FT8 Blarp!

Today was very hot and miserable. A day that makes one very thankful for the invention of air conditioning. My wife was gone for the day so that made it an all day radio day. I started out by making another attempt to try and like a magnetic loop antenna that I bought a few years ago. It’s an Alpha Magnetic Loop Jr that I purchased used at a hamfest. The price was right and it was in great condition so the impulse to buy was triggered and I came home with a magnetic loop antenna that has largely sat in its bag since the day I bought it. I’ve read about them but never used one. Over the past few years I’ve purchased a length of LMR400 and a very nice vacuum variable capacitor with the intent to build one but the build\buy decision tree flipped to buy that day as it sat staring at me from the table at the hamfest. It’s supposed to cover 10-40M at 25 watts.

Alpha Magloop Jr.

(It got a formal picture today in the music room as it was so humid out my camera lens kept fogging over.) The antenna is well made and seems to work but it is extremely touchy. I get that narrow bandwidth is a feature of magloops but after a while of fiddling it gets kind of old having to constantly re-tune the antenna. I’m not sure that my experience today endeared me to this antenna. I’ll keep it as an option but honestly my Par End-Fed antennas will see much more portable usage than this thing. So it went back in its bag. Perhaps age will improve it like fine wine or I’ll grow some patience. We’ll see which happens first.

After that less than satisfying experience I moved on to looking at a friend’s (Josh, KD9DZP) Yaesu VX-3R. For some reason it had stopped functioning and would not power up. He figured that it was bricked but asked me to take a look at it. I’m not much for troubleshooting micro mini electronic devices. I think they are made that small with the intent that they are disposable. Anyways, I endeavored to take a look. Not far into the troubleshooting process “BLAM,” the dreaded magic smoke release occurred. It was quite an event for such a small device and not one I’ve caused in quite some time. Those electrons pack a wallop no matter how small they are. Well, if it wasn’t a brick before it was now. I felt bad for blowing the thing up so I found a nice used replacement and bought it for him. He doesn’t know that yet so don’t tell him.

After that inverse Midas Touch experience I went upstairs to eat some lunch. No flames were involved. After lunch I decided to relax on the sunporch and tune around the HF bands a bit with my IC-7100. The bands seemed rather slow so I hauled out my notebook to check FT8 activity. There was a reasonable amount of activity on 20M and 40M and I made a handful or two of contacts. Then I went up to 10M and found a fair amount of activity. I made some more contacts and as I was in the middle of finishing up a contact with KC3BVL I got a “BLARP” from some oddball stations.

QP32 anyone?

The calls aren’t real and the grid square is deep in Western Siberia. Maybe it’s someone with a KX2 that is taking this International Grid Chase a bit too serious. Or maybe it was just a spurious decode. In the tradition of Don Martin (MAD magazine) “BLARP” was the first word that came to mind. Don Martin always had the perfect word for the sound of his cartoons. I checked the official Don Martin Dictionary (http://www.madcoversite.com/dmd-alphabetical.html) and oddly, “BLARP” isn’t on it. It sure seems like a word that he would have needed at some point.

After making some more contacts on 10M I decided to check the activity on 17M. For no real reason I don’t operate on 17M all that often. There was a fair amount of activity on 17M and a fair amount of it was DX. I made some US contacts while I continued to watch the DX roll by, attempting to get a sense of which were the most constant signals as opposed to those that fade out as fast as they fade in. One station that I was consistently decoding was ZB2R in Gibraltar. After watching him make a handful of contacts I decided to respond to his CQ call. I responded to his call below his transmit frequency and after a few calls I was rewarded with:

ZB2R

Thankfully we were able to complete the contact in the usual crowded conditions.

ZB2R 73!

That makes ZB2R my first 17M DX contact with FT8. (Setting aside the fact that this was the first time I’ve operated FT8 on 17M.) What makes this contact even more interesting is that the antenna I used was 17M add-on that DX Engineering used to produce and sell. I bought it shortly after I bought the 4-BTV and figured it would give me some options. I’ve only used it a few times. It’s a horizontally oriented coil with some short wire radiators that clamps onto the 10M trap of the 4-BTV.

4-BTV with 17M add-on

17M add-on

Is it the finest 17M antenna known to man? Nope. Did it allow me to make a contact with a station in Gibraltar? Yup.

While I went on to make a few more contacts I savored the ZB2R contact for the rest of afternoon. I’ll likely even savor it for a bit this week. It’s fun to pull one out with less than the best setup and it sure beats the sound of the magic smoke release playing over and over in my head. For a day that started out marginal and then got worse, it ended on a very good note.

 

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Late Adopter Panadapter

After great delay I finally got around to setting up my SDRPlay RSP1A as a panadapter for my Kenwood TS-590SG. It’s been on my list of things to do but that list has been severely derailed due to on-going health issues. Today I felt almost normal and up to the task. It’s actually not difficult at all but I ran into some odd USB driver issues that impeded progress for a wee bit.

I know that everybody and their mother has a panadapter and I’m way late to the party. There’s probably someone that has a panadapter for their Hallicrafters HT-30 with an Arduino based servo control providing CAT. I’m typically a late adopter.

KA9EAK: Late Adopter

Some representations of this adoption curve label the “Late Adopter” portion of the curve “Laggards.” That seems a bit harsh.

My understanding is that you can use any of a number of SDR receivers for this purpose. I purchased an SDRPlay RSP1A late last fall and so it was available for panadapter duty.

As I said, the configuration isn’t difficult at all. Assuming that you have already installed the Kenwood USB drivers (more on that in a minute) and have successfully configured the Kenwood ARCP-590G Radio Control Program to work with your radio, you are well on your way. The only other piece of hardware you need is an SMA to RCA cable. I found one on eBay.

As for software, my understanding is that there are a number of different applications that you can use for this purpose. I chose to use HDSDR, in my case HDSDR with RSP1A. I ended up having to use OmniRig as well. More on that later.

My approach was a follows:

1) Given that the Kenwood ARCP is working with your radio, note the configuration (Tool\Setup) for COM port and Baud rate.

2) Attach the SMA connector to the RSP1A antenna connector and the RCA connector to the DRV connector on the rear panel of your TS-590SG.

RSP1A and TS-590SG

3) Go into the menu for your TS-590SG and set menu 85, DRV Connector to ANT (see page 52 in the TS-590SG manual.)

TS-590SG Menu 85

4) If you haven’t already done so, install the HDSDR software.

5) In the lower left section of HDSDR you will see some buttons, one will be Options (F7).

HDSDR Options

You will notice a selection for “CAT to HDSDR.” Initially I attempted to get this to work with no success. I ended up installing OmniRig and while it appeared to work it was intermittent. It would indicate that the radio was on-line for a few seconds and then indicate “rig is not responding.” After a fair amount of troubleshooting (verifying config and connection with the Kenwood software, restarts, etc.) with no success I searched the Internet for the problem and found this thread in the SDRPlay forum:

https://www.sdrplay.com/community/viewtopic.php?t=2730

It was from December 2017 and exactly described the problem. Thankfully it was a complete thread in that it contained a solution as well. I had version 6.7.4 of the Kenwood (actually Silicon Labs) USB driver and it appears that the fix was to go back to version 6.7.3. I changed the driver to the older version and the problem was solved. Is this actually “the fix,” who knows but it worked for me and that’s good enough. The Kenwood ARCP software worked fine after the change.

It may be important to note that you will see a decrease in sensitivity.

Signal Change

So now I have a fully functional panadapter for my 590. As with all SDR’s, it is interesting to “see” radio as opposed to only hearing it. Prior to the wide spread adoption of panadapters, interaction with a radio was sort of the audio equivalent of peering through a narrow keyhole. Now one can see an entire band at once. While I find this relatively new practice of seeing radio interesting, there’s a part of me that likes the notion of the unknown inherent in the turn of the VFO knob.

Panadapter

I’m sure I’ll use the panadapter at times but it’s more likely I’ll simply spin the big knob to hear what’s just out of sight. Out of curiosity, I checked Kenwood’s site for USB drivers for my TS-830S. Oddly they didn’t have any. Maybe there’s a message in that.

 

PS: If you’re not sure which end of a soldering iron to grasp it might be best to ask for help with this configuration. As with all of this, YMMV. This is what worked for me. If you blow up your RSP1A and your 590SG while simultaneously causing a tear in the space-time continuum you probably should have stayed in bed.

 

PPS: The picture above was a few minutes before the start of Field Day. This is  a few minutes after. Apologies for the difference in detail. There is A LOT more activity indicated on the panadapter.

40M at the start of Field Day

One in, one out, and the Yaesu FT-818

I’ve been QRT for the last several months due to a severe lung infection. Four hospital stays and one surgery later today is the first day in months that I feel like I’m getting better. So what is the first thing that I did? You guessed it, go down to my shack and turn on the radios!

In the stringed instrument world, especially guitars, there is a terrible disease known as GAS, Guitar Acquisition Syndrome. Sometimes broadened to Gear Acquisition Syndrome. I may or may not have succumb to this disease over the years. I think the broader definition applies to Amateur Radio. Who doesn’t have a list of gear you’d like to have or really “need?” Within reason buying and selling gear, both new and old, is a fun part of the hobby. I try to keep it balanced, typically one out/one in. This time I did it in reverse.

I was overcome by GAS late last year and purchased an ICOM IC-7100. I’d looked at them for a very long time. I really wanted one but I didn’t really need one. I had almost overcome the GAS pressure when ICOM dared me to buy one by offering a really nice rebate ($200). The balance was tipped. Now I have a 7100.

IC-7100

I really love this little radio. It’s form factor is much the same as my TS-480SAT which is joy to operate. I like portable-ish radios. The 7100 is intended to be the camper radio. The one advantage that the 7100 has over the TS-480SAT is 144\440 MHz operation. The ability to receive NOAA weather radio is also very handy. So I have HF, 2m, 440, and weather radio all in one package. Perfect for a camper radio.

While there is some practical element of this acquisition, there is also an emotional component. I have one ICOM HF rig, the IC-718 that I bought years ago as the first step to re-assembling a station after a long hiatus. It’s a great little radio and will always be in my shack. However, I’ve had the opportunity to operate other ICOM HF radios, especially at JOTA events in years past. I really liked the IC-746Pro and came close to buying one a few times but just never did for various reasons. And now they don’t make them anymore. Same with the IC-706. I really liked operating those two radios but they are no longer available. I figured I’d better get a 7100 before I regret that one too! In some ways the 7100 reminds me of both of those older radios. It has the ICOM feel.

Now for the one out. I made an attempt to do this the right way, intending to sell my FT-817ND before purchasing the 7100. I didn’t get any bites and the market seemed to be swimming in used 817’s, so I thought I’d wait a bit and try again. Several months passed and I recently sold it on the second try. I may have a little buyers remorse but not much. I have a KX2, which I purchased after I had purchased the 817. The 817 is a very nice radio but for my operating needs the KX2 is a better fit. I should have just bought the KX2 the first time. Moral of the story, don’t buy two radios to get one.

In the midst of the 817 sale process Yaesu made the announcement for the FT-818. I panicked, thinking that an updated 817 would drive the price down for used 817’s. Thankfully Yaesu blew it. What we’re they thinking? Power increase of 1 (one) Watt? That’s a 20% increase if you’re in marketing. The TCO is nice but I don’t need it. Arguably the finals upgrade is the most important update. I can’t believe they didn’t even add NOAA weather radio receive. The price is odd as well. HRO sells the 818 for $850 while an 817 is $700 while they last. A KX2 is $770. The price advantage tips to Elecraft though you’re likely to add some things to the KX2 (at least the antenna tuner and key) so that will raise the overall cost. While the KX2 and 818 take different approaches, they are both full featured multi-band, multi-mode QRP radios. It seems like Yaesu missed an opportunity. On the other hand, there certainly is a loyal following of 817 users and a fair sized cottage industry of accessories for the radio. They know their market. Maybe Yaesu made the safe bet.

Camping season is upon us and while I’ll likely have a long recovery I look forward to operating portable with the 7100 at camp as the year progresses.

 

Sterba Curtain

Recently I had a nice contact with Al, W0ERE down in The Ozarks, near Highlandville, Missouri and in the longstanding tradition, the customary exchange of QSL cards.

W0ERE

Al was running his Collins S- Line with 500W into his Sterba curtain for 40m. I was using my TS-590SG with 500W from my SB-200 into my Hustler 4BTV. W0ERE may well be one of the first stations I’ve worked that was using a Sterba curtain.

Sterba Curtain. A name that begs for a little Jean Shepherd echo chamber:

Imagine Jean Shepherd’s Echo Chamber

We had a nice chat about his antenna farm in general and the Sterba curtain in particular. The Sterba curtain has been around for a very long time. It was invented by Ernest Sterba, who received US Patent US1885151A Directive Antenna System for his work. The patent was filed in February 1929 and was granted in November 1932.

US1885151A – Fig. 4

Figure 4 of the patent illustrates the Sterba curtain. The primary purpose of the antenna was to provide a very directed, low angle of radiation for the “transmission of Hertzian waves of relatively high frequency.”

Obviously, Sterba curtains were very large antennas. There are some very nice pictures of VOA Sterba curtains that were located in Dixon, California here and some others here.

Sterba was a reasonably prolific inventor. Prior to the patent for the Sterba curtain, Sterba received US1792662A Antenna System for another large antenna system. He also invented an Antenna Sleet Melting Apparatus for which he received US2008266A, “This-invention relates to aerial systems and more particularly to such systems as are equipped with means for removing sleet therefrom.” From the patent specification:

In the operation and maintenance of both transmitting and receiving antenna systems located in sections of the country which are subject to sleet storms, considerable trouble is at present experienced because of the formation and the presence of sleet and ice on the radiating members of the system. The added weight of the ice tends to detune aerial systems as a result of the change in the dielectric constant of the medium surrounding the wires, the ice having a constant of 80. It also frequently causes an actual severance of the radiating elements which usually results in a complete interruption of the operation of the system.

US2008266 Antenna Sleet Melting Apparatus, Fig. 3

With all that wire in the air I’ll bet a lot of “severance of the radiating elements” occurred. His invention was to simultaneously energize the radiating system with direct or low frequency current for heating and high frequency current for radiation.

One last interesting patent was US2119607A Radio Communicating System which dynamically modified the characteristics of an antenna system. This patent was granted in June 1938.

US2119607A Radio communicating system, Fig. 3

I love reading old patents and I especially love the drawings. In those days there wasn’t any CAD, the drawings were done by a draftsmen sitting at a drawing table. Also, at the time of these filings the inventor or his agent\attorney were required to sign the drawings as part of the filed application. With most everything done electronically today we don’t sign drawings anymore and there aren’t any draftsmen with their power erasers. (Though I still have mine.)

Just for fun, and as an illustration of the fact that art lives on forever, I checked the last time that any of Sterba’s patents were cited in prosecution. The above patent,  US2119607A Radio Communicating System  was last cited by an examiner in the prosecution of US7286092B2 Radiocommunications antenna with misalignment of radiation lobe by variable phase shifter which was granted in October 2007.

Art is art forever. This was (and still is) the bargain described in the U.S. Constitution, Article I Section 8 Clause 8 – [The Congress shall have power] “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” You disclose your invention for the advancement of science and the useful arts and we’ll give you some rights for a period of time. Radio being part science and useful art has benefited from this bargain over many many years.

And no, there won’t be any Sterba curtains sprouting up at my antenna farm (garden?) any time soon.

 

BITX40 on the air

Several months ago I purchased a BITX40 in anticipation of time off for the holiday season. I like to have some projects in the queue for the time of rest and relaxation over Christmas and New Year’s where rest and relaxation means packing as much Amateur Radio into the time allotted. Building, operating, repairing, you name it. For the past number of years my log always indicates a dramatic spike in activity through November and December.

I’m a regular listener to the Solder Smoke podcast. Bill, N2CQR and Pete, N6QW talk about the BITX40 a lot and so I decided to purchase one. The BITX40 was developed and is built by Ashhar Farhan, VU2ESE in India. It is a very popular SSB QRP radio that has a good-sized following including numerous mods.

Despite the onset of a cold\flu just in time for vacation, the solder must melt. To be fair, there isn’t a whole lot of melting solder involved as building a BITX40 consists largely of final assembly, making all of the connections between the I\O components and the the two boards.

The BITX ships really quickly from India. Mine arrived packed in a cardboard box in a DHL shipping pack about a week after I placed the order.

BITX40

The components of the BITX40 are contained in a nice plastic box:

BITX40 container

The BITX40 consists of the following components:

BITX40 components

The primary components being the BITX40 and Raduino boards, already assembled. As I said, building a BITX40 consists of final assembly. Farhan, VU2ESE provides a good set of instructions for wiring up the BIT40 on his site here.

The BITX40 doesn’t come with an enclosure nor is one available from Farhan, VU2ESE. This has lead to a number of creative packaging solutions from standoffs on a wooden board to this very nicely crafted homemade enclosure built by Mike, AB1YK. I was sorely tempted by Mike’s approach but chose to purchase an enclosure. I waited too long to order the enclosure and it hasn’t arrived yet, so I decided to build this in benchtop spaghetti mode.

BITX40 benchtop spaghetti build

Assembly took maybe an hour, working to minimize any magic smoke releases. I chose to connect the audio output directly to a 3 inch, 8 ohm speaker for the initial test as opposed to using the supplied jack. Once assembly was complete I hooked it up to an old Clegg Model 011 power supply and my Hustler 4BTV. I used the supplied mic and PTT button, both of which are quite tiny:

BITX40 mic and PTT

Given the progress (regress?) of my cold\flu over the last few days, by late this morning I thought that I would be relegated to one of the laryngitis modes, CW or digital. for any radio operations. But by late in the afternoon I had enough voice to squeak out the BITX40’s inaugural contact. After an uneventful power-up I started to tune across the 40m band. It was late in the afternoon (1600 CST) and there were a number of strong signals and some weaker ones across the band. I was really amazed at how well the BITX40 sounded. It has very nice, very clear audio. Tuning is accomplished with a single-turn 10K linear pot. Initially I thought this would be the first thing to change, expecting to substitute a 10-turn pot, but it tunes really well with the single-turn unit. After reading the mail on a few QSO’s where both sides had strong, clear signals I came across a QSO between N0JQX in Salem, MO and W2HDI in Stowe, VT on 7.165. I could hear both stations very well. As W2DHI signed, I gave Al, N0JQX a call. His initial response was “KA9” station calling, but he didn’t have my suffix. After a couple more tries Al had my full call and we we’re able to have a short but nice QSO as the band shifted around us. N0JQX was 59 here (with no S-meter) and he gave me a 54-55. This with 7 watts and some patience on Al N0JQX’s part.

Band conditions at the time

The next step is to install this thing in the enclosure once it arrives. At that time I’ll tidy up the spaghetti and change to a proper hand mic. We’ll see where it goes from there. This thing is going to be a lot of fun.

The BITX40 would make a very nice intro radio. It’s not difficult to assemble and appears to perform well. With a host of mods and a community of support it should appeal to many new operators. Plus, Farhan, VU2ESE has recently released the µBITX which is multi-band (3 MHz to 30 MHz), and dual mode with 10 watts on SSB and CW. It’s entirely likely that I’ll have to add one of these to my station at some point.

UPDATE 12/29/17

The enclosure arrived today.

BITX40 enclosure

It’s very nice. Heavier gauge than I expected. About 22 gauge. I got it off eBay from a seller in Hong Kong. $22.99 with “free” shipping. It’s probably a smidgen larger than needed but it will leave some room for any future mods. Plus, I’ve never had an orange radio.

 

Merry Christmas

General productivity has been down a bit over the last couple of days as the cold\flu has descended on our home and so far has my older son and I. Just in time to affect our plans for today. We’ll see about tomorrow. Not much being done other than sitting on the sunporch watching the birds, err I mean the squirrels dine at the bird feeders, while reading or watching a few Christmas movies while Cat#3 loses his mind watching the show outside.

Squirrel feeders?

While the squirrels helped themselves at those feeders a number of different birds were busy at some others.

Christmas Eve birds

Including a couple of different species of woodpeckers (Downy and Red-Bellied), tons of Black-capped Chikadees and Dark-eyed Juncos. And a few Northern Cardinals.

Christmas Cardinal

Plus it has been lightly snowing all day so we’ll have a white Christmas.

The largest expenditure of energy thus far today was cooking a beef tenderloin. Actually, most of the work was done by my Green Mountain Grills Daniel Boone grill. I recently purchased it to replace a 10 year old gas grill. It is a very nice grill. It actually represents the extent of my radio activities today as the PID controller has WiFi. How did we ever cook meat without being able to connect our grills to the Internet to monitor and control the cooking? <eye roll>  Even though our plans changed we decided to proceed with the meat portion of the meal. That was a very good plan.

Bon Appétit

Well it’s time to head outside and re-fill the feeders for another round of wildlife and then catch up on my napping.

I started on my BitX 40 this past week but haven’t made much progress. I’d like to get it on the air this week. We’ll see.

Merry Christmas to all. I’ve much to be thankful for including The Reason for the Season.

 

Shortwave Receiver Book

In the process of doing some research on shortwave receivers I ran across this book, Shortwave Receivers Past and Present by Fred Osterman.

Shortwave Receivers Past and Present

Unlike most books, the current edition (4th) is not available on Amazon. You order it from Universal Radio or the ARRL. I read a good review on The SWLing Post and decided to order one.

Within the week the book arrived and the first thing that you notice is that this book weighs about as much as some of the radios that it describes. Weighing in at 6.2 pounds it’s a boat anchor in the world of books.

Radio descriptions

The second thing that you notice is that the book is really well made. In a world swimming in Perfect Binding it’s really nice to see and feel a well bound hardcover\case bound book. The book is 800 pages and is filled with information on shortwave receivers from 1942 to 2013.

There are 370 radio manufacturers presented in alphabetical order from Aerostream to Zenith. Only communications receivers are included. There is a picture of each radio and a nicely formatted description. For example, the Hallicrafters S-20R:

Hallicrafters S-20R

This is a very good book that has been interesting to graze through. Now that winter has officially set in, it is a great book to sit in front of the fireplace and take walk along memory lane on a cold winter day. If you like old radios (and some new ones) there probably is still time to get one of these under your Christmas tree as it is much too heavy for your stocking.