Friday, October 30, 2009

What is amateur radio?

Yesterday I got hold of a copy of the RSGB's guide to the Foundation license, Foundation Licence Now! Considering that the book is aimed at people who are not yet radio amateurs - including young children - I thought it could have been better written. The introduction explaining what amateur radio is seemed a bit muddled and used potentially confusing jargon terms like "PSK31" where they really weren't necessary.

It's easy to criticize. So, as I'm presently suffering from flu and don't feel much like doing any work or even playing with the radio, I decided to write my own version of What is Amateur Radio? and add it to my website. I'll be interested to see what you think of it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

SWRing a Slim Jim

I was never entirely happy with my 300-ohm ribbon Slim Jim for 2 metres. I made one up starting with the dimensions given on the Southgate Amateur Radio Club website. My SWR analyzer showed a double-dip with minima either side of 145MHz. I ended up pruning a couple of inches off to get one of the dips to occur in the 2m band. My SWR meter told a different story with an SWR of 2:1 at 145MHz. In the end I put it up as it was and it seemed to work, but my transverter wasn't happy with long transmissions on FM and my FT-817 showed three bars of SWR.

I decided to make another one and this time stick to the Southgate measurements. I got a double-dip as before. But I found that when I used the analyzer's PC control program to get an SWR plot on the computer screen I got a different curve with the minimum spot on 145MHz. Confused? You bet I was!

I decided to take screenshots of the two plots and send them to RigExpert for comment. But hunting around their website I found a downloads page that contained, amongst other things, new firmware for the AA-200. My instrument was running firmware version 8.20 but the latest version is 8.31. I installed it (after a struggle trying to start the device while holding three keys down) and now I get SWR plots that are the same on the LCD and the computer screen! And my made-to-Southgate-measurements Slim Jim shows a nice SWR dip right in the FM part of the 2m band.

I shall be putting it up in the attic at the next opportunity!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Recovering a deleted log

A friend of mine called me yesterday in a panic. He had bought a copy of Windows 7 and in his haste to install it he had forgotten to ensure that all his important files were backed up. Now Windows 7 was running but the data file for his logging program containing details of all his contacts over several years had gone!

I pointed him towards's article on how to recover deleted files. I had an email this morning to say that a trial version of Uneraser had found the missing log file apparently intact. Huge sighs of relief all round! When a file has been deleted, good recovery software will usually restore it, but when a new operating system has been installed on the hard drive a lot of data will have been irretrievably overwritten and all bets are off.

Workington Radio Club

Last night I went for the first time to a meeting of Workington Radio Club. I had known of the existence of the club for a couple of years and it's only a 10 minute drive to the club meeting place, but I used to work until 6.30pm and the club meetings started at 7pm, so there was no time to have the evening meal before going out. However, now that I am semi-retired there is no obstacle to having the evening meal earlier. I recently had contacts with a couple of locals on 2m FM who suggested I came to the club so I decided to give it a try.

I was impressed by how active and well-equipped the club is. They have run Foundation license courses and are planning to run courses for both the Foundation and Intermediate licenses the first weekend in December. I am going to try to persuade my wife Olga to get a Foundation license! She is quite technical, having studied computing at university in the days when electronics was part of the course, so I don't think she would find it difficult. She has even used a soldering iron in the past. I just need to come up with some reasons for her to do it.

One sometimes reads that people have gone to their local radio club and found it cliquey and no-one takes the trouble to welcome them. That certainly is not the case with Workington Radio Club. You could not find a more friendly group of people! I think an earlier evening meal every other Monday will become a regular fixture from now on.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

First 500KHz WSPR spots

This evening I received my first WSPR signals on the 500KHz band. Strong traces were regularly received from SM6BHZ 1000km away, while G0NBD 135km away in Cheshire was also received several times at around the limit of readability. Just at the moment of publishing this post a trace from OR7T, 679km away, appeared. Perhaps I'll catch fellow blogger Roger G3XBM soon!

The receiver was my Elecraft K3. The antenna that made this possible was the latest addition to the G4ILO shack, a PA0RDT Mini-Whip.

This remarkable active receive-only antenna is small enough to hold in your hand, and is currently suspended from its feeder hooked over the curtain rod above the shack window. I shall probably write more about this antenna later.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A QRP Evening

Yesterday the four visiting Norwegian QRPers Mads LA1TPA, Aage LA1ENA, Halvard LA1DNA and Kjell LA1KHA came to visit us.

We had a very pleasant evening. On learning that my wife Olga was from Ukraine, Kjell greeted her in Russian and was interested in her thoughts about what life was like in the Soviet times.

Amongst other things we talked about about QRP radio, operating from summits, trouble with neighbours and difficulties getting permission to put up antennas. It is not just in the UK that we have these problems. Two of the guys had no home station antennas at all, and Mads has just an MFJ magnetic loop at home.

The guys were interested in seeing the HB-1A QRP CW radio from China, and also my Wonder Loop home made portable magnetic loop antenna. In the picture, Kjell is trying to make a contact on 30m using the HB-1A and Wonder Loop. He was not successful, despite received signals being strong, but perhaps our aluminium-framed conservatory was acting as a Faraday shield. Despite that, Aage was interested in getting an HB-1A and Mads said he plans to make his own version of the Wonder Loop.

The evening was a success and it was nearly midnight before they left for their hotel in Keswick. I'm glad to say the Lakeland weather has been kind to them, and today is fine and mild for their last day in the Lakes.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

EchoLink node in Workington

After lunch I was tuning around the top end of 40m looking for the four Norwegians who had been spotted activating some minor SOTA hump in Scotland when I heard Tony, G6YWL calling CQ and decided to reply to him. We had an interesting chat for over half an hour.

Tony is an enthusiast of Vespa scooters and has travelled all over the UK and Europe on them. His web page has several photos of them. I rather liked this one.

Later I was listening on 2 metres and was surprised to come across a signal on the odd frequency of 145.3375 (it's always surprising to hear a signal here on 2 metres, even one of the three locally accessible repeaters.) I was even more dumbfounded to discover that I was listening to a contact between UA3ECF and someone in Ireland, and the UA3 was a 59 signal!

When the contact finished I tried calling the UA3 but no-one came back to me. After a while Keith, G0EMM came on and told me that I was hearing his EchoLink node G0EMM-L in Workington. He explained that I needed a 77Hz CTCSS tone to access the node, which is why no-one had replied to me. I would also need a DTMF key pad if I wanted to connect to specific stations or conferences on EchoLink. I was glad of the explanation as I was starting to doubt my sanity and wondering if I'd witnessed some amazing propagation or whether my K3 receiver was somehow re-radiating 40m on the 2m band!

I'm not anti-EchoLink although I dislike the CQ100 VOIP system. EchoLink is at least intended to link together stations using real radio, bringing life to dead repeaters. And it does it in a way that is compatible with most existing equipment, unlike D-Star, so it should be encouraged in order to prevent the subversion of aspects of our hobby by commercial interests trying to promote sales of a certain manufacturer's equipment.

This part of the world could do with something to stir up a bit of VHF activity. When you can hike up a small mountain with a clear take-off for hundreds of miles, make fruitless calls through half a dozen different repeaters and log just two contacts, it's hard to argue that an EchoLink node is unwelcome. In fact it could provide a way for me to chat with some readers of this blog for whom a direct radio contact would be impractical. But having the ability to use the HF bands and have chats like the one I had earlier with G6YWL I probably won't be making much use of it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

LA's in the Lakes

Four Norwegian hams, QRP blogger Mads LA1TPA, Aage LA1ENA, Halvard LA1DNA and Kjell LA1KHA have arrived in the Lake District for a spot of Summits On The Air (SOTA) operating, and to visit the G-QRP Convention on Saturday. The weather forecast isn't that promising for them, but it could be a lot worse. Anyway, they're used to that sort of weather in Norway!

I worked them on Skiddaw at lunch-time, which was fortunate as I'd made an offer for them to come and visit us one evening while they are here and they could not contact me on the number I gave them as the line was not working.

Calls like M/LA1TPA/P caused a few hiccups with the Wainwrights On The Air (WOTA) database so I had to do a bit of fixing this afternoon. I also removed the deleting of duplicate spots for the same station as it was not working correctly and caused minor annoyance for users familiar with SOTAwatch who didn't like their spots being deleted by someone coming along later.

Olga and I are looking forward to playing host to the four Norwegians on Thursday evening. Mads said they are all very keen on beer, so tomorrow we will nip down to Jennings Brewery here in Cockermouth so they can sample the finest brew on the planet.

Why I don't do DX

I don't do DX. If I come across a pile-up I tune on by. Not because I have indoor antennas - many people have worked DXCC with indoor or restricted antennas and/or QRP. But because pile-ups just frustrate me and raise my blood pressure, and that's not what I need from a hobby.

Normally I don't come across pile-ups very often because they usually happen away from the QRP frequencies. But in the last few days while I've been trying out the HB-1A I have been listening around the two 30m QRP frequencies of 10.106MHz and 10.116MHz and the usually quiet frequency has suddenly been disturbed by a bunch of people sending their call over and over again. A pile-up, presumably.

I listened, to try to hear who they were calling, and suddenly someone started sending a stream of dits on the frequency for a minute or so. I was prepared to think that someone had pushed something against their paddle accidentally, but any doubts were removed when it happened again, and again.

In his most recent blog posting Ed, N4EMG writes about the same sort of thing, and questions whether a new operating technique has developed where people who fail to work the DX decide to destroy anyone else's chances of working it as well. From what I heard, I think it's quite likely.

I can understand the frustration when you spend half an hour calling some DX without success. Do you carry on and hope your moment will come, or give up and live with the feeling that you've wasted half an hour of your life for nothing? Which is why I steer clear of pileups.

If you can't crack pile-ups leave that activity for those with the patience, the power and the antennas. There are far more interesting and rewarding things you can do with a radio than ticking off countries on a list, anyway.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Missing info

I thought I would make a change to KComm today so that the frequency display shows actual receive frequency when RIT is used, as the K3 itself does. While testing this, I found a bug in the K3 firmware. Although the K3 sends auto-information messages when the RIT control is changed, it does not send them when RIT is switched on and off or when the RIT offset is cleared by pressing CLR.

It is supposed to do so according to the programmer's reference manual. I thought I could check the K2 to see if it works as documented, but that would have been a lot of hassle.

I reported the problem to Wayne at Elecraft and he has said it will be fixed in the next beta version of the K3 firmware, so I'll suspend work on this update until the fix has been done.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Another QRP Italian contact

After dinner and before going to watch TV I managed a 40m contact with Tiziano, IZ3NWT using the HB-1A. My report this time was 449. I checked the power output a bit later on - with the batteries delivering 10.2V I'm now getting just a tad over 3W output. Antenna was the MFJ magnetic loop.

From his picture, it seems Tiziano is partial to a bit of outdoor operating, probably QRP as well. However for this contact he was using a classic Yaesu FT-200 and 100W into a vertical. His location is in the Dolomite mountains at the north of Italy. The website shown his page is all about the area, and it would appear that Tiziano and his parents have a holiday apartment for rent. Looks like a nice place for a vacation!

An Italian for lunch

Just after lunch today I had a tune around on the little guy, the HB-1A QRP CW transceiver. On 10.116MHz, the 30m QRP activity frequency, I heard Steve, IK6NHA calling CW at about 18wpm with long gaps between the characters, so I gave him a call.

Conditions on 30m this afternoon seemed very unstable. Steve's signal was hitting S9 on the little Chinese radio's meter but with sudden QSB down to the noise level. Steve gave me a 229 report and asked me to repeat my call, though he did get it right the first time. He got all the other details I sent too, which is good going as it turns out he was running 100W. I was running about 4W to the MFJ magnetic loop with the HB-1A on batteries and I was struggling to hear him at times.

Steve's QTH is a town called Tolentino, which I guess is up in the mountains somewhere as the temperature was 7C, colder than it is here (and it's a grey, rainy day today.)

I love Italy. The whole place looks like it is falling down, nobody has heard of DIY and nobody seems to care either. What a great attitude! So different to England where the sound of lawnmowers and pressure washers is never far away and people seem to spend the whole weekend painting and cleaning instead of relaxing and enjoying the rest they've surely earned.

DC20B osc mod failure

For about three months I have had an annoying nagging at the back of my mind that my DC20B 20m QRP transceiver kit has been laying in the junk box, almost but not quite working. The main problem with it is that the transceiver is operating on a frequency of 14.062MHz, which means that it cannot be used to call people working on the QRP frequency of 14.060MHz. For some people who have good antennas and prefer to call CQ that might actually be an advantage. But personally I prefer to reply to others whom I hear calling, and I rarely hear anyone calling that far up the band except during a contest.

Shown above is the schematic of the DC20B oscillator circuit. Q9, a 2N7000, is a transistor switch which is on during transmit, shorting out the frequency trimming components CT2 and C36. Effectively the crystal X1 is connected directly between the base of Q8 and ground and there is no way of varying the frequency. CT2 and C36 are used to shift the oscillator frequency 600Hz higher during receive so that a station that replies exactly on your frequency can easily be copied. (Incidentally, while doing this I noticed that the ground pads for C36 are not actually connected to ground on the circuit board. One more thing to add to the catalogue of faults with this kit.)

I tried replacing the crystal supplied by QRP Kits with another 14.060MHz crystal from another source, but that made no difference. The frequency was still 2KHz too high. So I tried modifying the oscillator circuit.

With the tuning trimmer in parallel with the crystal I was able to get the frequency down to 14.060MHz. Very little capacitance was needed, though. Too much and the crystal stopped oscillating.

My attempt to shift the oscillator frequency between transmit and receive by switching an additional capacitor using Q9 was a failure however. My test meter showed Q9 was indeed switching, but even during receive when the transistor switch was "off" the additional capacitor was loading the circuit. Presumably the capacitance through the 2N7000 is large in relation to the capacitance I was trying to switch (a few pF) so that even during receive most of the extra capacitance is still in circuit.

In order to test the shift between transmit and receive I connected my QRP power meter to the antenna socket to provide a dummy load and I discovered more bad news. In this circuit configuration the output power was only tens of milliwatts instead of the couple of watts that the transceiver produced with the original oscillator circuit. I restored the original circuit just to verify that the PA hadn't failed (it hadn't). At this point I was out of ideas and returned the DC20B to the junk box.

I think this kit is a lost cause, but perhaps someone reading this will know what to do to get it working on 14.060MHz and still get the full power output.

Friday, October 16, 2009

On Grike with the MFD

It has been a glorious day here in the English Lakes - clear blue sky with the occasional cloud, the temperature around a fresh 12 degrees C, ideal for walking. So I took the opportunity to try out the new Multi Function Dipole from SOTA Beams, which arrived yesterday. (My wife and I have an agreement: I will say nothing about all the shoes she buys if she will be equally circumspect about my antennas.)

I thought I would take the opportunity to do a Wainwrights On The Air (WOTA) activation at the same time. I chose Grike, a minor fell in the western Lake District, as it is a fairly short drive from home and an easy walk to the summit.

It was quite breezy on the top so I was glad that someone had built a stone shelter, though the wind was from the wrong direction and the best place was outside of it. The MFD was very quickly put together and connected to the VX-8E, and I tuned to 145.475, the frequency I had preannounced I would be using on the WOTA activations page.

I was surprised to find what seemed like interference on that frequency at about S3. Turning the dial, the S-meter reading steadily increased and I discovered that there was an enormous signal apparently centred on 145.625, the output of the Isle of Man repeater GB3GD. Wow, I thought, either the MFD is very good or the VX-8E receiver very poor to be de-sensed as much as that by a repeater on an island a few tens of miles away. Subsequently I called through GB3GD and it was not that strong, so the identity of the monster signal remains a mystery.

A call on 145.500 produced a contact with Keith, G0EMM in Workington, who complained that my signal was so strong it would be ruining his S meter if it had a needle. Keith is a WOTA chaser, so that was a good result. However, further calls on the simplex calling frequency and on all of the repeaters I could access from there, which is quite a few of them, only produced one more contact with Clive, GM4FZH, near Whithorn in south-west Scotland. Where has all the 2m activity gone?

My VX-8E APRS channel decoded several APRS packets from stations in Ireland, presumably digipeated from EI2DBP running 25W to an omnidirectional antenna, more than 200 miles distant. I also heard some Irish stations speaking on the calling frequency while I was taking a photograph, but when I put out a call they declined to come back to me.

I wasn't able to try any A/B comparisons between the MFD and the rubber duck supplied by Yaesu - perhaps another day - but the MFD certainly makes a difference. I could access the GB3LD repeater in Lancaster, to the south of the Lakes, using the MFD but not when using the duck. I also appreciated being able to sit on the ground out of the wind while having the antenna up in the clear where it could get the best signal. The MFD weighs next to nothing so even a wimp like me won't find it makes the rucksack too heavy. I think that for WOTA activations this little antenna is a real winner.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Taking the radio out of ham radio

Paul, PC4T has just posted in his blog about CQ100 VOIP Ham Radio. He asks: "Is this still ham radio?" What surprised me is that what provoked his post was an article called "I've got my hobby back", subtitled "CQ100 is an option for hams that can't get on the bands" published by none other than the ARRL. Pardon me, but I thought the first "R" in ARRL stood for "Radio."

I've already made a couple of comments on this to Paul's blog post, but I'm starting to wonder if the ARRL is losing the plot. I do read QST, and it seems to me that many of the editorial staff live in situations where they have limited opportunities to get on the air. This is reflected in the increasing number of articles on things like D-Star and FM operating. And now this. I used to look forward to receiving QST every month but I'm beginning to wonder if it's worth the money.

It's a fallacy to say that just because you can't have antennas you can't do ham radio, as I and other bloggers such as Paul, and John, N8ZYA are trying to prove. Even if you don't have a tiny attic like I do, you can make a simple magnetic loop and make QRP contacts with it on the desk beside you, or you can load up the curtain rail and see how far you can get using WSPR. Surely any of these real radio activities are more interesting and rewarding than pretending to operate ham radio while not actually using radio at all?

By encouraging the idea that unless you can put up outside antennas you'd be better off playing fake ham radio on the internet the ARRL is doing the entire hobby a disservice. Let's hope the government agencies don't get wind of this or someone may start to wonder why we need all that valuable spectrum space at all.

RSGB subs up

The November issue of the RSGB magazine RadCom plopped on the doormat this morning. One of the first items of news is that subscriptions will be increasing, and there will no longer be concessionary rates for senior citizens, although those currently enjoying concessionary rates will be able to keep them.

I suppose given the age demographic of this hobby it's quite likely that half the RSGB membership is currently on concessionary rates. But given the problems with pensions in this country - with many pension schemes going bust while the UK state pension is already the lowest in Europe - I think many of the next generation of pensioners are going to be very hard up indeed, so this decision is ill-timed to say the least.

I do consider RSGB membership to still be very good value for money and RadCom to be the best of all the monthly amateur radio magazines. I just hope I am never in the situation where membership is a luxury I can no longer afford.

More welcome is the news that the RSGB is going to make a legal challenge to the inactivity of the radio spectrum regulator OFCOM over the issue of interfering PLT adapters. This has a much better chance of getting results than some amateur pressure group or a petition on a website used by every nut job in the country. But it is going to cost money, and I think the RSGB has missed an opportunity to ask people to contribute to this cause. I certainly would be willing to donate a few quid to the cost of this specific legal battle and I expect others would too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tin can but no string

In the unlikely event that some of my readers don't also keep up with G3XBM's excellent blog, I urge you to read this post describing, I kid you not, a contact made over a distance of 101 miles on 80m by AA1TJ using a transmitter energized entirely by lung power. The description is hilarious enough, it's probably a good job there isn't a video of it!

I always knew QRPers had more fun, but QRPPers have hysterics!

Monday, October 12, 2009

SDR Deluxe

A new post in Dominic, M1KTA's blog about the SoftRock he built for Ham Radio Deluxe author Simon Brown, HB9DRV, provides a link to Simon's latest software project,

In one of the last posts he made before leaving the Elecraft reflector, Simon mentioned that his new ambition was to create the world's best software defined radio interface, and that is clearly what SDR-Radio is intended to be. It's certainly a vast improvement over the button-encrusted interface of Power SDR, and could even tempt SDR sceptics like me. But no matter how gorgeous Simon's interface I still have some major reservations to overcome before I could allow a black box and a computer program to replace my K3.

The first, knowing Simon's opinion of Linux is that this new program of his is going to be Windows-only. I hate being tied into Microsoft's proprietary operating system with its high cost, bloat, endless update hassles and contempt for backwards compatibility. Sure, I'm using Windows XP on my shack PC (and my netbook) now, because I found that many of the best programs I needed were available on Windows only. But SDR-Radio is just going to perpetuate this Microsoft indispensability. I develop KComm for Windows and Linux precisely so I have the option to try Linux again and still be able to use it. I just wish more ham radio developers would use cross-platform tools and make their source code open so that, even if they didn't want to make a Linux version themselves, the possibility exists for someone else to do it.

My second reservation is about using software defined radios. For me, the look and feel of radios with their knobs and buttons is one of the pleasures of playing with radio. Interacting with a computer screen, which an increasing number of us spend a large part of our working lives doing already, is not in itself pleasurable. I think our eyes, fingers and mouse arms need a change of activity now and again.

My third reservation concerns the inscrutability of software defined radio, and how it takes away some of the accomplishment of amateur communication. The reason why I, despite owning a K3, still enjoy making contacts with simple QRP radios is that to fully experience the magic of radio communication you need to understand exactly how your voice or your key depressions get from your shack to the other operator. The more hardware or software that you can't design, build, tweak or even comprehend is involved, the more like using a mobile phone or the internet it becomes and the less it is ham radio.

Using SDR is only a true amateur accomplishment if you can build the hardware and write or at least understand the software. And for most of us who lack the skills of Simon Brown, that's an impossibility.

FT-817 legs it

A recent ham radio purchase that was a bit more successful was that of a pair of Palm Radio Peg Legs for the FT-817.

I'd read some good reports of this accessory and I was not disappointed. They take about five minutes to fit, which involves removing the carrying strap brackets and then replacing them using longer screws, some washers and the Peg Legs.

You have to admit that they don't just enhance the usability of the FT-817 by raising the front to a convenient angle, but they also improve the looks as well. In fact, they made me appreciate for the first time just what a nice-looking radio this is.

The Peg Leg kit comes with some spare washers, spare non-slip "boots" for the legs, and also some small self-adhesive "feet" for the FT-817 itself. As it happens, I long ago fitted some self-adhesive rubber feet to the underside of my FT-817, and the ones I fitted were rather chunkier than the ones Palm Radio supplies as you can see from the picture.

Palm claims there is no problem using a PL-259 plug in the rear socket when the front is raised. There certainly isn't with my larger feet, but with a Wonder Wand or similar antenna fitted the back rests on the antenna and not on the feet. I'll have to give up the rather precarious habit of mounting the Superantennas MP-1 directly on the back of the FT-817, as at this angle the weight tips the radio on its back. But that's a sacrifice worth making, I think.

The legs fold up to the front of the radio when they aren't needed. In this position the rig just still fits in the main compartment of the little shoulder bag I bought a few years ago in Keswick market that takes it and all the bits you need - mic, miniature key, Wonder Wand or T1 ATU plus wire - to get on the air from the field. My only complaint is that the Peg Legs and their securing screws ought to be black, to look like they were original fittings.

Dud Diamond

As regular readers will know, I recently bought a Yaesu VX-8E with GPS and APRS which I use so that my XYL and others can see where I am when I'm out with a radio. Because the rubber duck antenna is a bit long for convenient use when the radio is clipped to my belt or in a pocket, I thought I would try one of the very small stubby antennas. There is not much choice of alternative HT antennas from suppliers in the UK and the prices of those that are available are absurdly high, but I saw a Diamond SRH-805S being sold for the bargain price of £6.99 including postage from an eBay seller in Hong Kong, so I decided to order one.

I put the antenna on the VX-8E and went for a stroll into town half a mile away as the crow flies but with a lot of buildings in the way. With the radio in my top pocket running 5W my position beacons were received back in my shack quite well except for when I was inside a shop, so I was fairly pleased. However on Sunday I took the radio up the local SOTA summit Watch Hill and was unable to access a single repeater. A repeater that was end-stop on the rubber duck was about S3 on the stubby.

Back in the shack I investigated further, which resulted in a "shoot-out" between all the portable whip antennas I have. I used my K3 with transverter as the test receiver, as it has a direct dBm display of received signal strength. As best as I could measure, the SRH-805S is 13 - 15dB down on the VX-8R rubber duck. I expected it to be worse, but not that bad!

I then attached the antenna to my RigExpert AA-200 antenna analyzer and found that the SRH-805S was giving an apparently infinite SWR! After some tests to check that the antenna was actually making contact with the centre pin of the connector, I had the idea of increasing the sweep range and then saw that the antenna did have a sharp resonance, but it was centred at about 169MHz!

I wasn't able to check performance on 70cm as there is no 433MHz activity round here and my antenna analyzer only goes up to 200MHz. But I tried the SRH-805S on my FT-817 and on both 2m and 70cm the radio displays the warning HIGH SWR! So this stubby antenna is completely useless on either of the two amateur bands it is supposed to cover.

It's quite annoying as the antenna obviously is resonant, just on the wrong frequency, and on that frequency it might actually work quite well. But there isn't much I can do. It would have been better if I had bought this antenna in the UK because I could have sent it back to the retailer as "unfit for purpose." Instead I ended up with a £7 piece of junk.

At least my tests produced one useful result: I found that the rubber duck on the VX-8E works just as well as any of the longer SMA whip antennas I have including a 19 inch telescopic whip. So I can save myself the bother of carrying those around.

New 2m antenna from SOTA Beams

Richard, G3CWI, has just announced a new product from SOTA Beams. It's the MFD, for Multi-Function Dipole, and it's a lightweight collapsible 2 metre dipole that can be deployed vertically or horizontally and used fixed to a support, guyed (using an optional guying kit) or poking out the top of a rucksack as a pedestrian mobile antenna.

Pictures on Richard's website show the antenna being used in a variety of ways: full length as a vertical dipole strapped to a post for support, reduced length for mobile use stuffed in a rucksack, converted to a horizontal dipole for SSB operation, and packed to an overall length of 53cm for carrying. The total weight is less than 430gm.

This looks like being the perfect antenna for Wainwrights On The Air (WOTA). Unlike Summits On The Air (SOTA) which with its international following justifies a greater effort put into activations and the use of HF on the summit, WOTA is essentially a local scheme for people located in and around the Lake District in the north west of England and all the activity is focussed on 2 metres. The inclusion of many easy summits encourages a more casual approach to activation, while keen walkers can activate several Wainwrights in the course of a single day and the idea of carrying a mast and beam and then assembling, erecting and disassembling it at each summit is not very attractive. The availability of a lightweight, quick to deploy antenna offers a great alternative to just using the rubber duck on your radio.

I have already ordered one of Richard's antennas, and look forward to reporting on it in the near future.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

VX-8E power level setting bug

I was performing a "shoot-out" testing different accessory antennas for my Yaesu VX-8E to see just how much difference there was between each. In order to do that, I obtained signal strength reports for each antenna at each of the four power levels. After that, I measured the power output on each of the four settings, so as to convert the signal strength readings to relative dB. For interest, the power output of my VX-8E running on the battery pack is:
  • H - 5.5W
  • L3 - 3W
  • L2 - 1.2W
  • L1 - 400mW
When checking the lower power levels I was puzzled to find that I was still getting full power. Eventually I realized that there must be a bug in the power setting firmware. After changing the power level, the first transmission is always at high power. The selected power level is only produced on the second and subsequent transmissions.

I don't know if this is a general fault or something that only affects my radio. I would be interested to know if anyone else can confirm my findings.

Friday, October 09, 2009

MP-1 in a roll

I was Googling up something this morning and came across a posting in Adam, M6RDP's blog which showed a case he had got for his MP-1 portable antenna. That reminded me about my own solution to carrying that antenna which I didn't write about before as I got it just before I went on holiday a couple of months back and didn't want to broadcast the fact that I was going to be away all over the Internet.

My solution is a tool roll, which I purchased on eBay. I just slotted the various parts of the antenna into the pockets and rolled it up. I had to cut the stitching between two pockets to take the coil.

The mounting bracket and the G-clamp didn't go in. That's partly because the bracket in particular would be an awkward fit, but also because I intended to mount the MP-1 directly on the rear antenna socket of the '817. I have a right-angled PL-259 adapter (you can just see it in the second picture) into which screws a '259 to 3/8" adapter, and the MP-1 screws in to that. The main problem with this idea is that if there is much of a breeze you need to weight the FT-817 down with something or the wind could blow the rig and antenna over. But it does save a bit of weight and keep the antenna within easy reach for tuning.

I didn't use the radio in the end whilst I was on holiday. The opportunity didn't really occur, and most of the time it was just too hot and I didn't feel like it.

But I wouldn't have been able to anyway. Thanks to careless handling by the baggage handlers at Nice airport my suitcase was dropped with such force that its internal frame cracked. The locking sleeve of the PL-259 adapter must have come in contact with something too and was slightly distorted. I didn't notice this until I tried to attach it to the radio, whereupon it seized solid. I was only able to remove it when I got home with the aid of some WD-40 and a pair of grips.

Clearly a plastic case like Adam used would have protected the antenna better, though there would not have been space for it inside my suitcase. I think the tool roll is a good solution for carrying the MP-1 that takes up little extra space and adds not much weight to a rucksack.

Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize

The news that US President Barack Obama has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize is worthy of note, regardless of the fact that it has nothing to do with ham radio. What is particularly noteworthy about this award is that, as far as world peace goes, President Obama has not yet achieved very much. The committee that gave the award admits as much. The head of the committee Thorbjoern Jagland is quoted as saying that the award was made because: "we would like to support what he is trying to achieve. It is a clear signal that we want to advocate the same as he has done."

As a radio amateur I often have contact with American citizens and sometimes hear their political and world views. As a European I am often astonished at the harshness of some Americans towards their fellow citizens less fortunate than themselves - in the matter of universal healthcare, for example - and the bullying insensitivity of their foreign policy views. And I am frequently amazed at the outright hatred expressed by some Americans towards their new President. No matter how great the contempt many in the UK have for Gordon Brown and his government you would never find British radio amateurs adding overtly political taglines to their forum postings the way many Americans do at

I wonder whether those Americans who dislike President Obama so much actually understand how hated America was by so many people in the rest of the world under the Bush regime? I wonder if they knew how many tens of thousands of people in places like London and Berlin assembled to hear the US presidential election results and wept with joy and relief when the news came through that Obama had won? My wife and I both stayed up until the early hours when the result was known, and shed tears of joy too. Obama's election may have meant many things to the American people, but to us it meant the possibility of a more reconciliatory America, one that would listen to the other point of view and accept that other creeds, other religions and other political systems have a right to exist too.

By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize on the basis of intentions rather than achievements, the rest of the world is sending a signal to American conservatives that their world view is outmoded, unhelpful and unwanted. I congratulate President Obama on his award, and pray that he is given the time to achieve what he has set out to do.

HB-1A developments

Anders, SM0HPL has started a Wiki that will contain information for builders of the kit version of the HB-1A. English language construction manuals will also be available from this site, which is at:

Jerry, W5JH is willing to design a version of the Baby Black Widow key that will fit the HB-1A, probably using magnets in lieu of the fixing holes found on the KX-1 and PFR-3. But he needs someone in the US to lend him an HB-1A for a couple of weeks so he can get the measurements right.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Embarrassing moments in ham radio #1

Steve, GW7AAV's blog post Computational Nostalgia brought back memories of some of the ham radio related things I used to do with the early personal computers. I actually passed my Morse test in 1979 after practising with a morse tutor I wrote in Z80 machine code on a home-built Nascom 1 with 1Kb (yes, that's right, 1024 bytes) of RAM. I've written numerous Morse training programs since then including MorseGen and Morse Machine and I still struggle to go faster than 12wpm!

I wrote a Morse decoder for the Sinclair Spectrum that very occasionally printed out a few correct words from an interference-free S9 signal. And I sort of invented PC sound card software, although the memory of it now causes me some embarrassment.

I had an ERA MicroReader which decoded RTTY and displayed it on a digital readout. I wanted to try contacting the stations I heard, so I wrote a program to generate RTTY "diddles" by sending BEEP commands to the sound card. Except it wasn't a sound card - I don't think they'd been invented in 1986 - it was the PC beeper, an altogether cruder device. I can still remember working an Italian station by holding the mic close to the PC speaker while my program diddled away until it was pointed out to me that the far from sinusoidal audio waveform was causing my signal to appear in several places!

Well, ham radio is supposed to be about self training, and I learned something from that...

HB-1A charger mod

This afternoon I wired up the battery holders and installed them, with a set of 2400mAH NiMH batteries, into the HB-1A. Before doing that, I added a modification to allow the batteries to be charged in situ, as is shown in the not very sharp photograph (sorry, photography just isn't my thing.)

The modification is very simple. It consists of a 5 ohm half watt resistor, made up of two 10 ohm quarter watt resistors in parallel, in series with a general purpose silicon diode with a current capacity of at least 500mA.

Locate the power switch contacts on the circuit board. The power switch is a two-pole two-way switch, with both poles connected in parallel. Only one side of the switch is used. The power input from the power socket goes to the centre pair of contacts. So the charger circuit is soldered to the unused pair of contacts, so that charging takes place only whilst the transceiver is switched off.

The other end of the charger circuit is connected to the positive line coming from the battery connector. A convenient connection point is the connector side of reverse polarity protection diode, as can just about be made out from the photo.

When the battery pack is installed, it more or less touches the components on the circuit board. (There really isn't much wasted space inside an HB-1A!) For peace of mind, I made an insulating layer out of thin card, cut to fit so it rests on the circuit board between the board and the batteries. That will help to prevent any accidental short circuits.

With the component values I used, I measured a charging current of 200mA when 13.8V DC is applied to batteries that had recently been charged. This current is suitable for charging a pack of 8 cells with a capacity of 1800mAH to 2400mAH in 14 - 18 hours. [Charging time = (capacity / charging current) x 1.5.] You should not exceed this time by more than 25% as overcharging can harm the cells. If the battery is not fully discharged then judging the charging time can be difficult. The cells will get warmer once they are charged, but they won't get hot like they do in a rapid charger and you probably won't notice this through the HB-1A steel case.

This is not a constant current circuit, and the charging current might be higher than 200mA if the batteries are heavily discharged. In that case, it might be advisable to start charging at a lower voltage to avoid exceeding the power rating of the resistors. I would recommend monitoring the charge current with a meter the first couple of times. I have not had a chance to check the current drawn when the batteries are discharged for myself yet.

A 500mA 12V DC unregulated wall-wart makes a good power source for this charger. Off-load it will measure something like 16-17V but when 200mA is drawn the voltage will drop to something in the range 13.5-13.8V. The nice thing about this is that it provides some current-limiting built in: If the cells try to take a higher current, the voltage from the wall-wart will fall below 13.5V, reducing the current.

Don't try to use a wall-wart rated for less than 500mA as the current rating is not for continuous use and it will get too hot. Beware of using a larger one (e.g. 1A rating) too, as the voltage may be too high at 200mA. Don't ask me where to buy one: the one I used came from my junk box.

The characteristics of these unregulated wall-warts vary, so assume nothing and measure the voltage and current. Finally, don't switch the HB-1A on whilst the wall-wart is connected. The voltage delivered when the receiver is on and drawing only about 50mA can easily exceed 15V DC, which could damage the electronics.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

First HB-1A contacts

I made a couple of CW contacts with the HB-1A QRP rig today. It was harder going than I expected, as no-one replied to my CQs, and I couldn't use 20m because the noise level is so high I have to use the MFJ-1026 noise canceler, and that requires a radio that provides a TX switching signal, which the little QRP rigs don't do. So I had to hunt around for people who were not calling CQ DX and also sending at a speed that is comfortable for me.

On 30m I worked Vlada, OK1FLK who was running a 40 year old pair of ex-Army transmitter and receiver and 150W into a long wire. Then I went down to 40m and found Fred, DL3AMB near the European QRP frequency of 7.030MHz. Fred was using an Icom transceiver but only running 2W so this was a two-way QRP contact.

During lunch I set the HB-1A to 10.1387 USB and fed the output to my Samsung NC-10 netbook to see what WSPR beacons I could receive. I returned to find a whole screenful of decoded stations. The HB-1A is certainly sensitive and stable enough to use as an WSPR receiver but of course it has no audio modulator so it can't be used to transmit.

One problem I have found is that the audio starts to clip on any station whose strength exceeds S9 on the HB-1A meter. This distortion is evident using different headphones and earpieces, and even feeding the audio into a computer soundcard so I can look at it using a digimode program as an oscilloscope display. From the comments received so far on the HB-1A Yahoo! group this isn't a common problem so I guess I'm just unlucky. I don't have much in the way of test equipment so I can't troubleshoot the problem, but hopefully it's just a matter of adjustment and someone will tell me what to tweak.

Monday, October 05, 2009

New arrival from China

A knock on the door this afternoon heralded the arrival of my latest QRP radio - an HB-1A 3-band (40/30/20m) CW transceiver from China.

Shipment had taken just over a week and, unlike products ordered from the USA, there was no customs charge or VAT to pay, so the radio cost me a total of £165.

Opening the box revealed the radio extremely well packed in expanded polystyrene, plus a photo-printed card with a picture of BG2FX in his lab - presumably the builder. There was no manual, but the eBay listing had linked to an English language manual in PDF form that I could print out.

The radio itself seems very well made, the impression of solidity created by the heavy steel case which is well-painted in a black crackle finish. As this is intended to be a portable radio, an aluminium case would have saved a bit of weight.

Unscrewing two screws and removing the bottom of the case revealed a bit of a surprise - the two 4 x AA cell battery holders were not connected together or to the plug that connects them to the circuit board. I will have to solder together and insulate the wires myself. Four rubber stick-on feet were also inside the case, which I fitted to the bottom of the case before reattaching it.

Applying 12V DC from my shack power supply I was pleased to find that the HB-1A worked perfectly. There is no loudspeaker, output is headphones only, and best results were obtained using a pair of MP3 player style ear buds. The receiver is no match for a K2, but it is quite lively. Selectivity is reasonable and adjustable in three steps - 900Hz, 700Hz and 400Hz for CW - but stopband performance is quite poor: I could hear strong CW signals a few kHz away.

Although this is a CW-only transceiver it can receive LSB and USB as well. Tuning is continuous from below 40m to above 20m so you can even receive shortwave broadcasters by zero-beating the carrier. There is no bandswitch, but the HB-1A has 20 programmable memories which are pre-loaded with useful frequencies in each band such as the QRP CW frequencies - and the broadcast frequencies of Radio China!

The front panel key jack can accept either a straight key or a paddle. This is detected at power-on. However, for a straight key to be detected the center contact of the stereo jack must be grounded. Other radios I have go into continuous key-down unless this contact is open-circuited. Why can't there be a standard?

I was pleased to see that I got a genuine 5W output for 12V DC input. At 9V DC I measured 3W output. I haven't tried batteries yet as I have not yet wired up the internal battery holders.

The battery holders are a tight fit between components on the circuit board and there is no facility for charging rechargeable cells whilst they are installed. I will find removing the bottom of the case, removing the batteries to recharge them and then reinstalling them a bit of a nuisance, so I will be looking to install a socket so that they can be charged in situ.

Despite calling CQ on both 20m and 40m I haven't managed to have any contacts yet - I guess conditions aren't all that good right now.

With a power consumption less than half that of the FT-817 the HB-1A should give decent battery endurance on a set of rechargeable NiMH cells. This is going to be used as a portable HF rig, so the search is on for a small and equally robust Morse key for it. I'm trying to think how I can adapt the DinKey - which turned out to be such a disappointment when used with the FT-817 - so it can be plugged in to the 3.5mm key socket of the HB-1A.

That's all I have to say about this little Chinese radio for now, but I'm sure you'll be hearing more about it once I get everything set up for operation in the field - assuming that the weather plays ball!

1000 miles per watt with an indoor antenna

Congratulations to John, N8ZYA for receiving the eQSL confirming his contact with LZ2BE on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, made using 5W of CW to an indoor Isotron antenna. At 5,219 miles, that works out at more than 1,000 miles per watt, so John can now claim for the QRP ARCI 1000 Miles Per Watt award to hang on his shack wall.

I suspect it may be easier, perversely enough, to make 1,000 miles per watt using only one watt of power, because then you only need to make a contact of over 1,000 miles, which can be done in a single hop. Looking back in my log, the contact I made with George, KZ1H near Boston, MA on 6 April 2009 using my MFJ Cub must surely qualify. I never even mentioned the contact at the time, as I'd spent the day putting a huff and puff VFO stabilizer into the Cub, and had made the contact simply to test it.

The distance from Boston to the west coast of England is over 3,000 miles, so even though the Cub put out getting on for 1.5 watts into my attic dipole, that's a comfortable 2,000 miles per watt. I only received a 419 report for my signal, compared to John's 559. However, KZ1H isn't a member of eQSL so I'm still waiting for a confirmation of the contact.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Almost worked W6

It has often puzzled and frequently frustrated me that I only ever seem to work Europe from here although the PSK Reporter website shows that my signals are often received in the USA.

This afternoon while having a PSK31 session on 20m running 40W to my attic dipole I once again noticed that my signal had been spotted by Leigh, WA5ZNU in California. Leigh is an Elecraft K2 owner, administrator of the Nabble interface to the Elecraft reflector and one of the developers of Fldigi and we have often exchanged emails so it would have been very nice to actually have a radio contact with him. However absolutely nothing from Stateside was being decoded on my screen.

I continued calling CQ and saw a faint trace that appeared to be replying to me. It was only just discernable visually from the noise and nothing at all was being decoded, so I replied "Sorry I have a high noise level here, I can see your trace but can't copy you at all." About a minute later an email appeared in my inbox from Leigh to say that he had tried calling me and had read my reply! He has a SteppIR at 12m and was running 20W, then tried 35W.

After a couple of minutes I had the idea to try my MFJ magnetic loop as it might pick up less noise. I asked Leigh to call again if he heard me, but he had already left for work. Perhaps we'll try tomorrow on the loop. Presumably Leigh's RX is still on as I have had a second spot from him using the magnetic loop. If PSK31 fails I guess we'll have to try CW!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Temporarily Without Access

Over the last few days my internet access has become unusably slow. It's normally OK first thing in the morning but from then on it's all downhill. I don't understand what the problem is. When I do one of the broadband speed tests I get close to 2Mbit/sec which is all I'm supposed to get anyway. But if I try to access anything to do with Google, or just about any website in the USA (which includes my own servers) then the pages can take a couple of minutes or more to load, if I'm lucky and don't get some browser error message instead. Even the BBC website is really slow.

I've been with my current phone company, OneTel, for about 8 years, and I get internet access from them too. Most other ISPs can only offer service if you rent your phone line from British Telecom (BT), which is why I've been reluctant to change providers even though I've been unhappy with the service from OneTel for quite a long time. I've read too many stories of people who have tried to switch phone companies and ended up without broadband or even a phone connection for weeks. But I've decided enough is enough, and in the hope of minimizing possible problems I'm going to try to switch to BT itself. Fingers crossed.

As I live in not only a VHF black hole but also a mobile phone marginal signal area, what I'm about to do counts as living dangerously. I do have a 3G broadband dongle which I got to use when I'm away but it's hard to find a place in the house where it can get a signal. If I get desperate I'll probably have to stuff a laptop in my rucksack and hike up a nearby hill.

So if at some point in the next few days I suddenly stop replying to email or posting to my blog, I haven't become SK, I'll just be TWA. Now to see if I can manage to post this...