The $50 Ham: A Simple WSPR Beacon

I was having a chat recently with someone, and it surprised me that she had an amateur radio license. I suppose it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise; after all, getting a ham radio license is a pretty common rite of passage in the life of a hardware hacker. I guess it surprised me because she’d never mentioned it in our past conversations, and as we talked about it, I learned why. “I got my license because I thought ham radio was about building radios, ” she said. “But it’s not.”

In a lot of ways, she is right about the state of ham radio. There was a time that building one’s own gear was as central to the hobby as getting on the air, and perhaps more so. Now, though, with radios as cheap as $30 and the whiz-bang gear that can make reaching out across the planet trivially easy, building your own radios has slipped down a few notches. But homebrewing is far from a dead art, and as we’ll see in this installment of “The $50 Ham”, a WSPR beacon for the HF bands is actually a fun and simple — and cheap — way for the homebrew-curious to get a taste of what it’s like to build your own transmitter.

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The $50 Ham: WSPR-ing Around The World

Everybody has a bucket list,  things to be accomplished before the day we eventually wake up on the wrong side of the grass. Many bucket-list items are far more aspirational than realistic; very few of us with “A trip to space” on our lists are going to live to see that fulfilled. And even the more realistic goals, like the trip to Antarctica that’s been on my list for ages, become less and less likely as your life circumstances change — my wife hates the cold.

Luckily, instead of going to Antarctica by myself — and really, what fun would that be? — I’ve recently been getting some of the satisfaction of world travel through amateur radio. The last installment of “The $50 Ham” highlighted weak-signal digital modes using WSJT-X; in that article, I mentioned a little about the Weak Signal Propagation Reporter, or WSPR. It’s that mode that let me test what’s possible with very low-power transmissions, and allowed me to virtually visit six continents including Antarctica and Sweden-by-way-of-Alaska.

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The $50 Ham: Digital Modes With WSJT-X

As it is generally practiced, ham radio is a little like going to the grocery store and striking up a conversation with everyone you bump into as you ply the aisles. Except that the grocery store is the size of the planet, and everyone brings their own shopping cart, some of which are highly modified and really expensive. And pretty much every conversation is about said carts, or about the grocery store itself.

With that admittedly iffy analogy in mind, if you’re not the kind of person who would normally strike up a conversation with someone while shopping, you might think that you’d be a poor fit for amateur radio. But just because that’s the way that most people exercise their ham radio privileges doesn’t mean it’s the only way. Exploring a few of the more popular ways to leverage the high-frequency (HF) bands and see what can be done on a limited budget, in terms of both cost of equipment as well as the amount of power used, is the focus of this installment of The $50 Ham. Welcome to the world of microphone-optional ham radio: weak-signal digital modes.

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Hackaday Links: January 3, 2021

Last week we featured a story on the new rules regarding drone identification going into effect in the US. If you missed the article, the short story is that almost all unmanned aircraft will soon need to transmit their position, altitude, speed, and serial number, as well as the position of its operator, likely via WiFi or Bluetooth. The FAA’s rule change isn’t sitting well with Wing, the drone-based delivery subsidiary of megacorporation Alphabet. In their view, local broadcast of flight particulars would be an invasion of privacy, since observers snooping in on Remote ID traffic could, say, infer that a drone going between a pharmacy and a neighbor’s home might mean that someone is sick. They have a point, but how a Google company managed to cut through the thick clouds of irony to complain about privacy concerns and the rise of the surveillance state is mind boggling.

Speaking of regulatory burdens, it appears that getting an amateur radio license is no longer quite the deal that it once was. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a $35 fee for new amateur radio licenses, license renewals, and changes to existing licenses, like vanity call signs. While $35 isn’t cheap, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s better than the $50 fee that the FCC was originally proposing. Still, it seems a bit steep for something that’s largely automated. In any case, it looks like we’re still good to go with our “$50 Ham” series.

Staying on the topic of amateur radio for a minute, it looks like there will be a new digital mode to explore soon. The change will come when version 2.4.0 of WSJT-X, the program that forms the heart of digital modes like WSPR and FT8, is released. The newcomer is called Q65, and it’s basically a follow-on to the current QRA64 weak-signal mode. Q65 is optimized for weak, rapidly fading signals in the VHF bands and higher, so it’s likely to prove popular with Earth-Moon-Earth fans and those who like to do things like bounce their signals off of meteor trails. We’d think Q65 should enable airliner-bounce too. We’ll be keen to give it a try whenever it comes out.

Look, we know it’s hard to get used to writing the correct year once a new one rolls around, and that time has taken on a relative feeling in these pandemic times. But we’re pretty sure it isn’t April yet, which is the most reasonable explanation for an ad purporting the unholy coupling of a gaming PC and mass-market fried foods. We strongly suspect this is just a marketing stunt between Cooler Master and Yum! Brands, but taken at face value, the KFConsole — it’s not a gaming console, it’s at best a pre-built gaming PC — is supposed to use excess heat to keep your DoorDashed order of KFC warm while you play. In a year full of incredibly stupid things, this one is clearly in the top five.

And finally, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our airline pilots, or at least a subset of them, aren’t seeing things. There has been a steady stream of reports from pilots flying in and out of Los Angeles lately of a person in a jetpack buzzing around. Well, someone finally captured video of the daredevil, and even though it’s shaky and unclear — as are seemingly all videos of cryptids — it sure seems to be a human-sized biped flying around in a standing position. The video description says this was shot by a flight instructor at 3,000 feet (914 meters) near Palos Verdes with Catalina Island in the background. That’s about 20 miles (32 km) from the mainland, so whatever this person is flying has amazing range. And, the pilot has incredible faith in the equipment — that’s a long way to fall in something with the same glide ratio as a brick.