Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Portable in a very windy Cumbria

Before amateur radio took over my life my main pastime was competing at dog agility which I did moderately successfully for many years, for several of those I was even the chairman of a Nottingham Agility Dog Training Club and organised one of the larger Kennel Club Championship shows as well as judging at many events. If you search my YouTube page there are a number of videos showing me and the dogs in action.

Things change and sadly I became disillusioned with the sport as seemingly endless rule changes and its increasing popularity saw it losing its core ideal, what was meant to be fun for dog and handler had sadly become too competitive, professional and commercial, too many people now make money out of the sport and what was once an enjoyable social activity is now spoilt by unsportsmanlike behaviour, complaints and bitchiness.

When my dog Boris suffered a cruciate injury the enforced time-out made me realise I didn't want to do it anymore and so I don't.. well apart from the odd exception, last weekend was the West Lakes Agility Club Show held in the small town of Haverigg on the Cumbria peninsula (Locator IO84IE)

This is a lovely old-style small friendly show with the bonus of being held just a stones throw from the sand dunes and beach. I had agreed to go and like the recent holiday in Skye it was initially planned with no thought for any radio operating.

We would be caravanning at the show for the best part of four days without any electrical hookup and the wife had volunteered to help on Saturday leaving me on my own for most of the day... so a plan was hatched at the last minute.


I purchased a nice new 'spare' 100A/h leisure battery and smuggled on board the FT-857D with some suitable battery clips, headphones, a fiberglass pole, some antennas. I don't own a suitable 'portable' ATU at present,  having borrowed one from SKARS on several occasions but as this was a last minute thing I would have to chance operating without it. I took the M0CVO HW-20P OCF-Dipole, which has a usable VSWR on 20m, 17m, 15m, 12m and 10m without an antenna tuner and the M0CVO Magitenna, but wasn't sure what I would get from this as I'd only ever used it with a ATU.

The weather was difficult all weekend, we arrived on the Friday to be met with warm and sunny conditions but a steady strong wind. There was bit of a battle to get the caravan awning up but we managed it.Saturday the wind just got stronger, the forecast for Sunday was for even stronger winds so it was dismantled and packed away, indeed it was worse around 25-30mph with must stronger gusts.

Undeterred I got the antennas up,  however the fiberglass pole I have must be getting on for 10 years old, and would often fly a pirate flag when camped at agility shows. It had already lost it's top section many moons ago but was still quite tall and so I hoisted up the OCFD balun and coax and the end of the magitenna wire in the buffeting wind and it was swinging around wildly - almost inevitably it proved too much and the remaining top section splintered!


Despite losing over in a metre in length I tried again and managed to get everything up, the OCFD wires were tied out to form a sort of inverted-vee using a handy nearby fence, the Magintenna was pulled to form a sloper across over the front of the caravan, but due to the lost height actually touched the front of the roof. Amazingly I got an almost 1:1 VSWR on 40m and loud and clear RX.    



This weekend was the International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend (ILLW) this annual event has been going since 1995 and promote public awareness of lighthouses and lightships and their need for preservation and restoration, and at the same time to promote amateur radio and to foster International goodwill.


The bands were kind and I had an enjoyable Saturday afternoon and a few hours on Sunday making QSOs with a number of UK and European lighthouse stations on 40m and 20m and it seems the whole event was a great success. Alas the wind proved too much for the remainder of the fiberglass pole and it developed a large crack in the bottom section forcing me off the air.


By coincidence Haverigg has two lights, the old Hodbarrow beacon and the restored Hodbarrow Point lighthouse (pictured above from the beach). Last year we walked to the restored lighthouse but since the restoration was completed in 2004 it is sadly looking in need of some remedial work.


I only learned of the ILLW event at the last minute and sadly neither of the Haverigg lights were activated that weekend, next year if the show is on at the same time I may look at trying to operate from them.

Oh and the wind? Here is a video of a walk on the beach on the Sunday morning..

Friday, 8 August 2014

FUNCube-1 & FUNCube-2 Decoding Update

In the film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" there is a scene where the lucky children (and parents) enter the "Land of Candy" where everything is edible and they run around grabbing a taste of everything. I am beginning to know how they felt.

Amateur radio has so many different things to try and over the last year I have found myself jumping around having a dabble at new things. Doing this and time being scarce has inevitably impacted the HAB payload and other Arduino projects. I have also neglected some of my previous satellite monitoring activities.

I had been regularly decoding the FUNCube-1 (AO-73) telemetry and uploading packets to the data warehouse (see earlier posts). To do this I had been using a discone in the loft and a FUNCube Dongle on the ageing main computer in the house.

This computer was on 24/7 but I couldn't leave the FUNCube dashboard running continually as the processor load would cause the noisy fans to kick in, besides for most of the day there wasn't a receivable pass. So I would just start up the dashboard when needed which meant remotely logging in from work. Due to an increasingly busy work load I would often forget or be unable to start it up and have got out of the habit. I therefore missed many opportunities to climb up the uploading ranking chart (it is really for the science honest!)

Of late there have been a large number of new satellites launched including the UKube-1 and the QB50 satellites which have modules and transponders as part of the FUNCube project.

Catching up with news after the holiday to Skye I noticed the announcement that an enhanced version of the FUNCube decoder dashboard has been released promising improved performance. The dashboard will also capture and upload (but not display) the FUNCube-2 telemetry transmitted from UKube-1

Looking at the FC1 upload ranking list I saw I had dropped down significantly and decided it wasn't acceptable!


As part of my antenna upgrade I have put up the X-50 dual-band collinear on the top of the pole feed with nice low loss RG213. This is currently connected to the FUNCube Dongle Pro+ dongle on the shack laptop, with the latest dashboard software installed.



It has been running 24/7 for the majority of the last week and has captured close to 2000 telemetry packets from FC1 a significant performance increase compared to my earlier set up, and I have now surpassed the 10,000 packet milestone (currently 11,626). I have also uploaded over 500 telemetry messages received from the FUNCube-2 on UKube-1. I have actually received more but a fault in the warehouse meant a lot were rejected due to a incorrect data field.

The FC2 subsystem on UKUBE-1 may not be enabled on every pass while the satellite is commissioned and the FUNCube team will be releasing an updated dashboard shortly for when it is operating full time.

At present both satellites are passing one after the other, with UKube-1 gradually gaining. So as FC1 goes LOS (loss of signal) UKube-1 rises elsewhere for AOS (acquisition of signal)

On one pass yesterday I thought I would capture some screen shots and show how I've got the dashboard set up for both payloads.

As already mentioned the existing dashboard can be used to receive both FUNCube-1 and 2, if using the FUNCube Dongle Pro+ by setting the central frequency to 145.905MHz and adjusting the upper and lower filter curtains both payloads can be received.

On the Orbitron prediction software you can see FC1  is overhead, with UKube-1 over the North pole.


The reception window on the dashboard is limited by moving the curtains. I have the lower one set at 145.906MHz just enough to filter out the centre SDR spike,  the upper one is at 145.945MHz. The telemetry signal on FC1 is at 145.935MHz but due to the Doppler effect the received frequency will vary above and below this nominal value, 10kHz either size is sufficient to compensate.

If you were just interested in one satellite you would move the lower curtain to around 10kHz below the nominal download frequency. However since UKube-1 is on 145.918MHz the lower curtain is set to below this again to compensate for the Doppler shift.

The resulting receive window will allow both to be received. However this does risks problems should QRM occur in the pass band as the decoder can lock on to this, luckily the improved dashboard software discriminates between the signal and noise much better than previous versions.

The dashboard below is receiving the FUNCube-1 signal (click to enlarge)
 

The data is being uploaded and checking the real time display on the warehouse confirms this (my old callsign M6GTG) however you might not show up every single time and the FUNCube-1 Flight Model tab must be chosen as seen below.


As the pass finishes and UKube-1/FC2 comes overhead and due to the omni-directional X-50 I don't need to change anything.


The dashboard soon detects the new signal at the lower frequency and begins decoding.


The received payload ID is shown in the bottom right of the dashboard


Again the upload can be confirmed by viewing the real time data page on the warehouse by selecting the UKube-1 FC2 Payload tab. It should be noted that it seems FC2 is sometime sending spurious data elements in the telemetry which the warehouse is rejecting so some uploads may not be displayed.


It is really that simple.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Noises Off - WiMo QRM Eliminator

As I posted at the end of June I was almost on the point of giving up on HF due to the high levels of QRN/M suffered at home.

In desperation I had been looking at some of the noise cancellers available from MFJ and others. I had heard conflicting options on their effectiveness but was willing to try one if I could obtain one cheaply. The MFJ units are in my opinion expensive to purchase new so I bid on several that came up second hand on eBay but they invariably also went for silly money. I was even contemplating building an home-brew one from the numerous designs available.

Then I discovered the WiMo QRM Eliminator, made by the German company WiMo Antennas and Electronics. Several online reviews and numerous YouTube videos seemed to indicate its effectiveness and taking up the then summer discount offer I ordered one for the princely sum of €147 including postage, around £116.

Due to heavy demand and low stock levels following the International Ham Radio Exhibition at Friedrichshafen I was told the unit wouldn't be available till the middle of August, so I was pleasantly surprised when the unit turned up last Friday morning.
I have connected it up and briefly tried it out and am impressed, as this video illustrates.


Even using one for a short time I would agree that they are something of a black art to set up and use and can understand why people might consider them useless, but this may be due to lack of understanding of how they work.

I have created a diagram showing a typical scenario.

The operators main antenna is designed to pick up distant signals, not necessarily DX but signals not emanating from the immediate vicinity, however they will also pick up locally produced QRM as shown, perhaps generated by a neighbours TV or PLT device. 

The QRM eliminator has a second antenna which isn't as efficient as the main antenna and ideally just receives the local QRM at a similar level to the main antenna. The device then takes this second signal and inverts the phase so when it is mixed with the main antenna signal the QRM is cancelled out.

The principal is quite simple, if you take two in phase signals and combine them you will end up with a signal with a larger amplitude. However if the signal is 180 degrees out of phase, the positive and negatives of the waveform cancel each other, producing a null signal. 

The tricky part is making sure the noise antenna just picks up the noise, if it picks up the main signal then that will also be cancelled out. The WiMo unit has three controls a gain and two phase controls it is a case of altering all three to maximise the cancelling effect without losing the main signal.

At present I just have several meters of wire running as the noise antenna along the side of the shack and this seems to fairly effective.

The unit is powered from 12V and can be left in line, but requires the PTT/TX-GND signal from the CAT/Linear socket from the transceiver to activate a bypass when transmitting and I don't have the appropriate 8-pin plug at present. If the unit is powered off the bypass is automatically engaged.

All in all, first impressions are good and looks like a worthwhile purchase.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Back from Skye


It is back to the real world after a great week in the Isle of Skye with almost constant sunshine, temperatures topping 28°C (83 °F) and very humid conditions. Some great walks with the wife and the dogs to some new locations, the highlight was watching a school of porpoises playing in Loch Bharcasaig.


The cottage was booked last year primarily for our holiday requirements with no thought of radio operating as this has come later. As I feared in my previous post my unpreparedness meant disappointing operating as 2M0NRD/A

Located on the main tourist route up the Waternish peninsula I didn't want to have any unsightly aerials up at the front of the property. It is situated part way up a hill side and knew there was a wooden fence at the rear and to the right separating it from the neighbouring croft. I had taken a couple of 6 meter long fiberglass poles which I could bungee cord to the fence and then string the OCF dipole between them or alternatively use one of them to hoist the M0CVO Magitenna as a sloper. These poles and wires would be largely be obscured from view by the cottage.

The rear fence runs north to south, meaning the main lobes of the antennas would be to the west and east, not ideal for any ‘inter-g’ UK operating, so I had planned to use the side fence. What I hadn't spotted on the photographs was the overhead power line running on that side of the property. I could have put them up but opted for safety and used the rear fence.


I set up base in the spare bedroom at the back of the cottage but I really didn’t get to operate very much. We were out and about during the day and I did dabble on HF for an hour or so on some evenings. I could certainly hear a lot more than I do at home with very little noise and had some very strong signals coming in. I made a few QSOs but other than the contesting I am still finding my feet as an operator and being mike-shy I find the HF bands intimidating. I struggled to find a free frequency but did call CQ on 40m and 20m but with no response even after several minutes, eventually giving up as I was invariably swamped by another operator.

Last week was also the start of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, not only did I see some of the stadiums and venues while driving up to Skye but I also heard the special event station GA14CG operating out of Stirling on 40m some evenings. It was a huge S9+ signal and despite several sustained attempts I was unable to break the pile up. Seems they were beaming south and being north of them in Skye I stood little chance being at the back of their Cushcraft X-240 with just 50W and my OCF dipole being end on in their direction..!

Having holidayed in Skye before I was aware of the terrain but having surveyed the cottage using Google Streetview it seemed nicely situated. Upon arriving at the cottage it became apparent that the mountainous terrain was a bit more imposing than Streetview had shown, so not unexpectedly the 50MHz UKAC on the Tuesday evening was a disaster!

I spent the best part of an hour tuning around the band, occasionally hearing faint voices in the static but nothing legible. I vainly called out “CQ Contest” for a while but nothing was heard, even using the tuned dipole – even if I had managed to build the planned Quad beam it is unlikely I would have fared any better. 

The cottage was meant to have broadband and Wi-Fi facilities but a fault meant this wasn't working all week, coupled with no mobile phone signal left me feeling cut off, ironic really given the founding principle of amateur radio communication. I did do some digi-modes but without an NTP connection the error in the laptop clock (several seconds a day) meant I was initially too far out of synchronisation for JT65 or WSPR until I realised I could use the clock on my Garmin GPS which I use for geocaching. Doh!

It is likely we will be going back next year and hopefully will be a bit more experienced as an operator and will be more prepared. 

Oh and here are the porpoises I mentioned earlier

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Skye Activations? Remember the 7 Ps!

As the military adage goes "Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance" well I have fallen foul of this in getting ready for my imminent holiday to the Isle of Skye.

Last year we went back to the Isle of Skye after our first visit over a decade ago.  We rented a self catering cottage near Dunvegan and a great time. The scenery (and the whisky) is spectacular and the dogs loved it, so we decided to go back this year. 

The cottage
The view from the cottage
The tasting experience at the Talisker Whisky Distillery
The cottage is no longer available for holiday lets, but we have found another which promises even better facilities. Last year I wasn't licensed, so this time I planned to take the rig and operate from the island.
  
The holiday coincides with the 50MHz/6 Meter UKAC contest and the opportunity to operate from the rare IO67 locator square was something I was looking forward to, I was totally realistic as to my chances given my set up, the terrain and power restrictions.

IO67 Locator Square
I planned to build a quad beam, there are plenty of designs on the web and ordered some fibreglass pole to make the spreaders but over the past few weeks have got sidetracked and left the construction till the last minute and it has turned into a disaster!

I abandoning the idea of a multi-element quad beam once I realised the sheer size it would be and the lack of space in the car and so opted to make a manageable two element quad.

I modelled up the antenna in MMANA-GAL to check the dimensions, made a nice short wooden boom, and cut the fibreglass pole for the spreaders, initially cutting them all to the wrong length! Cue expletives!

So I cut another set to the correct length and made the wire loop elements and tried to put it all together. Unfortunately the fibreglass spreaders are far too thin and bend and sag under the weight of the wire! Cue even more colourful expletives!

Plan-B is now just a simple tuned dipole and all I can hope for is some Sporadic-E on Tuesday evening!

I am packing the HF antennas a Magitenna and the HW-20HP from Nigel at M0CVO Antennas. I haven't done a great deal on HF finding the operating a little intimidating however I will endeavour to be on air during the week having realised in the last couple of days that I can 'activate' the island and some 'rare-ish' grid squares for the Worked All Britain (W.A.B) scheme, as well as 'activating' for the Island On The Air (IOTA) scheme. I might convince the wife to let me take the rig portable on a planned trip across to the Isle of Raasay for another activation.

With just 48 hours left I am rapidly reading up on what I need to do... as my wife pointed out I have had weeks/months to prepare for this... the 7Ps indeed!

If I do get on the air as 2M0NRD/A or 2M0NRD/P during the week please be patient and treat me gently! I will be on voice and maybe JT65 and PSK. The cottage has wi-fi so will post updates on my twitter feed @nerdsville.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Antenna Update

Tuesday night is RSGB UKAC contest night, this week on 432MHz. Following the frustrations of the weekend I spent a therapeutic Monday evening cutting various lengths of RG213 and fitting N-Type connectors.

I have now got a coax run through the wall into the shack, with another to follow soon. To facilitate 'switching' between multiple aerials I have fitted each aerial with a length of coax running down the pole, terminating in an in-line N-type socket near the base. It is a simple case of connecting the appropriate shack coax, fitted with a n-type plug, to the appropriate socket.

To keep everything water and weatherproof I have opted for a DRi-BOX. These are inexpensive plastic boxes sold as waterproof housings for outdoor electrical installations such as garden or Christmas lights.




The lid has a silicon seal and there are a number of cable entry points with a flexible seal. When the lid is firmly clamped securely in place the box is effectivly watertight.


It is a bit of a fiddle with the thick RG213 but it seems to work well. There was a vicious thunderstorm and downpour yesterday afternoon and the Dribox lived up to its claims after sitting in a few inches of water.

Still awaiting the X-50 collinear on the top!
The pole now has the 2M Yagi and the 70cm 7-element ZL-Special fitted. The 70cm aerial is far from optimal but I was looking forward to giving a go with some decent coax.

Tuning around prior to the start of the contest and the band seemed quiet, hearing just a strong local operator. The contest start time passed and I was met with a wall of static only hearing the occasional very weak signal. I tried unplugging and reconnecting plugs, new patch lead, took the VSWR/Power meter out with no effect after 20 minutes I gave up. I decided something was obviously wrong with my new installation at the top of the pole.

I went back into the house where the wife was watching some dreadful house/diy/makeover program on TV which I could only manage for about 15 minutes. Grumpily I went upstairs and fired up the FUNCube Dongle and twitter and realised I'd forgotten and completely missed the first pass of the newly launched UKube-1, unlike some lucky ones. Idly I tuned to 70cm using the discone in the loft and could see a waterfall of signals! Including that local operator with a lot of splatter considering he was running just 10W


Going back into the shack and things had improved, so perhaps it wasn't my setup! After missing nearly a hour I searched and pounced again, just making 14 contacts but achieved my highest score so far for a 432MHz UKAC contest, still operating as M6GTG in the low power section.



Various operators have commented on the weird/poor/flat conditions last night, so perhaps I shouldn't have been so dismissive of my ability to put up a decent antenna!

Monday, 7 July 2014

The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men

To quote Robert Burns
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy!
That sums up my weekend perfectly.

After becoming licensed my eagerness got the better of me and in a moment of weakness I'd purchased a couple of 10m ready made cables from a major supplier only to discover quite quickly they were made from low grade RG58 coax (you can literally count the number of strands in the braid) and the connectors while serviceable were so poorly fitted they fell off!

James that PL259 has fallen off again!

I had refitted the connectors using some solder this time and had managed to blag a 20m length of good quality RG58 (this actually has some braid) and I am ashamed to say these cables have been the weak link in my set up for far too long and needed to be upgraded.

I also needed to sort out the mounting for my aerials. Up till now I have been using a 5 meter telescopic painting pole that had cost around £16 from B&Q, it was okay when I was just clamping one aerial at a time to it but with the purchase of the rotator I has been chancing my luck with the loading, narrowly avoiding catastrophe when pushing the pole. I also couldn't fully extend the top section as the tube and joint were potentially weak. It was guyed quite well but was far from aesthetically pleasing, even in the summer sunshine!

6M Moxon up on temporary pole
I couldn't fit anything to outside of the house, not only for logistical reasons but also it wasn't sanctioned by the station manager. Anything on the side of the house would be highly visible from the road and the back wall of the house has too many large windows and an extension making it inconvenient to fit and access anything.

Never fear I had a plan, a 20ft (6m) scaffold pole bolted using swivel joints on to to an another pole concreted in the ground in the back garden. The garden was extensively landscaped a few years back but it was before I became licensed, so I hadn't planned ahead. With careful negotiations with the station manager I secured a location where I could put it.

Thanks to my local handy man I now have two 10ft scaffold poles, sunk to a depth of nearly 5ft and encased in concrete in the corner of the lawn. A few inches of soil was left on the top to allow the grass to grow. They have been left for over a fortnight to completely set.

Scaffold pole sunk in ground

I ordered a 100M reel of RG213 coax from Nevada Radio along with plenty of high quality N-Type connectors and various clamps and intended to sort out my antenna set up this weekend and banish the abysmal RG58 coax and PL259 connectors to some dark corner of the shack.

Before I took everything down on Saturday I managed to make contact with GB0TDF the special event station being run by the Denby Dale Radio Society from Cartworth Moor, Holmfirth for the Tour de France Grand D├ępart

A few months back I picked up a cheap rotator at the Dambusters Hamfest. It is designed for television aerials and isn't heavy duty but I was sure it would cope turning with the small 2M, 70cm Yagi and a 6M antenna on the same pole, with the X-50 collinear on the very top. However I was concerned by the potential lateral loading.

The rotator is a generic design and I spotted that an optional support bearing is available as an accessory. I chanced on one via Ham Radio Deals and had salvaged several good lengths of galvanised pole from a skip where I work. So the plan arrangement was as shown.. simple right? 

Planned arrangement

It turned it a frustrating morning after cutting the metal pole to length, bolting and clamping everything together I tested it at ground level with no antennas and the rotator refused to turn correctly and I narrowly avoided burning it out.

I checked poles and they were true, the rotator was free running as was the bearing. I unbolted, fettled and just couldn't make it work. I went away and had a beer while watching some of the Tour de France on the TV and in a moment of clarity realised what the issue was.

The problem was the diameter of the salvaged pole I was using. It was was slightly narrower (a couple of millimetres) than the hole in the bearing. I'd assumed it would line up with the rotator as it was similarly clamped, however when all clamped up top and bottom the pole wasn't perfectly perpendicular and wouldn't turn due to the eccentricity, Hopefully the drawing illustrates the problem.


Annoyed by this basic school-boy error I reverted to Plan-B for the short term, no support bearing! I was in bad mood now and so decided to leave the rewiring to another day. So I quickly put the 2M yagi on the existing coax as a test on the new scaffold pole to make a few contacts for the VHF NFD.

Temporary installation to test scaffold pole

Walking up the scaffold pole is straight forward, I have bolted a small cut off of scaffold across the top of support poles to act as a safety stop, lowering it likewise easy and I will certainly build up the muscles!

I managed to grab just 8 QSOs but was otherwise engaged for the rest of the weekend, however I was encouraged by the distances.
I hope to get the 70cm antenna up tonight on the RG513 ready for the 432MHz UKAC on Tuesday evening.
The birds like the new setup