Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Notes from the Shack - ARRL June VHF Contest

June is a great time for 6m, with Sporadic E openings occurring from time to time. So far this year, despite spending a good deal of time listening - or in the case of JT65 mode, watching, I've had very few contacts. Getting Guadeloupe, a new country for me on 6, out of the blue was a nice surprise though. New countries don't come too often for me on 6, and this one was my fifth, although one of them has not confirmed yet.

This being my first VHF contest, I didn't know what to expect. I was hoping that there'd be plenty of stations to choose from, although my home-made loop antenna at 20' isn't exactly world class. Before the contest I decided to resurrect my Softrock IF Lite SDR receiver to drive a spectrogram - or panadaptor if you prefer that term. This goes into a newly acquired 192KHz bandwidth USB audio interface for display using the SDR Sharp software. The Softrock is now in a project box purchased at Dayton, with a 1/4" stereo phone plug for the audio interface, a BNC connector for the IF cable, Power Poles for the 13.8 VDC input and a power switch. The receiver draws very little current but now that the station has battery backup it's best to eliminate even small current drains.

Initially, SDR Sharp showed many spikes in the signal of up to about 25db, and also a hump of about 25db for 3KHz on either side of DC. Neither of these are desirable. A clip-on ferrite on the cable between the receiver and the audio interface reduced the spikes to less than 10db which is a lot better, but the DC hump was still there when the contest started. That will have to be investigated another day, and hopefully it will be solved in time for Field Day. Even with these limitations, though, the spectrum display proved to be very useful in the contest.

The above photo is before the choke was installed. Below is how it looks after installation. As you can see it made quite a difference.

Only one contact was made on Friday evening, which was with John VA3JI, at a distance of about 10km. I heard C6AT in the Bahamas as well, and he copied part of my call before fading away forever. That was the only Sporadic E activity heard the entire weekend.

In the end, there were 5 Canadian stations and 3 US stations in the log, all but one using CW, including Mike VE3FGU up in Keswick. The 3 US stations were all in New York, which surprisingly is a new state for me, most likely courtesy of tropospheric scatter. One of the New York stations was in my own grid square, and all the Canadians were there or in FN04, but the other two New York State stations were new. So in total my log showed 8 stations worked with 4 multipliers for a whopping 32 points. The great thing about a low score is that I have a very good chance of beating it next year!

VE3UBL/B, our local 6m beacon, was a constant companion on the spectrogram. The morse code could be read directly from the display. All the contacts were found using it. I found it to be about as sensitive as my ears, but searching the band was way faster visually. The next thing I need to work on after getting rid of the hump is calibration of the display against the K3 so I can read the frequency directly instead of just having a relative indication. At $25 for the kit and $10 or so for parts to mount it is a much less expensive option that the $1,500 or so for the Elecraft P3 (yes, it's cheaper than that, but with US dollars, shipping, HST and the fact that I'd be compelled to buy the external monitor option, it would be about $1,500 by the time it was installed in the shack, plus another $200 for a dedicated monitor).

Monday, 22 June 2015

Summer Starts with a Bang on 6m

On June 21st, the first full day of Summer in the Northern Hemisphere, 6m was in fine form. After noticing various CW and SSB signals on the 'scope, I managed to work a couple of US stations but found that most signals I was seeing were answering other stations rather than calling. To see how conditions were, I fired up WSJT-X and connected to the pskreporter web site.

This combination can show who hears your station, whether they answer or not. I only starting using it this year and have seen nothing like it before. Most of the time I see half a dozen stations that can hear me - often less. When there's no enhanced propagation it's usually the same 3 stations, VE3NLS, VE3CGR and K2MJ across the lake. Many openings go to the South East US stations but it is rare to see the Western US. The picture I saw when I opened pskreporter this time was extraordinary. I wish I could have worked them all.

Each of the little balloon tags represents a station that heard me. You can see a huge swath in the South East US but also the North East, Mid West and South West all well-represented.

By the end of the day I'd logged a couple of new countries (Venezuela and the Dominican Republic) and a dozen new grid squares. Pretty good for a little delta loop antenna that is lower than the roof of the house.

It's also interesting that stations 100km away are almost always workable on 6m. This is well beyond line of sight and more than likely is a result of tropospheric scatter, too weak for SSB communications but easily done with JT65.

What an amazing day for 6m!

Saturday, 20 June 2015

YRARC Trailers at Field Day

Both YRARC trailers will be deployed at YRARC's ARRL Field Day Event June 26-28. The Communications Trailer will be used for the GOTA (get on the air) station, for use by new, returning or non-hams. The Antenna trailer will support a number of different antennas as well as, traditionally, the Canadian Flag.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The YRARC Communications trailer will be in action for the 2015 Jazz Fest to be held in Newmarket Ontario July 31 - Aug 3 at the River Walk Commons park area and community centre on Doug Duncan Drive

Don Matthews VE3IXJ has offered to act as the Club's representative and manager of the trailer and contents for the duration of the 2015 Newmarket Jazz Fest event.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Thank you to all the club members who came out to support the following three events this past weekend.
  • MT Albert Parade
  • MT Albert 5K Run
  • Aurora Street Festival
Because of the efforts of the following these event ran smoothly and were for the most part uneventful for the participants. In no particular order.
  • Steve VE3EZ
  • Garrett VA3PYP
  • Colleen VE3PQP
  • Barry VA3LLT
  • Rob VE3RQB
  • Carlos VA3CAZ
  • Benny VE3MUU
  • Ben VA3MUU
  • John VE3POJ
  • Don VE3IXJ
  • Glenn VA3AU
  • Bruce VE3EVV
  • Geoff VA3GS
Eric VE3EB
Public Service Director

Sunday, 7 June 2015

MADD Poker Run - May 31, 2015

Well it wasn't the best of weather. Not the best at all. The high of 13C was reached overnight, with a high of 10 for the remainder of the day. It was also raining - sometimes heavily, but it was mostly just a persistent drizzle. When you're riding a motorcycle though, light rain can be like a fully clothed dip in the pool - and a cold pool at that. The hardy souls that turned out were dressed for the occasion and made the most of the situation.

Consequently the turnout wasn't great. We had 11 motorcycles, 1 motor scooter, and one trike. Plus a few cars, and an OPP SUV and motorcycle rider who drove the route to help keep them safe, and of course observing all relevant statutes. Rob VE3RQB and Carlos VA3CAZ stationed themselves at Mount Albert Public School. Two Steve's, VE3UT and VE3EZ were at the Udora Community Hall, while John VE3POJ ensconced himself at Tim Horton's in Keswick after following the first wave of MADD riders along the first part of the route. Me? I stayed behind at the Newmarket Town Hall to be net control using VE3YRK VHF with D-STAR.

One of the riders turned out to be Jay, VA3COW, and Gary VE3NMI was on the organizing team and we had plenty of time to chew the rag about radio subjects. Everyone made it back to Newmarket Town Hall for the barbecue after the riders had all returned safely. Gary is on the left in this picture.

The ride itself was uneventful. We keep track of when the groups arrived at the checkpoints. We were a little concerned when the second group's chase car arrived at the second checkpoint in Udora before the bikes did, and they were 10 minutes overdue. Fortunately they showed up before we had organized a search party. Then they arrived at checkpoint 3 in Keswick before the first group - quite a feat as they were 40 minutes behind them. It turns out they took a shortcut which at least meant that everyone would arrive back at the Community Hall at about the same time for the food. From left to right Carlos VA3CAZ, Steve VE3UT and Rob VE3RQB.

At about 1:30 we called it a day and headed back to our warm abodes. While the WX wasn't the greatest we had a good time and let the organizers know we'd be back next year - hopefully to a warm sunny day like previous years.

73 de Chris

Saturday, 6 June 2015

WSJT-X V1.5 Released

Development of WSJT is very active right now. While 1.5 was in its final phases of testing (so-called "Release Candidates") the development team were hard at work on V1.6. The main feature of the new release is improved decoding, in terms of both the ability to decode weak signals and the speed it which decoding takes place. The decoding speed is greatly enhanced by the use of multiple processing threads (it looks like up to four). On my 3 year-old Pentium Core i7 computer the improvement is dramatic, normally with sub-second decoding times.

Release 1.6, which is under active development, is attempting to consolidate all the JT "slow" modes, like JT4, JT65A, B and C, and WSPR. WSPR is getting the most attention now and will include a scheduler for band hopping based on 4 time periods, which are day, night, and the twilight periods for gray line propagation. I think this will really increase usage of WSPR worldwide once it is released.

If you want a copy of WSJT-X V1.5, you can download it for free from the WSJT-X Web Site. If your station can run PSK31, then you can run WSJT-X, although you will need a way to synchronize your computer clock. Usually that's done with time servers on the Internet (more free software), although you can also use GPS or time signal stations.

Friday, 5 June 2015

This Year's Harvey Bell Award

Congratulations to the winners of this year's Harvey Bell award. Harvey Bell VE3AFK died suddenly in December, 1970 while president of the club. His influence and leadership in club affairs will long be remembered by amateurs who knew him personally. On behalf of the members I would like to thank you for your efforts and achievements for the benefit of the club.

This year's co-winners are Eric Brown VE3EB and Steve Holland VE3UT. We hope to have the trophy ready for presentation at Field Day.

Those who were at the meeting will know the reason for the strange looking handshake with Steve VE3UT.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

The YRARC 2015-2016 Board of Directors

On Tuesday, June 2nd the club elected 6 directors for the 2015-2016 term, with four others continuing their two year terms into the new year. We're very pleased to welcome Alf VA3BLE and Doug VE3ATP to the Board. Reelected were Chris VE3NRT, Steve VE3UT, John VA3JI and Barry VA3LLT. While we're excited to have brand new members, we sad to see Chris VA3DXZ leave at the end of his term on June 30th, and thank him for his contribution as Secretary over the past two years.

In the picture (photo credit to returning member Jay VA3COW) are Alf VA3BLE, Doug VE3ATP, Eric VE3EB, Chris VE3NRT, Steve VE3UT, Geoff VA3GS, Barry VA3LLT, David VA3DCY and Rob VE3RQB. Absent VA3JI.

The last meeting of the old Board will be on June 16th with both our new directors requested to attend.

Chris VE3NRT

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Minutes - YRARC Board May 19th, 2015

Meeting held in the Magna Centre. Called to order at 19:03. Chaired by Chris VE3NRT. Board members attending; Chris VE3NRT, Rob VE3RQB, Chris VA3DXZ, Eric VE3EB, Steve VE3UT, David VA3DCY, John VA3JI, Geoff VA3GS. Board members absent: Barry VA3LLT. Guests attending; Bob Rennie VA3BSJ
  1. Agenda (attached)
    • Motion 2015-05-19-01 by John VA3JI to adopt agenda, seconded by David VA3DCY.
      • Steve VE3UT requested that Field Day be discussed under other business
      • John VA3JI requested that the audit report be added as item b under governance
      • Eric VE3EB requested that the board discuss a recent EmComm email
      • Motion carried.
  2. Adoption of Apr 21, 2015 board meeting minutes
    • Motion 2015-05-19-02 by Eric VE3EB to adopt Apr 21, 2015 board meeting minutes as published in the splatter blog at http://yrarc-splatter.blogspot.ca/, seconded by Geoff VA3GS. Motion carried.
  3. Governance
    • Treasurer’s report (John VA3JI)
      • No change in the bank balance vs that last reported at the general meeting
      • Auditor’s report (John VA3JI)
        • Conclusion stated in the report "While my examination of the records did not unearth any major concerns there are a few administrative items to which I have provided to the Board of Directors with my recommendations"
        • The board, together with the auditor discussed the auditor’s recommendations
        • The auditor’s report is attached for further reference
  4. Property
    • In reference to motion 2015-04-21-05 that Chris VE3NRT contact EMS at Bales Road, to determine who we should contact or notify to access our trailers, Chris VE3NRT reported:vHe called the general number 905 830-4444 x74750 April 22 and was put through to security where he spoke with Adam. Adam was not aware of any restriction on access or protocol to be followed at this time and advised that we speak with Blair Croker (Commander & Program Manager) at x74744 for further information or questions if necessary.
    • Club generator repair: Rob VE3RQB reported that the spark plug threads on the black generator last used at the winter field day had been repaired and that the generator is working properly. He determined that the electrical output breaker needs to be “OFF” in order to start the generator and that this may have been the cause of the trouble starting the generator during field day.
    • Disposal of equipment cabinets: Motion 2015-05-19-03 by Geoff VA3GS that we accept Doug VE3ATP’s offer to dispose of the 2 surplus equipment cabinets (excluding the fans which will be retained for spares) located at Mackenzie Health in Richmond Hill, seconded by Steve VE3UT. Motion carried
    • “Drive-on” antenna support bracket
      • Rob VE3RQB suggested that the club should consider purchasing two additional drive-on antenna supports. These could be used in combination with the existing unit in the communications trailer to secure guy ropes for the tower trailer when deployed on surfaces where it is not possible to drive anchors into the ground (example would be a deployment on pavement).
      • Rob VE3RQB will investigate our options and report back to the board
  5. Repeaters (Steve VE3UT)
    • The 6m repeater cans are with Rob VE3RQB and ready to be taken to Bob VE3WY for adjustment / tuning
    • Trevor VE3SLT has volunteered to retune the 6m radio to the repeater frequency
    • Steve VE3UT reported that he has spent $142.28 against the maintenance float of which $128.00 was on parking at the Mackenzie Health site. Additional funding is needed to purchase the 6m antenna.
    • Motion 2015-05-19-04 by John VA3Ji to allocate $150.00 for the purchase of the 6m antenna, seconded by Geoff VA3GS. Motion carried.
  6. Events (Eric VE3EB)
    • May 31 York - Simcoe Riders MADD Charity Ride - Volunteers are secured
    • June 5 Mt. Albert Sports Parade - 5 of 8 volunteers secured
    • June 6 Mt. Albert 5K Run - 6 of 8 volunteers secured
    • June 7 Aurora Street Festival
      • 11 of 16 volunteers secured
      • Eric VE3EB to announce the deployment of the communications trailer for the Aurora Street Festival via Yahoo group
      York Region emergency preparedness fair May 2
    • Very successful event with EmComm participating once again
    • The communications trailer was deployed to the site
    • The EmComm team on site were able to supply power from the communications trailer generator to the York EMS team
  8. Membership (Geoff VA3GS)
    • AGM
      • Steve VE3UT will ask for permission to operate the barbeque once again for the AGM
      • Steve VE3UT will secure a volunteer from the club to chair the AGM
      • John Dundas (Pan Am Communications) has volunteered to present at our meeting. Eric VE3EB will discuss with him. We anticipate that there will be time for a short presentation.
    • Harvey Bell Award
      • Chris VA3DXZ reported that three board members had been nominated by club members for the Harvey Bell award. There were no other nominations.
      • Motion 2015-05-19-05 by Chris VA3DXZ that the Harvey Bell Award nominees excuse themselves from the board meeting to allow the remaining board members to review the nominations and select a winner, seconded by David VA3DCY. Motion carried.
      • After a lengthy review of the nominations, Chris VA3DXZ moved (Motion 2015-05-19-06) that Eric VE3EB and Steve VE3UT be selected as co-winners of the 2015 Harvey Bell Award, seconded by Geoff VA3GS. Motion carried.
    • “For Sale” policy for the Yahoo group
      • The board discussed setting conditions under which it would allow club members in good standing to post amateur radio equipment for sale onto the yahoo group. This would be in addition to the capability already in place allowing club members to upload ads to the files section of the group.
      • Chris VE3NRT will announce the change in policy
  9. Trillium Grant Ideas (Chris VE3NRT)
    • Next generation high bandwidth data communications system employing fixed point to point links between EOC’s and remote amateur EmComm operations
    • Chris VE3NRT will report further high speed communications technology the next board meeting
    • Involvement with Scouts and Rangers
      • The question was raised as to whether or not there was a badge awarded for amateur radio communications and if so, would the club be interested in supporting this
      • Eric VE3EB will investigate and come back to the board
  10. Other Business
    • Field Day (Steve VE3UT) - Motion 2015-05-19-07 by Steve VE3UT that the club allocates $800.00 for field day expenses, seconded by Geoff VA3GS. Motion carried.
  11. Motion 2015-05-19-08 by Eric VE3EB to adjourn meeting, seconded by John Va3JI. Motion carried
Meeting adjourned at 21:36

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Setting up an RTL-SDR Dongle - Part 1

Through the magic of mass production and free software, an amazingly capable SDR receiver can now be had for less than $20. The hardware a simple "Dongle" that connects to the USB port of a computer one one end, and to an antenna (or converter) on the other. The power available on the USB port is sufficient.

The devices were designed to receive DVB-T digital television broadcast signals, used in parts of Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and in Australia and New Zealand. In 2010 Eric Fry and/or Antti Polasaari figured out how to used the dongle as a general purpose software defined radio. Various web sites argue about who did what, but it appears that both figured prominently into the early development of this capability.

There is general agreement that the key attribute of this devices is "excellent performance for the price". They don't perform as well as higher priced devices but for the money provide an excellent way to try out dozens of different modes and interesting functions ranging from casual listening to radio astronomy.

I bought my RTL-SDR from Noolec, but they're available from dozens if not hundreds of mail order suppliers. The Noolec dongle costs less than $20 USD including shipping. I also ordered some cables and the Ham-It-Up converter. The dongle I bought has an amazing tuning range from 25 MHz to 1.8GHz. The Ham-It-Up ($45.99 USD) upconverts the LF, MF and HF bands by 125MHz so that the dongle can be used to receive those bands also.

The dongle ships with a tiny antenna. This is great for initial testing as you can receive local FM stations and other stuff with it, but additional cables are needed to connect to an outdoor antenna. The connector on the dongle is an "SMX" while the Ham-It-Up uses the more commonplace SMA connector. These cables are a few bucks each.

Armed with all this stuff, I was able to use free SDR software to turn my laptop computer into a wideband radio receiver. After it shipped to my office, I had it up and running on the GO train coming home and was able to tune in a taxi dispatcher, a broadcast FM station, and a couple of airplanes using the 4" long antenna that came with the unit. The performance doesn't rival my K3, but neither does the price, and the K3 only tunes up to the 6 metre band although I hope to get a 2m module for it sometime soon. The dongle reveals the myriad of signals around the house - and they sure are plentiful. One could while away many hours trying to figure out what they all are and where they're coming from.

One application I wanted to try was using the 8.215 MHz IF output from K3. With it, I can see a waterfall display of signals above and below the K3 tuning frequency, before the roofing filters are applied. The performance of this setup I will class as "useful". Not terrific but well worth doing and it will be the subject of another article.