The $50 Ham: Entry-Level Transceivers for Technicians

Last week , I covered the ridiculously low barriers to entry to amateur radio, both in terms of financial outlay and the process of studying for and passing the FCC examination. You’ve had seven days, so I assume that you’ve taken the plunge and are a freshly minted amateur radio operator. The next big question may be: Now what?

We briefly mentioned the image that ham radio is a rich old person’s hobby, and that reputation is somewhat deserved. For ham gear, there really is no upper limit on what you can spend. Glossy brochures and slick web pages hawk transceiver bristling with knobs and switches and loaded with the latest features, all of which will probably be obsolete within a few years when the Next Big Thing comes along and manufacturers respond with new, must-have models – looking at you, ICOM IC-7300. It’s no different than any other technology market, and enough people fall for that marketing to make it a going concern.

But thankfully, while there is no apparent ceiling on what you can spend on ham gear, there certainly is a floor, and it can be very, very low. Our $50 budget can go quite a long way to getting a new Technician on the air, if you’re willing to make some compromises and can forego the latest and greatest for a while.

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Be Vewy Vewy Quiet, We’re Hunting Baofengs

In the world of ham radio, a “Fox Hunt” is a game where participants are tasked with finding a hidden transmitter through direction finding. Naturally, the game is more challenging when you’re on the hunt for something small and obscure, so the ideal candidate is a small automated beacon that can be tucked away someplace inconspicuous. Of course, cheap is also preferable so you don’t go broke trying to put a game together.

As you might expect, there’s no shortage of kits and turn-key transmitters that you can buy, but [WhiskeyTangoHotel] wanted to come up with something that could be put together cheaply and easily from hardware the average ham or hacker might already have laying around. The end result is a very capable “fox” that can be built in just a few minutes at a surprisingly low cost. He cautions that you’ll need a ham license to legally use this gadget, but we imagine most people familiar with this particular pastime will already have the necessary credentials.

The heart of this build is one of the fairly capable, but perhaps more importantly, incredibly cheap Baofeng handheld radios. These little gadgets are likely familiar to the average Hackaday reader, as we discussed their dubious legal status not so long ago. At the moment they are still readily available though, so if you need a second (or third…), you might want to pull the trigger sooner rather than later.

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All About Ham Satellites

How hard is it to build a ground station to communicate with people via a satellite? Probably not as hard as you think. [Modern Ham] has a new video that shows just how easy it can be. It turns out that a cheap Chinese radio is all you need on the radio side. You do, however, benefit from having a bit of an antenna.

It isn’t unusual for people interested in technology to also be interested in space. So it isn’t surprising that many ham radio operators have tied space into the hobby. Some do radio astronomy, others bounce signals off the moon or meteors. Still others have launched satellites, though perhaps that’s not totally accurate since as far as we know all ham radio satellites have hitched rides on commercial rockets rather than being launched by hams themselves. Still, designing and operating a ham radio station in space is no small feat, but it has been done many times with each generation of satellite becoming more and more sophisticated.

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Buy A Baofeng While You Still Can? FCC Scowls at Unauthorized Frequency Transmitters

There was a time when a handheld radio transceiver was an object of wonder, and a significant item for any radio amateur to own. A few hundred dollars secured you an FM walkie-talkie through which you could chat on your local repeater, and mobile radio was a big draw for new hams. Thirty years later FM mobile operation may be a bit less popular, but thanks to Chinese manufacturing the barrier to entry is lower than it has ever been. With extremely basic handheld radios starting at around ten dollars and a capable dual-bander being yours for somewhere over twice that, most licencees will now own a Baofeng UV5 or similar radio.

The FCC though are not entirely happy with these radios, and QRZ Now are reporting that the FCC has issued an advisory prohibiting the import or sale of devices that do not comply with their rules. In particular they are talking about devices that can transmit on unauthorised frequencies, and ones that are capable of transmission bandwidths greater than 12.5 kHz.

We’ve reported before on the shortcomings of some of these radios, but strangely this news doesn’t concern itself with their spurious emissions. We’re guessing that radio amateurs are not the problem here, and the availability of cheap transceivers has meant that the general public are using them for personal communication without a full appreciation of what frequencies they may be using. It’s traditional and normal for radio amateurs to use devices capable of transmitting out-of-band, but with a licence to lose should they do that they are also a lot more careful about their RF emissions.

Read the FCC statement and you’ll learn they are not trying to restrict the sale of ham gear. However, they are insisting that imported radios that can transmit on other frequencies must be certified. Apparently, opponents of these radios claim about 1 million units a year show up in the US, so this is a big business. The Bureau warns that fines can be as high as $19,639 per day for continued marketing and up to $147,290 — we have no idea how they arrive at those odd numbers.

So if you’re an American who hasn’t already got a Baofeng or similar, you might be well advised to pick one up while you still can.

UV5-R image via PE1RQM

Move Over Baofeng, Xiaomi Want To Steal Your Thunder

To a radio amateur who received their licence decades ago there is a slightly surreal nature to today’s handheld radios. A handheld radio should cost a few hundred dollars, or such was the situation until the arrival of very cheap Chinese radios in the last few years.

The $20 Baofeng or similar dual-bander has become a staple of amateur radio. They’re so cheap, you just buy one because you can, you may rarely use it but for $20 it doesn’t matter. Most radio amateurs will have one lying around, and many newly licensed amateurs will make their first contacts on one. They’re not even the cheapest option either, if you don’t mind the absence of an LCD being limited to UHF only, then the going rate drops to about $10.

The Baofengs and their ilk are great radios for the price, but they’re not great radios. The transmitter side can radiate a few too many harmonics, and the receivers aren’t the narrowest bandwidth or the sharpest of hearing. Perhaps some competition in the market will cause an upping of the ante, and that looks to be coming from Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer. Their Mijia dual-band walkie-talkie product aims straight for the Baofeng’s jugular at only $35, and comes in a much sleeker and more contemporary package as you might expect from a company with a consumer mobile phone heritage. Many radio amateurs are not known for being dedicated followers of fashion, but for some operators the sleek casing of the Mijia will be a lot more convenient than the slightly more chunky Baofeng.

This class of radio offers more to the hardware hacker than just an off-the-shelf radio product, at only a few tens of dollars they become almost a throwaway development system for the radio hacker. We’ve seen interesting things done with the Baofengs, and we look forward to seeing inside the Xiaomi.

We brought you a look at the spurious emissions of this class of radio last year, and an interesting project with a Baofeng using GNU Radio in a slightly different sense to its usual SDR function.

[via Southgate ARC]

Baofeng Handy Talkie Meets GNU Radio

There was a time when just about every ham had a pricey VHF or UHF transceiver in their vehicle or on their belt. It was great to talk to friends while driving. You could even make phone calls from anywhere thanks to automatic phone patches. In 1980 cell phones were uncommon, so making a call from your car was sure to get attention.

Today, ham radio gear isn’t as pricey thanks to a flood of imports from companies like Baofeng, Jingtong, and Anytone. While a handheld transceiver is more of an impulse buy, you don’t hear as much chat and phone calls, thanks to the widespread adoption of cell phones. Maybe that’s why [Bastian] had bought a cheap Baofeng radio but never used it.

He was working on a traffic light project and wanted to send an RF signal when the light changes. He realized the Baofeng radio was cheap and cheerful solution. He only needed a way to have the PC generate an audio signal to feed the radio. His answer was to design a UDP packet to audio flow graph in GNU Radio. GNU Radio then feeds the Baofeng. The radio’s built-in VOX function handles transmit switching. You can see a video demonstration, below.

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Measuring Spurious Emissions of Cheap Handheld Transceivers

If you buy an amateur transceiver cheap enough to make a reasonable grab bag gift or stocking stuffer, you get what you pay for. And if this extensive analysis of cheap radios is any indication, you get a little more than you pay for in the spurious emissions department.

Amateur radio in the United States is regulated by the FCC’s Part 97 rules with special attention given to transmitter technical specifications in Subpart D. Spurious emissions need to be well below the mean power of the fundamental frequency of the transmitter, and [Megas3300] suspected that the readily available Baofeng UV-5RA dual-band transceiver was a little off spec. He put the $20 radio through a battery of tests using equipment that easily cost two orders of magnitude more than the test subject. Power output was verified with a wattmeter, proper attenuators were selected, and the output signal scanned with a spectrum analyzer. Careful measurements showed that some or all of the Baofeng’s harmonics were well above the FCC limits. [Megas3300] tested a few other radios that turned out to be mostly compliant, but however it all turned out, the test procedure is well documented and informative, and well worth a look.

The intended market for these radios is more the unlicensed crowd than the compliant ham, so it’s not surprising that they’d be out of spec. A ham might want to bring these rigs back into compliance with a low pass filter, for which purpose the RF Biscuit might prove useful.

[via r/AmateurRadio]