Thursday, April 29, 2021

So, you wanna be a 6m Rover eh?

Wow, look at you! You've completed working all 488 grid squares in the lower 48 on Satellites, and you've gone out and roved to a whole bunch of your neighboring grids with your trusty arrow and that pair of 817s or your new 9700. You've achieved one of the great feats in VHF/UHF and you've helped other get there too. 


OK well maybe not. Granted, I'm writing this entry today because of another friend recently hitting the gridmaster milestone, and of course I hit it a few years back, but I know there's just a lot of random folks who like to go out and rove, and especially in the Satellite world roving has become just part of the community. My goal here is to share how I'd like to see mentality become part of the 6m community too. Why? Well strap in, and let's break it down. 

What is 6?


6 Meters is the lowest  frequency VHF band (or highest frequency of the HF bands, depending on where you draw the line) and so it has a lot in common with the 2m band that Amsat operators are well and familiar with. The wavelengths are short, so you can use it with manageable sized Yagis for high directionality and gain. It's great for Tropospheric duct style openings like 2m is, and you've got a lot of bandwidth in the Amateur portion (4mhz) so there's plenty of room to spread out with different modes, there's even some repeaters around on 6m. Chasers on 6 are mostly concerned with collecting grid squares, like they are on Sats and the other VHF bands. The VUCC award applies on 6 (and is highly sought after) and the ultimate prize for US based 6m operators is the 'Fred Fish Memorial Award' which is given to anyone working the 488 / 488 grid squares in the lower 48 on 6m. It is the 6m equivalent of Gridmaster, and just as (if not more) prestigious than gridmaster. 




6m also has a lot in common with some of the other higher freq HF frequencies too. Most HF rigs these days include 6m as standard. While 6m doesn't always bounce off of the layers of the atmosphere, it will sometimes leading to the ability to DX with it. There's also a form of atmospheric propagation known as Sporadic-E which is a form of shorter range 'skip' that allows an operator to work out to about 1500 miles, well beyond line of sight, but much shorter than traditional F and D layers openings you see with other HF bands. Sometimes multiple E openings will chain together and you can get 'multi-hop' conditions which get you out to 3000, or even 4500 and 6000 miles away as well, allowing for crazy long distance contacts on 6. There's also a form a propagation that works well on 6 meters known as meteor scatter which allows very loud and short paths to form out to about 1200 miles off of the trail of plasma that forms when a rock is burning up in our atmosphere. There's also this funky phenomenon known as Trans Equatorial Propagation or TEP that is kind of like a high altitude Sporadic-E opening the forms right over the equator... the point is there's a lot more ways you can bounce a 6m signal longer distance than you can with all the other VHF frequencies

Why Rove on 6?


Well for starters it's easy. Unlike trying to do an expedition on HF - which will most likely require you going to another country to be on the receiving end of a pileup, just like on Satellites a rare grid may only be an hour away from your house. You can do an expedition on a Saturday morning, hand out a rare grid to a bunch of grateful chasers, and be back home by lunch. For those of you like me who like on the fun end of a radio pile-up, this is a deal that can't be beat. Second, the gear is manageable. A 6m Yagi is bigger than an arrow, but not so big you can't fit in a small car broken down (I rove in a mustang). You need low loss coax, but nothing ridiculous like hard line. LMR400 or LMR240 is excellent, but even good ol RG8x will be sufficient if you keep your runs short. As mentioned earlier, if you have a modern HF radio, you probably already have the band on your rig - so no transverters or other funky gizmos required. 3rd - Variety. As mentioned above there's LOTS of different propagation modes, so you have lots of ways to be effective. If you want to get on the mic, aim for May/June/July when Sporadic-E is popping and have yourself a nice sideband pileup. I love meteor scatter digital modes, so I aim for early weekend mornings when the meteors are good and crank out 30-40 contacts in a couple hours and have a quick easy WSJT log to upload. CW is also still alive and well, especially during the E-Skip season so you can do that too. No matter your preference for operating, you can find someone to work you on 6m on your mode of choice. 4th - The community. Like with Satellites there is a highly dedicated group here in the US that communicates online (Not as much Twitter as Slack and a handful of mailing lists and webpages with chat functions) talking about rare grids and where to find contacts. They're also very supportive of rovers and really get into the 'chasing' mentality. Think about the Satellite chasing community, and then add a bunch of big gun operators with fixed stations with huge amps all pointed at you... It's a lot of fun. 

Alright, I'm in.. what now?


Well, first you need a 6m station that you can rove with. This is going to consist of a 6m capable radio, some way to power that radio, something modulate your signals into that radio like a microphone, or a usb to computer connection, or a sound card like a Signalink... you'll need some coax, a 6m antenna, what you want to put your antenna on, and then some way of getting around, namely a vehicle. So, let's double click on some of this:

The Rig:


As stated earlier, most newer solid state HF radios come with 6m built in, so it's pretty easy to find something with the capability to transmit there. The first difference between rigs you'll run into is the barefoot power rating. Bigger radios all made by the bigger brands (Yaesu, Icom and Kenwood) will typically run 100w peak on 6m. There's also a number of QRP rigs out there that will run barefoot powers of 5w or 10w, and then some stuff in the middle from different vendors in the 25w to 50w range. There's also a bunch of older and random stuff all over. Here's the first big difference from Satellites I'll point out - 6m - like EME - more power is better. Always. 100% of the time. You have no need to be careful with your power here, you're not going to burn some receiver up (unless you're doing something really stupid) so run all the wattz you can. If you want to use your slick new IC-705 or old trusty 817, then feel free to pair it with an Amp of some flavor so you're getting more power to your antenna. The point here is many of the 6m propagation modes that are common and popular are considered weak signal - this doesn't mean you should be QRP, but more the guy trying to RX is listening really hard (like Satellites). Often as a receiver of 6m signal you need to have good ears to hear the rover, and if the rover can run more power, great - it just makes it that much easier. So run power, whenever possible, as much as possible. 

The other big thing to consider with your rig is ease of use with digital modes - ie will it connect to a laptop. Sure, you can go out for a few months a year and catch some nice SSB opening on 6m and talk on a microphone all the live long day. But more often than not, like with HF, the action is on the WSJT modes. They make the best use of the weak signal properties of 6m propagation, and you also get the ability to do things like high speed meteor scatter, which is more or less impossible with a mic unless you have 2 pretty skilled ops following very particular procedures. So, you can use your old standby rig, but you'll probably need a digital sound interface for it, like a Signalink. The newest of the new HF+6 rigs like the 991 and 7300 have a soundcard built in, so all you have to do is plug in a single usb cord to your laptop and voila - instant digi modes. I highly recommend this approach, especially when roving, because less cords and less stuff is just easier to manage. Been there, done that. 

Power Source: 

Power on the road is always a tricky problem. With satellites the passes are so quick, and QRP is considered normal, so you can get away with small batteries, or a cigarette lighter in your vehicle. 6 is a little different, so you got to keep a few things in mind. First, you're going to be in a spot for probably several hours at a minimum, or maybe even a long weekend for a solid activation. During that time if you're on digital you're going to be running 50% duty cycles with full power. This is going to sucks lots of Amps. Refer to your specific rig to find out just how many, but it's going to be noticeable. Second, the digi modes especially require time to make a QSO. A 'good' MSK144 qso might take 5 minutes, whereas you're TX/RX cycle is 15 seconds on, 15 seconds off for that entire 5 minute period. A slower QSO might take as along as 30 minutes doing that. The point is, it can take some time, and during that time your rig is eating power like a tasty burger. So, let's consider our options:

Batteries: Sure, Batteries will work... for a little while. My 8.4ah Zippy that I can get probably 20 satellite passes out of on my 9700 will work for about 30 minutes on my 7300 doing 100w MSK144 on 6m. My old standby 35ah AGM batteries will go for a few hours, but as I've found out over the years the Lead Acid chemistry doesn't deliver enough voltage under load to really work well on rigs trying to put out 100w. At most on these things I usually can get 2-3 hours at about 75w on my 7300. It works OK, but it ain't great. The one battery I do have that is a rock star is my 100ah Bioenno LifePo4 that I paid almost $1000 for (for a very particular purpose) and have used on a few roves. I can get a solid 6-7 hours of 100w MSK on the 7300 with that bad boy before I start having voltage fall off around the 10%-15% capacity charge mark. That's enough you can put a pretty good dent in a Grid's rareness, but consider the cost. So, in short - Batteries can work, but I really don't recommend them if you've got something better. I'll also throw a quick shout to Solar, Wind, and other renewables in this category - I don't really recommend it because it doesn't provide enough power unless you spend thousands of dollars on very specific equipment, but you can augment it with your batteries to give you a little more headroom.... maybe.. You'll have to do the cost:benefit analysis yourself here and see what works best. 

Power From Vehicle: OK so batteries are iffy, what about using that portable dead dinosaur burning heat machine with 4 wheels and a spinny magnet thing that has sparks coming out of it? Yup, you certainly can power your rig from your car. Have done, will probably keep doing. Here's a couple things to remember though. 1st, to get good voltage your vehicle needs to be running. Most car batteries are lead-acid chemistry and don't maintain voltage well under the prolonged draw of a radio unless the alternator is charging it at the same time. You also run the risk of running your car battery down by using it for radio stuff and then can't start your vehicle anymore. This is not recommended practice. So you can use your car battery for powering your stuff without the vehicle running, but not for long. With the vehicle running you can normally power a 100w rig for essentially ever, so long as you've got gas. A few considerations though, car electronics make noise in the RF spectrum, if you're going to take this approach spend some quality time grounding and bonding things and adding lots of ferrites so RFI isn't interfering with your ability to hear. This is a topic all unto itself, so I won't dive in deep - just keep it in mind. Second, putting big draws on a car battery for digital cycle times will over time cause your battery to die a lot quicker, even if you're using it with the car running. Exactly why this gets really complicated, but in short a normal car battery is meant to start you engine by dumping a lot of amps into the starter, and then get charged back up by the alternator over time. It's not meant to constantly be dumping amps up and down by something like a high draw radio. The battery will handle it for a while, but consider the normal 3-4 years you might get out of a battery in your car, under heavy roving operation the life might get shortened to 18-24 months. Been there done that, and also have heard tales from other on this. Not the end of the world, but something to keep in mind. You can maybe sorta get around this by installing aftermarket high draw alternators and dedicated accessory batteries with deep cycle chemistry to sit next to your starting battery, but that's way beyond the scope here. The final thing I'll note about powering from your car is while the traditional draw of a 100w rig in the 15A-20A range for full power is usually well within what a vehicle can deliver, if you start adding amplifiers, be very careful. If you start pulling a total of something north of 30A during TX from your car battery, most alternators can't handle that kind of load at engine idle conditions. You will likely drain your battery and be stuck on the side of the road in some rare grid without a jump to help you home. Anyway, all this aside - powering from your car is a perfectly valid solution, with a few caveats and conditions to remember along the way. 

Generator: The professional rovers choice is simply to bring a dedicated piece of technology to turn hydrocarbons into energy. Behold, the generator. This topic should honestly be self explanatory so I won't dive into too much, just make sure you get something rated to power whatever PSU you're going to use, then scale it up by 25% or so to have overhead. You'll need a vehicle to carry said generator, as well as fuel to power it. You'll need cords to connect everything, and most importantly you'll need to understand how it works to be safe and effective. But, if you do all this, the sky is basically the limit. On the dedicated 6m roves I take with AC0RA every summer we bring along a 9500w generator, and it will power a 6m and 2m station each running in excess of a KW of RF power, and all of our accessories (fans, laptops, phone chargers, ect) and the generator load very rarely will go above 50%. Lots of power, for when lots of power is required. As far as I'm concerned it's the gold standard for powering a rove, but like everything, it adds expense and complexity. Make the choice for yourself as to your flavor of power. 

Antenna:


You need an antenna to operate radio (duh) but which one to get? Lots and lots of choices here, let's look at the pros and cons of each quickly:

Whip: Stifle those laughs, back when I had the Jeep I had a 5/8 wave 2m whip that actually was pretty close to resonant on 6. I made probably 100 sideband contacts on 6m on that thing while truly mobile during 3 summers of e-skip. I want to clarify on this though, I probably could have made those contacts on a wet noodle of an antenna as well, and only when the band was extremely open and strong. Did it work? Yes.. did it work well? No... would it have ever worked for digital modes or meteor scatter or anything cool? No chance in hell. If you want to be a serious 6m rover, do not install a whip. Just don't. If you want to have a little fun while driving somewhere to operate with a serious antenna and the band is strong, ok maybe. Just don't you dare say 'BUT CCI SAID TO USE A WHIP TO ROVE ON 6' cause I'm not, and won't.  

Omni / Loops / Dipoles: Maybe a bit better than a whip, but not much. I see a bunch of 'halo' antennae on contest rovers every summer, and once in a while they even use them to make a contact with a big gun station on their way to a 12th place score. An Omni will get you on the air, let you play around, and probably be a bit more effective, but only by a little. 

Moxon: OK, so finally an antennae with a little bit of gain. This was actually my first 6m antennae I roved with for real. I made about 15 meteor scatter contacts with a home brewed moxon and 100w to some big gun stations and distances I wouldn't consider local. It worked, but it was slow and methodical. The 'Par Electronics' Moxon (http://www.parelectronics.com/stress-moxon.php) is rather popular with beginning rovers as well for a few reason. It's cheap, well made, easy to put together, and breaks down quickly, and it has some gain over an omni. This is a lowest class of 6m antenna I recommend for someone wanting to start roving on 6. There's definitely better options, but this is enough you can go out on a rove, and be effective enough to get folks attention with what you're up too. 


3 Element Yagi: This is what I really consider the 'sweet spot' of roving antennae, and also what I really consider to be 'minimum effective' when doing weak signal 6m roving with methods like Meteor Scatter. The extra couple of points of db gain over a moxon is noticeable and really makes a difference pulling the weak signals out of the sky, and propagating your signal towards it's target. When I do high speed low drag 6m roves in the Mustang, I take my 3 element yagi, cause it's enough to get the job done, but also breaks down and stows quickly. As far as which one, I really like the MFJ1762 for a cheap, easy to break down yet effective 3 element Yagi (https://mfjenterprises.com/products/mfj-1762) and handle low power well. Next step up would be m2 6m3ss (https://www.m2inc.com/FG6M3SS) Built a little tougher, handle a little more power, works a smidge better, and a little more expensive. But both are proven Yagi's I've used for 6m roving and get the job done when it counts. There's of course dozens of other models, from Comet to Inno, to Arrow and everything in between - but find one that works for your particular situation and you like... just get a Yagi and enjoy the benefits gain brings you. 


5 Element Yagi: If you really wanna step up your game, go with a 5 Element. Depending on exactly which kind you have the setup will take longer than a 3, and may be pretty large to carry with you, but the results will worth it for operating. AC0RA has always generally said a 5 element is double what a 3 element is, a 3 element is double what a moxon is, and a moxon is double what an omin is. The db numbers are quick that exact, but the real world performance pretty well is. As far as reccomendations the gold standard of the rover 5 element is the M2 6m5xp (https://www.m2inc.com/FG6M5XHP) It's the only 5 element Yagi I would rove with, and has proven itself time and time again on trips I've been on to be a solid performer, yet also has the ability to break down easily and be portable. You go roving with a 5 element, even if you stick with 100w, you will get folks' attention. 

Mast, Base & Coax: 

You've picked a rig, you've powered it, you have an antenna, now where to put it and what to feed it with? Well for starters, use a good coax - doesn't have to be obscene low loss stuff, but it needs to be pretty good. 50mhz is in the VHF band, so you're losing more power than at HF frequencies, but only by a bit. Roughly half a db more loss at 6m than at 10m, and about a full db more loss at 6m than 20m. I would not recommend using RG174 or old school RG58, but something more like a modern RG8X is acceptable. For better performance go into the LMR category and use some 240 or 240uf. I personally use LMR400 or LMR400uf for my 6m stations, but I understand it's pricey and kind of heavy, so pick your personal poison here. Consider this along side whatever your support is going to be. If you're putting a super lightweight wire moxon up on a painter's pole or something made out of fiberglass, you're going to want light but strong coax - so think RG8X or LMR240. If you've got an aluminum mast with a solid support, LMR400 is probably fine. Right now I'm using an aluminum mast from Spiderbeam and LMR400 with my 3 element, and the whole thing is support well except in the strongest of winds, but I've worked my way up through the combinations I've described here too. Here's some ideas for masts I've tried along the way as well as some commercial options: 

Painter's Pole: Good for a bit off the ground, small beam, light coax. Find at local hardware store. Started with this, was a good intro, but quickly I knew I'd need to upgrade. 

Military Radar Netting Mast: This goes by lots of different names and style, but in general they're 4' sections of Metal of Fiberglass Masts that snap into each other and work well at getting a beam up about 18'-20'. 


Look for them in surplus stores or ebay. I still have a set of these I use from time to time, but 18'-20' wasn't quite high enough for me, so I went hunting for better. 

Fiberglass Mast Sections: DX Engineering has these (https://www.dxengineering.com/parts/dxe-ftk50a) or you can usually find them at any place specializing in fiberglass in bigger cities. They work well for modest antennae and coax and can get you a bit higher in the field. I used these for years and they worked well, but I still wanted something a bit beefier. 

Aluminum Mast: Aluminum is pretty well the standard for solid lightweight metal, and a mast made of the stuff is no exception. I chose the Spiderbeam mast (http://www.spiderbeam.us/index.php?cat=c12_Aluminium%20Masts.html) in the 18m version to handle basically any portable yagi application I might ever have, after seeing AC0RA use one on his fantastically successful rover. You can use the small section to put a 3 element beam up dang near 60' with proper guying, or just use the top sections to go up about 30' with a strong base and no guying. You can also take out the top couple of lighter sections and only use the bigger section and put up a big beam (We've had up a 7 element 6m yagi before this way, though hoisting it was a bit sketchy) and it will handle it. It's extremely flexible to use, and will last a lifetime if properly cared. Like all quality things though, the price is high - especially once you get the accessories to go with it. But it is so far the top of the line when it comes to masts that I've found. 


Tower Trailers: Heh, if you're seriously considering a trailer than not much to say. You probably know what you're doing :)

So what about bases? Well, lots of options here. There's a couple different theories here. You could possibly just put the mast on the ground, and guy wire your pole really well, and it would probably work, as long as the base won't move laterally. Having a small something to keep it moving (Like This: http://www.spiderbeam.us/product_info.php?info=p244_Baseplate.html) is probably a better thought though. You also can have a really well supported base and just don't push your mast very high, and be OK. I'll leave the specifics up to you to figure out, but here's some examples I've used and seen that have promise: 

Drive Over Base: I had a buddy who's a good welder build mine for me. Plate Steel, big steel pipe, built on huge bolts. It would take a hurricane to snap this, and I'd expect the mast to fail first. But it's compact enough it fits in the trunk of the mustang and I can have it deployed seconds after stopping in a grid. Quick easy and effective. There are some commercial options here too, such as from Penninger Radio: (https://www.penningerradio.com/) and many others. 


Tripod (er.. uh.. 4-pod?): These range from small speaker style stands (Try a local Guitar Center or commercial Audio Store) to giant aluminum contraptions 4' tall and 12' wide.... such as the one from Spiderbeam made for it's mast I noted above: (http://www.spiderbeam.us/product_info.php?info=p130_aluminium%20tripod%20XXL%20with%202m%20legs.html) Range in price is all over

Hitch Mount: If you've already got a receiver hitch on your vehicle, why not take advantage of that? Back to Penninger Radio for good options, as well as a number of other commercial options. 

Home Brewed: There's a lot of variation here, AC0RA cuts supports out of angle aluminum and then bolts it to the frame in his pickup bed. Rovers in vehicles of all shapes and sizes have mounted gizmo's to their roof and driven around. You can really let you imagination go wild here.

The key take aways though are as follows. Quality Low Loss Coax is needed, but you don't have to go microwave overboard. Higher is better - Always, and Make sure your mast is stable and can be setup and torn down easily and safely. 

Ways to Operate

So what step are we on now, let's take inventory... you got a rig, you can power it, you've got coax to hook to an antennae and know how to put it in the air, and you've got something to mount the whole beast on when you're out driving around. Awesome. So, how are the ways you can actually make contact with someone on 6 meters? Well, it mostly depends on the propagation methods, so let's break all those down. 

Tropo - This is the classic form of propagation on VHF, and really any RF. Point your beam at someone, radiate power, and that RF more or less goes in a straight line to the air to your target. I say more of less because it's very rarely true line of site, but with enough gain and power pretty much any time of any day you can make a contact with someone to 100mi or so using SSB, or 200-300mi using one of the digital modes with no really no propagation at all. This is enough to work someone a grid or two over pretty much any time. You go go to SSB and try over voice, or use a key and work CW, or use one of the digital modes. Pretty much any digital mode will work on tropo, but the popular ones will be FT8, JT65 and Q65 for 6m. Also of note in the 'tropo' category is true tropospheric ducting, which is a phenomenon involving pockets of air warming and cooler than the surrounding pockets of air that will allow your RF to 'follow a duct' of a particular air mass bouncing back and forth to extend it's range. This happens quite commonly over the gulf of Mexico, and a path between California and Hawaii, as well as in the midwestern states in the spring and fall. I won't get too much into this because this isn't a scientific journal (go read more about it on your own time, there's been lots of research done) just understand that is is something that can push your RF out there further than normal. As far as when this happens, it's kinda all over the place. Normally spring and fall, and normally early mornings right about sunrise... but those are just generalities... 

Sporadic-E - This is the mode most folks associate with 6m. For a few months around the summer solstice (and sometimes near the winter solstice) random pockets of ionization in the E-layer will form, allowing skywave propagation on the 50mhz (and sometimes 28mhz and sometimes 144mhz) bands. The E layer is high enough up that this allows a station to 'skip' the signal nominally about 1500mi (+/- a few hundred) out on a single hop. The ionization is usually quite strong and when aligned right can allow 30db+ (ie S9+) signals to propagation at 6m. The catch is in the name though, sporadic. You never really know when, how, where or why it will form - other than some generalities. You also have no idea how long it will last. There's a lot of theory about the weather playing some part, but it's all just theory with some evidence to back it up. As a rover to take advantage of Sporadic E a lot of it comes down to being in the right place at the right time, and then staying there. Normal modes to use on sporadic-e are SSB (if the propagation is strong) CW, and the digital mode FT8 - with FT8 being the prime place where most ops are hanging out these days. The normal benefits of voice vs cw vs digi all apply here, so pick the mode best for you. I will mention normally the rules of FT8 are 15 second sequences, and 50.313 is the 'channel' where most everyone congregates. The best Sporadic E typically occurs from about May 1st thru about July 31st, but may go up and down during that time, and normally starts in mid afternoon and will die off shortly after dark.... but these are all (once again) generalities. If you're going to rove to take advantage of Sporadic-E, be prepared to sit in a rare grid for several hours, if not a whole day or two to catch that opening. When it happens, and it happens strong you don't need much of an antenna or power to work a ton of people, but instead it's more getting a little lucky. 

Meteor Scatter - This is actually the propagation method that drew me to 6m. When a meteor burns up in the atmosphere, is leaves a trail of plasma (ie FIRE) behind it. This plasma can act as a little pocket of reflective atmosphere to bounce a 50mhz signal (as well as other bands, but 50mhz is about right) off of it giving you a quick burst of skywave propagation. This plasma burst is short lived, but very strong - making it possible to simply spew RF into a certain portion of the sky, waiting for a meteor to burn up in the general area you're nuking, and reflect your signal out to anywhere between 500 miles and 1300 miles or so, with 700-1000 being the sweet spot, for around 100 milliseconds. 100ms is very rarely enough time to get a SSB message thru (though it IS possible..) but it's more than enough time to get a WSJT style packet thru with callsigns and reports. That is what modes like FSK441 and MSK144 seek to do. Send a wide bandwidth, extremely short message that repeats over and over again to another station, waiting for a meteor to burn up and pass the message. Each station takes turns sending their message, 15 seconds TX, 15 seconds RX (for example) with synchronized clocks, and pretty much with time and perseverance (power and big antennae help too) a QSO can always be made. Things to remember about maximizing performance with meteors - early morning local time is normally the best time to do this.. the reason is something about the way the earth turns drags in more meteors in the morning rather than the evening, ect ect... You can always try to time your operation around the several major meteor showers that occur every year. The Perseids in August every year are a perennial event for Meteor Scatter enthusiasts as *lots* of rocks are burning up, making the time between messages very short, that said meteors are always burning up in the atmosphere, so this propagation method can pretty well always be taken advantage of. The standard mode these days is MSK144, and in north america most folks operate on 50.260mhz. Run 15 second sequences as standard, make sure your 'frequency tolerance' in WSJTx is set to 200hz (to allow for slightly off freq rigs) enable auto sequence, and turn off the 'short' mode (which is normally used for 2m scatter, and is outside the topic of this conversation) turn on our rig and wait. Of all the forms of 6m propagation this is the most reliable, and the easiest to duplicate time and time again. If you're wanting to rove, learn how to use scatter.. Any random saturday morning you can rack up 30-40 contacts in the course of a couple hours from a rare or semi-rare grid (or heck, even from home) on Scatter. It. Just. Works. One big downside to scatter is it doesn't require a pretty good antennae, and more power is better. a 3 Element Yagi up at 20'+ ft and 100w will do, but it might take some time to make a few contacts. More power is better, bigger beams are better - but always consider the cost:benefit analysis of what you bring roving. The other big downside is there is a pretty hard limit of around 1400 miles for a scatter contact, with contacts beyond 1200 miles being exceptional.... and multi-hop of scatter is basically unheard of. That said, I love meteor scatter. It makes the magic band truly magic to me. 

Aurora / TEP / EME - There are lots of other propagations methods for 6m that I'm not to spend much time on, other than to tell you they exist. You can bounce 50mhz signals off the of the Aurora (remember, plasma?) at the higher latitudes, you can also once in a while get this propagation form known as Trans-equatorial Propagation, which is kind of like a chain of higher altitude E-Skip clouds over the equator that form near the equinoxes in the spring and fall and allow for really long 6m paths... sometime... You can also do EME with 6m if you really want too, but there's only a few brave enough to try and rove on 6m EME - if you think that's you, then I'll send you to W7GJ's blog (http://www.bigskyspaces.com/) to learn all about that. I don't really use these methods much, so I'll leave it to you, the reader, to dive in more. 

Where to Rove?

The answer to this question is really fun... how about ANYWHERE!!! Unlike HF where states and countries are the main thing chasers are looking for, on 6m (and other VHF+ bands) the main token of map achievement is The grid square. This is just like Satellites too, for you AMSATers I haven't bored to death yet. So, If you can drive to another grid square, which generally is going to be anywhere from a few minutes to 90 minutes max away from your home, then you are a 6m rover. Like sats, certain grid squares are 'rarer' than others. Low population density areas normally equal rarer grids. Grids like FM13 that only have a sliver of land in them are normally rarer than those surrounding them. 

But what about the master list of what is 'rare' and what isn't? I mean if you're gonna rove, might as well make it worthwhile - right? Well head on over to the FFMA Groups.IO mailing list here: https://groups.io/g/FFMA and subscribe. This is the de facto list for those chasing the FFMA award and for general questions about grid chasing on 6m. From here sign up, or search the archives for the 'Leader Board / Most Needed Grids' spreadsheet currently maintained by Francis, KV5W. The link for the moment is here: https://1drv.ms/x/s!Ah-y5F2cQ5QHry47lJ1v4QS26EyW?e=M67jDw but I believe it changes with each release. The state of rareness right now in the 488 looks like this: 


From this map you can see the traditional out of the way grids, like upstate Maine, the great basin, the Dakota wheat fields, and of course the 4 classic 'wet grids' that there is no way to drive too all are needed by a very high percentage of 6m FFMA chasers.. but even some grids you wouldn't think of, like what has kind of become known as a 'Texas Cross' of EL18, EL19, EL17, EL28 and EL08. Also places like DN52 that are easy to get too, but very rare cause they're in the middle of nowhere. It's really all over the place. But, as a rover, if you choose to go to one of these grids shaded something other than green - you will have the attention of the 6m community. Guar-en-teed. 

Staying in Touch

As with EME (that I blogged about) I'm going to stress that letting big guns know where you are is paramount to being successful (ie, making lots of contacts) on a rove. It's not quite to the same degree, but close. Since there's so many different kinds of propagation modes, digital, cw, voice, and all of them are valid depending on type of rove you're doing - you need to let folks know how to listen for you. Pick your weapons, decide on tactics, choose the field of battle, and then go to the different places to announce your plans. As mentioned above, an email to the FFMA list is a great start. Doesn't have to be crazy just say "Hey All, I'm going to EM43 next Saturday morning to operate for a few hours on Meteor Scatter. Expect to be onsite 7AM local time, frequency will be 50.260 with me first, hope to work a bunch of you!" and that's all you need to do, you will have company. Chat pages have also become very popular on 6m and VHF chasing in general - a few of the big ones are VHF Slack (https://join.slack.com/t/vhf-chat/shared_invite/zt-dgto6yqo-N23lOst_JFETokMHVGNoOQ) Ping Jockey (for the meteor scatter enthusiasts, here: https://www.pingjockey.net/cgi-bin/pingtalk) and ON4KST Chat, here: http://www.on4kst.org/chat/login.php. I prefer Slack, but folks still use all of them. In your FFMA email it's usually a good idea to say if you're going to be monitoring one of the chat pages as well. One extra note here, like EME you can tell folks where you are in the band and even generally where you're listening to setup a contact attempt with another station - but DO NOT send any information about the qso itself, such as a signal report, or a Roger or RRR over the internet. You have to make the QSO itself over the air, and any such <hint hint nudge nudge> on the internet is invalid. Don't do it. 

Final Tips

A few final items of notes I've picked up over the years of roving, secrets I pass from me to you:

Be Loud: You're going to be (hopefully) out in the middle of nowhere. There will not be sources of RFI near you. You will hear very well. Most home stations do not have this advantage, they will likely not hear you as well as you hear them. Therefore, use the tallest mast, the biggest beam, and the most power you can. This ain't sats anymore, you're not going to fry anything. Be loud. Obviously this is all within reason and budgets, but do your best to be loud and it'll go a long long ways. 

Be Patient: The very nature of 6m is sporadic and random contacts. Sometimes the atmospheric gods will smile on you, sometimes they won't. Sometimes you'll go 20 minutes without a QSO, then make 5 in 5 minutes. It's just the nature of the band. The good part of digital mode takeover, is you have a little bit of a chance to multi-task between the slow qso period, when you're waiting for that ping or waiting for that E pocket. So take advantage of it to do other things you need to do when roving (like eat :) ) so you're ready when the propagation takes off. 

Make it Fun: Go rove somewhere you've never been. Go setup in a campground and roast some marshmallows while you're waiting for the propagation. Grab some donuts and coffee and setup on dirt road of a mountain peak and watch the sunrise while working the rocks. Do what you can to combine a rove with some other activity so you're getting purpose out of it besides silly radio square coloring. 



So that's it! That is my official guide to 6m roving. I'm sure I've forgotten a bunch of stuff, and fully intend to keep editing this as I find new things to add, get comments from others, and notice my spelling and grammar mistakes. But with the Eskip season coming, get out and get active and enjoy the magic band. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Meteor Speed Run out west March 6th-8th 2021

 So for too long (a few months) the center of the country on my 6m map looked like this:


I had managed to work all the grids around the high plains of Kansas, but had only rarely found operators in those great wheat fields to work. Once in a while a rover like NA6L or N0LL would roll thru and I'd pick one up a grid or two, but still there was a big gap. My buddy Wyatt (AC0RA) had the same dilemma a year ago with his map, so he setup his home station to be remote-controlled by some other operators, packed up the rover and headed to the high plains. In the course of a few days he managed to work 'himself' with EN41 local hams running the AC0RA station and Wyatt running the AC0RA/R Rover in all the grids he needed, in very similar style to how the K0D rove went down. I managed to miss Wyatt's rove because I was living in EM27 at the time, and had given up temporarily on chasing 6m grids. Now that I'm back in EM36, and in my 200km circle with the old EM34 QTH, chasing counts again. I've also made some improvements to the home station (which I'll document in later blogs) and so I've become a fairly effective 6m scatter chaser. 

Anyhoo, since moving to EM36 I've done quite a bit of radio at home, but I haven't had a good rove other than a day trip down to EM43 with Matt and Wyatt last summer. I've had a plan to go grind out those Kansas grids for a while now, and finally in March a confluence of events came together in such a way I was able to make it happen. The plan would be to operate as KG5CCI/P and have Matt (NJ4Y) and Wyatt operate the KG5CCI station via remote control to pick up the grids from home. I would drive the mustang solo west to the EM05/EM06 line in Oklahoma, work myself on either MSK144 or the new amazing wonderfully powerfully </sarc> Q65 mode then head west near DM76 and spend the night. Get up early the next day and hit DM76 really early on scatter, then move up to DM87 and sit there for a while, also on scatter, since it was a top 50 most needed grid for the FFMA chasers. Then as the day would wear on I'd slowly work my way back east hitting DM97, DM98, and EM08 then spend the night in EM17 (Wichita) before getting up early the next day and blasting back home to EM36. Basically, it looked something like this: 


From a gear perspective I'd take the mustang - because of superior speed and miles per gallon efficiency. I'd also take my finely honed mustang portable kit of my drive on mast support, a 30' spider-beam aluminum push up mast, my 3 element MFJ1762 6m beam, about 40' of LMR400, my super trusty FT857d, and the assorted sound and computer accessories to make WSJTX work. I also threw in the 100ah LiFePo4 Bioenno Power battery so I would be sucking amps off the mustang's battery. After buying the battery last year in preparation for a second CM93 trip I hadn't really put it to a solid test yet, and wanted to really push it. The Home station would the 7300 into a modified Larcan running about 1200w going to my 5 element LFA up about 45' on the tower trailer parked next to my shop. More on that later too...

From here there's not much to say other than things went off without a hitch. I took some periscope from the stops: 

After hitting EM05 and EM06 in separate stops (I couldn't get to the line cause of lots of recent rain) I continued west to Capulin, NM and spent the night in a Super 8 - which interestingly enough was the first time I'd been in a hotel since the beginning of the pandemic. Next morning I got up early and managed to operate from the DM76/DM86 line, even though it wasn't my intention:

After my super early start I migrated up to DM87, got on the air quickly, and took the shot that defined the speed rove: 

Pre sunrise, a quiet road in southeast Colorado, the moon in the background, and the antenna banging away at the meteors flying in the sky. Anyway, more periscope from the next stop DM97 a few hours later into the morning once I was back in Kansas: 

Then I finally moved up to EM08/DM98 line, worked a few more, and headed to Wichita to crash for the night. Final results, for about 8 hours on the air, 8 grids activated, 78 QSOs made, and 37 unique stations worked. Not bad for a weekend drive in early March. I also managed to get DM87 knocked down from top 20% of FFMA chasers needing it to 10% in my little activation, which is probably the most rewarding part of roving.  

I had a bunch of chasers donate some cash to help cover food, fuel and lodging expenses for the trip - which was a giant boon. It feels really good to know folks have my back when I'm out in the middle of nowhere. And oh yea, my map? Now looks like this: 


Still got that gap up in the far northwest corner of Kansas, and further up into Nebraska, but at least the southern part of the plains is cleaned up on my map. Need to find another 30 or 40 this summer during E-Skip season and that should put me on the leaderboard. 

Good times :)

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Custom Jumper Blog

UPDATE 9/16/2021: New Prices, cause inflations and supply chain problems, and blah blah blah.. not a huge increase, but noticeable :)


So here's the blog I've really been meaning to do for a while. It only should barely be called a 'blog' since this is more of a cross between a sales pitch and a menu, but here we go. 

Yes - I build custom coax jumpers to use with your Satellite setup. 



OK, so now that that's out of the way, let's get into the nitty gritty. First, when I say custom - I really do mean custom. I keep a small supply of coax and connectors around for the more common builds I do, but as a rule I order everything is made from scratch when you tell me you want them. What do I build your jumpers out of? Great Question!

The only coax cable I use is genuine Times Microwave LMR. I've tried messing with other stuff, and it just isn't as consistent or as reliable. Times Microwave is expensive stuff, but it's worth it in my opinion. Normally for portable jumpers meant to be used with an Arrow or an Elk antenna I recommend (and 99% of my customer choose) Times LMR240 Ultraflex. It seems to be the perfect balance of very low loss, yet lightweight, rugged, and easy to work with. I do once in a while do a full LMR240 (not ultraflex) build for someone wanting a more permanent jumper, or for someone wanted to squeeze that last half a db out of their assembly. It's really just a preference thing for you. I do also once in a while make some LMR400 and LMR400uf assemblies for non-satellite uses, or for fixed Satellite or EME installations. Basically if you're needing a custom coax assembly made with low loss stuff, I can build it. I don't work with LMR600 or Hardline at the moment, as it's just too heavy and too expensive to send thru the mail. 

For connectors, I pretty well only use Amphenol RF. Once again, expensive, but they're the best. BNCs, N Connectors, PL259, pretty well covers them. Most have a male or female plug or jack option, some of them (like BNC and N) I can do right angle connectors too - which can be handy for certain types of antennae like the Elk Common port. 

Other random details, I use crimp shield connectors and crimp+solder center pins. Get around that argument by simply doing both. It makes a solid connection that gets even more solid when I put double wall marine grade and glue lined heat shrink tube over the crimp connector. That locks everything in place well so there's very little movement and good strength at the weak point in a coax assembly. Finally, I personalize each cable with the operator's callsign on a color label that also specifies the purpose of the cable. Normally I do a blue shrink tube and a blue label for a cable for the 2m side of an antenna, a yellow label and shrink tube for 70cm side, and red for 23cm. I've also got green, white, silver, and clear labels and shrink tube to use for different purposes. 

So now for some common builds. As of March 2021 the number 1 package I'm sending to operators is for the IC-9700, which is not surprising considering it's the only purpose built Satellite rig on the market right now. 


Normal length for 9700 jumpers is 8' for the 70cm side and 8' 10" for the 2m side (to match the offset in feed point on an arrow) but I can do as short as 6' and as long as 10'... it's just a personal preference thing. Prices as of March 2021 are as follows for this build:

2x LMR240uf Jumpers, N-Male to BNC and PL-259 to BNC, Shipped anywhere in Lower 48:

6' $95.00
8': $100.00
10': $105.00


Second most common is a set for a pair of FT817(8). This build is usually 2x 6' (cut to length) jumpers for the radios on your chest in a sling. 



2x LMR240uf Jumpers, BNC to BNC on both, Shipped anywhere in Lower 48:

6' $85.00

Next are just some example of different builds I've made for HT users, both with duplexers and without... They're not very common, so just message me for a quote - but hopefully it gives you an idea of things I've done and can do:


2 HT's mounted on a Boom Extension for an Arrow



Duplexer Mounted on a Boom Extension with a common cable to a handheld HT






Hanging Arrow with HT mounted on Boom:


HT Mounted on Boom with Cables and Hand Mic


Anyway, hopefully that gives you the idea. If you've got something different than this in mind, shoot me a DM on Twitter or drop me an email and we'll talk. 

As far as 'how to buy' just reach out to me, we'll talk your build over and I'll give you a quote. If the quote is good, give me your email address (preferably one associated with Paypal) and your current address and I'll get to work. I don't ask for a deposit or payment upfront, so far I've never been stiffed by a member of the community. If you give me your word you want it, I'll build it. 

Once the build is done I'll send you pictures of the completed package and an invoice thru Paypal (Don't worry, it's one flat cost to you that includes everything). Pay thru paypal, I'll get a message and then get it shipped out. I've used several versions of shipping over the years, but anymore I just go with USPS Priority Mail. That way I don't have to make special trips to shipping offices, the cost isn't prohibitive, and it normally makes it to the destination in a few days. Using Paypal also gets us both seller and buyer protection as well as discounted shipping. It's just easy that way. 

So that's it! Custom jumpers, built to order, by a Satellite Operator, for a Satellite operator. I never meant for this to become a business, it kinda just happened. I wasn't happy with what I could find on the market, so I bought all the tools and started doing it myself, and now I share my equipment and experience building with the community. If you're interested, hit me up on Twitter, or shoot me an email at dave@druidnetworks.com and let's talk.