Tag Archives: QRP

Fasten your seat belts for FT8 @ camp

Early in the morning of the day that my XYL and I left for our most recent camping trip I was making a quick pass through some of my favorite Amateur Radio blogs and came upon a post by Bas, PE4BAS and another post by John, AE5X regarding the new WSJT protocol\mode, FT8. In John’s post he graciously referenced my recent post on PSK31 with my KX2 as an example of QRP portable digital operation. I had already packed my equipment in order to operate PSK31 from camp but I thought that I may as well try FT8. I pulled out my PC and installed the beta version of WSJT-X. I didn’t have enough time to setup the KX2 to check configuration and test so I figured that I’d just wing it at camp.

The second day at camp dawned bright and beautiful, perfect weather for digital operations. After a nice breakfast I pulled out my equipment to have a go at FT8. I quickly placed one end of my LNR EF-Quad well up in a tall fir tree and setup the KX2 and laptop. When I originally setup for PSK31 with my KX2 I used an older Toshiba laptop however the battery in that laptop would not hold a sufficient charge so I switched over to another old laptop that I purchased a few years ago at a local Hamfest with the intent of setting up a dedicated WSPR station with my IC-718. This never happened and in the face of my new WSPRlite transmitter it’s not likely that it will so I decided to use it as my portable digital PC. It is a bit more compact than the other laptop and as a result the keyboard is a wee bit smaller, but it’s still reasonably serviceable.

In order to confirm that everything was setup correctly as far as the general PC\radio interface I made a quick test with Fldigi and PSK31 using the same USB soundcard I described in an earlier post. This resulted in a couple of very nice QSO’s with N1ZQ who was operating portable in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and KA3OCS in Virginia. Both stations were very considerate of me being new at PSK31.

Fldigi PSK31 @ camp

With general functionality confirmed I shut down Fldigi and started up WSJT-X. Within a minute I had the interface to the radio and audio setup, selected FT8 on the Mode menu, and with a click of the Monitor button WSJT-X was receiving and decoding FT8 on 20m.

WSJT-X FT8 @ camp

WSJT-X configuration was as follows with the KX2:

WSJT-X radio config with KX2

WSJT-X audio config

This was my first experience with WSJT-X having never operated with either JT9 or JT65 in addition to the new FT8 mode. If you’ve not seen FT8 in action before, let me tell you that it moves very very quickly. The Band Activity pane filled quite rapidly and scrolled along at a rather brisk pace. I observed the activity for a wee bit to get a feel for the flow of activity and then attempted to respond to some CQ calls. After a few attempts I was rewarded with my first FT8 QSO, N4ULE. It was over before I knew it!

First FT8 QSO, N4ULE

When it comes to FT8, as Briscoe Darling once said, “Just jump in where you can and hang on…

In fact if there was a theme song for FT8, it may well be Doug Dillard playing “Banjo in the Hollow” as in the video. FT8 moves right along, just like Doug’s pickin’.

The KX performed as expected, flawlessly. The CAT interface with WSJT-X functioned without an issue. The KX2 mode was DATA A. I’ve read a number of threads on the heat sink temperature rise with digital operation with the KX2\KX3. In the KX2 manual Elecraft states to reduce power to 5W so that is where I set the power. Depending upon the ambient temperature and operation my KX2 sits around 21-25 C. It was about 78 F\25 C at camp and I saw the heatsink temp peak at around 34 C after several rounds of transmission. It would quickly rise and as quickly descend at the end of each transmission. I don’t know what the foldback temperature is for the KX2. I will monitor the power output with my OHR WM-2 the next time I operate FT8 and digital modes in general to see if I hit the foldback in normal operation.

Given our position in Cycle 24, recently purchasing a shiny new QRP rig might not have been the best timing but digital modes seem to be on the rise. They mostly certainly provide new opportunities to make contacts and expand the frontiers of Amateur Radio. Like all of the other modes, some old, some new, they are another tool in the toolbox. My initial impression of FT8 is positive and while it will take a little practice to get used to the pace, my guess is that there will be some more operation with FT8 and my KX2 in the future.

UPDATE: Bas, PE4BAS asked a good question in the comments, that being time synchronization for the PC. I forgot to add this into the original post. WSJT-X requires a means for synchronizing the computer clock to UTC within ±1 second. Thankfully my XYL’s cellphone has service when we are at camp so I used that to access the US Naval Observatory time service at http://tycho.usno.navy.mil/simpletime.html. Using this reference I updated the PC clock manually. Lacking a data service I would have used WWV. This Genesis Radio site has a very nice list of time signals around the world. If the PC was connected to the Internet I’d use NISTIME 32 (scroll to the bottom of the page for the download), which is what I use on my home QTH PC.

 

KX2: I guess it turned out to be sooner than later…

After reading a lot about the radio, and especially the escapades of people like AE5X, K0JQZ and KC0YQF, M0JCQ, and W2LJ among others with their KX2\KX3’s I figured that one would likely end up in my shack at some point in time…

Well, Brown Santa dropped off a box late yesterday afternoon:

My new favorite shipping box

I ordered the radio on 28 May. When I placed the order the Elecraft site indicated that the KX2 was backordered and that it would ship 10-15 days after the order. I don’t mind waiting a year or two to get a QSL card, but 10-15 days for a radio? OK, I’ll wait. : ) After a year in the market it appears that they still have a queue of people waiting to buy one. This is a great problem to have if your Elecraft.

I figured that worst case it would make it just in time for Field Day. Elecraft shipped it on 2 June. That’s five days after the order with one of those days being a holiday, Memorial Day in the US.  (For some odd reason it took UPS six days to get it to Wisconsin.) Turns out Elecraft not only produces great radios, they can compress time as well. Can your Amateur Radio manufacturer do that?

KX2: What’s in the box

In the box is the radio, the nicely printed, well written and spiral bound (how nice is that?) manual, the KXUSB cable, and the power cable. I also ordered the mic, paddles, and antenna tuner. I didn’t buy the battery pack or charger. More on that later.

After un-boxing I quickly put some Anderson Powerpoles on the power cable and plugged it into a Bioenno Power BLF 1209A battery, plugged in the mic, connected my 4BTV to it and powered it up. I tuned around on 40m for a few minutes and heard KC2DIS, Tony in Norwood, NY calling CQ. I responded to his call. He said that he could hear someone in the noise but couldn’t quite make out the call. I remembered that the KX2 has a speech processor and so I quickly dove into the menu to check its current (default) setting: “0”. I dialed it up to 20, called again and we made the contact. Conditions weren’t great and he said that he had a lot of local noise. He was 59 here and gave me a 44 report. Not bad for 10 w in poor conditions. We had a short QSO and I went QRT to install the antenna tuner and paddles.

When you open up the KX2 you will see an amazing amount of goodness contained within a very small package. The antenna tuner install reminded me that my eyes aren’t 20 years old anymore. Nor 30. Nor 40. This thing is small. Where’d I put my glasses? After a few tries I got the connector between the antenna tuner board and the RF board lined up and in place. The right panel has to be removed for the antenna tuner install and it doubles as the heat sink so the next challenge was to get the two screws back in place through side\heat sink and the power transistors. Did I mention that this thing is tiny? There isn’t a lot of room to work in that space. After a bit of fiddling I was able to get the captive washers and nuts back in place and secured properly.

KX2

With everything buttoned back up I powered the radio back on, enabled the tuner in the menu, cycled the power as instructed in the manual, and called CQ on 40m. After about a minute I got a response from KZ4D, Fred in Lynchburg, VA. He was 59+ here and gave me a 56 report.  He was running an IC-7600 at 75 watts into a vertical and I was using 10 watts into my vertical. We had a nice QSO.

I spent a bit more time tuning about on 40m. With a fair amount of noise on the band it gave me an opportunity to try out the filtering capabilities of the radio. One word: wonderful.

From the speech processor, to the filtering, to the CW\SSB message recording, RX\TX audio equalization, digital decode for RTTY\PSK (and CW), and the list goes on, this is an amazing amount of functionality in a very nice, very small package. This radio will see a lot of use on camping trips and other portable ops including some SOTA activations. I’ve been blessed with the ability to have some pretty nice radios and this one rises up into the top of the pack (pun intended.)

Put a little QRP in your pack

 

Portable Antenna Halyard

At my home QTH I’ve always used halyards to haul a pulley up that in turn holds the antenna support rope. It takes more rope to do it this way but it works much better than using a single rope. Recently I’ve been using my  LNR EFT-10/20/40 Trail-Friendly antenna a bit. There are two downsides to placing it well up in a tree, 1) it is made of very thin wire which is great for portability but I’m not really excited about using the antenna wire to haul it down because, 2) it has a built in winder\choke which again, is great for function and portability, but unfortunately the winder\choke doubles as a limb catcher. The solution to this problem is to use the throw line as a halyard, not the antenna wire. This actually allows you to have much better control while hoisting the antenna, and the throw line acts as the downhaul instead of the antenna wire. If the antenna does get snagged you can use the throw line instead of the antenna wire to work out the snag.

Throw line halyard

In the picture the blue box is the end of the antenna tied to the throw line with a bowline and the red box is the winder\choke. Using this method I can easily maneuver the antenna wire through tree limbs and overcome snags using the much stronger throw line as opposed to the antenna wire.

** Correct halyard terms courtesy of my very good friend, The Boat Doctor, of Sailing Magazine. The correct sailing terms are hoist and strike. “Strike the antenna” could have all sorts of bad connotations but it could be a fun phrase to use at Field Day. : )

 

Portable operation: Siege or Alpine?

In mountaineering there are generally two styles or approaches: siege or expedition and alpine. Siege or expedition style involves establishing a route with camps and fixed ropes while alpine style typically involves carrying all of your necessities with you as you climb. In most cases the siege style involves much more equipment, time, and effort, while in alpine style the food, shelter, and other equipment that you need to both climb and survive is that which is in the pack on your back.

Since I started my portable operation I’ve been using the siege style as illustrated here:

Could you fit more in this wagon?

I haul my TS-480SAT, multiple antennas, various lengths of coax, a group 24 lead acid battery, chair, table, etc. Gear that while nice to have, weighs an awful lot, is rather bulky, and frankly is a chore to lug along a trail. Calling all of this stuff “portable” is likely pushing the limits of the use of the phrase “portable station.” At the end of the day, it’s not really all that portable.

Late last year I decided to re-evaluate my “portable” station. I’m not getting any younger and I can’t afford to care for and feed a pack mule and even if I could my XYL would frown upon hauling it in the camper, so I decided to look for ways in which to lighten my load. The obvious place to start was the battery. Do I really need to lug around a group 24 battery? Yes it’s probably good for around 40 Ah, maybe a wee bit more, but short of an all day operation with an above average amount of transmitting at 100W am I ever really going to need this much power on hand? Not likely.

Given the fact that you actually can make contacts, even SSB contacts, using less than 100 Watts (that may be a shocking statement to some), and given that decreasing transmit power means decreasing DC power requirements, and given that the engineers at Kenwood even included the means by which to do so on the TS-480SAT, coupled with the fact that there has been all manner of improvements in battery technology in recent years, indicated to me that I should  decrease my transmit power and start to look for a newer, lighter power source.

Decrease the power?

So after reading Andrew’s post (VK1AD) about his experience with a new LiFePO4 battery I decided to obtain one as well and try it out with my TS-480SAT. So at the end of the camping season last year I acquired this:

4200mAH LiFePO4 battery

Yes, it is only 4200 mAh but it barely weighs a pound. I did some testing with my TS-480SAT with the power dialed well back and was pleased with the results. I could fit the radio, the battery, a portable wire antenna, and a length of coax into a small daypack. No wagon or pack animals required. This was a great start. But there was probably room for more improvement.

You probably all know where this is going. What is the next heaviest thing in the siege wagon? Yes, you guessed it; the radio. Since ICOM exited the QRP multiband all-mode radio world when they dropped the IC-703 some years ago the remaining contenders are the Yaesu FT-817ND, the Elecraft offerings, the KX3 and KX2, and some nice radios from LNR. The TS-480SAT is a super nice radio and is a very portable rig however it weighs 8 pounds. If weight reduction is the goal, there are offerings that tip the scale at considerably less than 8 pounds.

After a lot of research I elected to purchase the Yaesu FT-817ND at the end of the camping season last year. I looked long and hard at the KX2 which is close in price to the 817 but I really like the shack-in-a-box capability of the 817 (especially VHF\UHF) for camping. It’s entirely possible that a KX2\KX3 finds its way into my shack at some point but I’m presently happy with the 817. I have an FT-857D in my car so I’m used to the menus, I wish the display was a bit larger but it’s a small radio, and I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where it was decided that it would be a good idea to cap VHF receive at 154 MHz, thus precluding the reception of NOAA weather radio in the US at 162 MHz, an obvious feature to have in a portable radio like the 817.

FT-187ND and TS-480SAT

Its maiden camping voyage was on our recent first camping trip of the season. One morning I went for a walk with a Maxpedition Lunada containing my entire portable radio shack as pictured below:

KA9EAK Portable

The portable station consists of the 817, an LDG Z817 tuner and cable, the 4200mAh battery, a length of coax, a BNC to PLC-259 adapter cable, the UHF\VHF rubber duck antenna, and an LNR EFT-10/20/40 Trail-Friendly antenna. All of this comfortably fits into the small pack and weighs around five pounds. (I can actually shed the LDG tuner as I don’t need it with the LNR antenna. I purchased the tuner for use with other antennas and I just keep it in the bag with the rest of the 817 gear.)

The first setup was out near the beach at Point Beach State Forest on Lake Michigan. I brought along my arborists throw bag and line and quickly had the antenna up in a nearby tree. Minutes later I was on the air.

817 setup (light red line highlights antenna)

I heard a fair amount of DX on 20m but given conditions and 5W they couldn’t hear me. I tuned around a bit and was able to check into the SATERN net on 14.265 with Bob, WA5EEZ in Oklahoma with a good signal report. After the net I made a few more calls and came upon K0PFV mobile in Washington County, Oklahoma. I gave him a call and was able to make the contact with good signal reports, 59 sent and 53 received.

Fluttering on the bands?

Thus far I am very pleased with my new truly portable station. Yes, it doesn’t have the capabilities of the TS-480SAT station but it’s much lighter and easier to deploy. Plus I save money on back surgery and\or pack mule feed and vet bills. Both radios will make the trip camping, I just won’t be using the siege wagon much anymore. The TS-480SAT can stay in camp while the FT-817ND goes off on some alpine-style radio adventures.

Happy 817 operator self-portrait

WSPR @ 1 Watt

WSPR 1 Watt

WSPR 1 Watt

Oak Hills Research WM-2 QRP Wattmeter

Well I finally ordered an Oak Hills Research WM-2 (http://www.ohr.com/wattmeter.htm). I’ve looked at them for awhile and with the recent demise of Small Wonder Labs I decided that I’d better get one before I end up adding it to my “woulda, coulda, shoulda” list like so many other great QRP kits.  The kit gets great reviews on eHam and is one of the nicest analog QRP power level wattmeters around.

wm2kit

The kit was shipped lightning fast and I had it within the week that I ordered it. It includes everything you need for a successful build including a very nicely done case with labels for all the controls and connectors.  It’s a pretty straightforward build with a small circuit board with 24 components and two toroids that are wound to sense RF and then all of the interconnect parts and of course the meter.

The toroids are 12 turns of #24 wire on FT50-43 ferrite cores.

tw1

The toroids are easy to wind.  OHR offers the option to purchase a set of pre-wound toroids if you wish.  Here are a couple of good tutorials on winding toroids: Genesis Radio and Kits and Parts.  Here are the completed toroids on the bits of coax that are placed on the circuit board to to sense both forward and reflected RF.

tw2

Here’s the circuit board with all of the components installed except the toroids:

wm2b1

And here’s the board with the toroids installed:

wm2b2

Once the board is completed the work turns to preparing the rotary switches that connect to the board to select the power ranges and forward\reflected power.  Here’s the board with the rotary switches connected:

wm2b3

Once the circuit board and selector switches are completed the last step is to prepare the case for their installation.  This involves installing and wiring the SO-239 connectors for RF in and out as well as the battery holder, power selector switch, and external power jack.  Once this is all finished the meter will look like this inside:

meter_inside

And this is the completed meter:

finished_meter

 

The WM-2 has three power ranges of 100mW, 1W, or 10W with a claimed accuracy of 5% of full scale. It is powered from either an internal 9V battery or an external power supply. The meter measures both forward and reflected power so you can use the readings that you make to calculate SWR if you wish.

The only mod that I made to the kit was the addition of a Power On LED. OHR offers an option for this but it’s easy to do yourself. Pick your favorite size and color of LED, carefully drill a hole in the front panel where you’d like to place the Power On LED, and then place it and a dropping resistor between pin 4 of rotary switch S2 and ground. I chose a green 3mm LED and a 2.2K Ohm dropping resistor.

The complete build took maybe 3-4 hours with no issues along the way. Calibration is easy with the use of a DVM. Overall it is a very nice meter. It appears to perform very well and will make a nice addition to your QRP shack. If QRP is all about caring enough to send the very least this meter will easily help you determine just how much you care.

 

Rockmite

I have finally built a Rockmite.  Rockmite’s are popular little QRP transceiver kits that are designed and sold by Dave Benson (K1SWL) of Small Wonder Labs. Because Rockmites are well regarded and have been around for a bit over 10 years there is a small cottage industry that has sprung up around them to provide accessories and mods.  One in particular is a very nice case, the Mity Box that is built by American Morse Equipment.  They also build a matching key, the Porta Paddle.  I obtained both of these items for my Rockmite build.

Mity Box and Porta Paddle

The Rockmite kit includes all the components and the printed circuit board.  You can also purchase the connector kit which includes all the connectors and such that you will need to get your Rockmite up and running.  The Mity Box is designed to accommodate the connector kit that SWL sells.

Parts included in the connector kit

The first step was to sort out all of the parts.  There are 68 components needed to build a Rockmite.  I sorted them out using a block of Styrofoam.  (Obviously don’t put static sensitive components into the Styrofoam. Leave them in the anti-static bag they come in until you need them.)

Rockmite components

The Rockmite comes with a very good set of instructions for the build.  There is one SMD IC in the kit and you start with that.  Once that part is cleanly on the board you can proceed to add the rest of the components.  There are a few suggestions regarding build order as the board is rather small and you’ll want to follow the specified order so that you can get everything on with a minimum of interference.

SMD IC, resistors, chokes, and IC sockets in place

Board complete

Once all of the components are placed it’s time to add the external components from the connector kit.

Ready for testing

The Supplement To Rockmite Instructions document contains very useful information should you need to troubleshoot a build problem.  Thankfully mine worked correctly the first time.

If you wish to have an AF Gain control, and you will, you will need to remove R5 and use the 1Meg pot that is included in the connector kit.  In order to get the control to work correctly (CW increases AF Gain) connect the wiper to the hole previously occupied by the leg of R5 that went to Pin 7 of U2 and the right-side of the pot (as you look at the shaft) to Pin 6 of U2.

AF Gain pot detail

AF Gain connections

Once the board was built and tested the next task was to arrange everything correctly in order to get it all to fit into the Mity Box.  This is no small task.  After fiddling with it a bit I found it easiest to get the connectors for the Power, Antenna, and Key situated (you will have to solder the center conductor of the BNC for the antenna connector once you have the connector inserted in to the Mity Box) first though you will want to have the AF Gain pot inserted but loose else as you can see above you won’t be able to get it in once you get the board in as it is a tight fit with Y2.  It all fits in the case but there isn’t much room to spare.

Audio, Switch, and AF Gain

Power, Antenna, and Key

And the completed package

The completed package

After some testing at my station I took it over to my Uncle’s station to let him operate it.  He made the first contact with it to WB9GAA in Green Bay, WI.  About 500mW and a 599 signal report.

opr1

W9SIZ operating the Rockmite

opr2

W9SIZ at his station with the Rockmite

The Rockmite is a very nice QRP rig.  It’s fun to build and operate.  I’d recommend adding a Rockmite to your station.