Managing your ham radio station has become increasingly complex, to say the least. We have more complex transceivers with so many features that Computer Aided Transceivers (CAT) are the norm in many circles. With this, both computer-based logging of QSOs with CAT control makes a PC de rigueur for many, many hams.
But therein lies the details. Or the Devil, if you prefer. Multiple operating systems (OSes) make the choice of PC platform an additional challenge, especially if the PC in question has non-amateur radio uses too. Heck, I have two Dell Precision 1700 workstations in my ham shack. And another Dell Precision 7910 there in my office for “normal” work. The two in my shack run Windows 10 while the one on my desk where I’m writing this uses Linux. Throw in my iPad and iPhone with my wife’s Macbook Pro and you have the not unusual computer sausage that comprises a middle class household. (There is another Dell PC out in my workbench room off of the garage, running Windows 10 and several more doing other things, like monitoring a GPSDO.) Then, there are two laptops, one a Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon for personal writing and another Thinkpad T420s for portable ham radio use. Both are Windows 10 machines. I would like to use any of them—except my wife’s Macbook—to access either of the two shack PCs to check on things when I’m out of the shack. Remote access ramps up the relative complexity. But hopefully you get the emerging point. It gets complicated.
There have been several attempts to “automate” shack management. Some expensive. Some relatively cheap. But all involving relative increases in the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance…er, fooling with settings until they’re “just right” and so forth. This has been done in bespoke terms, even by KJ6VU. On his blog, George has built a cool set of buttons in a portable palm-sized case-of-buttons that automates multi-stroke menu choices on his new Icom IC-705 (see below). This stack of four PCBs is another ingenius invention by George as he’s done time and again on the Ham Radio Workbench podcast. But it is largely tied to a specific radio and menu system although it could be later modded to fit another rig. But what if we didn’t have to have a box of buttons like this tied to a specific radio or set of menu buttons? What if we could, like a dry-erase marker board, wipe it clean if we sell or replace the radio and insert another set of controls? And, if we wanted to automate several radios in our shack or in our portable stations? Or…well, you get the point.
But there’s a development that is largely the brainchild of George KJ6VU, co-host of the highly popular Ham Radio Workbench podcast, that could indeed streamline a lot of these operations. All at the push of a button! He already has a lot of them for his shack. But you can too. Here’s how.
Take a look below, first at the interface of the Elgato Stream Deck and the buttons themselves. Note that Stream Deck software is directly available on Windows and Mac via Elgato’s website and on Linux at this website. In addition, there is a smartphone app for iOS and Android. Plus Elgato has a key creator to make custom icons for the buttons. While there are other commercial products that do similar things like the Elgato product, Stream Deck may well be the most mature and accessible product in its class.
So the Streak Deck comes in different sizes and the one above is the large (“XL”) version. There are a few more from Elgato and a mobile app. What is potentially revolutionary is that it is customizable using modifications of stock “profiles” from an existing repository, Moreover, there is a published API which is amenable to several common programming languages or no programming per se at all.
The profile creator/editor has an interface that is usable to the non-programmer. As shown below from the Elgato website, the user interface emulates the Streak Deck device on your desk attached via USB to your PC. You can select, modify and design graphic with text icons that are then represented on each button. Some actions are drag-and-drop. Animations via GIF are also usable (e.g., beam rotor is turning). A button can do a specific action or open up a “deck” of other related buttons (e.g., here are my Kenwood TS-590SG controls). So for each physical button on your Stream Deck, you can define a specific action for that button and give it a meaningful graphic that will be displayed on the button itself. No labels to make. No removing them to change their function. None of that. At all. (You might feel the need to wipe it off if you love Cheetos…)
To more fully illustrate the architecture of how the Stream Deck works, here’s a slide from Tim Pringle’s blog. The Stream Deck uses a Profile that can be selected on-the-fly if desired. But the management software uses “chunks” of programs called Plugins to do certain things, such as integrate external software on the PC or elsewhere into the button definitions in the Profile in use. It uses JSON file formats to communicate with Plugins. This could give hams who are knowledgeable of JSON and use it already in their operations could only need modifications to work with Stream Deck.
I’ll leave it to Elgato to give you further details in the video below but I’ll then weigh in on an amateur radio group project that’s beginning to emerge that could take ham radio to another level of automation. That’s where you come in. Or not. Either way, it’s a group sharing effort.
George KJ6VU has already created a “profile” for his ham radio shack. He’s very keen on automating his antenna switching to rigs, bands, and so forth. That’s not unusual. But he can add new rigs’ CAT commands with a minimum of effort. Such as the FT-857D he’s recently acquired to go with his Flex 6400. He uses the 857D mostly on CW, for intance, so just touching a button to set up the 857D to CW mode, say 40M band, and switching the right antenna to it is just that: ONE touch of a customized button that he created using the Profile Software plus a software program on his PC.
Several hams, George KJ6VU, Rod VA3ON, Michael VA3MW and I (K4FMH) are at the start of assembling a ham radio-oriented repository of such Stream Deck profiles, probably on GitHub. Stay tuned to the Ham Radio Workbench Podcast for details as well as the Cycle 25 Tribe’s Youtube Channel. I’ll announce details here on this blog as they materialize.
Mike VA3MW and George KJ6VU gave a recent talk on station automation that is shown below. It lays out a paradigm for station control that coincides with George’s early thoughts of the Stream Deck thinking expressed here. But the contribution of just a few third-party programmers who have built plugins that create bridges to both the Windows and others OS environments as well as independent machines like a Node-Red server (Raspberry Pi even), just sets the stage for the near future’s work. Here are some initial thought experiments for you.
How should your Stream Deck control box be organized?
If you’re a CW Op mostly, would a button that opens a stack of other related buttons (think deck of cards) that are all related to your station organization to operate CW mode be useful? How about one for CW, one for SSB and one for digital? How about one for “there’s lightning approaching” that shuts down stuff and sets other things to ground. How about, I’m leaving for a trip and here’s a button to organize things for remote access?
What is needed is a clear community discussion of how to meld the behavior of hams in their shack with their usual and customary control settings. And, to give some near range Blue Sky thoughts to how this concept can be grown for the least “cost” in terms of time and effort. That’s where community contributions are usually the most valuable.
Interested in getting involved? KJ6VU, VA3ON and I are good on QRZed. Drop us a line. This can really move the management of amateur radio shack’s forward over the next few months. It just takes the building of a community of interested hams who wish to help make it happen, each contributing just a little bit but in strategic ways. Stay tuned…
Don’t touch that dial…just touch a button!