Hams Gone Wild: Amateur Radio Field Day 2019

Of all the images that amateur radio conjures up, the great outdoors doesn’t usually figure heavily. People seem to think hams sit in a dark room at a desk heavy with radio gear, banging out Morse code into late into the night and heedless of the world outside the window. All of which sort of sounds like hard-core gaming, really.

And while that image certainly applies in a lot of cases, hams do like to get out and about at least once a year. That day is upon us with the 2019 Amateur Radio Field Day. Hams across North America reserve the fourth full weekend of each June to tear themselves out of their shacks and get into the world to set up operations in some kind of public venue, generally a park or other green space. Part cookout, part community outreach, and part slumber party – it lasts all weekend and goes around the clock – hams use field day as a chance to show the general public where amateur radio really shines: real-time worldwide communications under austere conditions.

It’s also a chance to get folks excited about getting their license, with many Field Day locations hosting “Get on the Air” stations so that unlicensed folks can try making a contact under the supervision of a licensed operator. Licensed but underequipped hams also get the chance to spin the knobs on someone else’s gear, and maybe line up that first rig purchase. And there are plenty of opportunities to learn about new modes as well, such as FT8 and WSPR. As an example your scribe is looking for some guidance on getting started with APRS, the automated packet reporting system that’s used for things like high-altitude balloon tracking.

If you have any interest at all in learning how to properly operate radio equipment, you owe it to yourself to track down the nearest Field Day location and stop by. The American Radio Relay League (ARRL) has a ton of Field Day information, from a map to locate the 1500 Field Day sites to rules for the contests that will be run that weekend to guides for setting up and operating an effective Field Day setup. There will be 40,000 hams out there this year, and they’d all be thrilled if you drop by and ask a few questions.

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The $50 Ham: Dummy Loads

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.

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Building A Magnetic Loop Antenna

Antennas come in many shapes and sizes, with a variety of characteristics making them more or less suitable for various applications. The average hacker with only a middling exposure to RF may be familiar with trace antennas, yagis and dipoles, but there’s a whole load more out there. [Eric Sorensen] is going down the path less travelled, undertaking the build of a self-tuning magnetic loop antenna. 

[Eric]’s build is designed to operate at 100W on the 20 meter band, and this influences the specifications of the antenna. Particularly critical in the magnetic loop design is the voltage across the tuning capacitor; in this design, it comes out at approximately 4 kilovolts. This necessitates the careful choice of parts that can handle these voltages. In this case, a vacuum variable capacitor is used, rated to a peak current of 57 amps and a peak voltage of 5 kilovolts.

The magnetic loop design leads to antenna which is tuned to a very narrow frequency range, giving good selectivity. However, it also requires retuning quite often in order to stay on-band. [Eric] is implementing a self-tuning system to solve this, with a controller using a motor to actuate the tuning capacitor to maintain the antenna at its proper operating point.

If you’re unfamiliar with magnetic loop builds, [Eric]’s project serves as a great introduction to both the electrical and mechanical considerations inherent in such a design. We’ve seen even more obscure designs though – like these antennas applied with advanced spray techniques.

 

The $50 Ham: Getting Your Ticket Punched

Today we start a new series dedicated to amateur radio for cheapskates. Ham radio has a reputation as a “rich old guy” hobby, a reputation that it probably deserves to some degree. Pick up a glossy catalog from DX Engineering or cruise their website, and you’ll see that getting into the latest and greatest gear is not an exercise for the financially challenged. And thus the image persists of the recent retiree, long past the expense and time required to raise a family and suddenly with time on his hands, gleefully adding just one more piece of expensive gear to an already well-appointed ham shack to “chew the rag” with his “OMs”.

Not a $50 ham. W9EVT’s shack. Source: QRZ.com

As I pointed out a few years back in “My Beef With Ham Radio”, I’m an inactive ham. My main reason for not practicing is that I’m not a fan of talking to strangers, but there’s a financial component to my reticence as well – it’s hard to spend a lot of money on gear when you don’t have a lot to talk about. I suspect that there are a lot of would-be hams out there who are turned off from the hobby by its perceived expense, and perhaps a few like me who are on the mic-shy side.

This series is aimed at dispelling the myth that one needs buckets of money to be a ham, and that jawboning is the only thing one does on the air. Each installment will feature a project that will move you further along your ham journey that can be completed for no more than $50 or so. Wherever possible, I’ll be building the project or testing the activity myself so I can pursue my own goal of actually using my license for a change.

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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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Portable Ham Antenna Gets A Workout

Ham radio isn’t just one hobby. It is a bunch of hobbies ranging from chatting to building things, bouncing signals off the moon, and lots of things in between. Some of these specialties, such as supporting disaster relief or putting odd locations “on the air”, require portable operation. To encourage disaster readiness, hams participate in Field Days which is a type of contest that encourages simulated emergency conditions. So how do you erect an antenna when you just have a few hours to set up a temporary station? [KB9VBR] shows how he and his friend used a Chameleon Emcomm III portable HF antenna for Winter Field Day. You can see the video review, below.

Unlike some portable antennas, this one is almost 100 feet of wire (73 feet of radiator and a 25 foot counterpoise). The entire affair is meant to be put up and taken down repeatedly.

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This Satellite Finder Can Watch Amateur TV

Setting up satellite dishes can be a finicky business. To aid in the alignment of these precision antennas, satellite finders are often used which can display audio and video feeds from the satellite while also providing signal strength readouts for accurate adjustment. However, these devices can also be used in interesting ways for more terrestrial purposes (Youtube link).

Using the DMYCO V8 Finder, [Corrosive] demonstrates how to set up the device to pick up terrestrial amateur streams. Satellite reception typically involves the use of a low-noise block downconverter, which downconverts the high frequency satellite signal into a lower intermediate frequency. Operating at the 1.2GHz amateur band, this isn’t necessary, so the device is configured to use an LNB frequency of 10000, and the channel frequency entered as a multiple of ten higher. In this case, [Corrosive] is tuning in an amateur channel on 1254 MHz, which is entered as 11254 MHz to account for the absent LNB.

[Corrosive] points out that, when using an F-connector to BNC adapter with this setup, it’s important to choose one that does not short the center pin to the shield, as this will damage the unit. This is due to it being designed to power LNBs through the F-connector for satellite operation.

By simply reconfiguring a satellite finder with a basic scanner antenna, it’s possible to create a useful amateur television receiver. If you’re wondering how to transmit, [Corrosive] has that covered, too. Video after the break.

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