Monday, 3 August 2015

Sneeking off to track a HAB

Following our sojourn to Scotland we spent this weekend visiting and catching up with the relatives, as a result radio activity was a little limited.

Yesterday we were visiting my mother-in-law and I had seen that the University of Southampton Spaceflight Society were launching a High Altitude Balloon from the New Forest. I am never one to miss the chance to track them and decided at the last minute to throw the Alinco DJ-X10 receiver and an audio lead into the bag with the laptop which by happy coincidence we were taking since it contained the holiday photographs.

After an enjoyable Sunday lunch I dutifully did the washing up and then as the others succumbed to postprandial somnolence I sneaked off to see if I could receive anything as the flight was already well under way.

I put the Alinco on an upstairs windowsill with the W-881 Watson Super Gainer antenna fitted. The radio which has SSB capability was still tuned to 434.650MHz as this was the frequency I used on the EGG1 tracker and amazingly I heard clear RTTY telemetry of the CHRISHAB tracker and connecting it to the laptop with a simple earphone-to-microphone input lead was getting clear decodes.


Being a silver surfer my mother-in-law has a broadband connection so was able to upload the packets to the tracker system.


I left it running while I returned to be sociable. When I checked back later the flight had ended but I was more than happy with the number of decodes I had achieved with this modest set up and proves with all things radio it pays sometimes just to give it a try!



The previous day I visited my mother and got to try my brother's very nice new Yaesu VX-8R hand held. I made a short QSO with MX0PPC the Central Amateur Radio Circle (CARC) who were running some intermediate classes that afternoon. My brother is getting to grips with it and its in built APRS and GPS and soon hopes to be spotted by the International Space Station digipeater.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

National Hamfest Balloon Launch

Following my maiden high altitude balloon launch last month of MADHEN Eggsplorer-1 at the World Egg Throwing Championships I have agreed to attempt another launch at this years National Hamfest which takes place on the 25th-26th of September at the Newark Showground.


Once again I will be assisted by the members of South Kesteven ARS and hopefully this time it won't end up splashing down and being lost at sea.

I intend to have a SSDV system running on a Raspberry Pi using the usual UKHAS RTTY protocol and possibly this time a LoRA transmitter which allows faster transmission and higher resolution, however this requires ground stations to use a LoRA receiver, this are straightforward to build. I have done some experiments with the code base developed by Dave Akerman but didn't implement them in the Eggsplorer-1

As to any special payload? Well following the yokes about "Ham n Eggs" following the sending of an egg in the stratosphere, who knows....?


Anyone interested in joining South Kesteven ARS and being involved then contact me via the club website at www.skars.co.uk or our facebook page

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Radio antics on the Inner Hebrides

I have just returned from a much needed break away to the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, consisting of a week on the Isle of Skye and then a week on Islay.

It was our fourth visit to Skye but Islay was a new destination for us. While it was primarily a holiday away with the wife and dogs doing some walking, sight-seeing, visiting the numerous malt whisky distilleries (especially on Islay and Jura) I also planned to do some operating.

Last year I did operate from the same rented cottage on Skye but this year I wanted to do some portable working on both islands. With this in mind and following my disappointment last month I had taken time to properly prepare. As well as repairing the end-fed wire "magitenna" that had caused issues last time out I had constructed a linked dipole for 40m/20m for a simple inverted-vee using a fibreglass windsock pole.

I took the Yaesu FT857-D with a small SLA battery for portable work and a small power supply when in the cottages. Unfortunately things didn't get off to a good start when I dropped the battery when unpacking. I had used a small screw-terminal chock block to connect to the power loom and the weight of the battery simply ripped both wires out of the terminal block and they touched with an almighty spark and welded themselves together. I acted quickly to remove them from the battery but it has almost certainly affected the battery. Despite this set back the battery performance proved more than sufficient for my needs.

During the first week on Skye, the South Kesteven ARS, which I am the chairman, had their monthly meeting and we planned to try and make a scheduled contact (sked) I did have a run through one evening to test the set up and antenna, drinking a beer and making contacts while sitting on a bench at the cottage watching the sunset going down over Loch Bay with the Outer Hebrides in the distance - sheer bliss!



On the night of the sked the famous Scottish midges were out in abundance and I opted to work from inside the cottage. A successful contact and conversation was made even if there were a few issues at the club that night. They were unable to get the planned antenna up due to activities in the nearby scout hut but like all good hams they improvised using an Ampro-40 magmounted vertical on top of a large saucepan until they were able to get a dipole up but by then band conditions had started deteriorating, but a contact is a contact.

Going portable I had planned to do some Worked All Britain Award activations, the W.A.B scheme uses the Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping agencies National Grid Reference (NGR) system to divide the country into 10km x 10km grid squares. The aim is for activators to operate from the squares and for other operators to “work” those squares.

In addition to activating squares, operators can also activate pillar type triangulation points (commonly known as 'Trig Points') which were originally used to carry out the surveying for Ordnance Survey maps but have now been abandoned and have become interesting relics and many are now sadly falling into disrepair, however many people still seek them out and a database exists at www.trigpointing.uk

I planned to try to activate some squares and trig points as the more remote locations such as the Scottish Islands are highly sort after as they don’t get activated as often.

Firstly before I describe my adventures let me be brutally honest! I am fat, in fact very fat and unfit!

I haven’t always in such poor shape, in fact I used to be a keen walker regularly going out at weekends walking miles and even completed several long distance footpaths, including The Coast to Coast Walk back in 1991. I then spent many years competing in dog agility most weekends which kept me reasonably fit but the last few years circumstances have changed and I now have a sedentary lifestyle and desk bound job. This coupled with stress, apathy and being a more than willing victim of comfort eating mean I have piled on the pounds.

Why make this confession? Simply because most trig points are on prominent hill tops and high ground throughout the country and therefore will require some physical climbing to get to them. I was under no illusion there were many on Skye and Islay that I stood no chance of reaching without some form of coronary episode! But I had identified a number of more attainable ones requiring on paper just a modest exertion.

How wrong I was.. 

On the Isle of Skye we were staying on the Waternish peninsular and I had identified two possible candidates the nearby Ben Horneval (TP1275) and Ben Geary (TP1269) while both were over 260 meters in height the maps and descriptions seemed to indicate reasonable but still strenuous approaches. However prior to us arriving the weather had been very wet and the ground was very boggy and when actually standing looking up at the hills I sensibly thought "Not a chance!"

Instead I opted to go to the coast, specifically Talisker Bay which is glorious and simply activate a WAB square NG33 while the wife and dogs occupied themselves on the beach. So off we went, drove across Skye and walked the mile or so from the parking area carrying the rucksack with radio and pole. I went of to a nice spot just up of the beach to set up to then discover I had forgotten to pack the coax... never mind had a good few hours on the beach and stopped off at the Talisker distillery on the way back.


I hadn't given up on a Skye trig-point and I had spotted Culnaknock (TP0664) on the North East coast of Skye, which was tantalisingly described as “one your granny could do” and had the advantage of also having a Geocache for the wife to get. So we set off in the car with the dogs for a grand tour round the island and ended up there late one afternoon.

There were a number of suggested approaches, on the first we were met with fences, livestock and a sign saying private and seeing no obvious path up we investigated another through a gate on the main road. This was more straightforward however the nearest parking area was a little way down from the gate. The road was extremely busy and we weren’t comfortable trying to walk up the road with the dogs due to the traffic. I was feeling at little peeved at this point and opted to stay with the car while the wife retrieved the cache and took a photo so I know what I missed.


In the end I made no trig point activations on the Isle of Skye, but should we go back at least I am more prepared.

The second week of our holiday was on Islay. Islay is simply a fantastic place to visit, much quieter than Skye, probably due to the two hour ferry journey involved and I did manage some portable operating between visiting the eight whisky distilleries and a trip to a ninth on nearby Jura.

The cottage we were staying in overlooked Lagavulin Bay with the Lagavulin Distillery and the remains of Dunyvaig Castle, it was a two minute walk to a high point near the ruins where I set up one evening and had an hour operating in the setting sun, again band conditions were poor but I didn't care, NR44 was activated.




There were two trig-points quite near to the cottage. Ardmore Point (TP0875), from the map this looked simple enough, however the road to Ardmore was a private road so couldn’t take the car and while walking there from the nearest parking space was simple enough time didn’t allow it.

Cnoc Rhaonastil (TP2293) was another potential trig point, locally called the Fairy Hill it promised spectacular views for short but steep walk, however again parking and access proved problematic and so was never attempted. 

The Mull of Oa (TP4976) trig-point I actually walked to being next to the American Monument which commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto and the spectacular location overlooks the very spot where the Tuscania sunk. The monument built to thank the inhabitants of Islay for their help is built in the shape of a lighthouse and is visible from many areas on Islay. Despite the very wet ground conditions the walk was straightforward however the weather put paid to any attempt at activating. The wind was very very strong, as this short video demonstrates.


The attempt on An Curran (TP0839) really was a comedy of errors, being a fairly modest 49m high and close to where we were staying it should have been straightforward. To get to the summit you have to navigate a dense conifer forest and I had read the description on the trigpointing.uk website of how to ascend via a gate and distinct path.

It looked short and simple so didn't take a map or the GPS with me. I found a gate and what seemed like a path along a wall and set off and quickly the path became indistinct and the trees were indeed very dense, so dense I was struggling to get through them. But I carried on going up gaining altitude thinking I must be nearing the top, however it got to the point I just couldn’t get through the trees anymore and there was no sign of them thinning out as they supposedly did at the summit. It started raining and was having to negotiate water filled hollows, heather and bracken hummocks and swarms of midges - this was not fun!

Eventually I did spot a clearing only to find it was where a power line ran up the hillside. I knew I was too far south and since going north through the forest was neigh on impossible I instead descended following the power line through chest high bracken back to the road, all the time worrying about "Serpents" as the locals quaintly called the adders which were prevalent this year.  When I did reach the road I had to climb a low dry stone wall and promptly slipped into a deep water filled ditch on the other side, losing a boot in the peaty mud much to the amusement of a passing group of horse riders.


I almost decided that this was enough, I was doomed not to activate a trig point however one remained on the hit list and I succeeded in activating it on the final day.

I had spotted Cnoc Lolairean (TP2283) when visiting the nearby Bruichladdich Distillery earlier in the week, only 29 meters high it was on a small ridge along the side of Loch Indaal and it involved just a short walk up a farm track and up a narrow track to the top.

The wife went of to get a coffee from the nearby mini-market and took the dogs for a walk on the nearby beach while I went to the trig point. What it lacked in height it made up for with the position with fantastic view across to Bowmore and down the Loch.

I used bungee cords to hold the pole to the pillar and soon had the inverted-vee up on 40m. I had around 40 minutes of operating, and band conditions were again poor with lots of noise but I did make a decent number of contacts running approximately 20W before the battery voltage started to drop off. I was especially pleased to work Stewart M0SDM a fellow SKARS member.




One unexpected radio highlight on Islay was capturing a SSTV image broadcast by the Russians from the International Space Station to celebrate 40 years since the Apollo-Soyuz link up. I didn't know about the SSTV operation before we went on holiday and so hadn't taken any VHF aerials with me so I just stuck a piece of wire into the back of the FT857-D and dangled it out the window to hopefully catch one of the passes early on the Sunday morning, I hadn't had time to unpack properly but the captured image was actually quite good considering.



Sunday, 5 July 2015

Prepping for some more /p

Following the eggcitement of last week I am been taking it a bit easier this weekend preparing for some portable operation in Scotland.

I have made a linked dipole inspired by the ones sold by SOTAbeams, it is a simple inverted vee supported by a 9 meter fishing pole the wire elements are made of sections which are joined together depending on the band required.  I have made a two band version, 20m/40m and it tuned nicely using the analyser. 

As a backup I have also revisited the "Magitenna" which disappointed last time I tried to used it. Firstly I replaced the original wire which was too heavy for the low power I run and is very prone to kinking.


While doing this I discovered that the terminal post on "the special matching unit" was simply turning when I tried to tighten the wing nut. This pointed to a broken or at best poor internal connection and I was forced to open up plastic box to make a repair, sadly "forced" was the operative word.

One of the four screws was inexplicably super-glued in place and being cack-handed I soon ruined the head trying to remove it and had to drill it out. Once the screws were removed I then found the lid too was glued in place at several points and had to prise the lid off trying to minimise any damage in the process.

Given that nearly all other ham equipment I own is designed to be serviceable, including rigs worth several hundred pounds I found this annoying and unnecessary for a simple antenna, especially as the ethos is for amateurs to experiment and modify things. It certainly wasn't glued for weatherproofing as it would be have sealed all round, it could only have been to stop it being opened. I could understand this if it were protecting some patented, copyright design but it wasn't, behold the magic within the "special matching unit" nothing but a simple un-un which I suspected already. 



Anyway I was able to tighten up the simple screw and bolt and ironically I used some epoxy resin on the screw head to try to stop it coming loose again. Hopefully this loose terminal was the reason for the poor performance last time.

I am looking forward to having another go from operating in Scotland this year with some more experience I hope to improve on last years efforts

While tinkering in the shack I kept the FT857 on and tuned around looking to give points away for the VHF Field Day and made a number of decent DX contacts using just 30W

Monday, 29 June 2015

First HAB flights were a success

Two years after discovering the hobby of High Altitude Ballooning I have migrated from being just a passive tracker and finally completed my first flights assisted by other members of the South Kesteven ARS.
Ready to launch
Back in March I posted about the opportunity I had to make a launch at this years Swaton Vintage Day and the 10th World Egg Throwing Championship

South Kesteven ARS were going to hold a special event station with the call sign GB2EGG. During the planning stage I jokingly suggested throwing an egg in to space on board a balloon, I shouldn't have yoked...

The whole venture captured everyone's imagination, sadly putting the special event station in the shade but we certainly got a lot of publicity for the club and amateur radio in general.

Featured on front page of local paper

There was certainly a lot to learn and get organised, not only did I have to design and build the flight computer which was the easy part but I had to build the payload containers get the balloon, parachute, cord the lifting gas (Helium) and build a filler assembly as well as getting official permission from the CAA for the launch.

The information on the UKHAS wiki as well as Dave Akerman's High Altitude Ballooning, From The Ground Up (and back again) were invaluable.

The cost of this venture was not insubstantial and thankfully MADHEN - The Ultimate Party Band agreed to sponsor the flight which helped greatly and I received a nice donation from fellow club member Mark Orbell (M0OBL)

Months of work and lots of last minute hitches but I was ready.

Two flights were planned an altitude 'burst' flight with a raw egg payload with a parachute decent. The main tracker MADHEN would broadcast SSDV images and telemetry with a telemetry backup tracker EGG1 suspended below it.  The second flight was a foil party balloon 'floater' with a tracker kindly donated by Steve Smith G0TDJ of ProjectAVR

Both flights flew and were a great success, unfortunately the SSDV tracker failed early in the flight so no in flight images were received.

The main payload is pictured below before the flight resting on its side. The Styrofoam box contained the flight computer and radio transmitter with a camera attached to the Raspberry Pi and the "flying saucer" model which contained the egg was positioned to be visible.
 

As this test image shows the 'egg saucer' should have had the earth below it.


However the arduino based backup tracker which was suspended below it worked perfectly.

There were some issues with getting CAA approval because the sky was very busy on the day including the last remaining Vulcan Bomber VH-558 making its farewell flight in the area, cue jokes about the Vulcan getting scrambled... but approval was given for a morning flight, not ideal for the organisers but we were still a spectacle for the handful who were there early.

Starting the fill

Checking the neck lift, made difficult by the wind

Stewart (M0SDM) helping me tie off the balloon and payload cord
The strong gusty wind made launch difficult
Me and Stewart making a dash to assist the launch
Someone was on hand to capture it on video for The World Egg Throwing Federation


It started so well,  I was receiving telemetry and image packets and then transmission stopped


However as I said the other tracker worked brilliantly and this was the final flight path as visualised in Google Earth. The ascent and decent rate and the burst altitude were exactly as planned and predicted, so I know I got the neck lift measurement right even with the high wind on the day.

Path of MADHEN/EGG1

A splashdown at sea was inevitable due to the wind conditions, hopefully it it survived the landing it may wash up on a beach somewhere and we can retrieve the images.

With what little Helium remained I was able to lightly fill and launch a foil party balloon carrying a blown egg shell as a 'floater' which made a valiant attempt to reach the continent at 6-7km high travelling at 120+km/hr where it reportably hit bad weather and was downed.

Path of EGGDX in comparison to MADHEN/EGG1

 All in all an eggscellent day!

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Portable Pains

I have just returned from our traditional June caravanning holiday in the Lake District, last year I was buoyed with enthusiasm to have a go at some more portable operation after operating for the first time from the camp site during the 2m UKAC Contest with some encouraging results.

Indeed during the last twelve months I have done some more portable operating, but while VHF/UHF have been rewarding HF portable has been a mixed bag with at best satisfactory results, but then the same can be said of operating HF from home.

This year I planned to again operate in the 2m UKAC Contest but rather than working from the comfort of the caravan I was going to work from some higher ground near the camp site. Unfortunately the weather was awful with very strong winds gusting upward of 50mph and driving rain, even working from the caravan was a no go.

So rather than enjoying this view with a microphone in hand...


... this was the how I spent the evening and as you can see Eddie was equally impressed.

 

When the wind and rain subsided toward the end of the week we did have some nice weather so I decided to try some HF. I had taken just the M0CVO Magitenna end-fed wire and using a 9m fibreglass pole I tried operating with it as a vertical and as a sloper both with and without counterpoises and despite receiving some very big S9+ signals on a number of bands seemed to be incapable of making myself heard, I did make a number of contacts but many reported weak signals and stood little chance of working many of the special event station pile-ups.

It wasn't helped that on the first day the radiating element connector broke, which necessitated cutting it off and stripping back the wire. I suppose in retrospect I should have been expected it as there is no strain relief on this wire, unlike the loops on the other antennas in the M0CVO range, I rectified this with a few cable ties.


I was running the Yaesu FT857-D from a leisure battery and around 30W as I didn't wish to interfere with the TV reception as I knew most caravans would be using wide-band antenna amplifiers because of the poor coverage. Indeed the one time I did wind the power up to 100W one caravan mains breaker tripped out, it may have been coincidence but I didn't wish to put it to the test.

Despite the lack of performance it was great just sitting under the majestic Skiddaw and surrounding hills while I spent a few enjoyable hours operating. I even discovered one of my neighbours was also licensed, nice to meet you Joe (G4LIA)



It was frustrating from a contact point of view and I willingly accept I could be a bad workman so don't wish to blame my tools but I think some serious rethinking on a portable HF antenna is needed. I am away to Scotland next month for a week on the Isle of Skye and a week on Islay, this time in rented cottages and am hoping to make a QSO with the South Kesteven ARS on the club night.

Anyway that all has to wait as the launch of Eggsplorer-1 HAB and the GB2EGG Special Event Station are rapidly approaching.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Some PMR fun

It was the Dambusters Hamfest on Sunday. Sadly the weather was awful with heavy rain all morning so was only there for an hour. Despite the flying visit I managed to pick up a couple of old PMR radios for conversion.


One is a Tait T535 2-Channel Mobile PMR which can be converted to amateur 2m operation relatively easily. Details are available on the internet including David Pye's website. I intend to use this unit to set up a permanent APRS internet gateway/digipeater.

While walking around with the Tait I attracted the attention of another seller who had some PYE MX294 units for sale. One was already converted to work on the 25kHz spaced simplex and repeater channels with CTCSS. The other was only partly converted and they came with a box full of spare boards and mounting plates and an original microphone and speaker. I wasn't really looking for any more units but seemed a bargain for £20.

The PYE MX294 was indeed converted and seemed to work fine on the simplex channels, and while it was receiving and transmitting on the repeater channels it wasn't transmitting the CTCSS sub-tone. With some sage information from Ian MW0IAN on twitter it was a simple issue to solve, using the oscilloscope I confirmed the tone was being generated it was the pot controlling the level that was set too low.


I have made a couple of QSOs with it and had some good audio reports. It is capable of 25W but has been set to 10w output so may increase this in time. Stewart M0SDM from the club was kind enough to video a QSO to illustrate the audio. Impressed by the quality of the unit I have ordered a second hand copy of the PMR Conversion Handbook as published by the RSGB from eBay so I can finish the the other MX294 as information on the net is a bit sketchy.



The Tait is proving a little more involved. It has a diode matrix board to set the Tx/Rx frequencies which has been set incorrectly. It also had a CTCSS board that was hard-wired in rather than socketed which I have now removed. The information of which diodes to link/unlink is freely available, however I decided to create a small windows utility to simplify the calculation. This is available for download from my website, it is supplied as is and with no warranty.


There are a number of modifications to add multi-channel to this radio by the use of eproms, but I am considering devising an Arduino solution to allow setting of frequencies and possibly selection of CTCSS.