Activities

TRIPLE BALLOON CHASE

The zero pressure balloon preparing for launch.

The zero pressure balloon preparing for launch.

April 19 I was able to attend my second high altitude balloon chase event.  As part of a nationwide competition the Purdue AMET club launched two balloons.  The Purdue Physics Society also launched a balloon.  This required a concerted effort to chase three balloons launched at different times from two different locations.  I was able to get in on the balloon projects since I’m a member of the Purdue Amateur Radio Club.   We’ve partnered with the other clubs to assist in tracking and comms support.  In the process, we’ve been able to encourage many of the club member to get licensed.  We even started our own PARC VE team.

In addition to the various club members out tracking I also had my son, Jared, riding shotgun; and friends Nick N9SJA and Tabb W9TTW in their mobiles.  We were able to track and recover two of three balloons.  AMET balloon #2 is MIA and hopefully will be recovered by someone and returned to the club.  AMET balloon #1 was a special zero pressure balloon that was actually totally constructed by the club members.  It’s designed for an experimental payload.  What it lacked in speed and altitude it made up for in endurance.  We followed it all the way to the end of a dirt road outside a small town in rural southern Ohio.  We were actually able to see the balloon and follow it as it floated along at 40,000 feet altitude.  I wouldn’t have believed that possible.  The Physics balloon ended up in a tree in a golf course community in Fishers, Indiana.

Liftoff for the zero pressure balloon.

Liftoff for the zero pressure balloon.

It was nice to really make use of the APRS features of the Kenwood TM-D710 in my mobile.  We were able to copy the balloon’s beacons direct from our mobiles.  It was also helpful to be able to tether my tablet to my cell phone and view the balloon in real time on maps.  This also helped us plot our route as we followed along.  At one point the balloon went right over my house and used my digipeater.  That was really neat for me.  It definitely took us into some unfamiliar territory.  We knew it was a good sign as it went past Dayton, OH.  Being that near to Hamvention land was some good mojo.  Can’t wait to get back there in a few weeks.

I’ve included a pic that shows the flight path of AMET #1.  You can see the red line is the path it traveled.  The blue line is from the pickup point back home to West Lafayette.  They must have turned off the beacon and then turned it back on again later.  It was neat to follow it along and see it hanging in the sky, especially after it got below 10,000 feet.  As it got cool in the evening the altitude really started to drop.  I wish I could’ve gotten a picture of it lit up by the sun and floating along about 5000 feet thorugh some rolling fields out in the country.

We’re looking forward to some more balloon projects this summer as many of the members will be sticking around campus.  We also have plans for using the kite antenna again.  Maybe this time we can send up a small, low power repeater.

AMET balloon path from aprs.fi.

AMET balloon path from aprs.fi.

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APRS FOR THE MASSES

My home digi in operation.

My home digi in operation.

For a long time I thought that APRS was pretty much a solution to a nonexistent problem.  It provides position tracking, but how many times can you follow your buddies around on a map before that gets boring?  It uses a 1200 baud packet radio protocol, but most packet has been dead for years.  The only exceptions are a few DX cluster nodes and some emcomm stuff.  And even at that, 1200 baud is slow when most any gear can run 9600 now.  So, what’s the attraction?

My thoughts changed after tracking a high altitude balloon.  APRS really proved itself invaluable in this endeavor.  We were able to not only copy direct packets from the balloon, but also see the beacon packets on aprs.fi using a smart phone when we were out of range.  This made recovering the payload much easier–of critical importance when there’s the potential for a high altitude to travel outside of state lines and beyond.

At some point the location beacons stop getting reported to the APRS-IS network if it gets out of range of a digipeater.  The last two times it was when the balloon was still 2-3000 feet up.  This prompted me to examine how many digipeaters were in my local area.  I live directly between two fairly large cities.  Indianapolis and Lafayette both have wide area digipeaters but there aren’t any local digi’s in my area.  Just one I-gate in Lebanon.  I thought it might be nice to set one up.  This should help provide coverage for local passing motorists and may be of help to the local ARES team in the future.  Just last fall we had a destructive tornado come through my county only 10 miles away!

I’ve done a lot of reading on different ways to setup digi’s and I decided to purchase an older Kenwood TM-D700.  This dual band data radio will operate APRS on one VFO and also VHF or UHF FM phone on the other VFO simultaneously.  This is different than many dual banders that will operate phone on both bands, but not data and phone at the same time.  The added benefit is that I now have a handy radio in the house for repeater/simplex operation.  It was easy to setup the APRS features and get the packets beaconing.  Then I enabled it to digipeat local WIDE1-1 packets and saved this config to one of the Programmable Memories.  Phase two involved taking the digi to the next level.  I downloaded

The guts of the system are housed in this box under the table.

The guts of the system are housed in this box under the table.

aprsisce/32 on my spare laptop.  I had to make a couple changes to the xml file and then it would operate as a digi.  Then I changed the 700 to run as a KISS TNC and connected it to the laptop.  This proved simple once I found correct straight through F/F serial cable.  The 700 still has an old school DB9 male serial port so I didn’t have to construct a special serial cable with a mini DIN connector like the newer TM-D710 requires.  After making all these changes I saved the config to another Programmable Memory channel.  Now my digi can operate stand alone or with the laptop.  Using the laptop is nice since it shows all the activity in the area and also handles APRS messaging.

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TS-450SAT

I have a feeling this is going  to be a long blog post.  But hey, sometimes I have a lot to say.  Occasionally, it’s even interesting.  If you like older Kenwoods or just playing around with different rigs, then this will be for you.  It’s not really a product review, just some general observations.

TS-450Over the weekend I hooked up a nice, old Kenwood TS-450SAT.  This is one of the radios I got from Mark Quebe N9EKG over the summer.  Some readers of this blog will remember my previous post on this adventure.  Sure was glad to have Dad and my sidekick Nick N9SJA there for the long day of work.  Initially, I’d hooked the radio up just to try it out and didn’t have spectacular results.  I could hardly make it work at all.  With disappointment I’d packed it away for another day.  Having  nothing better to do, I hooked it all back up again.  I think the cabin fever is setting in.  What I found out is that it seems to receive quite well, but has very little AF output.  This is likely something easily fixed.  Even better, it was now showing full power output into the dummy load.  I don’t remember it working at all last time so maybe it’s had some group therapy sessions in the shack with the other gear I’ve banished to the shelves.  Either that or reading the operator’s manual has paid off.  I don’t know which?

I attached an MC-60 mic and hooked it up to the hexbeam for some real testing.  This proved to be successful as I made several contacts on 17m, including DX.  For a smaller radio it has a good, solid feel to it.  Kenwood built some quality into these back in the day.  In spite or converting to a Flex-5000A as my main shack radio, I still love to spin the dial and push buttons.  But what to do about rig control?  I’ve gotten used to having all my gear interfaced to the computer with the Flex.  I had to keep reminding myself to manually input band, freq, mode, etc into the HRD logbook.  Then I remembered USB interfacethis USB rig interface kit I built years ago for an original Icom IC-756.  It was designed by N0XAS HamGadgets.  Sadly, it’s no longer produced, but it worked quite well on the 756 and also a Yaesu Ft-736R.  After I dug it out I found that it even had the correct 6-pin DIN plug on it for the TS-450, and it was wired correctly!  When you’re hot, you’re hot.  After a little bit if research I found that Kenwood used inverted TTL for their serial rig control.  I can’t even guess why they would do that other than to be different.  This normally requires buying their interface box or a homebrew lashup with opto-isolators and such to deal with the inverted logic.  Fortunately, the rig interface had a utility program on the software disk called MProg.  It allows you to change the settings and configuration for the FTDI chip and then flash them to it.  It worked quite well and I’m pleased to report that the radio is now communicating happily with the HRD suite.

Other than having to run the AF gain all the way up I’m pretty pleased with this radio’s performance.  The antenna tuner seems to be jammed up so I don’t use it.  Maybe when I dig into the low audio issue I can check out the tuner, too.  As I’ve researched it on the web there are very few known issues requiring mods.  That says a lot about the radio’s design.  It’s not fair to compare it with the Flex but it does perform solid.  I could improve it a little by adding better filters and maybe a Heil mic.  International Radio has an excellent assortment of them available.  Unfortunately, I could spend more than the radio’s worth on filters!  It’s still going to be an early ’90s compact HF transceiver, though.  I don’t want to try and make it more than what it is.  I think I’ll just enjoy it for now…and then on the the next project!

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CENTENNIAL QSO PARTY

Sunday afternoon I finally had a chance to get on the air.  After the annual Cub Scout Blue & Gold Banquet with Amber and the boys, I found myself with a few hours of non-designated free time.  This is a rare treat for me so I chose to check out the bands rather than do the work I really should be taking care of.

2014 is a big year for the ARRL.  We’re celebrating 100 years of the League advocating for our amateur radio hobby.  They’re planning many activities to celebrate this occasion.  One of them is called the ARRL Centennial QSO Party.  The League is using the special callsign W100AW from headquarters in Newington, CT.  In addition, they’re using volunteers in all fifty states to operate portable.  The idea is to allow hams to earn Worked all States by the end of the year working only W1AW/P stations.  Here’s the schedule for the year long operating event.  In addition, there’s a quasi contest for those who are so inclined.  Stations and operators are worth varying points that will be tallied at the end of the year.

I heard W1AW/6 on 17m this afternoon and had to give them a call.  That was kinda cool so I continued to tune around the bands looking for some action.  I managed to work Belize on the first try.  Love a little DX.  Tuning around some more turned up W1AW/6 on 15m.  The bands seemed to be in great shape I even heard stations operating on 12 and 10M.  While tuning around 10m I hear yet another W1AW/6 station.  This one was definetely the hardest.  I could hear the YL op easy 59 but she couldn’t hear me at all.  It took an hour of frustration and tuning around different band, but I finally worked her.  Now I’m motivated to try to pick my missing WAS states by using these W1AW/P stations.

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PROJECT APRS DIGIPEATER

TMD700New year, new projects.  Trying to kick off 2014 in grand style.  I’ve been so busy working on ham radio projects I’ve hardly even gotten on the air.  My online logbook looks pittiful!  Projects are really enjoyable for me…and often are very good learning experiences.  But I do miss making radio contacts.  One of my recent projects involves setting up an APRS digipeater.  Not a wide area one like in big cities, but something local that will help get packets from mobile or low power stations out to the bigger stations and onto the world wide networks.  This interest all started back in November when my buddy Nick N9SJA and I went chasing a high altitude balloon that had APRS tracking.  You can read about that adventure in my previous post.

I’m happy to say that the project is successful and fully operational.  However it’s potential is not yet fully realized.  I feel like I’ve just begun and have so much to learn about best practices and proper setups for a local digipeater station.  My choice of radio is a Kenwood TM-D700.  This radio is no longer in production, having been replaced by the TM-D710, but it’s still a good radio and available at a discount used.  It’s mounted in my family room and connected to a dual band J-pole antenna in the attic.  The antenna is one of those homebrew arrangements constructed from a piece of 450 ohm ladderline.  The nice thing about the Kenwood is that it has built in APRS capabilities that can operate on one band of the radio while letting the other band function for normal voice duty on 2m/70cm, simultaneously.  Right now this is a very simple arrangement.

The D700 has a serial port on the front of the radio that will allow it to interface with a computer.  This will allow you to get a visual on what the radio is hearing.  One of the programs I’ve used for this is called APRSISCE/32.  It can operate as a monitor only or can actually control the radio.  After getting a passcode, it’ll allow you to beacon packets from the radio and also directly to the APRSIS network if connected to the internet.  With some modification to the XML file it will also act as a digipeater.  So now I have multiple options on how I wish to operate the station.  An added bonus is now I can monitor local simplex and repeaters without having to go out to the shack.

So where do I go from here?  I think I’ll mount it all in a box and do a little cable management so it looks better in the main room of the house.  I also think it would benefit from having a backup power supply in case of power outages.  This happened just last fall when a tornado ripped through my part of the county.  It’s my hope that the local ARES/Skywarn volunteers might be able to make use of my digipeater when needed.  When the weather gets up somewhere above freezing I plan to construct a new and improved antenna and locate it outside for better coverage.  This attic antenna is deaf compared to the Diamond X500 I have connected to the dual bander in the shack.  Crossband repeat might also be handy as I have a couple dual band HTs that could be pressed into service.  A final option is to setup different operating modes using the Kenwood Programmable Memory function for each scenario.  This allows for five completely different setups that can be programmed into preset buttons on the radio control head.  I’ve rambled on long enough.  Stay tuned for another upcoming project blog coming soon.  After that I may get around to making some contacts!

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FT WAYNE HAMFEST ADVENTURE

The weekend of November 16-17 was the annual Ft. Wayne Hamfest and Computer Expo.  It’s also the annual ARRL Indiana Section Convention.  For my friends and I it signifies the end of the yearly hamfest circuit until the “Big One” in Dayton.  I try to attend when I can.  It’s held at the Allen Co. War Memorial Coliseum and is all indoors.  A real bonus this time of year in Indiana.  My travelling buddy, Nick N9SJA accompanied me to the event.  We didn’t go to any of the convocation lectures that were held, but did enjoy looking at all the wares on display.  There was quite a variety of new and used radio gear and accessories for sale.  I somehow managed to spend a couple hundred dollars on random goodies.  Nick had more self control than me and only came away with a neat book on cold war missiles.

In addition to the commercial vendors and swap meet sale tables, there were several displays.  I enjoyed the FlexRadio display since I’m a proud owner.  That new 6000 series SDR is really something.  One display that really caught my eye was an APRS demo.  I think their main emphasis was targeting the EMCOMM community but it’s applications are far reaching.  As we were watching the display we saw the Purdue University AMET high altitude balloon beacon come across.  The students are doing upper atmosphere and near space research.  The W9YB Purdue Amateur Radio Club was partnering with them to provide tracking and comms.  As members of the Purdue ARC, Nick and I were quite interested.  The members had texted us earlier to let us know when it launched.  It was really neat to actually see the W9YB balloon beacon on the screen as it floated through the area.

The Purdue chase team already had two van loads of students on the way to track the balloon to the landing point.  Since The Nickster has a Yaesu FTM-350 mobile in the mighty F-150 we would be able to directly intercept the APRS packets.  We decided to join in the hunt.  Off came the shorty dual band antenna and on went the big 5/8 wave for better signal reception.  It also turned out to be of assistance in comms with the other chase team since they only had HT’s.  We were able to access good maps using our smartphones and aprs.fi.

After a hearty dinner we headed out on our adventure.  The last beacon was heard just south-west of Kalida, Ohio.  It was just under 3000 feet in altitude and travelling about 40 MPH.  We estimated where it might go down based on it’s direction of travel and approximate rate of descent.  You can’t believe our surprise when we saw the first directly-received packet come across the display on the Yaesu!  We were only a half mile away.  Soon after that we got a call on the radio and the AMET/PARC students had recovered it in a field.  They had thought ahead and covered the payload with blue LED’s in addition to multi-colored flagging to make it easier to visually locate.  An excellent idea as it was fully dark by this time.  They saw a glowing blue light in the field that led them right to it.

If you’ve read this far you might be interested in some further information.  Here’s a nice article and video from the local station WLFI TV18.  The AMET crew has loaded several videos from the on-board GoPro camera on their Youtube channel.  A lot of this was boring as there wasn’t much to see besides clouds.  I skipped a lot of them but really enjoyed the take-off and landing.  Warning!  the camera spins around a lot and can actually make you dizzy just sitting on the couch.  Still, pretty neat to actually see the curvature of the earth from so high up.  Finally, there are some nice pics on the TechPurdue flickr page.  They show some really great detail.  This was probably the most enjoyable ham radio activity in which I’ve participated in a long time.  Nick and I definitely want to do this again.  Now I guess I’m going to have to start building an APRS station for the “Zed Sled.”

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POWER UP

One of the radios I received from Mark Quebe N9EKG was an old Hallicrafters S-40B.  I was hanging out with my buddy Nick N9SJA and we decided we should fire it up.  Seemed like a good idea since he was there with me when I got the radio.  I used my trusty method of bringing up the power slowly by inserting various wattage light bulbs in series with the hot lead in order to drop the voltage.  This is a crude method but it works.  I’m pleased to say that Nick and I both now have proper 20A variacs for this chore in the future.  I haven’t done anything with the radio but wipe it down with some Armor All and blow out the dust.  It isn’t perfect but it plays pretty well on the AM broadcast band.  The caps definitely need replaced and the pots need sprayed with some DeoxIT but you have to love it when a radio from the early ’50s is still working with no catastrophic failures.  It’s fun to listen to some old AM on the boatanchor radio.

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SOME NEW-OLD GEAR

I recently received an offer to remove a tower/antenna system and a collection of amateur radio gear from a ham in my old hometown of Indianapolis.  Actually, he’s the father of a high school classmate of mine and his wife is a former co-worker of my mom.  Mark N9EKG and his wife Susie got in touch with my mom to see if I was interested.  This was an offer too good to refuse for a cheapo like me.  Sometimes telling everyone you’re a ham can pay off.  I did a little Google Map recon and determined that it was a little more than I might want to tackle alone.  So, I enlisted the help of Nick N9SJA and also my trusty Old Man.  There was a narrow window of opportunity to pull all this off so we hit it hard and managed to knock it all out in one long day.

Originally, I’d hoped to save the tower but it was not in very good shape.  At least it was safe enough to climb on.  It did have a nice tribander on it and a Cushcraft R7 vertical.  The beam will need a little refurbishing but the vertical looks great.  I think it might be fun to try it out and see how it compares to my hexbeam.  It might be nice to have a multi-band omnidirectional antenna for listening and the switch to the beam if there’s a station I want to work.  We were actually able to dig a little around the base and pull the whole thing down while pulling the concrete base out.  My Old Man working the saws-all made short work of the tower and it can now be scrapped out.
N9EKG tower

After lunch we headed to the attic.  There were boxes full of treasures and some of the older radio gear.  This had been the original station while the kids were growing up.  He build a custom bench with many electrical outlets and a panel to fish the wires through.  He’d even had an air conditioner up there to keep it comfortable.  Unfortunately, that A/C was long gone.  We put some real sweat equity into retrieving that gear and hauling it down the spiral staircase.  Especially the Viking Valiant transmitter!

When the kids got older he was able to move his operation into a spare room on the main floor.  I bet that was a welcome treat!  He had a nice Kenwood TS-450 and TS-930 down there.  There was also an Amp Supply LK-500NT no tune amp.  This must’ve been a nice little station as he was able to work over 300 dxcc entities operating cw and phone.

It was a lot of work, but we still had fun.  I always enjoy visiting with another ham.  Thanks go out to Nick and my dad.  I also have to thank our hosts Mark N9EKG and Susie for their generosity and hospitality.  They provided some tasty sandwiches and chips and refreshing iced tea.  I hope to get as much enjoyment from the gear as Mark did.

I included a few shots of the gear all over the floor of my living room and then when I finally got it moved out to the shack.
N9EKG gear1N9EKG gear3
N9EKG gear5

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HAMVENTION RECAP

Dayton 2013
Dayton Hamvention 2013 is now a memory for the mental log book.  Only a matter of weeks has passed since the annual pilgrimage of hams, tech geeks, and wearers of tin-foil hats to a wonderous, though aged and smelly, facility named Hara Arena.  We battled some rain, we battled some hot sun, and even a bout of Dayton Flu.  We must’ve picked it up from some crotchety old geezer pawing our stuff only to complain that he could buy it brand new for a mere $300 more.  With the exception of feeling like crap by Sunday it was a nice trip.  We sold most of our wares and made enough money to pay for expenses.  Even in a weakened condition we managed to enjoy some excellent dining and cold beverages.
Rye

Some highlights

I found a Baofeng UV-5RA dual hand HT complete with drop-in charger, earpiece mic, and USB programming cable for $46.   That was a deal too tempting to resist even though I have a perfectly usable Yausu VX-7.
Baofeng

Bob Heil personally signed my copy of his Heil Ham Radio Handbook second edition.

HHH sig
 

I met Tommy Martin N5ZNO, one of the hosts of AmateurLogic.tv.  He was very friendly and personable.
Tommy M

The new IC-7100 was on display in the Icom booth.  I really want one of these when they’re cleared by the FCC.  The touch screen worked better than I’d anticipated.
IC-7100

By Sunday the Dayton Flu had weakened us to the point that even sleeping in and a big Waffle House breakfast couldn’t overcome.  We returned early back to Hoosierland with some goodies in our bags and lots of stories.  I already can’t wait for next year!

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DAYTON BOUND

Only days remain until the largest ham radio convention, flea market, commercial display in the nation begins.  Yes, it’s once again time for the annual Dayton Hamvention.  The event formally begins Friday, May 17 this year.  There are actually several groups that are starting their get together a day ahead of time like the ARCI QRP group’s Four Days in May.

I’ll once again be attending with friends Nick N9SJA, Dave KF9IZ, and Craig KB9JDW.  Nick and Craig have been going for over ten years now.  Dave and I just started tagging along a couple years ago.  It’s now turned into something of a tradition for us.  Unfortunately, Craig will have to catch up with us a day late do to work responsibilities, but he’s still planning to meet up with us when he can.

Each year we hope to sell enough stuff in the flea market to pay for our trip.  And since we cleaned out room in the shack, it must be filled with new gear to take it’s place.  Who really needs an excuse to stimulate the economy with the purchase of cool ham stuff!  We pull out in the Mighty Ford on Thursday afternoon.  Come and visit us in the flea market.  We’ll be in section F, spaces 521, 522.  In the past we’ve seen local friends stop in for a chat.  Namely, Tabb W9TTW, Bobby KP4CI, and his son Michael KC9MOD.  Weather forecast only looking so-so, but spirits are still high.

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