The Wonderful World of Amateur Radio

After 15 years of continuous DX-ing and almost being a slave to the ARRL’s DXCC program (2001 – 2016), I took a look around and found that amateur radio – as it always has – had grown and advanced in so many ways.

My first “post VK0EK” effort was to dig into Top Band and learn more about receiving antennas. I spent an entire year doing that – even though it started out as just a “summer project”. It was really great to pretty much exhaust that “trail”, and I ended up with three very good RX antennas – Mod-Bob (my design), DX Engineering DV-40-P 40M phased array that rocks on 160M as an RX antenna and the FB Wellbrook ALA1530LNP receiving loop.

This past summer it was all about trying a “Ham Maker” project, and the URAT (Universal Remote Antenna Tuner) delivered big time. Not many others were interested in it as it turns out, but for me, I learned more with that one project than any other project ever. There was the electronic, the code, the product design, the difference between Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Pi Zero W and ASUS Tinkerboard, the hacking the Elecraft KPOD and its driver and learning all about antenna tuners and matching components – especially what a “true balanced tuner” is. Can you imagine any other project covering that much ground? It still amazes me . . .

This past weekend was my “FT8-Palooza”. I dove deep into FT8 and WSJT-X and nailed down a full secondary station, which now I can switch to with one antenna switch. I have what Ward, N0AX, calls “ham radio V1” with my K3 and SPE amp station, and then my second ham radio V2 station – which is the KX3 and KXPA-100. Both have their respective PX3 and P3 panadapters.

So, since VK0EK, I have removed my “DXCC Blinders”, and I am glad I did – the wonderful world of amateur radio has a fantastic learning opportunity and so many sub genres and different things to do and try – its a tinkerers dream. The camaraderie in ham radio cannot even compare with the very ugly and time wasting “social media” and “social networks”. They, along with the daily news depress and anger me – whereas Amateur Radio makes my day. In the mid 90’s I got rid of cable TV,  and after this past election got rid of Facebook and Twitter. They turned so negative and nasty and they just are total waste of time anyway.

Somehow hams have figured out how to play well with each other – certainly in a way not seen on the so called “social networks”. Maybe its the barrier to entry? Or that its a hobby with a specific topic – or set of topics – that keep us on track and on point to have a resonable discussion? Sure – there are small pockets of “miscreants” in the hobby, but compared to say Twitter or Facebook – what a major difference. Heck, even the hams I disagree with I can live with peacefully. Thank you fellow hams – you are a good lot!

This past week I was especially proud when I saw the Amateur Radio response and national press coverage of hams providing communications in and out of Puerto Rico. In fact, that was about the only good news it seems.

Ham Radio has been in my life since 1973, with only fits and starts between 1977 and 2001, but I am having more fun with it than ever. The hobby waited for me to come back, and it truly is better than ever. The word Recreation means “Re-Create”, and that is what I do when I participate in ham radio. I re-create and I learn.

An unbeatable combination.


FT8: The “Democratization of DXing and DXpeditioning”

UPDATE: After the VK9MA DXpedition I have changed my tune. FT8 surely is the beginning of something very exciting, but when VK9MA kept switching between FT8 and CW I realized just how much better CW is. On paper, using a mode that could work when CW was too hard to “hear” seemed like magic, but because there still was enough back and forth with FT8, what you gain in being able to decode a weak signal – you lose is the back and forth with QSB. FT8 would be better if it could send CW and just do the 599 TU thing.

I enabled PSK Reporter and am enjoying seeing where my signals are being heard and also tracking the FT8 QSO’s I’ve made. In my blogs I used to manually put together maps and reports of stations along a path, and with FT8 – the first digital mode I actually like  (a lot), there are more tools to map and do propagation studies than anything I have ever experienced before. The 3Y0Z path is of most interest these days.

I think the combination of KX3, PX3 and KXPA100 is perfect for FT8. The “fins” on the KXPA100 are awesome, and seem to be perfectly suited for FT8 and continuous mode use. I could even add a tiny fan if need be, but even after hours of FT8 fun, the fins were warm, but not hot. I also could keep the KX3 power way down to just a couple of watts, and didn’t have to waste $100+ dollars on an after market add on heat sink for the KX3. You ctually wouldn’t even need the PX3 . . .

I think the modular design of the KX3 and KXPA100 are perfect for an FT8 DXpedition. In fact, while I’m still overloaded and “wowed” by FT8, here are some thoughts on why FT8 is such a big deal:

  1. DXpeditions can work the world using a laptop, KX3 and KXPA100 – and it all fits in a smallish Pelican case – hand carried on a plane. In fact, the laptop could easily be replaced by an ASUS Tinkerboard for many thousands less cost to the DXpedition. The radio and amplifier also could be MUCH cheaper than what has been the traditional case
  2. Simple verticals or wire antennas can be used. I wouldn’t compromise on antennas though . . .
  3. Since WSJTX logs to ADIF – automatic uploads are easily done using a very simple script
  4. Instead of using satellite, a DXpedition could upload their log in chunks (packets) once a minute using HF point to point
  5. Others have already created log uploading software for Raspberry Pi’s – so your logging “gateway” is the size of a credit card – in keeping with the “small station” ethos
  6. As much as I think DXA was a cool thing – WSJTX in combination with PSK Reporter or other mapping solutions mean anyone can “play along” just like DXA, and without the administrative overhead, and in a more “open source” way
  7. After I make Top of Honor Roll and 160M DXCC, I might get rid of my “full gallon” amplifier for good. Low power and great antennas combined with FT8 are my future – and yes, CW and SSB will always be used here, but I have dreamed of using no more than 100 watts for a very long time. After getting to where I am in DXCC, going the full steam / full gallon / brute force route is very tiring and not interesting at all. Its lost its juice and so FT8 has me thinking of so many possibilities – which is where I was at in 2001 when I started DXing
  8. Younger people with a tight budget can get in on the fun
  9. People who want a “modern day” mode that fits with today’s technology and computing platforms will be interested in this – in a way they would not get on HF if it were still just the old CW, SSB and RTTY modes
  10. People with HOA’s can have a station now. Same goes for those in a managed care facility . . . or an apartment . . . or a dorm . . or a tent
  11. Mike, KJ4Z’s DX-podition is realized and the whole shebang has a tiny foot print

I am convinced that 3Y0Z should dedicate two stations to FT8 – one on 20M and one on 40M. This will pick up many little pistols and relieve the CW, SSB and RTTY operating positions. In fact, I really wish FT8 were fully automated and that 3Y0Z used a couple “robot stations” this way. They get 2 extra operators 24×7 who wouldn’t need to sleep!

I haven’t tried much yet, but also understand that FT8 can be set with WSJTX to look for the weakest signal meaning little pistols will be guaranteed a place at the DXpedition table. This “democratization” of DXing might be the most important aspect of all of this.


FT8: MAJOR Game Changer for DXPeditions

UPDATE: After the VK9MA DXpedition I have changed my tune. FT8 surely is the beginning of something very exciting, but when VK9MA kept switching between FT8 and CW I realized just how much better CW is. On paper, using a mode that could work when CW was too hard to “hear” seemed like magic, but because there still was enough back and forth with FT8, what you gain in being able to decode a weak signal – you lose is the back and forth with QSB. FT8 would be better if it could send CW and just do the 599 TU thing.

I sure hope 3Y0Z is paying attention (and I am sure they are – hi hi). FT8 – for sure – can guarantee that almost any DXer can get into the log. I’ve been watching the LU path – which is _exactly_ the 3Y0Z path, and while an SSN of 39 is actually pretty awesome for this part of the sunspot cycle – I am 100% sure that we on the West Coast can work 3Y0Z even though they will be setting up on Slakhallet in an area that is really bad for the West Coast.

Sure – I have expected that higher angles would get West Coasters in the log – but the openings would be like 10 – 20 minutes. With FT8 – I am sure that this opens up possibilities for hours that wouldn’t have previously been open before.

You know – controversial as it might sound – I really like what 3Y0I (the very “mysterious” and possibly non DXpedition) has announced an idea to have them call you – if you are a donor.

I see nothing wrong with that at all. Lets skip the BS that its “paying for a QSO” – because that already exists in so many ways anyway. If someone is a sponsor (at any level), the least a DXpedition can do is make a little effort to ensure one ATNO.

I say this because I truly believe that if get all pious about this you might as well expect DXing, DXCC and DXpeditions to go the way of the dinosaur. I would bet good money on this.

And you know what – FT8 can actually save DXing and DXCC, because the “little guy” might donate $20 knowing that s/he has a fighting chance – even if his/ her station is not a top gun. And even more importantly, any Maker who even looks at an FT8 Waterfall display will instantly be interested in ham radio and DXing.

We live in an age of ADHD and “eye candy” – well – this is it!

JA5JGY: My First FT8 QSO …

OK. Now I get it. FT8 is a MAJOR game changer.

I barely know what I’m doing, but I did manage to get set up well enough to Forest Gump my first QSO, and it was off the back of my 20M home brewed yagi.

Wow – lots of activity, and its pretty darned cool. I have never warmed up to digital modes before – I tried hard to get into RTTY but never got excited, but this mode – is too “mysterious” not to dive in and get immersed.

I can see how we now do not have to worry as much about the bottom of the sunspot cycle. Todays “numbers”:

Heard Island First Day Cover

Amazing. I just received the Heard Island first day cover from Alan Cheshire, VK0LD / VK6CQ.

These are stunning, really gorgeous.

KY6R FT8 Station Design

While watching some videos on FT8, some had mentioned the heating of the KX3. Luckily, I have the latest Elecraft heatsink, but then it dawned on me – I have the KAT-100 in a closet in a box. VOILA! The KAT-100 has a massive heat sink, and I also have a big gaping hole on my station desk where the ACOM-1500 used to be and where the SPE Expert 1.3K now sits and takes up far less space.

I also have a large very nice monitor screen on the wall that is unused – mainly because on my high power station I simply never look at the P3 panadapter output on the big LCD monitor, but also – it causes hash because the monitor is close to the antenna coax coming into the shack.

My $500 ASUS laptop that has 8 GB RAM and 1 TB disk actually has a CD ROM drive, SD drive, 4 USB ports and oh yeah, and SVGA port! It’s the most versatile laptop and even sports a very nice 15″ high res screen. But it has HDMI too and just works so well in the shack or wherever I give presentations – which believe me – requires such flexibility.

Using FT8 means its not something you listen to – but something you watch, which is a very different “sensory experience” than using CW and SSB – which is audible and (for me) not a visual thing. This means I can now use the KAT-100 to mitigate the heat sink issue for a digital “continuous duty” mode, and it also means that I can use the large screen monitor for FT8 – which screams for a nice display.

I will do what Mike, KJ4Z did and use the Tinkerboard as a remote entry point – when I want to play this station from work on my Smart Phone, but when I am in the shack, I’ll want to watch the “big TV”, sip a nice beer, and watch my computer make QSO’s for me.

With FT8, the only thing missing is a beer serving robot!

DXCC “Trifecta”

Happy Friday – and Cheer’s to the Weekend!

I need 12 more to achieve DXCC on 160M, which is a very big deal here on the West Coast. I will also achieve 9BDXCC at the same time – so its a double good achievement and now that its within reach, I’m getting excited about DXCC as much as I can these days.

I was going to put up a dedicated antenna for FT8, but realize that it would be more fun to put three things together that will really make DXCC fun again for me:

  1. FT8 as a new and fun mode
  2. Using the “Mod Bob” on 160M
  3. Using the Tinkerboard and Linux as my shack computer

There are other benefits, but this “Trifecta” of interesting aspects of DXing and DXCC means I have my own little personal way to become more active on the air until I work these last 12. Imagine that – 10 watts on 160M and with an antenna I designed!

Now, when something that I really need comes on the air on 160M, I will switch to my high power “Ham Radio V1.0” station, but in between, it sure will be fun to see what FT8 and 10 watts does on Top Band. And the DXE DV-40-P is ready on 40M and my home brewed and designed 20M 2 element yagi is also ready to go. The Mod Bob can be switched to 80 and 30M, so I am covered from 160 – 20M for FT8. I just need to put a coax switch in line to switch between the two.

I can say that our recent week long trip to Montana and going to the Planetarium and reading this book was the highlight of my vacation. My wife Kat is now reading this book and also loves it. It is so exciting to see how (mostly) amateur astronomers figured out how ionization and the suns affect on earth works.

But the one thing that the EU Space program is doing in a few years – launching a deep space telescope called “Athena” to study cosmic rays – is something I am really looking forward to.

On 160M, K9LA has discussed the possible effects of cosmic rays – rays that bombard the earth when there are no sunspots and very little solar activity. What is most exciting is that we simply don’t know how these rays may or may not effect bands like 160M. And this is exciting because I truly believe that FT8 can help us detect patterns on 160M that we did not see before.

It all depends on how many people use FT8 on Top Band and how we collect the data. I hope a project is started that does some propagation study on on this wonderful band.

Finally, I expect that FT8 could be a savior to those who want to work 3Y0Z.

Oh – and then there is THIS web site:

Who knows? Maybe there will be a “surprise”? We had a false tease with 3Y0G earlier this year, so I won’t count on it, but hey, October is always an interesting month – my favorite – when some “magic” happens.