FM Radio, The Choice Of An Old Generation

Had the pandemic not upended many of this summer’s fun and games, many of my friends would have made a trip to the MCH hacker camp in the Netherlands earlier this month. I had an idea for a game for the event, a friend and I were going to secrete a set of those low-power FM transmitters as numbers stations around the camp for players to find and solve the numerical puzzles they would transmit. I even bought a few cheap FM transmitter modules from China for evaluation, and had some fun sending a chiptune Rick Astley across a housing estate in Northamptonshire.

To me as someone who grew up with FM radio and whose teen years played out to the sounds of BBC Radio 1 FM it made absolute sense to do a puzzle in this way, but it was my personal reminder of advancing years to find that some of my friends differed on the matter. Sure, they thought it was a great idea, but they gently reminded me that the kids don’t listen to any sort of conventional broadcast radio these days, instead they stream their music, so very few of them would have the means for listening to my numbers stations. Even for me it’s something I only use for BBC Radio 4 in the car, and to traverse the remainder of the FM dial is to hear a selection of easy listening, oldies, and classical music. It’s becoming an older person’s medium, and it’s inevitable that like AM before it, it will eventually wane.

There are two angles to this that might detain the casual hacker; first what it will mean from a broadcasting and radio spectrum perspective, and then how it is already influencing some of our projects.

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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: Entry-Level Transceivers For Technicians

Last week , I covered the ridiculously low barriers to entry to amateur radio, both in terms of financial outlay and the process of studying for and passing the FCC examination. You’ve had seven days, so I assume that you’ve taken the plunge and are a freshly minted amateur radio operator. The next big question may be: Now what?

We briefly mentioned the image that ham radio is a rich old person’s hobby, and that reputation is somewhat deserved. For ham gear, there really is no upper limit on what you can spend. Glossy brochures and slick web pages hawk transceiver bristling with knobs and switches and loaded with the latest features, all of which will probably be obsolete within a few years when the Next Big Thing comes along and manufacturers respond with new, must-have models – looking at you, ICOM IC-7300. It’s no different than any other technology market, and enough people fall for that marketing to make it a going concern.

But thankfully, while there is no apparent ceiling on what you can spend on ham gear, there certainly is a floor, and it can be very, very low. Our $50 budget can go quite a long way to getting a new Technician on the air, if you’re willing to make some compromises and can forego the latest and greatest for a while.

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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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Weightless IoT Hardware Virtually Unavailable

It has been over 2 years since we last mentioned the Weightless SIG and their claims of an IoT open standard chip with a 10 year battery life and 10km wireless range, all at a jaw dropping price of $2 per chip. There was a planned production run of the 3rd gen chips which I would suspect went to beta testers or didn’t make it into production since we didn’t hear anything else, for years.

Recently, a company called nwave began producing dev-kits using the Weightless Technology which you can see in the banner image up top. Although the hardware exists it is a very small run and only available to members of the development team. If you happen to have been on the Weightless mailing list when the Weightless-N SDK was announced there was an offer to get a “free” development board to the first 100 development members. I use bunny ears on free because in order to become a member of the developer team you have to pay a yearly fee of £900. Don’t abrasively “pffffft” just yet, if you happened to be one first 100 there was an offer for developers that came up with a product and submitted it back for certification to get their £900 refunded to them. It’s not the best deal going, but the incentive to follow through with a product is an interesting take.

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Hackaday Prize Finalist: A Portable SDR

No other project to make it to The Hackaday Prize has people throwing money at their computer screen hoping something would happen than [Michael Colton]’s PortableSDR. It’s a software defined radio designed for coverage up to 30MHz. Amateur radio operators across the world are interested in this project, going so far as to call this the first Baofeng UV-5R killer. That’s extremely high praise.

[Michael] was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions about how his entry to The Hackaday Prize has gone. You can check that out below, along with the final round video of the project. Anyone who wants their own PortableSDR could really help [Michael] out by taking this survey.

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