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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GPL Violations Cost Creality A US Distributor

One of the core tenets of free and open source software licenses is that you’re being provided source code for a project with the hope that you’ll “pay it forward” if and when you utilize that code. In fact some licenses, such as the GNU Public License (GPL), require that you keep the source code for subsequent spin-offs or forks open. These are known as viral licenses, and the hope is that they will help spread the use of open source as derivative works can’t turn around and refuse to release their source code.

Unfortunately, not everyone plays by the rules. In a recent post on their blog, Printed Solid has announced they are ending their relationship with Chinese manufacturer Creality, best known for their popular CR-10 printer. Creality produces a number of printers which make use of Marlin, a GPLv3 licensed firmware that runs (in some form or another) a large majority of desktop 3D printers. But as explained in the blog post, Printed Solid has grown tired with the manufacturer’s back and forth promises to comply with the viral aspects of the GPL license.

Rather than helping to support a company they believe is violating the trust of the open source community, they have decided to mark down their existing stock of Creality printers to the point they will be selling them at a loss until they run out. In addition, for each Creality printer that is sold Printed Solid has promised to make a $50 USD donation to the development of Marlin saying: “if Creality won’t support Marlin development then we will.”

As is often the case when tempers are high and agreements break down, Printed Solid has also pulled back the curtain a bit as to the relationship they have had thus far with the manufacturer. According to the blog post, Printed Solid claims that some models of Creality printers have had a 100% fault rate, and that the company needed to repair and tweak the machines before sending them out to customers. The not so subtle implication being that Creality printers have been benefiting from the work Printed Solid has been doing on their hardware, and that purchasing a unit direct from the manufacturer could be a dicey proposition.

We’ve previously covered an issue with Creality’s CR-10S printer that required the end-user to replace an SMD capacitor just to get reliable results out of the machine, and of course we’ve talked of the extra work that’s often required when wrangling a low-end Chinese printer. It’s even more disheartening when you realize cheap machines sold by shady manufacturers are pushing open source manufacturers out of business.

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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Get Your Amateur Radio License Already!

We run a lot of posts on amateur radio here at Hackaday, and a majority of our writers and editors* are licensed hams. Why? Because playing around with radio electronics is fun, and because having a license makes a lot more experimentation legal. (*We’re sure you have good reasons for slacking, Szczys.)

So let’s say that you want to get your “ticket” (and you live in the USA). It’s easy: just study for an exam or two, and take them. How to study? We’re glad you asked, because we just found this incredibly long video that’ll prep you for the exam.

swr_powerAt six and a half hours, we’ll admit that we haven’t watched the whole thing, but what we did see looks great. Admittedly, we were a little bit unnerved by [John (KD65CY)]’s overdone enthusiasm. But the content is fundamental, broad-ranging, and relevant. Heck, even a bit entertaining.

Even if you’re not interested in taking the exam, but are just interested in some radio basics, it’s worth looking. If you give it a shot, and like what you see, let us know in the comments what times stamps you found interesting.

The other “secret” about the amateur radio exams is that all of the questions and their answers are drawn from a publicly available pool of questions. This means that you can just cram the right answers, pass the exam, and you’ll have your grey cells back good as new in no time. To help you along your path, here are all the current Technician questions with only the correct answer for each. (And here is the Python script that generated them.) Read through this, take a couple of practice exams, and you’ll be ready to go.

In our experience, the Technician exam is easy enough that it’s probably worth your while to study up for the General exam as well. You have to take the former before the latter, but there’s nothing stopping you from taking them all in one sitting. (General gets you a lot more international shortwave frequencies, so it’s at least worth a shot.)

But don’t let that slow you down. Just getting the Tech license is easily worth studying up for a couple of hours or so. You have no excuses now. Go do it!

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RPiTX Turns Rasberry Pi Into Versatile Radio Transmitter

Since the discovery that some USB TV tuner dongles could be used to monitor radio waves across a huge amount of spectrum, the software-defined radio world has exploded with interest. The one limiting factor, though, has been that the dongles can only receive signals; they can’t transmit them. [Evariste Okcestbon, F5OEO] (if that is his real name! Ok c’est bon = Ok this is good) has written some software that will get you transmitting using SDR with only a Raspberry Pi and a wire.

There have been projects in the past that use a Pi to broadcast radio (PiFM), but this new software (RPiTX) takes it a couple steps further. Using just an appropriately-sized wire connected to one of the GPIO pins, the Raspberry Pi is capable of broadcasting using FM, AM, SSB, SSTV, or FSQ signals. This greatly increases the potential of this simple computer-turned-transmitter and anyone should be able to get a lot of use out of it. In the video demo below the break, [Evariste] records a wireless doorbell signal and then re-transmits it using just the Rasbperry Pi.

The RPiTX code is available on GitHub if you want to try it out. And it should go without saying that you will most likely need an amateur radio license of some sort to use most of these features, depending on your locale. If you don’t have a ham radio license yet, you don’t need one to listen if you want to get started in the world of SDR. But a ham license isn’t hard to get and at this point it shouldn’t take much convincing for you to get transmitting.

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Your Arduino Packaging Could Sway A Court Case

Our friends over at Adafruit just made an interesting suggestion regarding the Arduino vs. Arduino saga. They noticed that the packaging for the Arduino UNO includes a pamphlet that states:

Manufactured under license
from Arduino by
SMART PROJECTS S.r.l.

Wow. That’s pretty interesting. Smart Projects is the former name of Arduino SRL. If you missed it, go back and read some of our previous coverage. Specifically, Arduino SRL is claiming to be the real trademark holder and has gone as far as forking the Arduino IDE and upping the version number in what appears to be an attempt to direct users toward their newly founded Arduino.org website/ecosystem/quagmire. If they feel they own the trademark why would they include this statement in their packaging?

Finding this in the a unit from a September 2014 is interesting. But Adafruit’s post is a call to action. We share their curiosity of discovering how far back official Arduino hardware has included such license notices. So, head on down to your work bench… start peeling back years worth of discarded hacks, clipped leads, fried servos, and other detritus. Find the packaging and take a picture. Bonus points if you have an invoice that associates a date with it. Either way, post the pictures on your social media hub of choice with #TeamArduinoCC. You can also embed it in the comments using HTML IMG tags if you wish.

Standard “I am not a lawyer” disclaimer applies here. We know you aren’t either so let’s all share what we think this means to pending lawsuits in the comments. Does this matter and why?