The products the radio amateurs are concerned about are video transmitters that work in the 1.2GHz band. These are sold for use with FPV cameras on multirotors, popularly referred to as drones, and are also being described as amateur radio products though their amateur radio application is minimal. The ARRL go into detail in their official complaint (PDF) about how these devices’ channels sit squarely over the frequencies used by GLONASS positioning systems, and most seriously, the frequencies used by the aircraft transponders on which the safety of our air traffic control system relies.

The multirotor community is the unfortunate recipient of a lot of bad press, most of which is arguably undeserved and the result of ignorant mass media reporting. We’ve written on this subject in the past, and reported on some of the proposals from governments which do not sound good for the enthusiast. It is thus a huge concern that products like those the ARRL is highlighting could result in interference with air traffic, this is exactly not the association that multirotor fliers need in a hostile environment.

The ARRL complaint highlights a particular model with a 5W output, which is easily high enough to cause significant interference. It is however just one of many similar products, which a very straightforward search on the likes of AliExpress or eBay will find on sale for prices well under $100. So if you are concerned with multirotors we’d urge you to ensure that the FPV transmitters you or your friends use are within the legal frequencies and power levels. We’re sure none of you would want an incident involving a manned aircraft on your conscience, nor would you relish the prospect of the encounter with law enforcement that would inevitably follow.

In the past we’ve taken a look at some of the fuss surrounding reported drone incidents, and brought you news of an Australian sausage lover in hot water for drone-based filming. It’s a hostile world out there, fly safe!

Florida Man Hates Amateur Radio

Any amateur radio operator who is living under a homeowner’s association, covenant, or has any other deed restriction on their property has a problem: antennas are ugly, and most HOAs outright ban everything from 2-meter whips to unobtrusive J-pole antennas.

Earlier this year, the ARRL got behind a piece of legislation called the Amateur Radio Parity Act. This proposed law would amend FCC’s Part 97 rules for amateur stations and direct, ‘Community associations to… permit the installation and maintenance of effective outdoor Amateur Radio antennas.’ This bill passed the US House without objection last September.

Last week, the Amateur Radio Parity Act died in the US Senate. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, refused to move the bill forward in the Senate. The ARRL has been in near constant contact with Senator Nelson’s office, but time simply ran out before the end of the 114th Congress. The legislation will be reintroduced into the 115th Congress next year.

Amateur Radio Parity Act Passes US House

Most new houses are part of homeowners associations, covenants, or have other restrictions on the deed that dictate what color you can paint your house, the front door, or what type of mailbox is acceptable. For amateur radio operators, that means neighbors have the legal means to remove radio antennas, whether they’re unobtrusive 2 meter whips or gigantic moon bounce arrays. Antennas are ugly, HOAs claim, and drive down property values. Thousands of amateur radio operators have been silenced on the airwaves, simply because neighbors don’t like ugly antennas.

Now, this is about to change. The US House recently passed the Amateur Radio Parity Act (H.R. 1301) to amend the FCC’s Part 97 rules of amateur stations and private land-use restrictions.

The proposed amendment provides, ““Community associations should fairly administer private land-use regulations in the interest of their communities, while nevertheless permitting the installation and maintenance of effective outdoor Amateur Radio antennas.” This does not guarantee all antennas are allowed in communities governed by an HOA; the bill simply provides that antennas, ‘consistent with the aesthetic and physical characteristics of land and structures in community associations’ may be accommodated. While very few communities would allow a gigantic towers, C-band dishes, or 160 meters of coax strung up between trees, this bill will provide for small dipoles and inconspicuous antennae.

The full text of H.R. 1301 can be viewed on the ARRL site. The next step towards making this bill law is passage through the senate, and as always, visiting, calling, mailing, faxing, and emailing your senators (in that order) is the most effective way to make views heard.

Police Baffled? Send For The Radio Amateurs!

The police force in Evanston, Illinois had a problem on their hands. A mystery transmitter was blocking legal use of radio devices, car key fobs, cellphones, and other transmitters in an area of their city, and since it was also blocking 911 calls they decided to investigate it. Their first call for help went to the FCC who weren’t much use, telling them to talk to the manufacturers of the devices affected.

Eventually they approached the ARRL, the USA’s national amateur radio organisation, who sent along [Kermit Carlson, W9XA] to investigate. He fairly quickly identified the frequencies with the strongest interference and the likely spot from which it originated, and after some investigation it was traced to a recently replaced neon sign power supply. Surprisingly the supply was not replaced with a fault-free unit, its owner merely agreeing to turn it off should any further interference be reported.

The ARRL are highlighting this otherwise fairly unremarkable case to draw attention to the problem of devices appearing on the market with little or no pretence of electromagnetic compatibility compliance. In particular they are critical of the FCC’s lacklustre enforcement response in cases like this one. It’s a significant problem worldwide as huge numbers of very cheap switch-mode mains power supplies have replaced transformers in mains power applications, and in any center of population its effects can be readily seen with an HF radio in the form of a significantly raised RF noise floor. Though we have reported before on the FCC’s investigation of the noise floor problem we’d be inclined to agree with the ARRL that it is effective enforcement of EMC regulations that is key to the solution.

City of Evanston police vehicle picture, [Inventorchris] (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr.

Morse Code: Paris in the Mint Box

TinyLilyThumbnail[Rob Bailey] likes to build things and he likes ham radio. We are guessing he likes mints too since he’s been known to jam things into Altoids tins. He had been thinking about building a code practice oscillator in a Altoids Smalls tin, but wasn’t sure he could squeeze an Arduino Pro Mini in there too. Then he found the TinyLily Mini. The rest is history, as they say, and 1CPO was born.

The TinyLily Mini is a circular-shaped Arduino (see right) about the size of a US dime. most of the pads are arranged around the circle and there is a small header that takes a USB programmer. A small rechargeable battery can run the device for a long time.

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