Friday, December 2, 2016


As I fully expected, my post about Logging Satellite Contacts to LOTW generated a fair number of questions and got some interest. In particular, how I log EVERYTHING into the different logging systems came up a couple times.  So strap in, here we go...

As said before, I operate primarily Satellites, with some portable terrestrial mixed in, and I also activate Summits on the Air. I use LOTW as my primary QSL path, and I use the QRZ logbook for an online logbook database. LOTW and QRZ both accept ADIF uploads, though they are slightly different in how they do it. I also have to upload my SOTA activations to the SOTA database to get credit there. What this comes out too is there are 5 different types of files I typically have to generate if I've had an all band SOTA activation weekend. That's a ton of different data to work with, but it's doable. I'm also a spreadsheet fiend - in my day job tons and tons of data is moved about via spreadsheets, and they lend themselves to script friendly formats (like CSV - comma separated value)  well. So the idea I had was take a spreadsheet, be able to toss in the minimal amount of information required about my contacts, and then have a script generate everything based on that input. Challenging, but not impossible.

So, here's how it works, I've got 3 main files that do the work. The first is the Logger Spreadsheet. Looks something like this:

As you can see, there's a little bit of everything going on here. In places where you make a satellite contact, just mark which Satellite it was. The script will fill the mode/frequency and special propagation values for LOTW and QRZ. Where you make a SOTA activation, it will automatically create a SOTA file as well for upload to the database. Anything that isn't a Sat contact, will be considered an 'HF' contact (even if it's something like a contact over 2 meter simplex) and a different file will be made for QRZ/LOTW upload there. Note: You have to either put in a bird name, or fill out the frequencies... if you do both - the script will overwrite your submitted frequency values, and if you do neither the script will error out. If you put in a bird name the script doesn't recognize (more on that in a second) it will also error out. If in doubt, look at the examples in the picture above, which is also the sample file that I included with the download.

So, where does the bird data come from? Glad you asked! There's a special Text file that contains all that in (drumroll please) CSV formatted reference file name appropriate sat-data.txt. It looks something like this:

Every bird that I might make a QSO on, I keep listed in this file. The breakdown should be easy enough to understand, but in case it isn't.. Here's what each field means.


Cool? Good. When new birds got chucked into orbit, instead of having to piss with the entire script, just add a new line entry here and you're good to go. Try and make sure the name is in the same format as LOTW accepts though, cause if it isn't exactly right, it will error out when you try to get TQSL to upload it, which is something that has caught me before.

The final file in the bundle is the Perl Script itself. There's really nothing here you need to mess with.. just make sure it's in the same directory (or folder) as your sat-data.txt and your "Logger-Spreadsheet.csv" and you're good to go. One caveat to the "nothing to mess with rule" is that if you want to be fancy and set your own home grid, or change the names of some of the variables, at the very top of the script you can do just that. Fire up your favorite text editor, and the open 25 or so lines of the perl script look like this:

Home Grid, Input Spreadsheet Name, and Sat Data file name are basically the only variable's that should really matter. Just keep em the way you want, and you're good to go. Don't mess with any of the code below the "DON'T MESS WITH ANY OF THE CODE BELOW THIS" banner. That is unless you want to. It's open source. Have at it.

Once the script is ran, in the directory where you launched it you'll get any number of 5 different files. They're named pretty self-explanatory, but for verbosity I'll cover em all.

satqrzimport.adi = Upload this to QRZ for you Satellite Contacts
satlotwimport.adi = Upload This to LOTW for your Satellite Contacts
hfqrzimport.adi = Upload this to QRZ for HF
hflotwimport.adi = Upload this to LOTW for HF
sotaimport.csv = Upload this to the SOTA database

Each time you run the script it will delete these files (if they're in the directory where it's being run) and build them from scratch, if they are needed. You can keep uploading the same filenames over and over again to all the respective systems (LOTW, QRZ, SOTA) and they don't care.. it's all about what have you done lately with them.

So still Interested? Download the files Here and make your logging life lots simpler.

Anything else that might come up, hit me up on Twitter @KG5CCI.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Oscar Century

So I hit another milestone this morning - I finally got to 100 Oscar Entities confirmed, which enabled me to apply for the AMSAT Oscar Century Award. In the process I also qualified for the 2 lower awards for 20 and 60 contacts, I just hadn't bothered with those up until now..

From Amsat's Website:

Oscar Satellite Communications Achievement Award

The Oscar Satellite Communications Achievement Award is for working 20 contacts on any satellite. A contact is defined as one with a station in your state or another state, DXCC country or Canadian call area.

Oscar Sexagesimal Award

This is the same as the Oscar Satellite Communications Achievement Award but is given for 60 satellite contacts. All the qualifications and costs are the same.

Oscar Century Award

This award is the same as the Oscar Satellite Communications Achievement Award but is given for the first 100 satellite contacts. Qualifications and costs are the same.

I'm pretty jazzed, because this is realistically the most prestigious award I can get on the Satellites with the current fleet operating the way it is. With a theoretical max distance of 8000km on AO-7, and nothing any higher, there are finite number of countries in range of me here in Arkansas, making the ARRL DXCC award next to impossible to get. Hopefully in the future we'll have some birds at a higher altitude making more DX contacts possible, For now though, I'm really happy. 


For some fun stats, Doug, N6UA gave me the most entities - at 4. Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. 2nd was a tie between Patrick, WD9EWK who got me Delaware, Nevada and Arizona, and Carl, KA4H, who got me Virginia, West Virginia, and Ontario.

For the Type of Contacts I worked all 50 US States, 12 Canadian Call Areas, and 38 DX entities. Of the 38 DX entities, 13 were contacts made by portable operators not native to that entity, and 2 were made by the same portable operator (Tor, DJ8MS operating from /LA and /OZ) and 11 contacts were made in excess of 7000km.

I was able to confirm 80% of my contacts using LOTW - and the rest were confirmed via direct mail card. Also every single contact was made using portable handheld equipment on my end, and completed using FM Voice or SSB Voice (No CW). I've never operated using a tower or an automated rotor, and the maximum power I've ever used is 40W. I think it's a great testament to what you can do on the Satellites when you challenge the accepted norms, and start thinking outside the box.

From here, the focus is back on grids.. currently sitting at 474 confirmed with 525 total worked. The chase never ends.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Logging Satellite Contacts to LOTW

Getting your logs into Logbook of the World can be tricky. There's several fields that are different from HF contacts, and of course the old idea of transmitting on a different frequency than you receive can be hard to grasp sometimes. Never fear however, there is always the chance for better living thru technology.

I present to everyone, a stripped down version of the 'automatic logger' that I use, written in Perl. First thing to remember, I am an engineer, I'm not a coder.. that said I've realized that coding helps me do my day to day work better, faster and easier, so sometimes I do code.  I like Perl cause it's very much an engineer's language.. it's coarse, gruff, to the point, and while somewhat less than elegant, it gets the job done. So consider this a 'Beta' version.. It's a variation of what I use, and I've tested it pretty thoroughly, but you might still introduce something I wasn't prepared for.

The script is pretty simple, it takes a CSV file (which you can make up in notepad, or alternatively and a bit easier excel) and converts it into the proper ADIF file for instant upload to LOTW via TQSL. The fields are as follows:

Your-Call, TheirCall, Date, Zulu Time, Bird, My Grid, Their Grid

In an excel sheet it looks like this:

In a generic text .csv the same files looks like this:

Doesn't really matter, just get those fields in there. 

Leave the first line alone - the script will pop it out of there. It's pre-configured to grab 'sat-logger.csv' as the file, but you can change that too if you want, also the output will write to satlotwupload.adi by default, but like everything that's customization too.

If you're a Linux user like me - you should be able to handle it from there. If you're a Windows User I highly recommend Strawberry Perl for making .pl files extensible, or I may make it into a .exe one of these days too (watch this space).

Standard Code disclaimers here - Offered in Open source, no warranties, guarantees, or support offered - use it if you like, if not, that's cool too.

Click Here to Download Example Spreadsheet

Click Here to Download Perl Script

Questions or Issues? Hit me up on Twitter @KG5CCI.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

CM93 Part 2: Amateur Radio from the Edge of America

This is Part 2 of the Santa Rosa Satellite Expedition. I've been swamped with work the past month, so I'm a bit behind. I'll try and get Part 3 done over the holidays.

As discussed in Part 1, you're pretty much on your own on Santa Rosa Island. As Amateur Radio operators, we're used to our technology being functional 'when all else fails' - but this is different. Modern communications systems haven't failed, they simply don't exist. There is no electricity, so things like power supplies and amplifiers aren't an option. You've got to bring your means of communication with you, and your own means and powering that equipment.

First thing to mention, due to its pervasiveness in our society, is that there are no cell phone towers anywhere close to Santa Rosa. I turned on APRSDroid as we left the harbor just to see how long we could get pings from the Cell phone.. we never even made it to the closest of the Islands, let alone Santa Rosa.

Now, interestingly enough on Saturday afternoon while on Black Mountain, I was sporadically getting signal. I have no idea which towers it was coming from, but it was there. Also Sunday morning down next to the ocean (in the middle of the fog) I was able to grab a screenshot of that 1 precious bar of 4G LTE signal while in CM93XX. So long story short, Cell Phones *might* work.. sometimes.. maybe.. for a little bit.. but don't rely on them.

But hey, remember, we're hams right? Who needs cellular signal! Just talk on a repeater, right? This is Southern California after all, and the repeater network is extensive. Heck just next door on Santa Cruz Island, Diablo Peak has a 220mhz repeater on it, you can basically see it from CM93 with the naked eye. We had 7 repeaters on our list for communication for the trip, as follows:

Channel Island Harbor Repeater: 445.760- PL 141.3
Diablo Peak Santa Cruz Island: 223.920/222.320 PL 131.8
La Vigia Hill: 146.790/146.190 PL 131.8
Santa Ynez Peak: 145.180/144.580 PL 131.8
Santa Ynez Peak: 224.120/222.520 PL 181.8
Santa Catalina: 147.090/147.690 No PL
Santa Catalina: 224.420/222.820 PL 110.9

Diablo Peak was obviously outstanding. We could get into that repeater anywhere on Santa Cruz (including the campground) using an HT at minimum power and a rubber duck. The only real problem we found on it was *no one* was ever on it. We constantly monitored it thru the weekend and I don't believe we ever heard another soul. A shame too, cause it sounded great. The other SBARC repeater on La Vigia Hill and Santa Ynez Peak worked great on our HTs from basically everywhere OTHER than the campground. As mentioned in Part 1, the campground was located in 'Water Canyon' and the 200' - 300' walls did a number on signal any direction other than precisely east. A 500 yard walk out of the canyon though, and you were easy copy full quieting on an HT with minimum power. The Channel Island Harbor Repeater back in Ventura was iffy. Sometimes we could get into it with a duck an 5W, sometimes we needed to use 10 Elements and 20W to get into it, and then were scratchy. The direct line of sight back to Ventura went over Santa Cruz Island, with it's 2000' mountains. I think this probably gave us the fits, and when it WAS working on the HT, I think propagation was assisting us. Speaking of propagation, that brings us to Santa Catalina. Distance from Santa Rosa to Santa Catalina is right at 100 miles. It's all over open ocean, but that's still about pushing the limits of what you can do with 5W, FM, and a rubber duck. Sometimes we could get into the Catalina repeater no issues with an HT, sometimes we couldn't.. and the differences were stark, it either worked, or it didn't. That said from the top of Black Mountain we were consistently able to get into the Catalina repeater using a beam and 10W for comfortable copy though. The Catalina club had also just installed a brand new 6m repeater on the Island as well, like the week before we got there. We were able to get full quiet copying using a dipole and 5W on that. It was a welcome change to the typical 2m/70cm repeater we're used too in the center of the country. 

We did most of our simplex operating Saturday afternoon from the top of Black Mountain. Wyatt was trying some 10GHz stuff for the contest, with a small horn and 250mw. He actually heard a bunch of people pretty well, but had trouble being heard running such little power at such distance with low (relative for 10GHz) gain. It was still a helluva effort though, and was cool to watch. 2 meter and 70cm was a hoot. We made quite a few 50-75 mile contacts on each, and ran the VHF/UHF bands with a couple of operators. We actually even worked 1 DX contact on 6 Meters, a Mexican Ham 200+ miles away in Baja, with a dipole and 5W on the 817. That was pretty cool for having NO E-Skip propagation going on. Contact with fellow Satellite Operator KG6FIY on 146.520 when he was using his HT in Los Angeles was also pretty fun. Talking to someone in one of the most densely populated areas in the country, from a desert island mountain top is the very epitome of so close, but so far away that defined this trip. 

We talked to quite a few people driving around in the traffic that controls life in Southern California just by calling CQ. They were all really surprised and intrigued to hear about what we were up too. For hauling all of our equipment on our backs to the top of a mountain, and using only what the batteries could put out, I was pleasantly surprised with our terrestrial simplex operations. I think a serious expedition focused on Terrestrial with prior planning or on a contest weekend could rack up some serious contacts. 

We made probably 100 HF contacts as well, during a few brief sprints of operating. The Band conditions were really quite awful, and so it was a challenge most of the time when we had planned to operate, but we still did OK. 20M was OK during the day, and we made a few QSOs with European stations, and did alright with the rest of the US on 40m and 20m. I think if you really went out with a dedicated plan to do HF IOTA/SOTA/NPOTA you could do great - but that's just not really our thing, and was more for fun than anything else. 

That said, the reason we were there, was Satellites. We worked people on 12 passes and made 120 total QSOs. 91 unique stations were in the log. We operated from a few different places on the Island, and all were OK since we were primarily concerned with facing east. At the mouth of Water Canyon there was a picnic table that worked well to set the gear on. Typically one of us would log, and the other would work the pass. We also operated one evening from the CM93/CM94 line, as it was only a 3/4 mi walk from the campground, and we actually had a ham down in San Diego who was interested in working us on 6M from CM94. We did Satellites on the side of Black Mountain on the hike up and back, and from the top during our simplex afternoon. 

There were no real surprises on the Satellites, other than the great disappointment we had at an afternoon FO29 pass where the CW lids were pounding the bird so hard that our little 5W SSB signal was barely being heard. There were a lot of people that were putting all their marbles on that pass to work us, and couldn't find our signal in the passband due to the selfishness of others. A special thanks to those jerks who insist on Satellite QRO CW because you fail as operators any other way. I hope your transmitters fry and you give up the hobby.  

Most passes we used Wyatt's FT817x2 (one to TX the other to RX) and a standard arrow. We also had my Alaskan Arrow for a few of the really low elevation passes, and we used my 857 on the SO-50 passes when more power was a necessity to burn thru the lids. For power, a single 8.4AH Zippy LiFePo4 battery would run both rigs during a pass, and worked just outstanding. From an equipment perspective, those little Batteries are one of the few things in my kit I really don't see any room for improvement on... they just work. 

With the dual 817s, most passes were done with only 5W of transmit power. During a typical pass we would barely use 1/2AH of total power juice from the battery.  We brought 4x 8.4AH batteries with us, and maybe only used a bit more than half of the juice we had available, including all the Satellite passes, several hours of HF (usually using the 857 at 25W) and several hours of VHF/UHF simplex work, and several long repeater QSOs. I'm glad we had lots of Amp Hours available though, we kept from running any batteries below 20% and operated all we wanted with any power levels we wanted, for short periods of time. 

Even though we were wildly successful with the 817/857 combination, If I were going to go back, and not focus on as much hiking all over, I'd probably try and find a way of getting the Icom 821 out there. I'd never used the 817s before, and while I've tinkered with my 857 on Satellites, I've really become quite addicted to the constant power, extreme sensitivity, and dual band convenience of the 821. For what we were doing though - backpacking and hiking - and space and weight was a premium, I think the choices we made for gear were just fine. 

All in all, if you're planning on a radio trip to CM93, for gear remember that every pound counts, make the most out of your power, and be prepared to use your gear not only to rack up QSOs, but also to communicate with the outside world. Cause you really are operating from the edge of civilization out there.. and that (to me) is truly what radio is about. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

CM93 Part 1: Getting to, Getting around, and Surviving Santa Rosa

This is the first of 3 blog entries I'm working on to talk about the trip to CM93 and Santa Rosa Island. I'm going to focus this entry about what it takes to get to the there, how to get around, and how to handle being on what is literally a desert island for a few days. Subsequent entries I'll focus on the specific details of how to operate radio from the Island, and then a little about the natural beauty that is the Channel Islands National Park. So, without further ado, here we go. 

If you're reading this blog, you probably already know what makes this place special to us in the AMSAT world..  but in case you don't, here's a quick recap. There are 488 grids that cover the land that makes up the lower 48 states of the USA. Most of them are pretty easy to get too, you just have to drive to them. Some of them are tougher, they're located in remote regions that require 4WD trails, hiking, or traveling to parts of the country with a distinct lack of people and services. 4 of the 488 grids are known as 'wet' grids, which are places you can't get to from the rest of the lower 48 without getting on a boat. EL58 (on the Mississippi Delta) and EL84 (The Dry Tortugas) are examples of this. So is DM02 (San Clemente Island) and <drumroll> CM93 on Santa Rosa Island. Since they require extra effort to get too, they are rather rarely heard. In the case of CM93, the last time it is believed to have been activated on Satellites, was 2011, when a Marine Mobile operator was thru the area, and before that is was the early 2000s when an expedition went to the Island. To further complicate matters, Santa Rosa Island as part of the Channel Islands National Park has had the rules changed somewhat since 2011, when the NPS took over 100% control of the Island from the Ranch which had previously owned it. All of these things add together to make CM93 one of the rarest grid squares out there. 

As our research determined, as of 2016 you have 3 options to get to Santa Rosa Island. First, Channel Islands Aviation does have permission to fly day trips out to Santa Rosa and back. They have a nice plane that will seat up to 8 passengers, and will run you $1100 dollars for the day. You can read more about it here.

You can also take your own boat. The Island is roughly 30 miles south of Santa Barbara California, or 70 mile west of Ventura, CA. If you've got your own boat, and happen to live in this area, you probably can skip over this part though, cause your means are better than mine.

The final option is to take a charter, which is what we opted for. Island Packers out of Ventura, CA makes runs to the Island and back every couple of days, for just under $100. It's about a 3 hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor to the Island, and it will take an hour to load and an hour to unload. But, it's reasonably priced, convenient, and a very professional run organization. You can read about Island Packers' trips to Santa Rosa here.

So, now to the logistics of the Island itself. First and foremost to remember, there are no public vehicles on the Island. The Park Service has a few trucks, and the University of California has a research station with a few ATVs, but for you the random person, your only option is to walk. You can bring your gear in a backpack (what we did) or you can use roller bags or 'beach carts' as well. If I lived local, and was making several dedicated trips to the Island a year, I would absolutely try one of these beach carts out. They looked pretty decent. 

This is a picture of what it looks like on approach to the Island. The boat will pull up to this giant pier, and you'll unload your gear. 

We had probably 60 people on the boat with us that were getting off at Santa Rosa. Probably 20 of them were day hikers (which is an option) and the rest were campers. The day hikers were allowed to disembark and head out without much delay. The boat arrived at the Island around 11AM and headed back to the mainland around 3PM. This meant you had 4 hours if you were just there for the day to walk around and explore. In theory, this is enough time to get off the boat, jog down to the grid line, do 1 or 2 strategically timed Satellite Passes, and run back - but serious coordination would be crucial to pulling an op like this off. 

As campers though, after unloading we had to hang tight and listen to some stuff by the rangers first. It probably took an hour, maybe a smidge more to actually get all the gear unloaded, and go thru the welcome messages and be turned loose on the Island. We kind of expected it, but obviously if you're gung ho to get moving.. every delay is torture. 

This is a map I made, based on the Satellite view of the parts of the Island we were hanging around in. Notice where the Pier is.. it's not actually in CM93. The gridline is 3/4 mile south of the Pier, roughly at the north end of the runway. The night we operated from the CM93/CM94 gridline, we were on the side of the road right there at north end of the runway and on the line exactly (per our GPS) so the map was fairly accurate. Also keep in the mind the only campground on the Island *is* in CM93, and is another 3/4 mile south of the gridline. This means that if you're planning on staying a few nights on the Island (basically the only option besides a few hour day trip via plane or boat) You have to carry all your gear at least 1.5 mi to the campground and back. 

Getting to the campground is nice easy flat road walking.. mostly... Once you turn right off the road near the intersection of the south end of the runway, you will enter some single track hiking that will take you over a rocky section of trail with a ~200' vertical climb. This could be tricky when wet, but wasn't bad when dry. Just be sure to take it slow and easy and watch the rocks sticking up. After the little climb the trail will level back out again, and then it's an easy hike on into the camp from there. As you can see in the picture above the campground is in a small valley with wind shelters at each campsite, and a toilet/shower house near the entrance. 

This is a picture of our wind shelter, and our gear. There was a critter proof metal box on the side that we kept all the food in, as well as some other stuff too we wanted out of the elements. Hooks on the wall to hang our packs, and a picnic table to eat and hang out on were a nice touch too. The bathrooms were a 50 yard walk, and had running (and hot!) water to use, and flush toilets. For being a 'backpacker' campground, the facilities were quite nice. They also have showers at the campground, but they were closed due to the drought conditions, as of September 2016. 

The two nights we spent at the campground were nice. It's where we kept the whisper lite stove for hot meals, and the tent and our gear for sleeping. We stowed the big packs and the pelican case there, but most of the time though, we were out and about exploring the Island. For example, Water Canyon Beach was was just on the other side of the runway, probably 1/2 mile walk from the campground. Several times during the weekend I went and jumped in the ocean to clean off, and to just say that I did. We also did the hike up to 'Black Mountain' on Saturday, which followed a well marked trail around 'Cherry Canyon' up to a road, and then on to the peak. The final day we did the hike to 'Lobo Canyon' (which I'll talk more about in entry 3) and getting there consisted of walking back to the Pier area, and then west another 3 miles to the entrance of the canyon. 

Another thing to keep in mind, the weather changes fast, and often. This is oceanic climate after all. The first night we were there the wind came up, and was gusting 35mph-40mph on a regular basis. Sand and dirt was whipped up, and everything was coated in a find layer of dust. We saw at least one other group's tent get collapsed by these winds.. and everything we had tried at one point or another to fly away. It finally died off about 3AM, but the strange nature of how and why it decided to gust and then calm down was a surprise to a guy like me from the midwestern US. The sun out on an island surrounded by water with no trees for shade was brutal as well. Wear lots of sunscreen and stick with long sleeved shirts and full pants if at all possible.  Sunday morning a large portion of the Island was covered in fog. This made finding our way around somewhat difficult. While the roads are good, and mostly well marked, there were a few confusing intersections we had to navigate in the fog on the way out to Lobo Canyon. The above picture is walking back from Lobo on Sunday at about noon.. we were nice and clear and sunny at 400' MSL, but down next to the ocean it was socked in with fog..  we went from 80°F and beautiful, to barely being able to see 100 feet in front of us. It was a stark contrast.

The boat ride home was about like the boat ride over. Our packs were lighter from having shed all the food, and everyone was in a hurry to get moving, so folks were efficient and working together well. You need to make absolutely sure you're there early, and have your gear packed though, cause the boat leaves on time. Do NOT be late. 

The key things to keep in mind, is you're on your own out there, and you're going to be walking.. a lot. In 3 days I recorded 32 miles of walking. It wasn't too bad, as I'd been preparing all summer for this, but if you're in an office job and not used to it you run the risk of damaging yourself. While there are other people and a few limited facilities, you've got to bring your own food.. your own shelter, and you have to carry water from designated points where it's available. You need to be prepared, both mentally, and physically to sustain the rigors of Santa Rosa Island. It is not a resort, it is the back country, and you need to be ready. That said, if you are, and you have a hankering to operate radios from a truly off the grid place, you'll be rewarded with the trip of a lifetime. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Back from CM93!

Wyatt and I have returned from CM93, a pile of logs and some great memories in tow. I'll be writing proper entries about the trip in the coming days and weeks, and processing video too, but for now, here's some pictures of the trip

KG5CCI,AC0RA, KK6FAH in Venture the morning of departure:

On approach to Santa Rosa Pier

Our Wind Shelter for the two nights on the Island

Operating from the CM93 / CM94 Line:

 Hiking up Black Mountain on Saturday:

Wyatt operating AO-73 on the Side of Black Mountain

AO-7 Pass from the top of Black Mountain (I was holding the Arrow, Wyatt was tuning)

Near Lobo Canyon Sunday Morning:

To the Entrance of Lobo Canyon:

Mouth of Lobo at the Pacific Ocean

"Painted Cave" on Santa Cruz Island on the way home 

Our welcome back to the mainland party.. 

Like I said, lots more in the upcoming weeks, but that's just a taste for now. Thanks to everyone who worked us on the trip. 73!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Missing DX.... cause YOU'RE the DX...

I make no bones about being a portable operator. I don't have a 'home' station, and my shack is just my workshop, which also doubles for other electromechanicalyardmaintencefirearmy type projects.. It's just the way it is. That said, I do chase certain things in the radio realm, grids, satellite DX, that sort of thing. It seems like though more often than not I find myself places where no one else has been, and while I get sincere pleasure out of handing out 'a new one' to people, I sure wish I could get that new one in my log some times too. Interestingly, there is a way to do this. The ARRL / FCC rules are open in this aspect, you're perfectly allowed to use YOUR transmitter, at YOUR location, even if you don't physically happen to be there, and either yourself or another licensed amateur can use YOUR callsign to work other a different station.  Legal, Legit, and just pretty damn useful for the situation I happen to find myself in. 

10 days from now, I'll be sitting on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of California, in the rare grid known as CM93. I'm there to put that grid on the air, and get as many people as I can that new one in their logs. I want CM93 in my logs too.. so how to do that? Why, better living thru technology of course.

First - The antenna. Duh. Always the most important part of any system. All I use for gain antennae are handheld Arrows.. that said, you CAN mount an arrow somewhere fixed. I don't have a rotor, so I basically have to pick a spot a certain bird will be, and hope the angle is wide enough to give a few minutes of usable pass time. A quick trip to Home Deport for a 1" diameter 6' long dowel rod, and a 45° PVC conduit elbow and we're in business.

Mounted to my existing tripod (with about 40lbs of concrete stabilizing agents) get it about 15' up in the air, hook up 2 50' runs of LMR400 I keep around, and voila - we have a gain antenna, elevated, pointed at a general TCA for a theoretical pass down the road some time.

I'm taking my more compact 857d to the Island, which means I'll be leaving my main satellite radio, the Icom 821h at home.. so I went ahead and hooked it up the antenna. Also, since I'm averse to power supplies, I setup a battery, and hooked up a trickle charger set to just cover the current draw while the radio sits on idle. In theory, it should be able to sit like this for a very long time, unless the rig transmits for 30 hours solid.. which in case I'll probably be buying a new radio... so we're gonna hope that doesn't happen. An inline diplexer for filter on the 2m side as well to round it out, and we're in business.

A few passes worth of testing basically confirms what I figured. On high birds (like FO29) If I manually point the antenna in the direction of TCA, I get about 4-5 minutes of usable pass time, without any adjustments. It's definitely not optimal, and I wouldn't build a permanent installation like this, but for my purposes, it will get the job done. Now comes the fun part. Making all this work, when I'm not there.  

Within the satellite software realm you have lots of choices, but SatPC32 is the gold standard, and does predictions, simulations, and has automatic rotor and frequency control built right in. Since manually adjusting frequencies for doppler correction is going to be nigh impossible remotely, we let SatPC32 take care of this. 1 CI-V Cat CT-17 USB cable, some fiddling around with setting on the radio, and we're in business. SatPC32 tells the radio what to set the uplink and downlink frequencies too, and adjusts them for doppler correct as it flies across the sky. Nice.

Next, the audio - I've got a Signal-link USB I use for PSK31 HF operation.. it works well, I've never used it for actual voice sound transmission and reception, but no reason it shouldn't work.. Catch was the Icom 821h uses a different accessory cable (8 Pin Din) than my 857d (6 pin mini-din) does... I looked online and was able to find the proper cable, but it was going to be close to 40 bucks and take a week to get here. This obviously wouldn't fly.. So I found a pinout diagram, dissected a piece of Cat5 cable, spliced part of it to an old 3.5mm mono audio cable I had laying around, and another part to a 1/8in mono adapter for the PTT. After a couple attempts I got everything right, and my Signal-link now controlled audio in/out and PTT on the rig. The computer controlled the Signal-link, so there I was - full computer control of the radio. 

Final piece was the software. SatPC32 would control the rig, but I still had to have some way of hearing the audio and controlling my machine over the internet. For Audio, I setup a machine specific skype account, and had it set to auto-answer, and only accept calls from my personal skype account. I had some issues with feedback and audio levels, but some tweaking managed to get it all under control. Then I used Teamviewer to actually take control of the computer that was controlling the rig, so I could manipulate the passband on linear birds, and do other functions like I was sitting at the radio. Lastly, I made up a little soundboard with some recording of my voice answering calls, and giving my grid and my report.... so It' my voice coming out of my station (without relying on skype to send the audio) no matter what. 

Finished project doesn't look too bad.. it's certainly not a shack for all time, but for this project, it'll get the job done. For testing, I went inside to my desktop computer, and took control of the laptop in the workshop.

Works like a champ. So far I've made 5 different QSO's on FO29 with it, and I'm practicing to make it better all the time. Hoping this should be sufficient to get me that rare grid, when I'm IN the rare grid. 

Special thanks to Clayton, Wyatt and Paul for all their help and encouragement in attempting this nutty endeavor. I seriously couldn't have done it without them. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Situational Awareness

In a previous life I was around airplanes a lot. I spent 6 years going to college and flight school, and I've got couple of green plastic cards with a bunch of acronyms on them to prove it. These days however I'm known as a PWOP - a "Pilot WithOut a Plane" as the industry just didn't allow me to do the things I wanted to do life. It's fine though, I don't regret the choices I made one bit.. and a big reason is a number of the things I learned from Flight School have stuck with me in my non-aviation related fields, and have served me quite well. Probably the biggest one is the concept of Situational Awareness. 

As best I can tell, there is no one definition for what Situational Awareness is. The best explanation I can find comes from Endsley in a meeting on Human Factors in Aviation from 1988. He defined the following: 

Situational Awareness is:
  • The Perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space,
  • The comprehension of their meaning and,
  • The projection of their status in their near future. 

To try and turn this into something more applicable to those of us using the English Language, if you posses SA, you know where relevant things are around you, you know why they are the way they are, how they got there, where they're going, and what this means to you and others. 

At this point I'm sure you're wondering WTF I'm going on about. This is a radio blog after all... well, Situational Awareness is a very applicable skill in radio. Let's take HF for example... depending on where the sun is in relative position to you on our planet, propagation to someone you want to talk to may be affected. You're likely not going to do too well trying to nab that DX contact a few thousand miles away on 10 meters when both you and him are in the dark. You would likely aim for when you both have some sort of F layer excitation occurring and the frequency you want is being reflected back down to earth via the atmosphere, ie, when the sun is shining. Recognizing this fact and acting upon it is an example of Situational Awareness, albeit one that only requires rote understanding of HF propagation mechanics, and as much time as you need to process the idea with your gray matter. 

Now consider something like a LEO Satellite pass. You will have visibility to a typical SO-50 pass for about 11-13 minutes, depending on a whole host of factors. The pass will always start generally to the north or south, and traverse across the sky towards the south or north (respect to ascending/descending passes). Now consider you want to work someone on said Satellite that is south of you. That station has their own visibility path, relative to their position on the globe as well. Your station and their station will have what is known as a 'footprint' or a 'window' to work each other, where the satellite is in view of both of your stations. If you're close together, say only a few hundred miles apart, that window will be very long, as your view of the satellite will be similar to what that other person's view is too. If your stations are far apart, say a few thousand miles, the overlap will be shorter.. sometimes MUCH shorter. Now consider something like a rare DX station, that lots of people are going to want to make contact with. Calculate up all these different windows from Station A to Station DX and some people are going to have a lot of time to make the contact, some people are going to have a short amount of time, and it's all going to be relative to their position on the globe, and their view of the bird. 

So, where am I going with all of this. If you have superior Situational Awareness skills, in your head you're probably recognizing all the elements (stations) in the environment (satellite view) within a volume of time (window) and space (locations of all of this). You are comprehending their meaning (some stations will have more time than others) and projecting their status (when is the 'best' time to call for each) in the near future (when should I call). Head asplode yet? 

Let's try this as an exercise. You have a DX station in the country of Sint Maarten. There is a descending SO50 pass that looks something like this at AOS:

Like this at TCA:

And This at LOS:

And of course, all sorts of incremental variations of the footprint across the path of the bird.  

Let's say you've got two stations that want to make contact with PJ7, one of them is in Iowa, the other is in Florida. The distance between IA and PJ7 is significant, so the window is going to be small. The station in FL on the other-hand is relatively close to PJ7 (in satellite terms) so the window is going to be nice and long. When AOS occurs in PJ7, should the Florida station immediately key up his/her mic and make contact? There's no rule or law against it, that person certainly can.. but SHOULD they? Consider the IA station now, when PJ7 goes AOS, should THEY key up there mic? Probably, but in the realm of situational awareness, you should KNOW. Maybe there's a station in Manitoba that also wants to work PJ7 as well, if there is, then IA should standby, as MB will have even less time than IA to make the contact. Every time you add in a new station, you have to add in a new element into your SA calculations. Let's consider adding Illinois, Ohio, Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina to the mix. Now consider the power and ears of each station - as some stations can obviously work to lower elevations than others, and some stations can turn up their transmit to 11 and crush everyone else. Consider a special circumstance like a newer operator not used to rapid fire Satellite QSO exchanges.. Consider that the DX station may not have the best operating environment and may not be on the Satellite right at their AOS. Consider interference from non-satellite users operating outside the band plans... and consider this, consider that, and on and on and on.. Every time there's something new to consider, it's a new element in your Situational Awareness calculations that impact your decision of when to hit that precious PTT button. 

So where does this leave us in the real world? Well, that depends. On some passes, on some birds - what I described happens. All the operators have good situational awareness, make time for other stations with small footprints, abide by the golden rule of "If you can't hear the bird, don't transmit" and generally are aware of what's happening. These passes are great, and DO happen. A few days ago I worked AO-85 from here in Arkansas, and had a 2.7° TCA elevation towards the Northeast. That's a pretty stinking low pass.. I managed to work N9IP/VO1 from a rare grid in Newfoundland on this pass, and it was a blast. What is interesting though, was that there were a bunch of stations on the pass, with a much bigger footprint than me, that held tight. They knew I was there, they knew I'm a portable operator, they knew I was hunting for Steve. They stood by, let me complete the QSO while I had a window, and then called N9IP after my window had expired, when they still had plenty of elevation. It was a beautiful thing. Everyone got the rare grid, no one was upset, everyone was polite, and most importantly - everyone had great situational awareness. Does this always happen? Hardly... most of the time everyone adopts a 'HAVE TO THROW CALL OUT RAWR RAWR RAWR' mentality, and 1 or 2 might get thru, and the rest are shut out. I understand, it happens.. but it shouldn't have too. In a later post I fully plan on discussing my own personal rules for satellite operating and how it can lead to a more enjoyable hobby, but I've written enough for now. Just remember this whole idea about Situational Awareness - it will make the radio world (and especially on Satellite) a better place. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

My Station - A Reference Post

The #1 question I get asked with regards to Ham Radio is "What kind of equipment do you use to operate on the Satellites?" - worded in about 47 different possibilities. I plan to make this post the one stop shop for my current AMSAT Station configuration, and I'll update it as needed if any life changing modifications are required.

So, how do I work Satellites? It comes to 4 things really.

1: Antenna:

I start with the Antenna because it paramount to successful operation on the birds. Yea Yea, you've heard it all before 'the antenna is the biggest part of your station' yada yada.. Well, I mean it. If your antenna system sucks, then don't even bother trying to get on the birds. Really. Seriously. Just go away. You'll end up transmitting in the blind and being deaf as a post and ruining the bird for everyone else. Whatever antenna you decide to use it needs to have some GAIN on it. I personally use two different varieties of Arrow Antennae (a small version and a big version.. more about that in a later post) for my operations and they work fantastically. You also may see me playing around 'cheap yagis' from time to time.. These are home-brewed gain antennae made out of plywood and welding rod. They also work pretty good. Any other type of gain antenna will work, but you're dealing with very weak signals, mostly < 1W, and so gain is absolutely required. Anyone who tells you it isn't, isn't a very successful operator.

2. Good Coax:

OK, so that picture isn't actually the coax I use, but it's an example of a station owned by a guy who get's it, and thus, makes the point more dramatic. Use the best coax you can afford, and is practical for your station. In that picture, 7/8th hardline works... In my station, I use 2x 8' pieces of Times LMR-240. I almost emphasize coax as much as I emphasize using the proper antenna, because there's no way you can cause more damage to your ability to hear than using cheap lossy coax. Make sure to  have the proper terminators on each end, that are high quality silver Amphenols, and make sure the coax is in good condition. Test it regularly to make sure it's as close to 0db loss as possible. I have gotten by with RG58 and RG8X in the past, but only on very short runs (like < 12") and usually only then for a novelty. When dealing with VHF/UHF frequencies, anything shy of LMR just doesn't cut it if you want to be a serious op. 

3. Rig

Now we're getting into some places where there is room for interpretation. At it's heart, you need a rig (or rigs) capable of operating on the band and mode the Satellite is transmitting and receiving on. Simple enough right? At the moment my rig of choice for Satellite operation is my Icom 821h. It is a 2M/70cm dual VFO, full duplex, all mode rig. It has some nice features like VFO lock, RIT and some other things that make it nice for bird operation, plus it will do anywhere from 2W-30W on 70cm and 5W-40W on 2m - which is more than enough to get into the birds with a strong signal to overcome QRM when needed, but not enough I have to do a RF field study when running at modest levels (Or using AO-7(B) you QRO numpties). You will also see me using my 857d on occasion, and pairing it with a random HT. Sometimes if I'm doing just the FM birds, I'll be using my FT2900 in the Jeep as one side of the equation. Sometimes you'll see me using my FunCube Dongle Pro+ to receive SDR style. There's really a lot of choices here. Some work better than others, but you can make a whole lot of things work if you try.

4. Accessories

Lots of different options here - I'll just go over a few that make my life easier. First - a headset. I use a Heil Pro Micro. When one hand is holding your antenna, and the other is trying to adjust the dial and write stuff down, having a headset is practically a necessity. Also in this picture, you'll see a battery. This is a personal preference thing, and you can read more about them in my Battery Powered blog entry, but I like the LiFePo4 battery packs for normal operation.

You'll also see in this picture a few more extras. There's Heil Audio footswitch that is used as my PTT button. See above necessity to have 4 hands to see why this is nice. I've also got a little cheap foldable table I bought at Home Depot to put everything on when I'm out in the field... It's the perfect height and perfect size. Finally I've got a big tub that all my gear goes into for easy packing. I'll almost always have pencil and paper.. sometimes I use a voice recorder, sometimes I'll have an external speaker on a tripod and a camera too.. it all just depends on what I'm trying to accomplish with that pass.

That's how I Satellite.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Chasing DX = A great view

I've been so swamped with school and work, and playing with the rapidly growing kiddo, I have let my radio pursuits slide a bit this summer. I've read on Twitter there's been some great new ops showing up on SO50, in rare grids. I've really been meaning to get out and work more of them, it just hasn't happened. Yesterday though, I resolved to chase some DX. 

Esteban, HC1JB, has shown up from time to time on SO50 recently, and he's worked some folks in the southern part of the US. It's always late in the pass, but after running the numbers I figured we should have a window. Emails exchanged, we settled on a descending SO50 pass with TCA's of around 50° for both of us. We'd have a 3 minute window as SO50 set for me, and was rising for him. He warned me though that from his QTH in Quito, Ecuador, he would be fighting mountains and volcanos for a clear view. I assured him that I could go all the way to the horizon, so I'd try and spot him as much elevation as I could. For this particular angle, I chose a hill in West Little Rock about 10 minutes from the house.. it's not as high as my 'mountain' is, but it gives me a wide angle to work with, and has a great uninterrupted horizon from about 150° to about 270°

The pass just happened to be a few minutes before sunset too, so while the bird streaked across the sky from AOS at 340° to LOS at about 160° I was treated to a great picture of the sun sinking over the distant sky. Esteban called me right on que with about 45 seconds to go, when I was down to 4° of elevation left. We quickly exchanged reports and said our 73s. The voices on the transponder all switched from English to Spanish, as US operators went LOS, and Latin American hams took over.

Satellite DXCC Entity #38, Oscar Century #95, and grid #422 in the log. Thanks my friend.. hope your view was as good as mine.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Battery Powered

I have always taken a unique approach to powering my radios, compared to the rest of the hobby. I have never *once* made a QSO with my own gear on anything that wasn't battery powered. I simply don't own any power supplies, and have never had the need or desire to get one. Now obviously I use AC power to charge my batteries, and I have tapped into the big battery on my Jeep (even going to so far as to run powerpoles to two different place in it) but the fact remains that when it's time to actually turn electricity into RF, it has always been a battery that is providing the juice to do it.

I've got several different versions, for depending on what I'm up to. For 'normal' everyday usage on HF with my 857 I've got a pair of Werker 35AH Deep Cycle lead batteries (left most in the picture). They work well, and I can use the 857 at the full 100W on one or both of these for a day's worth of contacts. Next I've got a smaller Werker Deep Cycle, rated at 12AH (furthest to the right) that I use for slightly smaller jobs. It doesn't quite have the capacity to handle a full 100W HF load (on especially something like 6m) on the 857, but at lower levels < 50W it works well. This battery is nice for quick "hamming in the park" or NPOTA application where I'll only be on the air for a few hours, and don't necessarily need full power. The SLABs (Sealed Lead Acid) are my workhorses, and do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to powering my different rigs.

Finally, I've got the sports car of the bunch - my Zippy 8.4AH LiFePo4 Battery Pack (The blue battery in the middle). This thing is stripped down with no fanciness, but weighs about 1/4 of what the SLABs do for equal power, and the Lithium chemistry will hold full voltage even under the full load of 100W 6M FM from the 857. It is what I find myself using more and more of these days, because it's just so light and powerful. When it goes dead though, you REALLY have to watch it, cause voltage will fall from 13.2V to < 12V in a matter of minutes - and when it does, the battery is dead and it's time for a recharge.  

Downside of the LiFePo4 pack, is while it's stripped down and efficient, it's made up of multiple cells that have to be kept relatively close in voltage or else bad things will happen. This requires a special charger. Luckily they're pretty cheap, and are adaptable. Here I've got it hooked up to the powerpoles in the Jeep, so it's slurping juice from the alternator and the starting battery. The LiFePo4 chemistry in addition to dumping it's juice quickly, will also accept a charge very quickly as well. My particular charger will do up to 7A of DC charging ability (while keeping the cells balanced) which means I can get the battery back up to full power from near dead in just over an hour. When on the road and navigating summit to summit, this is a huge bonus.

Since power is a consumable quantity in my trade, knowing how much you've used, and how much you have left is huge... especially on the little lithium. That's why these inline power meters are practically essential. They give you current voltage, amperage use, and how many AH you've used since you plugged in. It's a great way to watch how much juice different modes and styles of operating pull as well. I highly recommend them when you're a battery only ham like I am.