FT8: Saving Ham Radio or Killing It?

It is popular to blame new technology for killing things. The Internet killed newspapers. Video killed the radio star. Is FT8, a new digital technology, poised to kill off ham radio? The community seems evenly divided. In an online poll, 52% of people responding says FT8 is damaging ham radio.  But ham operator [K5SDR] has an excellent blog post about how he thinks FT8 is going to save ham radio instead.

If you already have an opinion, you have probably already raced down to the comments to share your thoughts. I’ll be honest, I think what we are seeing is a transformation of ham radio and like most transformations, it is probably both killing parts of ham radio and saving others. But if you are still here, let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in ham radio right now and how it relates to the FT8 question. Oddly enough, our story starts with the strange lack of sunspots that we’ve been experiencing lately. Continue reading “FT8: Saving Ham Radio or Killing It?”

Feeling the Heat of High-Frequency Trading

It’s high summer here in North America, and for a lot of us, this one has been a scorcher. Media reports have been filled with coverage of heat wave after heat wave, with temperature records falling like dominoes.

But as they say, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, and that was painfully true in the first week of July as a slug of tropical air settled into the northeast United States. With dewpoints well into the 70s (25°C plus) and air temperatures pushing the century-mark (38°C), people suffered and systems from transportation to the electrical grid strained under the load. But as punishing as such soupy conditions are for people, there are other effects that are less well known but of critical importance to financial markets, where increased humidity can lead to billion-dollar losses for markets. Welcome to the weird world of high-frequency trading.

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Radio Apocalypse: The GWEN System

Recent developments on the world political stage have brought the destructive potential of electromagnetic pulses (EMP) to the fore, and people seem to have internalized the threat posed by a single thermonuclear weapon. It’s common knowledge that one bomb deployed at a high enough altitude can cause a rapid and powerful pulse of electrical and magnetic fields capable of destroying everything electrical on the ground below, sending civilization back to the 1800s in the blink of an eye.

Things are rarely as simple as the media portray, of course, and this is especially true when a phenomenon with complex physics is involved. But even in the early days of the Atomic Age, the destructive potential of EMP was understood, and allowances for it were made in designing strategic systems. Nowhere else was EMP more of a threat than to the complex web of communication systems linking far-flung strategic assets with central command and control apparatus. In the United States, one of the many hardened communications networks was dubbed the Groundwave Emergency Network, or GWEN, and the story of its fairly rapid rise and fall is an interesting case study in how nations mount technical responses to threats, both real and perceived. Continue reading “Radio Apocalypse: The GWEN System”

Sferics, Whistlers, and the Dawn Chorus: Listening to Earth Music on VLF

We live in an electromagnetic soup, bombarded by wavelengths from DC to daylight and beyond. A lot of it is of our own making, especially further up the spectrum where wavelengths are short enough for the bandwidth needed for things like WiFi and cell phones. But long before humans figured out how to make their own electromagnetic ripples, the Earth was singing songs at the low end of the spectrum. The very low frequency (VLF) band abounds with interesting natural emissions, and listening to these Earth sounds can be quite a treat.

Continue reading “Sferics, Whistlers, and the Dawn Chorus: Listening to Earth Music on VLF”

[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?

Continue reading “[Jeri] Builds a Magnetic Loop Antenna”

Fail of the Week: Tracking Meteors with Weather Radio

It’s not hard to detect meteors: go outside on a clear night in a dark place and you’re bound to see one eventually. But visible light detection is limiting, and knowing that meteors leave a trail of ions means radio detection is possible. That’s what’s behind this attempt to map meteor trails using broadcast signals, which so far hasn’t yielded great results.

Passing jet’s Doppler signature

The fact that meteor trails reflect radio signals is well-known; hams use “meteor bounce” to make long-distance contacts all the time. And using commercial FM broadcast signals to map meteor activity isn’t new, either — we’ve covered the “forward scattering” technique before. The technique requires tuning into a frequency used by a distant station but not a local one and waiting for a passing meteor to bounce the distant signal back to your SDR dongle. Capturing the waterfall display for later analysis should show characteristic patterns and give you an idea of where and when the meteor passed.

[Dave Venne] is an amateur astronomer who turns his eyes and ears to the heavens just to see what he can find. [Dave]’s problem is that the commercial FM band in the Minneapolis area that he calls home is crowded, to say the least. He hit upon the idea of using the National Weather Service weather radio broadcasts at around 160 MHz as a substitute. Sadly, all he managed to capture were passing airplanes with their characteristic Doppler shift; pretty cool in its own right, but not the desired result.

The comments in the RTL-SDR.com post on [Dave]’s attempt had a few ideas on where this went wrong and how to improve it, including the intriguing idea of using 60-meter ham band propagation beacons. Now it’s Hackaday’s turn: any ideas on how to fix [Dave]’s problem? Sound off in the comments below.

Bombing The Sky For The Sake Of Radio

If you are familiar with radio propagation you’ll know that radio waves do not naturally bend around the earth. Like light and indeed all electromagnetic radiation if they are given a free space they will travel in a straight line.

At very high frequencies this means that in normal circumstances once a receiver moves over the horizon from a transmitter that’s it, you’re out of range and there can be no communication. But at lower frequencies this is not the case. As you move through the lower end of the VHF into the HF (Short Wave) portion of the spectrum and below, the radio signal routinely travels far further than the horizon, and at the lower HF frequencies it starts to reach other continents, even as far as the other side of the world.

Of course, we haven’t changed the Laws Of Physics. Mr. Scott’s famous maxim still stands. Radio waves at these frequencies are being reflected, from ionised portions of the atmosphere and from the ground, sometimes in multiple “hops”. The science of this mechanism has been the subject of over a hundred years of exploration and will no doubt be for hundreds more, for the atmosphere is an unreliable boiling soup of gasses rather than a predictable mirror for your radio waves.

Radio amateurs have turned pushing the atmosphere to its limits into a fine art, but what if you would prefer to be able to rely on it? The US military has an interest in reliable HF communications as well as in evening out the effects of solar wind on the ionisation of the atmosphere, and has announced a research program involving bombing the upper atmosphere with plasma launched from cubesats. Metal ions will be created from both chemical reactions and by small explosions, and their results on the atmosphere will be studied.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the upper atmosphere has been ionised in military experiments. Both the USA and the USSR exploded nuclear weapons  at these altitudes before the cessation of atmospheric nuclear testing, and more recently have directed high power radio waves with the aim of ionising the upper atmosphere. You may have heard of the USA’s HAARP project in Alaska, but Russia’s Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility near Nizhniy Novgorod has been used for similar work. It remains to be seen whether these latest experiments will meet with success, but we’re sure they won’t be the last of their kind.

We’ve looked at radio propagation in the past with this handy primer, and we’ve also featured a military use of atmospheric reflection with over-the-horizon radar.

Fishbowl Starfish Prime upper atmosphere nuclear test image via Los Alamos National Laboratory. As an image created by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of their official duties this image is in the public domain.