Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Low Cost Emergency Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)

For the past two years, I have been hiking with a personal locator beacon in my pack. My ACR 2880 PLB is a 130 gram weight transmitting device that is registered with the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking System operated by NOAA. For details about this system and how it works, click here:

This device differs from the Spot and DeLorme devices in several respects. First, there is no subscription cost. You just purchase the device, register it online with NOAA, and renew every two years online (I put a tickler on my calendar). The battery lasts 5 years. After that, the device has to be returned for refurbishing and recertification. The is a transmit only device designed for one time use. To activate, simply deploy the antenna and press the on button. When activated it sends out two beacons; a five watt distress beacon on 406MHz and a 500mw homing beacon on 121.5 MHz (for the S&R team). The distress beacon is picked up by LEO's as well as geostationary satellites and forwarded to local authorities with personal identification and location information. 

I am primarily a solo hiker, about 90%. I am often bushwhacking in rough terrain. If I am seriously injured or come across an emergency situation, I know that as long as I have a clear view of the sky.  I can quickly summon help, even if I am in a low spot with no cell or repeater coverage.

Fortunately, I have never had to activate the device except for occasional testing to ensure it is still functioning. However, it has provided a lot of peace of mind for me and my XYL, especially when I am activating in unfamiliar and remote areas. 

This system provides world wide coverage and is supported by a number of countries other than US. Check for suitability in your particular country. 

More information on the ACR 2880 can be found here:ACR 2880

Friday, May 26, 2017

EFHW Tri-Band Trapped 17, 20, 30 meter Antenna

I couldn't do any SOTA activations recently due to work commitments, so I spent some spare time building half a dozen unun's on different cores and comparing them to the Par and Packtenna efhw unun's both on the bench and in my backyard. I came up with a design that works well on my bands of interest, 30, 20, and 17 and doesn't require a capacitor. It uses a FT-82-61 core with a 16:2 winding for a 64:1 impedance transformation. My tests confirmed that a 9:1 unun is adequate to bring down the impedance into a range suitable for use with the Elecraft KX2 internal tuner. One advantage of using a 9:1 with the KX2 is the flexibility of using the antenna as a random wire on other bands where a 64:1 impedance transformation would produce a very low impedance/high current situation for the radio which could result in overheating or inability to find a match. However, I wanted something that I could also attach to a radio without a tuner, such as the LNR MTR3, which requires a low SWR.  I use 10 feet of rg174 as a feed/counterpoise, so I didn't want high swr for that reason, as well. My 17 and 20 meter traps are made from the SOTAbeam pico trap parts. Below are the plots of my final design. Plots are with the actual trapped tri-band EFHW. M1, near the top left corner of the chart gives the reading of the frequency under test and the resulting SWR. Green plot is SWR.The SWR's on a recent Dick's Peak activation matched these plots closely. The SARK 110 was indispensable during this project.

        Below: 30m, 20m, 17m field derived plots

Below - Also tested, Clockwise from left: T60-2 (red), FT-114-43 split winding, , NXO-100, FT-114-43 traditional winding.

Final Unun  - FT-82-61 (16:2)
end fed half wave transformer unun

Saturday, May 6, 2017

SPE Expert Amplifier LCD Display Dimmer

I love my SPE 1.3K-FA amplifier, but the LCD panel is too bright and can't be adjusted. I looked around on E-bay and found some 3M film which I cut to size and placed over the display. It looks much better. The cost was $2.49 for a 4x6 sheet. I traced the display window onto a piece of paper, placed the film on top and cut to size.

3M Color Stable 35% VLT Automotive Car Truck Window Tint Film Roll Multi Sz CS35

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Antenna Alchemy - End Fed Half Wave and The Way of the Goat

Sota Mountain Goat is an award for accumulating 1000 activator points from mountain summits (see below). At least in Colorado, many of the winter activations are harrowing experiences in cold weather, deep snow, and high wind. Since it's not always practical to "hang around" at the summit the speed to set up and tear down can be critically important. No one wants to invest extreme energy and time climbing a mountain for an activation a descending with nothing to show for it. So, quick deployment and effectiveness are the watchwords for the kit.

When I first started SOTA activations, I looked around at what other, wiser, Goats were using in their kit and tried to copy them. I favored the lighter weight alternatives - no heavy radios, batteries or antennas for me. Aside from the transceiver, and mountaineering gear, the antenna stands out as the most important element of the system. I noticed that most of the Mountain Goats were using the End Fed Half Wave, or EFHW for short. While I had never previously used one, I thought I knew just about everything I needed to know about them. After all, isn't it just another flavor of vertical. I was wrong. What I discovered shocked and intrigued me, as I think it will you, too.

At first, I was a bit confused about the difference between a random length end-fed, and the EFHW. The terms seem to be used interchangeably. Some of the articles I read had charts that showed lengths to avoid when cutting so called "random length" wires. Turns out that if you randomly cut your random length wire to one of the "forbidden" lengths, it won't match, even with a tuner, and the SWR losses will be high. So, I initially avoided them. Only later did I learn that those forbidden lengths happen to be the the half wavelengths or HW part of the EFHW, and these these lengths are where some magic happens.

The Sota Goats don't want to dilly dally at the summit. They often need to set up, work their quota and get down. So, they don't have time for the one thing that we are all told we absolutely need in order to make a vertical work efficiently - radials. They need to extend a pole, string a wire, attach it to the radio and get on the air.  The only way to do that, and put out a decent signal too, is with the EFHW - an antenna with a forbidden length.

The problem with the EFHW, the reason that it is "forbidden", is that it has an outrageously high radiation resistance at resonance - on the order of 2500 ohms. This is not a number that is friendly to any radio and it is outside of the range of typical matching devices. However, it is the high radiation resistance that is the secret of its success. Tame it and it will serve you well.

Why is the high impedance that we've been told to avoid actually an advantage? To answer that, let's examine the characteristics of a cousin of the EFHW that we are all familiar with, the quarter wave vertical. The radiation resistance of the quarter wave vertical is about 36 ohms. In a typical installation (4 or so radials) the ground resistance can be substantial - let's say 42 ohms for the sake of illustration. So the antenna presents shows a decent match to 50 ohm coax of 36 plus 42 ohms = 78 ohms, a good match to 50 ohm coax. The efficiency of this antenna is calculated by dividing the radiation resistance by the radiation resistance plus the ground loss... Rr/(Rr + Rg) =  59%. About 40% of the power is lost in the ground system. The situation gets much worse, however, if only one or two radials are used. The ground loss will rise to perhaps 80 ohms or greater and the efficiency will drop to 25% or so. In other words, the 5 watt QRP radio lugged to the top of the mountain will radiate around 1 watt with one radial attached to a quarter wave vertical.

The situation doesn't improve with the so-called end fed random wire. Yes, the typical impedance of this antenna can be around 500 ohms at certain frequencies. However, while impedance (Z) is comprised of both resistance and reactance (R and X), only the radiation resistance is a factor in antenna efficiency (ignoring SWR losses for the moment), and unfortunately the high impedance of the end fed random wire is mostly comprised of reactance. The radiation resistance isn't typically any higher than that of a quarter wave vertical. Large numbers of radials are required to make this antenna efficient, just as it is with the quarter wave vertical.

Now let's look at the EFHW. At resonance, the radiation resistance is approximately 2500 ohms (or higher). So, even if no radials are employed with just a short 3 foot counterpoise and a stupidly high ground resistance of 100 ohms the efficiency will be 2500/2600, or 96%. Wow!

But there has to be a catch, right? Otherwise, everyone would be using these cheap and simple antennas instead of quarter wave verticals. Well, yes, but most of the limitations just aren't very relevant for QRP in the field.

Here are a few of the characteristics and limitations of the EFHW. There aren't any deal breakers on this list for SOTA work. The reason that this antenna isn't more popular in fixed stations has to do more with impedance matching issues than anything else - the popularity of coaxial cable for transmission lines and the lack of good high efficiency unun's made it impractical. Broadband unun's with high transformation ratios are still the stuff of experimenters - but the experiments have been promising. So, have at it. .
  • The EFHW can be built for multiple bands by installing traps or jumpers. I use an EFHW built for 40m with a jumper to shorten it for 30 meters. It works well on 40, 20, 10 with the jumper inserted, and on 30, 17/15 with the jumper open. SWR is 1:1 on the half wave frequencies, and matchable with the KX2 internal tuner on the multiples. 
  • SWR can be affected by touching the equipment
  • Ground losses increase off the resonant frequency - cut it precisely for your SOTA freq.
  • The high radiation resistance also applies to multiples of the half wave, ie. one cut for 40m will have also have high radiation resistance on 20 and 10, albeit with a higher reactive component in the impedance.
  • the impedance of the EFHW is too high for most matching devices (tuners)
  • the antenna requires a 50 to 1 unun impedance transformer to match 50 ohm sources. It may be necessary to add a capacitor across the source for a match on the higher bands.
  • A counterpoise with an ideal length of .05 wavelengths is recommended. I use a 10 ft length of rg-174 to the unun. 
  • High impedance transformations can be tricky and inefficient. Don't assume your unun is lossless. Care should be taken in the selection of the roroid to avoid losses >2 dB.
  • I built six unun's on different toroid cores with high transformation ratios and all had limited bandwidth. The best one had about 15MHz bandwidth measured with my SARK 110. Packtenna and MyAntenna devices outperform my homemade unun's. 
  • Be aware of power limitations and do not overdrive unun's to saturation. Ferrite unun's can be permanently damaged by excessive power. 
  • Commercial 50:1 unun's in various power ratings are only available from a few suppliers. I recommend the Pactenna 50:1 for SOTA and the MyAntenna for base station use. 
In summary, the EFHW is the ideal antenna for QRP (and some QRO) situations where a fast deployment is required and radials are not practical. It has been analyzed theoretically and field tested extensively. It is so effective that it has won over many Mountain Goats who started out thinking otherwise. When you absolutely, positively have to make at least four QSO's after hiking 5 miles to the top of a mountain, the EFHW is a good way to go. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Summits on the Air - Mountain Goat Award

When Heinrich Hertz proved the existence of electromagnetic waves, they were thought to behave like light (travel in a straight line), thus precluding the possibility of using them for long distance communication (more than 12 miles or so). Marconi thought otherwise. Over one hundred years ago, Marconi defied all expert opinion as well as common sense by proving that electromagnetic waves at certain frequencies will follow the curvature of the earth. He shared the 1909 Nobel prize in physics for this discovery. His technique was to use more and more power (up to 15 kilowatts), longer and longer wavelengths (up to 365 meters), and bigger and bigger antennas (huge wire arrays 100's of feet high) to extend the range of his signals,. On December 12, 1901 he successfully spanned the Atlantic "sparking" the electronics age we live in today.

SOTA activators on summits around the world. continue to stretch the bounds of Marconi's discovery of ionospheric propagation by using flea power, short waves, and small antennas to contact chasers thousands of miles away.

After 150 summit activations, about 3,000 two way contacts and 1000 activator points, I finally became a SOTA Mountain Goat. I just received this beautiful trophy from England which I will proudly display. This challenge entailed round trip signals to New Zealand, Spain, Japan and England from Colorado with 5 watts (the power of a flashlight) and 50 feet of wire! Here I am in contact with England from the 14,276 foot summit of Mt Antero (right photo).

Mt Antero in the distance
walton stinson walt

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"Weightless" Elecraft KX3 or KX2 microphone for SOTA

I operate mostly CW on my SOTA outings, but I always take this light weight mic along since it's built into my earbuds. This is just a standard smartphone ear bud/mic with an adapter that was intended to allow connection to a computer. Turns out that the earphone and mic jacks on the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 are compatible. To transmit, use VOX, or PTT with the XMT button. Note the essential windscreen. This was made with earbud foam hot glued to the mic housing. Keep the glue away from the side with the mic hole. This is a very lightweight microphone solution for the KX2 and KX3. Audio reports are good.

Friday, March 10, 2017

SOTA Spotting with the Yaesu FT-1XDR

The Yaesu FT-1XDR is my go to readio for SOTA activations. I mainly use it for APRS spotting to the SOTA spotting system and it works great. The only problem was that I fumbled around in the cold trying to enter the spot. So, I found a way to store, modify and repost old spots. Here's my boring youtube how-to video, if you really have to know....

I use Google Sheets for my SOTA logging software.  It automatically keeps a cloud backup for me and it easily and quickly provides a CSV file for upload to the SOTA database. Here's my boring youtube video on how to set this up, if you really have to know...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

PL-259 Assembly Instructions

Conquering the PL-259
Walt Stinson,W0CP

New year's resolutions for hams.... Among the ones I've heard recently is "l will always solder the braid to the PL-259." That got me to thinking about what a hassle it is working with coax and PL-259's (not to mention hardline and N-connectors!).
Well, many years ago after consulting with Mr. Murphy, I made that same resolution. I faithfully followed the instructions for assembly of connectors in the Handbook. I remember using the tip of a nail to unravel the braid and trimming it with scissors.
Two moods would fall over me after a session of soldering 259's: Self righteousness, for I was truly entering the ranks of the deserving; and klutziness, because about half the time l would have to cut of the end I was working on and start all over again. Sometimes, I'd forget to slip on the fitting cover. Other times  I'd have an intermittant after a couple of years.
Finally, after years of trial and error. I devised a fast and foolproof method of assembling the little buggers. If you follow my prescription, I assure you that you too will enter the ranks of the deserving (of course you will also need an antenna). This method is for RG-8u, but can be modified for other coax. Remember that foam style coax has a lower melting point and is trickier to work with. I recommend sticking with solid dielectric coax for this reason.

Gather up the following tools: (Buy these tools, if you don't have them!!)
Weller D550 240/325 watt soldering gun or Weller SP-120 soldering iron
1" adjustable pipe cutter (Rigid No. 104, available at hardware stores)
Tape measure with sixteenth inch scale
Razor blade style cutting tool
Triple core 60/40 solder, .047" diameter
Black felt tip pen
Household style pliers
Vise (pana vise)
This method was developed for RG-8u, but can be modified for other coax. Remember that foam style coax has a lower melting point and is trickier to work with. I recommend sticking with solid dielectric coax for this reason.
Here are the steps: (POST THIS BY YOUR WORKBENCH)
1. Using the razor, cut off 1-1/8" of insulation.
2. Put the Weller on high and tin the braid
3. Measure 13/16" from the end of the coax and mark it with the pen.
4. Using the pipe cutter, cut through tinned braid and insulation at the mark. (don't cut the center conductor!)
5. Twist off the braid/insulation & tin the exposed center conductor.
6. Slip on the coax fitting sleeve!!!
7. Screw the coax connector onto the coax using the pliers until the center conductor reaches the tip of the fitting.
8. Secure coax in vise. Heat a hole in the coax fitting. Apply solder through the hole, melting it into braid.
9. Apply solder through all holes. Keep fitting hot but work quickly to avoid melting coax center insulation. Cool with water when done. Don't flex while coax is hot, allow time to cool in vise before flexing.
10. Solder the tip of the fitting and check continuity.
Since I have been using this method I have not had one intermittent problem. Moreover, my coax once got caught as I was raising my motorized crank up and the cable just about tore the tri-bander off of the tower! Fortunately the coax was connected to a balun and a remote switch. The females were ripped out of both of these but my cable was unscathed. This proves another of Murphy's laws - solving one problem simply reveals another.

[This appeared in the February 1999 edition of B. A. R. C's Bark", the newsletter of the Boulder Amateur Radio Club, and has also appeared in several other newsletters around the country. Permission to reproduce with credit is granted.]

(PL-259 Assembly Instructions)