Posts Tagged ‘IOTA’

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.

2010 IOTA Contest

I operated a contest yesterday that I’d only ever done before as as DX, The RSGB IOTA contest. In this contest, any station can work any other station, but if you work an island (as defined by the organizers [note that the link goes to a PDF file]) it is worth more points (15, instead of 3 for a non-island contact) and each island you work counts as a multiplier, increasing your score. The contest has some interesting rules regarding hours of operations (you can submit as a “12 hour” or “24 hour” contestant) and some categories that are different from many other contests. (e.g., “Island DXpedition”). I decided that I’d try to operate in the 12-hour, low-power assisted  mixed category as “world” station. That means that my operating time was 12 hours or less, I used 100 watts to transmit, I used the packet cluster to help locate stations, operated both phone and CW, and I was not located on a island.

Unlike many other contests which typically start either in the evening or mid-afternoon for me, this one started at 8AM local (Eastern Daylight Time), and, not being a “morning person”, I didn’t get on the air until around 11:30 AM, and was a little disappointed to find out that the band conditions didn’t seem to be as good as I’d hoped. I started off on 20m phone and made a handful of contacts in the first 20 minutes. I realized that if 15m was open, if I wanted to work anyone outside the US it would have to be early in the afternoon. I switched over to 15m and found … nothing. Well, almost nothing. I did manage to work two stations in about 10 minutes, one on phone and one on CW. Clearly 15m was not going to be a productive band.

I moved back to 20m and worked stations steadily, thought not terribly quickly using Search & Pounce to find stations. I worked a few dozen stations on phone, then another dozen or so on CW and moved back to phone. After another hour of S&P, I was lucky enough to find a clear frequency to call CQ to try to “run” stations. (During most contests, it’s pretty tough to find and keep a frequency, especially for a small station like mine.) I called CQ for a couple of minutes and got one reply from a station in Poland, then about a minute later got a reply from my friend David, K2DSL, who is located nearby. We chatted briefly, then I moved on to work other stations. All of a sudden, a number of stations all started calling me. It turned out that David had “spotted” me on the packet cluster. When that happens many stations will tune to the spot frequency to work whoever is there. For someone like me being spotted is terrific because it significantly increases the rate at which  I can work stations. Prior to being spotted, I’d operated for around 4 hours and had made around 100 contacts, for a rate of around 25/hr. One hour after being spotted I’d worked an additional 65 stations, almost tripling my rate. I finally gave up the frequency after about 90 minutes, making 75 QSOs during that time which comes to around 50/hr. (The final 20 minutes or so of that period was considerably slower). In any case I had a great time and it was a lot of fun being the person that was being called, rather than having to hunt.

After time out for dinner (we were out with friends), I got back on the air at around 11:30PM. The only band that was open at the time was 40m, and because of atmospheric noise due to all the thunderstorms in and around the east coast, the band was very noisy. It was very slow going making contacts, and I suspect that some of the ones that I made then will turn out to be incorrect, since I had a particularly difficult time getting the details of the contest exchange. (For this contest, you gave a serial number, starting at one, and, if located on an island, the island identifier). I gave up after about 90 minutes, with a total of 210 contacts in my log. I thought that it was a pretty decent effort for the seven hours that I operated. Here’s my score summary:

        Band  Mode  QSOs     Pts  Sec
           7  CW      10     138    9
           7  LSB     22     246   13
          14  CW      45     399   13
          14  USB    130     990   27
          21  CW       2      18    1
          21  USB      1       3    0
       Total  Both   210    1794   63

            Score : 113,022

The NA-034 operation that almost wasn’t, Part IV

If you haven’t read Part I , Part II and Part III first, you might want to do that.

As I mentioned previously, once I got the power problem figured out I was able to easily make contacts with other stations, which is what I’d planned to do in the first place. In the first half-hour of operating, I made contact with about 25 stations. Compared to rare DX stations this is very slow, but my operation was very low-key and I’d often spend a bit of time to briefly chat with the other operators, so this was far from the typical “K2DBK you are 59 thanks QR Zed” that you hear in those operations. I was having a great time working stations, and after a while I started to hear folks in Europe calling me, but they were covered up by the US callers. I figured that I’d try to work as many folks outside North America as I could, so I asked for only stations outside of North America, and worked 9 stations in as many minutes, all outside the US. I worked folks in Italy, Poland, Spain, and Belarus all in fairly quick succession. Thanks very much to the folks in North America who very politely stood by while I worked the other stations. Not one single person from North America called when I was asking for the other folks. (By way of explanation, it is an unfortunate fact of life that all-too-often hams will “call out of turn” and ignore requests from contacts from specific areas. When they do that, it just slows down the process.)

After I had contacted the folks outside North America, I went back to working any station that was calling me, and I picked up a mix of both US stations and some more DX from Italy, Serbia, and Belgium. I had a couple of other chats during a few lulls with Larry, KH6ITY, and finally shut down for the day at around 4:45PM local time to head back to have dinner with the Sharon in St. Armands.

The Legendary Salty Dog

The following day I got somewhat of a later start than expected, but I did want to stop at The Old Salty Dog again, this time to have what is one of the most delicious and presumably most unhealthy foods in existence: Their signature “Salty Dog”. A Salty Dog is a jumbo hot dog dipped in beer batter and deep fried. It is indescribably delicious. Of course, it must be washed down with a nice cold bevarage (a Bass Ale for me, thanks). 

When I arrived at the park, the parking spot I’d had the first day was taken, and I was having trouble finding a place to park where I could be close enough to be able to set up on a picnic table, but as I was walking around (I’d parked temporarily “out of range”) someone left and I was able to pull in close to a different table, this time right out in the sun. The only downside to this location was there there wasn’t another table nearby so that I could set up the antenna on a different table, but I was able to set up the antenna on one end of the table and operate from the other without any issues.  Well, not at first.

Buddistick set up for 20m with counterpoise thrown
over a tree branch

I started off working stations on 20 meters and worked a number of US and Canadian stations, as well as a station from Slovakia and one from Hungary. I’d been trying to set up a contact with Scott, NE1RD, who was now operating from the island of St. Thomas (as KP2/NE1RD) on and off for a while by this point. I emailed Scott from my BlackBerry that I was currently on 14.260Mhz and Scott quickly threw together an antenna for 20m, but by the time he got on the air, I’d lost the frequency that I was using and we didn’t make the contact. “Losing” the frequency means that I was using it to make contacts, but due to the way that propagation works, sometimes two (or more) stations will be using the same frequency, both unable to hear each other until the conditions change, then usually one of the stations will wind up “taking over” the frequency. This is what happened in my case, and I “lost”.

As it turned out, Scott had already built a 2 element beam for 15 meters using the Buddipole gear that he’d brought, which would provide a much better signal to me. I reconfigured my antenna for 15m (very easy to do), and coordinating once again via email we were able to contact each other. Neither Scott nor I consider ourselves as “rag-chewers”, which are folks who prefer to get on the radio and have a nice long chat with someone. I’ve certainly done that in the past, but most of my current interest is in working DX stations and contesting, both of which  require very brief, specific exchanges of information. However, Scott and I found that we had a lot to talk about, so the contact was not a brief one. About 10 or 15 minutes into our conversation, I got another visit from Mr. Murphy.

As we were talking on the radio, I thought that I noticed the odd sound in my headset that I’d heard previously. This didn’t make any sense, since the car was still running (as you’ll recall, the battery alone was unable to provide sufficient power to transmit at full power). Scott then commented that he could hear my signal starting to distort, so it sounded like the problem was returning. We both tried to figure out what might be going wrong, and while trying to figure out what could have “broken” while operating (nothing had been touched since I originally got on the air that day), I thought that perhaps our relatively long chat had caused the power cables to heat, which in turn would increase the resistance in the cables, reducing the power available to the radio. I felt along the length of the cable but didn’t feel any warm spots. I was about to rule out the wire heating up when I realized that I’d closed the hood on the car almost all the way and when I opened it, obviously (in hindsight) the portion of the power cable that was closest to the battery, and under the hood, was quite warm. It hadn’t heated up solely from transmitting, but also because it was a warm day and with the engine running and the hood closed, the engine compartment was quite hot. The solution to the problem was now quite simple: Leave the hood of the car open.

After just a minute or two, the power cables cooled enough to allow enough power to flow so that my radio was again transmitting normally. Scott and I finished our chat, and I decided to stay on 15m where I worked stations from Puerto Rico, Italy, Portugal, and the US, finally finishing up with a nice chat with Andy, AE6Y who was operating from Aruba as P49Y, having just arrived there prior to the WPX Contest that was coming up. When I finished with Andy, it was time to shut the station down to head back for a final family dinner, since we were leaving for home the next day.

In all, despite losing a day of operating due to the power problem, I would rate this as a successful operation for a number of reasons. First, I did finally get on the air and made contact with 16 different DXCC entities (countries) and at least 10 different states. (It was almost certainly more than that, but I didn’t always get the name of the state for the station that I was talking to.) Second, I was able to give back a bit to the hobby by talking to, and with Larry, KH6ITY’s class. If even one of his students goes on to get his ham license that would really be a wonderful extra benefit. Third, I’ve made a number of new friends both as the result of both my operation on the air and the attempts to troubleshoot with the wonderful folks from the Buddipole Users Group. Fourth, I’ve learned a bit more than I already knew about troubleshooting this type of problem. Finally, and perhaps most important, despite the issues that I ran into, I had a really good time doing this.

I have really enjoyed writing this series, and I want to thank those of you who’ve commented about how you’ve enjoyed it as well. There is a bit more information that I want to share that I’m going to write as an epilogue to this series, please look for that soon.

Until then,
David, K2DBK

Update: I’ve posted the epilogue.

The NA-034 operation that almost wasn’t, Part III

If you haven’t read Part I and Part II first, you might want to do that.

As I mentioned previously, meeting Larry, KH6ITY on the air turned out to be a great stroke of luck for me, and the contact proved to be beneficial for both of us. Larry is a technology teacher at a high school in Texas, and when he responded to my call on the air, he was looking for a contact to speak with his class via ham radio as a demonstration. I was more than happy to do so, but what Larry told me was that while he could hear me, my audio was very distorted and I was extremely difficult to understand. Somehow, I managed to convey to him enough that he understood that I’d done some pretty extensive troubleshooting on the antenna system, so he suggested that I try to reduce the transmitter power to see if that would help. Since I’d connected the radio directly to the car battery, I figured that power wouldn’t likely be the source of the problem, but given that nothing else I’d tried had worked, I figured I’d give it a shot. 

I turned the power down to about 40% of the maximum and transmitted, asking Larry if my signal was any better. Before he even answered, I knew what the answer was: I was no longer hearing that odd noise in my headset, and Larry confirmed that indeed my signal had no issues. Although the signal strength was somewhat reduced, Larry was able to report that the audio artifacts were completely gone. He then asked me about what kind of radio I was using (an Icom 706 MKIIG), and when I told him that, I think that both he and I figured out the problem, both from similar past experiences. First, a little bit of background. 

All electronic equipment requires a power supply that is capable of supplying a certain amount of electrical current at a voltage within a specified range.  According to the manual, the 706 MKIIG  draws up to 20 amps at 13.8 volts DC+/- 15%. Although the electrical system in a car is rated at 12 volts DC, it turns out that a charged car battery will provide somewhat more than 12 volts, and the battery is charged at somewhere between 13.2 to 14.4 volts. A running engine which is charging the battery should provide enough power for the radio, but what happens if the car isn’t running? It turns out that in practice, there is some “give” in these numbers, but at some point, the radio doesn’t function properly. 

For those of you who have forgotten (or never knew), one of the most basic formulas in electricity is known as Ohm’s Law. It states the relationship between voltage, current, and resistance. In order to try to keep my readers awake, I’ll skip all the details and say that Ohms law explains that the length of the power cord, among other factors, affects the amount of actual power that the car battery is able to deliver to the radio. I’d used this exact same setup previously from at least two different vehicles without any issue. However, it seems that the battery in the rental car (a Mazda 5) that I had was a bit weaker than the others that I’d previously used and it just wasn’t capable of delivering enough power to the radio. 

The Icom 706 MkIIG is probably one of the most popular radios made in recent years. It is very portable, capable of transmitting on all the HF radio bands, (10m through 160m) and can also transmit on VHF (6m and 2m) and UHF bands (70 cm). This was the first HF radio that I ever bought, and it has served me very well for the almost 10 years that I’ve owned it. However, it does have one problem (perhaps common to other similar radios): When it doesn’t get enough power to transmit properly, instead of simply shutting down or refusing to transmit, the transmitted audio gets distorted. 

Both Larry and I had previous experiences where the radio wasn’t supplied enough power and exhibited this problem. In my case, the very first time that I ever tried to operate from a car, I was parked outside a friend’s vacation home in upstate New York, and figured that the accessory adapter (we called them cigarette lighters back then) looked like an easy way to hook up the radio. It turns out that the wiring for the lighter plug wasn’t capable of carrying the 20amps at 13.8vdc that the radio requires to transmit at full power. My audio was distorted, and a helpful ham in Italy (I wish I’d made a note of his call) helped me to troubleshoot the problem. At the time, the solution was to simply connect the radio directly to the car battery, which did the trick.

Since I was already connected directly to the battery, the only other thing that I could do was to start the engine, hoping that the charging current provided by the car’s alternator would provide enough power to the radio when transmitting at full power. I adjusted the transmitter output back to 100%, and Larry verified that my audio was still clear. Finally, I was on the air, and could start making contacts.

The antenna was mounted on a picnic table about 15 meters away, I was sitting underneath some trees, and I was able to make contact with other stations all around the world. This was what I’d planned to do.

However, Murphy still had one surprise in store for me, which didn’t crop up until the next day.

The sage concludes with Part IV.

The NA-034 operation that almost wasn’t, Part II

If you haven’t read Part I of this series already, you might want to do that first.

It turns out that there was indeed a park at the southern end of the island named South Lido Park that was the perfect location to try again. There was a parking lot that bordered the park, and there were a few parking spots that were close enough to picnic tables that I could easily set up the radio and antenna on a table (or even on different tables) with the power cables connected to the car battery. This seemed like a good opportunity to get the antenna even farther away from the car and the radio, and hopefully away from the source of the RF interference. I set up the antenna, and was able to throw the counterpoise over a nearby low tree branch. (One of the recommendations for this particular antenna is to keep the counterpoise at least 2 feet off the ground.) I carefully checked the SWR with the antenna analyzer and found a good match.

I decided to try to eliminate the feedline that I’d brought with me as a possible issue, so I connected the antenna to the radio with a very short (about .5 meter) patch cable that I’d brought with me. Normally it’s not a very good idea to set up that close to the antenna, but I figured that for diagnostic purposes I could do it. It turns out that I wasn’t going to transmit very long that way anyway since I had the same problem. At this point, I decided to go back to the regular feedline, which is a 15m length of RG-8x that I’ve used for the past several years without issue. What I did was to create an RF choke by coiling some of the excess feedline at the feedpoint. The idea behind doing this is to help keep RF off the outside of the feedline, where it can radiate and cause issues. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to help either.

During these tests, in addition to just hearing the odd noise in my headset, and on the radio speaker when I disconnected the headset, I was attempting to call some stations that I had been hearing all afternoon. The location that I had now moved
 to was even better than my previous location, as there was water on 3 sides, which means I had an especially good path to Europe, South America, and the southwest US. Some of the stations that I’d tried to contact were extremely strong and should not have been difficult at all to contact. I was finally able to make a contact with S55OO so I knew that the radio was actually transmitting, though he was in the middle of working many other stations so I didn’t have a chance to ask him for a signal report. At that point, I was confused and frustrated at not being able to locate the source of the problem, and given that it was getting late in the afternoon, I decided to break down and shut down for the evening.

After heading back home (well, not to NJ, to where we were saying), I sent an email the Buddipole Users Group to see if anyone there had any ideas what the problem might be. I got back responses from a number of folks within a few hours, most of them suggesting that I try most of the things I’d already tried (which of course they didn’t know I’d done). A couple of folks suggested trying to use some ferrite beads in various places on power cable, microphone cable, and power cables. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any with me, and they aren’t the kind of thing that are stocked in a local hardware store or even Radio Shack. Budd, W3FF, and Scott, NE1RD pointed out that since I’d made one contact that the radio must be transmitting, but it did seem that there was still some problem.

The next morning, I woke up, checked my email and found a few more things to try, packed up the car, and headed out for lunch at The Old Salty Dog on nearby Siesta Key. I was still frustrated that I hadn’t figured out what the problem was, but things always seem better after a beer and a fried Grouper sandwich. They probably would have seemed even better after two or three beers, but since I still had to drive back to the operating site I decided to stop after one.

When I arrived at South Lido Park, I found an even better location than on the previous day, where the operating position was under trees for shade and I was able to set up the antenna on a different table from the operating position, putting even more distance between the antenna, the radio, and the car. I made sure to have the RF choke in place as close as possible to the feedpoint, and wound up as much of the excess feedline into that choke to try to eliminate as much of the unwanted RF on the outside of the feedline as possible.

I was still hearing what I thought was RF in my headset (or from the radio speaker when I switched to the hand microphone), but I decided to call CQ anyway, hoping that perhaps someone would be able to hear me and perhaps let me know what my on-air signal sounded like. I finally got an answer back from Larry, KH6ITY who, as it turns out, was a technology teacher in Texas and was in the middle of demonstrating ham radio to his class. As it turned out, meeting Larry on the air was a wonderful stroke of luck.

Click here for Part III.

The NA-034 operation that almost wasn’t, Part I

As I mentioned in my posting from last week, I spent a few days in Florida recently. I was down there visiting family, but had free time in the afternoons and had planned on operating for a few hours each day from Lido Key, which is IOTA designator NA-034. Briefly, IOTA (Islands On The Air) is a program where hams operate from various islands all over the world and make contacts with other hams. There’s an awards program for contacting various numbers of islands. The rules (link goes to a PDF file) for what qualifies as an island for IOTA purposes are a bit complex, but Lido Key, just west of Sarasota, Florida, qualifies. I’ve made a couple of trips down there in the past and had a lot of fun operating from that location.

My plan was to head out to the parking lot of Lido Beach and set up there, as I’ve done in the past.This location is very easy to get to, and the parking lot has never been full when I’ve been there, so I can take up as much space as I need. For this portable operation, instead of using hamsticks (which are very straightforward to use but since they are nearly 2 meters long, are hard to ship), I decided to use my Buddistick vertical antenna. I’ve written about the Buddistick quite a bit here before, you can do a search from the search box on the right of the blog home page for “buddistick” to see all the references. Because Sharon and I didn’t want to have to check baggage, I shipped the radio (my trusty Icom 706MkIIG), feedline, power cables, and Buddistick down to a relative a couple of days before we left NJ.

I set up the radio and initially mounted the antenna on the rear of the rental car, a Mazda 5, which seemed to be a good way to get it up fairly high and also allowed me to toss the counterpoise wire over a low tree branch. (It’s a bit difficult to see, but you can view the counterpose wire just above the bottom of the picture, it’s the very thin wire.) I set up the antenna, configured it for 20m, and checked it with the antenna analyzer, where I found that I had excellent SWR at my intended operating frequency of 14.260Mhz (one of the standard IOTA frequencies). I connected the antenna to the feedline, and used the built-in SWR testing in the radio to ensure that the SWR was still good (it was), found that my intended frequency was unoccupied, and started to call CQ. That’s when I discovered that I had a pretty serious problem.

The problem was that when I keyed the radio and called CQ, I could hear a lot of what sounded like RF feedback in the headset. My assumption was that for some reason, the transmitted signal from the transmitted signal from the radio was being fed back into the radio, and causing the noise that I was hearing in my headset. As it turned out, I was wrong about the source of the problem, but I didn’t find that out for another 24 hours. Working on that initial assumption, I tried to move the antenna to a slightly different location on the car, and even tried to use the very small Buddistick tripod to place the antenna on the ground much farther away from the car, but had no success. (By the way, that’s a wonderful little tripod, but it’s really not designed to work on a concrete parking lot surface where you can neither dig the legs in nor secure it to anything. All it took was a tiny breeze to knock over the antenna. Fortunately, no damage was done to the whip antenna, but I’ll be a bit more careful about trying that again.)

At that point, I had to take a break from troubleshooting to join a conference call at work. (Yes, even though I was on vacation.) After the call and a follow-up call, about 90 minutes had passed. I tried a few more attempts to play with the radial height, move the location of the radio, and to create an RF choke by coiling some feedline at the feedpoint of the antenna, but was still having no success. I decided to try to find another operating location, hoping to find a park where I could mount the antenna on a picnic table much farther away from the radio, hoping that any RF problems coming from the antenna would be significantly reduced by the distance. I looked at the GPS I’d brought with me and it appear to show a park farther south on the island, so I put all the gear in the car, and headed south.

The saga continues in Part II.

Another operation from Lido Key, NA-034

I just wanted to put up a quick note to say that I expect to be active from IOTA NA-034, Lido Key from March 22-24, 2010. I’ll be down there visiting family but I expect to have a few hours each day (probably between about 15:00-20:00 GMT) to operate. Instead of using hamsticks as I have in the past, I’m going to be using my Buddistick which gives me a bit more flexibility as to the bands I’ll be using (and was a lot easier to ship; I didn’t want to have to deal with checking a 6-foot long hamstick for the flight). It should perform reasonably well since my normal operating position is from a parking lot that’s just a few dozen meters from the Gulf of Mexico, and the saltwater should help with propagation, particularly to the south and west.

Most likely I’ll only be on SSB for this short trip, and I’ll stay close to the standard IOTA frequencies, primarily on 20m (14.260) and 15m (21.260), though I may move around if the bands cooperate.

If anyone is in the area (Sarasota, FL) and wants to get together during one of those afternoons, please drop me line.

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