Amateur Radio

Category Archive Amateur Radio

Jump Kits

The following is the text from a training item that I did for an amateur radio net on 8 September 2009.

Introduction

This is AI7GU. My name is James. The topic for tonight’s training item is jump kits. This is a big subject, and this training item represents a summary. This is not the final word, and I freely acknowledge that there are others more knowledgeable than myself.

Overview

The term jump kit has nothing to do with bungee cords or parachutes. A typical jump kit is a readily-accessible bag that contains everything needed to support your human and communication needs for a certain period of time. Ideally, it’s always ready to for grab and go situations.

Purpose

The purpose of a jump kit is to allow you as a radio operator to independently sustain yourself while performing your volunteer radio communication services. As a volunteer, you want to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. This means that you must be willing and able to sustain yourself independent of the organization that you’re serving, if that is what’s required.

First Things First

Let’s take a step back for a moment to look at the bigger picture.

  1. In an emergency, your services as a radio operator are secondary to your responsibilities to yourself and your family. Your desire to serve should not place either yourself or your family at risk. Thus your family emergency plans should ensure that your family is cared for first so you can volunteer without worry or distraction.
  2. A jump kit is frequently designed to supplement your personal 72-hour kit. It is not a replacement. Think modularity and flexibility.
  3. Lastly, neither your personal 72-hour kit nor your jump kit should contain any “family” items that might be needed while you’re away operating the radio.

Types of Jump Kits

To determine what your jump kit looks like, you’ll need to decide on the situation you’re trying to address. For example, I have two jump kits with two different purposes.

The “Day Jump Kit”

The first is a short-term “day jump kit” that I use for volunteering at events. It is centred around using a handy talky for less than a day in a variety of weather conditions. My goal was to fit everything inside a small day pack like those used by university students.

  1. To support radio operations, the “day jump kit” contains the radio manual, a radio chest pack to keep my hand free, extra batteries and antennas, and several pens and note pads. I also have a county atlas and a three-ring binder with personal band plans and other important reference material.
  2. To support me as a human, the “day jump kit” contains items to such as rain gear to keep myself warm and dry. It has food and water to keep me alert and focused. It has body care items such as sun screen, bug spray, a basic first aid kit, and extra socks. A small flash light and green glow sticks allow me to operate at night.

Everything is grouped together in gallon and quart zip-lock storage bags for water resistance and organizational purposes. This makes finding things a snap.

The “Base Station” Jump Kit

The other jump kit that I have serves a different purpose. It constitutes a portable base station that can supply up to 65 watts of transmitting power. It can serve as a net control station or provide a strong signal in difficult terrain. This jump kit is simple in comparison to the “day jump kit”. It consists of

  1. a radio-in-a-box,
  2. a rugged AGM battery, and
  3. a portable antenna stored in a bag.

This jump kit contains only radio equipment because it is designed to supplement my personal 72-hour kit.

Validating the Jump Kit

Regardless of what you decide to put in your jump kit, I highly recommend that you go one step further and put it to the test. I have quickly found what works and doesn’t work by volunteering for a variety of public events through the year. These events allow me to tackle problems in a safe environment where life and limb is not on the line.

Summary

To wrap up, I will repeat what I mentioned at the beginning of this training item.
The purpose of a jump kit is to allow you as a radio operator to independently sustain yourself while performing your volunteer radio communication services. As a volunteer, you want to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

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ULCER 2009

ULCER (Utah Lake Century Epic Ride) is an annual cycling event typically attended by 1,300-1,600 cyclists. It’s one my favourite rides as the event is well run and the course not demanding. The August heat intrudes on an otherwise perfect event.

Behind the Scenes in Radioland

Instead of riding in the event this year, I accepted the opportunity to help as a communications volunteer. I was curious to see “behind the scenes” of a large event, and practice my radio skills.

About three dozen radio volunteers were required to staff the event, and drew volunteers from the surrounding counties. Radio volunteers were stationed at rest stops, in the sag wagons (roving repair and transportation vehicles for cyclists with trouble), transportation shuttles, roving medical vehicles, and as shadows for the UCLER organizers. A supply truck driver turned out to be an amateur radio operator, and joined the net which proved useful.

Because of some of the terrain difficulties due to radio shadows, the scale of the event, and other reasons, the local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) organization classified the event as a “simulated emergency training”.

My Setup

From my experience as a cyclist, I know that rest stops can become hectic. I didn’t want to get in the way, so I decided to set up my own pop-up canopy for shade right behind the rest stop canopies. Since I didn’t have a lot to do at first, I decided to test out my bigger emergency radio and put it to the test. I didn’t want to risk having cyclists tripping over guy wires, so I used a velcro strap to connect the antenna to the canopy.

My radio setup for the aid station

Busy from the Get Go

Radio traffic filled the airwaves with few silent spells. The net control operators uniformly ran an impeccably professional show while juggling many demands for resources.

The rest stops had questions about their operations, and supply requests and one might expect, but a good deal of traffic had to do with riders. I took information on a teen rider who had become lost. That information was relayed through the net, helping the rider to be found and reunited with her parents.

Sag wagons kept their status and location up-to-date, and helped monitor the riders and road conditions. Shuttles were kept increasingly busy as the event progressed and bodies and/or bikes could go no further.

Medical Emergencies

Bicycles are dangerous. Consequently every cycling event has a good number of injuries. The majority of them are due to riders falling off their bikes. (I’ve seen enough fall injuries at every event that I’ve participated in that I’m glad I ride a recumbent trike. They have rock-solid stability.) This year there were perhaps a score of injuries, including a broken collar bone. I didn’t keep count, but it seemed there were four or six ambulance calls.

The Combine

I wasn’t expecting to send emergency traffic when I showed up that morning. My station lies in a semi-rual part of the county with fields of alfalfa and grain. One sees farm machinery on the road regularly. Said machinery is big and fortunately slow; just a mobile road hazard that one becomes accustomed to giving a wide berth. So, when a combine lumbered past us on the road, nobody really thought much of it.

About a half-block down from us, the road turns ninety degrees, which the bike course naturally followed. There are a lot trees there, making it a blind corner. A few minutes after the combine passed, we got word from a cyclist that as the combine turned the corner, another cyclist was struck. I jumped to the radio, waited for the person speaking to unkey, and spoke those words I wasn’t expecting, “Break. Emergency.”

Net control responded with,”Emergency traffic, go.”

“This is Bible Church,” (the name of the rest stop). “A cyclist has been hit by a combine.”

The next few minutes were hectic, but worked out well for the cyclist. Net control instructed me to call 9-1-1. As I was getting my phone out, a sag wagon reported that medic was on scene. The sag wagon’s report was perfunctory, and I was still concerned about things. I drove to the corner to assess things myself. A roving medical vehicle happened to be coming down the road at the same time of the accident. The medic team jumped into action without mentioning anything on the radio. One of the sag wagons happened to arrive moments afterward from the other direction.

The cyclist had a lot of road rash and was being treated by the medic. He refused emergency transport at the time, but after resting at the rest stop a bit he agreed to be taken to the hospital. His bike was unfortunately a total loss, but the rider didn’t receive serious injuries.

Summary

In retrospect I’m glad for my decision to volunteer this year. The real-world experience can’t be gained elsewhere. I don’t know for the future; perhaps I will trade off volunteering and riding. I’ve found that I really enjoy both sides of cycling events.

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Power for Emergency Communications, Part II

Part II: The Foundation

In both field work and emergency communication, the situation drives the equipment requirements. Part I discussed the general power requirements for emergency communication and field work. This article will talk about batteries for hand-held radios, especially alkaline batteries. Part III will talk about batteries for mobile and desktop radios.

Batteries: The Foundation of Field Power

In Part I, the following requirements were discussed:

  1. Reliability
  2. Portability
  3. Size
  4. Weight

Batteries are the best available technology that fill these requirements. They form the foundation around which we can build our plans.

We can summarize the way that batteries match the above criteria thus:

  1. Their ability to provide power is known and predictable, so they can form a reliable source of electrical power.
  2. They free the radio station (and thus the radio operator) from the grid.
  3. For situations that require smalls size, batteries can be made quite small (in exchange for less power).
  4. For situations that require low weight, batteries can be made quite light (in exchange for less power).

Alkaline Batteries

Modern hand-held radios, commonly known as “handy talkies” (HTs) ordinarily run off of rechargeable batteries, with an option to use standard alkaline batteries.

For emergency work, local ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) members have consistently stressed to me that it’s important to be able to use alkaline batteries. One veteran phrased it as “in an extended emergency, AA and D batteries will be the staple of radio operators”.

Here are some of the reasons why alkaline batteries hold such an important role in emergency communications.

  1. Rechargeable batteries may not provide power when needed. They slowly discharge in storage and require periodic recharges. I have repeatedly experienced dead rechargeables when I needed them, not only with radios but with cameras and other electronics.
  2. Alkalines can be stored for long periods of time.
  3. Alkalines are readily available in most stores, and need no preparatory charging before they can be used.
  4. Recharging batteries can take hours. Changing alkalines takes seconds.
  5. Should your batteries die, someone else on the scene will likely have some alkalines that you can use.

This does not mean that you should not use rechargeable batteries. They’re convenient and can be your “plan A”, or convenience plan. However, ensure you build your plans on a foundation of alkalines.

The Catch

The catch for many HT models is that they will not run at full power with alkalines (e.g. ½ watt instead of 5 watts). For those who have these kinds of radios, you can make an external battery pack to fool the radio and run at full power. (Article to follow.)

Rechargeable Batteries

While you should not build your HT power plans around rechargeable batteries, they’re convenient. When coupled with a recharger placed in a strategic position, you rarely need to change batteries.

The rechargeable batteries types that you’ll encounter on HTs are:

  1. Nickle-Cadmium (Nicad)
  2. Nickle-Metal Hydride (NiMH)
  3. Lithium Ion

Each type of battery has its strengths and weaknesses. Here is a summary, with notes to follow.

Strength Weakness
Nickle Cadmium Rugged
Reliable
Inexpensive
Wide temperature range
Memory effect
Heavy
“Sudden death”
Long charge time
Special dispoal
Nickle Metal Hydride High energy capacity Memory effect
Poor low temperature performance
Heavy
Lithium Ion Light weight
Good energy capacity
Expensive
Poor high draw performance
Sensitive to high tempertures

Nicad batteries are solid performers and have the lowest self-discharge rate, but when they decide to finally die, they can do quickly without warning. They also require special disposal due to the dangerous chemicals inside.

NiMH batteries store a lot of energy but should not be used in colder weather.

The “memory effect” is a problem with nickel-based batteries (nicad and NiMH). If they are repeatedly recharged when not fully empty, they lose their ability to fully discharge. They “remember” the partial discharged state as the bottom of the tank, as it were. You must periodically drain them completely so they can “remember” where “fully empty” is.

Lithium ion batteries are fabulous for their light weight and ability to take partial recharges. However, they should not be kept in hot vehicles in the sun during summers. Heat will kill them. I have not personally verified the reported “venting with flame” claims that are supposed to happen at high temperatures.

Next

Part III will talk about batteries for mobile and desktop radios.

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Power for Emergency Communication, Part I

Part I: Introduction

In both field work and emergency communication, the situation drives the equipment requirements. This introduction will cover broadly the requirements for powering emergency communications and field work. Subsequent articles will include more details.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to the members of the Utah Country Amateur Radio Emergency Service, and others on the Internet, for sharing their experience and insights.

Reliability

Radios need electricity to operate, and for radios to be useful during an emergency, that power source needs to be reliable. Additionally, when there is no emergency, there are times when it’s desirable to operate “in the field”, which usually implies no access to the normal electric grid power that comes out of wall sockets.

These days the so-called “renewable” backup sources of electric power (solar and wind) have an almost mystical aura in popular culture. If the grid goes down, we can use them to generate power. In the context of emergencies or field operation, however, they all lack one crucial aspect: reliability.

Solar power requires the sun, rendering it is useless at night and in overcast skies. Wind power requires the right amount of wind: too much wind will damage or destroy windmills; too little wind can’t turn the blades fast enough to generate power.

Portability

When talking about emergency and field use we make the assumption that the radio will be operated somewhere else other than at home, i.e. must be portable. Thus we generally talk about two categories of radios: hand-held radios (handy talkies, or HTs) and mobile radios. These have their own unique characteristics and will be discussed separately.

Size and Weight

Size and weight are close cousins of portability. Both emergency and field power sources must provide a supply of electricity yet remain small and light enough to fit the purpose. HTs have special size and weight requirements since they will be carried around by a single person, possibly standing up for hours on end.

The larger mobile radios are more powerful, requiring greater energy capacity. Fortunately, they generally will be sitting somewhere, connected to a larger antenna rather than be carried around.

Conclusion

When planning how to power emergency communications and field work you need to account for reliability, portability, size, and weight.

Next

Part II will discuss the foundational technologies and powering hand-held radios.

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Vanity Call Signs

When I obtained my amateur license, it was the ordinary jumble of letters. I thought about obtaining a “vanity” (custom) call sign. I decided to wait until after I obtained my Amateur Extra license before applying because the type of license that you have determines the type of call signs that you may apply for. The Technician license has the fewest choices, and the Amateur Extra the most choices.

The process for applying for a vanity call sign is not terribly difficult if you’re comfortable navigating through web sites, know the rules for allowed call signs, and can do your own research to determine which call signs are available.

There are third party services that will do most of this for you for a small fee on top of the fee that the FCC charges everybody. I personally planned on doing this, but after talking with a local ham operator decided to look into doing it myself. I saw what it would take and decided to try it myself, so unfortunately I can’t give any opinion on any of the third-party services.

DIY

If you wish to do it yourself, put “vanity call sign” into your favourite search engine. The ARRL has a web page for amateur radio vanity call signs which is a decent resource.

I highly recommend logging into the FCC website and using the online application. It fills out the appropriate forms and submits them electronically. I found the paper forms confusing, and the FCC website handles the details for you. Additionally it’s faster.

Waiting

You’ll end up waiting around three weeks for the FCC to process your vanity call sign application. You can check the FCC’s ULS, but there’s something one step better. The AE7Q web site has a prediction tool. It lists all of the pending applications, and makes some educated guesses about whether each one will be rejected or when it will be accepted.

About AI7GU


AI7GU is my new vanity call sign. I cobbled this together from Japanese for “love and freedom” (愛と自由).

The first two letters AI are pronounced like “eye” and written 愛 meaning “love”. The word for “and” can be written so that it looks somewhat like the number “7”. The last two letters when spoken (gee-you) sound similar to the Japanese word jiyū (自由) which means “freedom”.

The following is some quick and dirty calligraphy. Not so great, but I wanted to whip something out quickly as a celebration.

ai7gu-480.jpg

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What is Amateur Radio?

Amateur radio in a nutshell is non-commercial radio. People of all ages and backgrounds participate. Some do it for fun, others because they wish to make themselves available for service to their fellow humans. I’ve had a short while to listen to people, and hope to share some insights.

What Good Is It?

It can be used for any non-commercial purpose, limited only by imagination. Many use it for chatting, but that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Events like parades, cycling and running events (including the Boston Marathon) make use of amateur radio volunteers to ensure the event runs smoothly. For example, supplies and help arrive where they’re needed. The location of chase vehicles can be tracked without expensive satellite systems using amateur radio. Lost children can be reunited with their parents.

It’s used by university students doing research, for example, with high-altitude balloon experiments. For example,  Here is a picture of students on top of a mountain providing communications with home brewed antennas.

antennas

It’s not only about voice. Television, digital data, satellite, and model control not only have their enthusiasts, but many of the technological innovations that we enjoy are direct descendants of experimentation done in the amateur field. I spoke with a fellow in Australia recently whose research broke previous technological barriers in point to point communication.

international-space-stationRadio waves aren’t bound to the earth either. A good number of amateur radio operators have expertise in satellite communication. There are a number of communication satellites run by amateurs. Some are skilled enough to bounce radio signals off of the moon, meteor showers, and even auroras. On the other side of the spectrum, people can talk to astronauts on the International Space Station, and sometimes the space shuttle.

Skill doesn’t matter. A week ago I met a woman too chicken to use the radio despite the fact she has her license. I’ve also met highly seasoned radio operators who could compete in Olympic-level “radio games” (if such a thing existed). Watching them in operation is like witnessing magic before your eyes.
ARES Logo

Emergencies

Amateur radio operators have from the beginning provided critical skilled communication capabilities during emergencies to both private relief organizations and government agencies. This tends to happen behind the scenes without the limelight. In the United States, members of the Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) work closely with local and county police, fire, and medical teams to train and prepare for when they are needed.

Multiple times every year disasters strike somewhere in the world, and volunteers step up to generously serve their fellow man without being conscripted or compelled. Famous incidents include the 9/11 attacks and hurricane Katrina. Here’s a video about foreign radio operators who helped in the tsunami.

It’s Not Old Technology

I’ve run into more than one person — technology professionals — who called radio “obsolete” technology. I could write a whole article on that, but I’ll point out a few things.

  1. Many of the fancy technologies we have today appeared in their experimental forms in radio. Internet communication protocols are “old fashioned” radiogram technology adapted from the wireless realm to the wired world. Radio operators were using chat rooms and text messaging each other in the 1970’s — decades before texting became a regular feature on cell phones.
  2. The use of high technology continues in radio. It tends to become more specialized, as well as a playground for experimentation.
  3. Even though consumer electronics is convenient, no commercial system has been designed to be robust. (The cost to do that is prohibitive.) They all break under pressure. On holidays, or during high-profile local event, the circuits get tied up and telephones are useless. Even satellite phones suffer from this problem. Radio is robust and keeps working.

It’s Not Just About Talking

Others get their license for non-verbal communication purposes. I met a man who obtained his license two years ago. He’s a radio-controlled (RC) airplane enthusiast who felt constrained by the limitations imposed on RC flying. His amateur license allows him to use more powerful transmitters than his fellow RC hobbyists for purposes limited only by his imagination. For example, he sends live video from his airplanes, giving him a “pilot’s eye view” while flying.

Amateur Doesn’t Mean “Incompetent”

The word “amateur” simply means it’s not your job. Specifically it means “doing something without pay”. Unfortunately, over time the word has also picked up a derogatory meaning of inept or unskilled.

The Olympics was initially billed as an amateur competition. It would be difficult to write off Olympic athletes as unskilled, incompetent, or anything other than what they are — the best athletes in the entire world.

Not For Hire

In amateur radio, there are strict rules governing whether a person can be paid for time on the radio. Without getting bogged down in details, the rule is, “No! No! No!” A business or private organization such as the Red Cross may buy and install the equipment, but staffing the equipment can only be done by real honest-to-goodness unpaid volunteers who are not “on the clock”.

There are exceptions for occasional non-commercial transactions. For example, on-air swap meets where private individuals occationally sell their personal gear to fellow hobbyists.

What Is Amateur Radio?

So, what is amateur radio? It is many things to different people, but in the end it’s all about people enjoying themselves and the company of their fellow humans.


Updates

2009-05-12
Edit for clarity. Added pictures and expanded text slightly. Added section on emergency communications.

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How to Get a Ham Radio License

I got my license! In fact, I now have all three amateur radio licenses. I didn’t know where to start, so here’s my experience in case anybody finds it useful. (This information is valid for the United State of America. 日本で友人、すみません。)

When I first started looking for introductory information, I got a little frustrated because the “how to” information tended to speak over my head. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, so it’s probably just me. Here’s what I know from hindsight.

You Can Listen Without a License

To be able to listen to ham radio, nobody needs a license. Get a radio receiver that picks up the ham bands and have fun.

If you want to listen, there’s no point in getting a transmitter. It’s wasted money. If you did buy a transmitter, and started talking without a license, an official from the FCC, accompanied by a federal marshal with a gun, will knock on your door. Don’t think they can’t find you. Every transmission shouts, “Here I am!” Direction finding and triangulation are basic skills that many ham operators are very good at. Don’t do it. (No, I didn’t do that!)

Overview of the Process

Unless you’re hard up for fines or jail time, talking on the amateur frequencies requires permission from the federal government. This involves getting a license from the Federal Communications Commission, better known as the FCC. What may seem curious is that the FCC grants licenses, but that’s about all. You do not go through the FCC to get study materials, take exams, etc.

Amateur radio operators have proven themselves professional and passionate about radio. They truly are the experts and have no need to be micromanaged by bureaucrats. The FCC certifies a small number of individuals as Volunteer Examination Coordinators (VECs). This body makes up the tests and the rules for taking the tests. They certify other ham operators as Volunteer Examiners (VEs), who work in teams of three or more. These teams take applications, administer and grade tests, and submit applications to the FCC for those who pass. This is handled privately without government intervention. There will be a modest fee to cover FCC fees and out of pocket expenses. (I paid $14.)

The VECs draft, maintain, and publish a pool of multiple-choice questions covering ten topics. Tests are created by drawing a total of 35 questions from this pool. To pass the test, you must answer 26 questions correctly. That’s it!

When you pass your test, you’ll receive a paper called a Certificate of Successful Completion of Examination (CSCE). The CSCE does not grant permission to transmit! It is simply proof that you are eligible for a license. You will have to wait for your paperwork to make its way through the FCC. When the FCC grants the license, it will publish your license on the Internet and send a paper copy of your license in the mail. You don’t have to wait for the paper license to arrive. As soon as you show up on their database (on the web site), you can start transmitting!

Test Knowledge vs. Practical Knowledge

You will need to study to the test to pass it. After you pass it, you’ll need to learn the ropes. In my mind these are two different things. I had to accept the fact that while the test covers basic knowledge of important concepts, being able to pass the test does not mean that you know anything about being a ham operator. This was uncomfortable for me at first, as I like to understand how things work. I had some expectation that being able to pass the test meant that I understood being a radio operator. My bad. 🙂

Study for the test, pass it, and see your license as proof you’re out of the cradle. You’ll learn to walk after the test.

What to Study

The basic amateur radio license is called the Technician Class. You’ll need to know this when you search the Internet.

Here are several resources for study materials.

  • The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual is a pretty good reference book. It’s not mandatory, but I found it a good introduction to ham radio, as well as some practical information beyond just getting your license. It contains a complete list of questions and answers in the back.
  • Once you understand the terminology, N8KBR’s Amateur Radio Technician Class License Study Guide is a free PDF file that contains the questions rewritten as answers. Print out these thirty pages, put them in a binder, and carry this with you if that’s your learning style. I found it a great way to review during the spare minutes during the day.
  • The most helpful resource is the practice exams. These will allow you to test yourself and know when you’re ready! When you can consistently score above 80%, preferably 90%, the test will be a breeze.

Finding VEs: Where to Take the Test

Google is your friend. Look for amateur radio clubs in your area. The VE team from whom I took my test is affiliated with the W5YI Group. They have a search page that you may find useful. (If you live in Utah, the Utah Amateur Radio Club has a schedule of exams here.)

The VE team from whom you take the test will tell you everything that you’ll need to bring.

Best of luck! I hope to talk to you on the airwaves.

KF7BTM


Updates

2009-4-21
Added link for where to get information about testing in Utah. Small edit for clarification.

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