HFT On HF, You Can’t Beat It For Latency

If you are a radio enthusiast of A Certain Age, you may well go misty-eyed from time to time with memories of shortwave listening in decades past. Countries across the world operated their own propaganda radio stations, and you could hear Radio Moscow’s take on world events, the BBC World Service responding, and Radio Tirana proudly announcing that every Albanian village now had a telephone. Many of those shortwave broadcast stations are now long gone, but if you imagine the HF spectrum is dead, think again. An unexpected find in an industrial park near Chicago led to an interesting look at the world of high-frequency trading, or HFT, and how they have moved to using shortwave links when everyone else has abandoned them, because of the unparalleled low latency they offer when communicating across the world.

Our intrepid tower-hunter is [KE9YQ], who was out cycling and noticed a particularly unusual structure adorned with a set of HF beams. These are the large directional antennas of the type you might otherwise expect to see on the roof of an embassy or in the backyard of a well-heeled radio amateur, and were particularly unusual in this otherwise unexciting part of America. There followed an interesting process of tracking down the site’s owners via the FCC permits for its operation, leading to the deduction of its purpose. With other antenna-hunters on the lookout for corresponding sites elsewhere in the world, it seems that this unusual global network hiding in plain sight could soon be revealed.

Unsurprisingly we’ve not covered many shortwave HFT stories. There are however other higher-latency ways to cross the world on HF.

Via SWLing Post, and thanks [W6MOQ] for the tip.

Finding Noise with an Antenna

[K5ACL], aka [SignalSearch], recently brought his active receive loop antenna in off the roof to give it a checkup and perform any necessary maintenance. While it was in the shack, he took the opportunity to discuss how well it would perform indoors. The verdict? Not ideal. He’d mount it 50 feet away from the house if the HOA would let him.

Houses, and subsequently most ham shacks, are filled with noise sources that interfere badly with HF. So after spending a minute or so listening on an SDR, [K5ACL] demonstrates another use for this type of tightly-tuned antenna—as a noise detector.

The main culprit in [K5ACL]’s house is the ceiling light that’s right there in the shack. You can see the noise striping the waterfall as he turns it on and off. But the noise from the light is small potatoes compared to some other common household items, like those power line adapters that turn house wiring into networking cable. Those produce so much noise that even an active loop is really no match. Stay tuned after the break to watch [K5ACL] work the bands through the noise.

Loop antennas are great if you’re stuck in an apartment building or a congested city. They’re easy enough to make, whether you want a portable loop or a permanent installation.

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[Jeri] Builds a Magnetic Loop Antenna

Most new hams quickly learn that the high-frequency bands are where the action is, and getting on the air somewhere between 40- and 160-meters is the way to make those coveted globe-hopping contacts. Trouble is, the easiest antennas to build — horizontal center-fed dipoles — start to claim a lot of real estate at these wavelengths.

So hacker of note and dedicated amateur radio operator [Jeri Ellsworth (AI6TK)] has started a video series devoted to building a magnetic loop antenna for the 160- and 80-meter bands. The first video, included after the break, is an overview of the rationale behind a magnetic loop. It’s not just the length of the dipole that makes them difficult to deploy for these bands; as [Jeri] explains, propagation has a lot to do with dipole height too. [Jeri] covers most of the mechanical aspects of the antenna in the first installment; consuming a 50-foot coil of 3/4″ copper tubing means it won’t be a cheap build, but we’re really looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

We were sorry to hear that castAR, the augmented reality company that [Jeri] co-founded, shut its doors back in June. But if that means we get more great projects like this and guided tours of cool museums to boot, maybe [Jeri]’s loss is our gain?

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My Beef with Ham Radio

My amateur radio journey began back in the mid-1970s. I was about 12 at the time, with an interest in electronics that baffled my parents. With little to guide me and fear for my life as I routinely explored the innards of the TVs and radios in the house, they turned to the kindly older gentleman across the street from us, Mr. Brown. He had the traditional calling card of the suburban ham — a gigantic beam antenna on a 60′ mast in the backyard – so they figured he could act as a mentor to me.

Mr. Brown taught me a lot about electronics, and very nearly got me far enough along to take the test for my Novice class license. But I lost interest, probably because I was an adolescent male and didn’t figure a ham ticket would improve my chances with the young ladies. My ham ambitions remained well below the surface as life happened over the next 40 or so years. But as my circumstances changed, the idea of working the airwaves resurfaced, and in 2015 I finally took the plunge and earned my General class license.

The next part of my ham story is all-too-familiar these days: I haven’t done a damn thing with my license. Oh, sure, I bought a couple of Baofeng and Wouxun handy-talkies and lurked on the local repeaters. I even bought a good, solid HF rig and built some antennas, but I’ve made a grand total of one QSO — a brief chat with a ham in Texas from my old home in Connecticut on the 10-meter band. That’s it.

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Fine Business, Good Buddy: Amateur Radio for Truckers

Summer is the season for family road trips here in the US, and my family took to the open road in a big way this year. We pulled off a cross-country relocation, from Connecticut to Idaho. Five days on the road means a lot of pit stops, and we got to see a lot of truck stops and consequently, a lot of long-haul truckers. I got to thinking about their unique lifestyle and tried to imagine myself doing that job. I wondered what I’d do hour after long hour, alone in the cab of my truck. I figured that I’d probably just end up listening to a lot of audio books, but then I realized that there’s a perfect hobby for the road — ham radio. So I decided to see how ham radio is used by truckers, and mull over how a truck driver version of me might practice The World’s Best Hobby.

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The Minima Is An All-Band HF Transceiver For Under $100

If you have ever browsed an amateur radio magazine you could be forgiven for receiving the impression that it is a pursuit exclusively for the wealthy. Wall-to-wall adverts for very large and shiny transceivers with hefty price tags abound, and every photograph of someone’s shack seems to sport a stack of them.

Of course, this is only part of the story. Amateur radio is and always has been an astonishingly diverse interest, and away from the world of shiny adverts you’ll find a lot of much more interesting devices. A lot of radio amateurs still design and build their own equipment, and the world of homebrew radio is forever producing new ideas.

One such project came to our attention recently, the Minima, an all-band HF SSB transceiver. It’s an interesting device for several reasons, it uses readily available components, it’s an impressively simple design, and it should cost under $100 to build. This might sound a little far-fetched, were it not from the bench of [Ashhar Farhan, VU2ESE], whose similarly minimalist BITX single band SSB transceiver set a new standard for accessible SSB construction a few years ago.

The circuit shares some similarities with the tried-and-tested BITX, using bi-directional amplifier building blocks. The mixers are now FETs rather than diodes, the intermediate frequency has moved from 9MHz to 20MHz, and the local oscillator is now an Arduino-controlled clock generator. The whole thing is designed to be built dead-bug-style if necessary, and two prototypes have been built. We’d expect this design to follow a similar evolution to the BITX, with the global community of radio amateurs contributing performance modifications, and no doubt with some kit suppliers producing PCBs and kits. We think this can only be a good thing, and look forward to covering some of the results.

We’ve featured [Ashhar]’s work here at Hackaday before, when we covered a BITX build. if you’re left wondering what this amateur radio business is all about, we suggest you have a read of [Bill Meara]’s guest post on the subject.

Thanks [Seebach] for the tip.

Long-distance High Frequency APRS Tracking Using The FreeTrak63

FT63_857_etrex

If you dabble in the ham radio hobby we’re sure you’ve heard of GPS position monitoring or tracking using APRS packet data commonly transmitting over the VHF ham band and FM modulated. One of the issues you’ll face using this common method is range limitations of VHF. [Mike Berg] a.k.a [N0QBH ] tipped us off to his latest project to greatly increase the range of a standalone APRS system utilizing the HF bands on single-sideband (SSB).

There are some unique challenges transmitting packet data using SSB over HF bands.  High Frequency APRS has been around for decades utilizing FSK AX.25 packet transmissions at 300 baud, but it was quite susceptible to noise and propagation aberrations. More recently PSK-31 at the slower 31 baud speed helped alleviate many of these issues. [Mike] utilized the somewhat updated APRS with PSK-63 and the “APRS Messenger” program to overcome these challenges. [Mike’s] hardware solution consists of a PIC 16F690 micro which is coded to receive data from a GPS receiver, convert it into PSK-63 and then transmit on 30 meters over an attached HF radio. A second receiving station or stations at great distances can pick up and decode the transmission using the “APRS Messenger” program connected to the receiving radio over the computer’s soundcard. The program can then forward the tracking information, if good, to tracking websites like FindU.com and APRS.FI.

You can build your own FreeTrak63 by downloading [Mike’s] parts list, assembly code, HEX file, manual and schematic. The PCB is available on OSH Park if you don’t want to make your own or wire point-to-point. Let’s not forget to mention how hackable this hardware is, being really just an eight bit DAC, micro, serial in and radio out. One could reprogram this hardware to do other modulation schemes like AX.25 packet or MFSK16, the sky’s the limit. If short-distance on VHF with existing Internet linked receiver networks using an Arduino compatible platform is more to your taste, then checkout the Trackuino open source APRS Tracker.