A Few Of My Favorite Things: Amateur Radio

Hackaday has among its staff a significant number of writers who also hold amateur radio licenses. We’re hardware folks at heart, so we like our radios homebrew, and we’re never happier than when we’re working at high frequencies.

Amateur radio is a multi-faceted hobby, there’s just so much that’s incredibly interesting about it. It’s a shame then that as a community we sometimes get bogged down with negativity when debating the minutia. So today let’s talk about a few of my favourite things about the hobby of amateur radio. I hope that you’ll find them interesting and entertaining, and in turn share your own favorite things in the comments below.

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A One-Transistor Ham Transmitter Anyone Can Build

What attracts a lot of people to amateur radio is that it gives you the ability to make your own gear. Scratch-building hams usually start by making their own antennas, but eventually, the itch to build one’s own radio must be scratched. And building this one-transistor transmitter is just about the simplest way to dive into the world of DIY radio.

Of course, limiting yourself to eight components in total entails making some sacrifices, and [Kostas (SV3ORA)]’s transmitter is clearly a study in compromise. For starters, it’s only a transmitter, so you’ll need to make other arrangements to have a meaningful conversation. You’ll also have to learn Morse code because the minimalist build only supports continuous-wave (CW) mode, although it can be modified for amplitude modulation (AM) voice work.

The circuit is flexible enough that almost any part can be substituted and the transmitter will still work. Most of the parts are junk-bin items, although the main transformer is something you’ll have to wind by hand. As described, the transformer not only provides feedback to the transistor oscillator, but also has a winding that powers an incandescent pilot lamp, and provides taps for attaching antennas of different impedances — no external tuner needed. [SV3ORA] provides detailed transformer-winding instructions and shows the final build, which looks very professional and tidy. The video below shows the rig in action with a separate receiver providing sidetone; there’s also the option of using one of the WebSDR receivers sprinkled around the globe to verify you’re getting out.

This little transmitter looks like a ton of fun to build, and we may just try it for our $50 Ham series if we can find all the parts. Honestly, the hardest to come by might be the variable capacitor, but there are ways around that too.

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Manual Antenna Tuner Shows How Homebrewing Is Done

If there’s anything about amateur radio that has more witchcraft in it than the design and implementation of antennas, we don’t know what it would be. On the face of it, hanging out a chunk of wire doesn’t seem like it should be complicated, but when you dive into the details, building effective antennas and matching them to the job at hand can be pretty complex.

That doesn’t mean antenna topics have to remain a total mystery, of course, especially once someone takes the time to explain things properly. [Charlie Morris (ZL2CTM)] recently did this with a simple antenna tuner, a device used to match impedances between a transmitter and an antenna. As he explains in the first video below, his tuner design is really just a Wheatstone bridge where the antenna forms half of one leg. A toroidal transformer with multiple taps and a variable capacitor forms an LC circuit that matches the high impedance antenna, in this case a multi-band end-fed halfwave, with the nominal 50-ohm load expected by the transceiver. A small meter and a diode detector indicate when the bridge is balanced, which means the transceiver is seeing the proper load.

The second video below shows the final implementation of the tuner; as a fan of QRP, or low-power operation, [Charlie] favors simple, lightweight homebrew gear that can be easily taken into the field, and this certainly fits the bill. A final video shows the tuner in use in the field, with a NanoVNA proving what it can do. As usual, [Charlie] protests that he not an expert and that he’s just documenting what he did, but he always does such a good job of presenting the calculations involved in component selection that any ham should be able to replicate his builds.

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Bringing Modern Control To An Old Radio

The modern ham radio shack can take many forms. Some are shrines the “boat anchor” radios of old, named for their considerable weight. Others are simply a small, unassuming software-defined radio (SDR) hooked up to a laptop. Nowadays, many shacks fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not uncommon to find a sleek Icom IC-7300 sitting atop an ancient Hallicrafters SX-115 (which sounds suspiciously like the author’s setup). When a ham wants to work a digital mode such as FT-8, they will undoubtedly reach for a newer radio complete with USB (Universal Serial Bus in this case, not Upper Sideband) rig control — but what if the newest piece of equipment they have is a thirty-year-old Kenwood?

If that sounds like you, then fear not because [Steve Bossert] has you covered. He took his trusty Kenwood TS-50, a classic radio from 1993 whose most advanced feature is fuzzy logic, and upgraded it with USB (again, the serial bus) control.

When Kenwood designed the TS-50, they had computer control in mind. There’s a hidden port on the bottom of the unit which reveals a connector that mates with Kenwood’s proprietary (and expensive) set of serial control cables. Thankfully, the engineers over at Kenwood decided to use UART for PC communication, so slapping a USB port in the radio’s case isn’t as daunting as it may sound. [Steve] picked up a CP2104 USB-TTL UART Serial Adapter and wired it up to the radio’s control port. After a bit of drilling, screwing, and gluing, the radio had an upgraded (and non-proprietary!) interface compatible with the ever-popular hamlib. While this doesn’t cover all radio control functions, it gets you tuning, which is pretty important. For a fully modern radio experience, [Steve] suggests using the 8-pin mic connector along with an interface such as Rigblaster or Signalink. This adds PTT and audio signal routing.

If you want to try this for yourself, be sure to check out [Steve]’s extremely well-documented writeup. You could even take this a step further and control your TS-50 from your smartphone with this HTML5 interface we saw a few months back.

Indoor Antennas Worthy Of 007

Many ham radio operators now live where installing an outdoor antenna is all but impossible. It seems that homeowner’s associations are on the lookout for the non-conformity of the dreaded ham radio antenna. [Peter] can sympathize, and has a solution based on lessons of spycraft from the cold war.

[Peter] points out that spies like the [Krogers] needed to report British Navy secrets like the plans for a nuclear boomer sub to Russia but didn’t want to attract the attention of their neighbors. In this case, the transmitter itself was so well-hidden that it took MI5 nine days to find the first of them. Clearly, then, there wasn’t a giant antenna on the roof. If there had been, the authorities could simply follow the feedline to find the radio. A concealed spy antenna might be just the ticket for a deed-restricted ham radio station.

The antenna the [Kroger’s] used was a 22-meter wire in the attic of their home. Keep in mind, the old tube transmitters were less finicky about SWR and by adjusting the loading circuits, you could transmit into almost anything. Paradoxically, older houses work better with indoor antennas because they lack things like solar cell panels, radiant barriers, and metallic insulation.

Like many people, [Peter] likes loop antennas for indoor use. He also shows other types of indoor antennas. They probably won’t do as much good as a proper outdoor antenna, but you can make quite a few contacts with some skill, some luck, and good propagation. [Peter] has some period spy radios, which are always interesting to see. By today’s standards, they aren’t especially small, but for their day they are positively tiny. Video after the break.

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Ham Radio Needs To Embrace The Hacker Community Now More Than Ever

As many a radio amateur will tell you, ham radio is a hobby with as many facets as there are radio amateurs. It should be an exciting and dynamic place to be, but as those who venture forth into it sometimes sadly find out, it can be anything but. Tightly-knit communities whose interests lie in using $1,000 stations to chase DX (long-distance contacts), an advancing age profile, and a curious fascination of many amateurs with disaster communications. It’s something [Robert V. Bolton, KJ7NZL] has sounded off about in an open letter to the amateur radio community entitled “Ham Radio Needs To Embrace The Hacker Community Now More Than Ever“.

In it he laments that the influx in particular of those for whom disaster preparedness is the reason for getting a licence is to blame for amateur radio losing its spark, and he proposes that the hobby should respond by broadening its appeal in the direction of the hacker community. The emphasis should move from emergency communications, he says, and instead topics such as software defined radio and digital modes should be brought to the fore. Finally he talks about setting up hacker specific amateur radio discussion channels, to provide a space in which the talk is tailored to our community.

Given our experience of the amateur radio community we’d be bound to agree with him. The hobby offers unrivalled opportunity for analogue, mixed-signal, digital, and software tinkering in the finest tradition of the path set by the early radio amateurs around a hundred years ago, yet it sometimes seems to have lost its way for people like us. It’s something put into words a few years ago by our colleague Dan Maloney, and if you’re following [KJ7NZL]’s path you could do worse than read Dan’s long-running $50 ham series from the start.

Via Hacker News.

Header image: Unknown author, Public domain.

Portable Ham Antenna Uses SMD Capacitors

[K6ARK] likes to operate portable, so he puts together very lightweight antennas. One of his latest uses tiny toroids and SMD capacitors to form trap elements. You can seeĀ  the construction of it in the video below.

You usually think of toroid winding as something you do when building transmitters or receivers, especially small ones like these. We presume the antenna is best for QRP (low power) operation since the tiny core would saturate pretty quickly at higher power. Exactly how much power you should pass through an FT50-43 core depends on the exact application, but we’ve seen numbers around 5 watts.

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