31 Dec 2011

Happy New Year

A very happy New Year to all readers of this blog.

2012 should bring us even better HF conditions as we approach the peak of Cycle 24. With luck and hard work we may get a new MF band around 480kHz. As ever, there are challenges from VLF to light beams to be enjoyed and I hope you have as much fun with our hobby as I shall.

My priority once the Christmas holiday is over is to complete my 481THz lightbeam transceivers and test these locally. Further projects will be to improve my VLF earth mode DX and to set up a lower noise VLF grabber in anticipation of more activity in the months ahead. In addition I shall continue with QRP WSPR and QRP operation mainly on 10m and 6m.

Netherlands on 500kHz and 70MHz

Some good news: amateurs in The Netherlands now have access to the 500kHz band (again) and 70-70.5MHz (4m).  Countries permitting 4m operation are growing every few months. Let's hope one of the major equipment manufacturers includes the band in multimode HF-6m rigs. Adding 4m cannot be too hard.

28 Dec 2011

Elecraft KX3 can now be ordered

On Dec 27th 2011 Elecraft announced that their new QRP radio can now be ordered with deliveries starting in about 8-9 weeks time. As a QRP radio the KX3 is likely to be "best in class" with some excellent features, but it is not low cost when loaded with options and imported into the UK after VAT and any duty is paid. See the KX3 page for more details.
The basic KX3 includes:

   * 10 watts output typical (13.8V) on 160-6 meters. (Up to 5W using internal batteries)
   * All modes (SSB, CW, Data, FM, AM)
   * Many features from the Elecraft K3, including the same full-size LCD
   * Advanced DSP features, including PSK31 and RTTY text display, noise reduction, auto-notch
   * Built-in 8-AA-cell battery holder
   * USB serial cable for firmware upgrades and for use with logging/contesting software

Available options include:

   * KXPD3 precision attached keyer paddle
   * KXFL3 dual-bandwidth roofing filter module for SSB/CW/Data modes
   * KXAT3 internal wide-range automatic antenna tuner
   * KXBC3 internal NiMH battery charger
   * MH3 hand mic with UP/DN VFO controls
   * RS232 control cable (optional replacement for supplied USB cable)
Although I certainly covet this little radio, I have not decided if I can justify the purchase, or indeed afford it!

24 Dec 2011

Happy Christmas

To everyone that reads this blog from time to time, may I wish you and your friends and families a very happy and peaceful Christmas. It is a time to both give and receive love and kindness - enjoy it.

Shortwave broadcast QSLs

Talking about QSL cards makes me think of my very first QSL cards received back in the 1960s. In those days I used the ISWL QSL bureau which handled broadcast band QSLs (I think it still does) and well remember the thrill when I got my very first cards. The first ever QSL was from Radio Nederland and it was an exciting moment. Somewhere I still have that red card with a windmill on!

In the subsequent years I did a fair bit of QSLing when using just my shortwave crystal set and got a few cards back from these reports. I heard stations all over the globe using that simple crystal set with best DX being Radio Havana Cuba, All India Radio and even Radio Australia, all direct and not via any relays. Not bad for just a tuned circuit, a diode a resistor and a crystal earpiece. I must have another go at a shortwave crystal set just for fun, especially as HF conditions are so good now, but these days shortwave broadcasting is not what it was. Using a decent toroid and a bridge detector it should be possible to arrive at a sensitive design with quite good selectivity.

WSPR QSL cards?

Just been having an interesting debate on Facebook about someone requesting an eQSL for an exchange of WSPR reports. Some would argue that, simply exchanging reports via the WSPR database does not constitute a "real" QSO, so a QSL is not appropriate. Indeed, some would say the WSPR database report is itself a confirmation of the report (which it is) so what is the point of a QSL card? On HF contests it is VERY common for only one callsign to be heard in reports such as, "G3XBM 599233 TU" yet such exchanges are used for DXCC credits if a QSL card is sent following such a "contact".

Personally I would eQSL a full 2-way exchange of WSPR data if done within, say 10 minutes, on any given band and consider this valid. I will only do this in response to one received. Others may violently disagree!

23 Dec 2011

Quartz crystal suppliers in the UK

Recently I wanted to buy a couple of non-standard crystals for a VLF project with the crystal divided down using a 4060 divider. After asking other people for advice it looks like Quartslab can provide the service.  Individual crystals range from around £12-14 depending on frequency and type.

This is not cheap, but at least they can offer the low quantity service. There is a minimum order charge of £22.29,  so I will probably order a couple of crystals for 4.59264MHz to give me a stable signal on 8.970kHz when divided by 512.  The company contact is Dave Hayes G4AKY 020 7100 6357.

Ultra-simple WSPR

G3XIZ has been having a lot of success on 40m WSPR recently using a 100mW DSB transmitter to generate a WSPR signal. All that is needed is an audio source (for the baseband WSPR signal), a balanced mixer and a PA. Of course, with this arrangement 3dB of power is lost in the "other" sideband which will appear outside of the WSPR sub-band. At some point - when I've got my lightbeam kit finished in January - I hope to try this arrangement on 28MHz WSPR. A very inexpensive 14.060MHz QRP frequency crystal will double to 28.120-28.130MHz so will be ideal to generate a 28MHz DSB WSPR signal at 28.1246MHz. Of course one could convert the TX into a phasing exciter and null out the other unwanted sideband. This should not be too difficult either as the phasing has only got to be good over just a 200Hz wide audio band, unlike speech which needs good phase balance over the full 300-2.4kHz band.

18 Dec 2011

15kW HF PA - definitely not for a QRP man!

A friend sent me this link http://www.dc9dz.de/en/index.html which shows the design and construction of a 15kW HF PA circuit for the amateur bands based around the Eimac 4CX10000D valve. Although I have no real interest in very high power and I do not expect to hear this on the air (please no!), it is a rather elegant piece of radio engineering.

17 Dec 2011

EU bureacracy threat to ham radio kit building?

The excellent Southgate Amateur Radio News site has some information which should concern amateurs who build kits. They recommend writing to your local MEP to make you views known.
"Thilo DL9KCE, reports a threat to amateur radio kits and modified equipment arising from changes to the EMC directive.  Currently amateur radio kits and modified equipment are specifically excluded from the directive but under the proposed changes they would be fully subjected to the EMC directive. The resulting high compliance costs could make it uneconomic to develop and sell kits so killing off the kit market. If radio amateurs wished to modify equipment it appears they would also incur additional costs and bureaucratic hassle."
The aim of the EU as a common market for trade is sensible but, like many here in the UK, I abhor it when the bureaucrats in Brussels start to interfere and try to fix things that are not broken. I don't want to get into a debate here about the merits of the Euro, but do feel that 2012 will be a year in which the citizens of Europe, and that includes the UK, will face some very tough decisions.

15 Dec 2011

Waters and Stanton - wake up guys!

Today, having still received no feedback from Waters and Stanton about my emailed question on the FT-450D TX hum (has Yaesu fixed it yet?), I decided to ring them up, check prices and ask the question directly. To my amazement the sales person said, "I have never heard of the TX hum problem". Well, he can't be too well in touch with the market and customers then.

I also asked what was the best price for the rig ("same as in the magazines, no deals") and then asked if they still had the 3 year warranty running. "What 3 year warranty? I've never heard of that." I pointed him in the direction of several recent RadCom and Practical Wireless adverts.

In summary, I was NOT impressed with the responses, or rather lack of them, from this well known UK supplier. At a time when business near Christmas is tight surely it is important that sales staff  know about the product and can answer questions as simple as "what is the length of the warranty?".

Unless this supplier wakes up a bit I think I will defer my decision about purchasing the FT-450D.

Incidentally, they did say that Yaesu would be at Hockley this weekend for the W&S open day. I expect people going will ask about the TX hum question directly. And I wonder if there will be any news about the FT817's replacement?

14 Dec 2011

Simple speech processing

Recently Peter Thornton G6NGR sent me a number of example circuits for speech processors, some dating back to the 1960s. Anyone who operates QRP SSB on HF or VHF will appreciate how important "punchy audio" is when running low power. One circuit I remember working extremely well was one based on an idea by John Hay G3TDZ. Back in the 1970s I was using 100mW AM on 2m and wanted to be heard across Cambridgeshire. My audio stage consisted of a couple of pre-emphasis stages followed by a hard audio clipper and a low pass active filter. The result was an amazingly punchy signal with barely any change in audio level when talking. The 12dB/octave pre-emphasis helped to ensure that clipping of LF signals did not result in many artifacts within the audio passband. The LPF was essential because the heavy clipping  results in many audio harmonics which would otherwise result in a broadened signal. With just 100mW and a dipole the QRP AM signal was excellent copy across the county. I keep meaning to try the same circuit (if I can remember it) with the FT817. It would produce a mighty punchy QRP signal!

KX3 release date

The Elecraft KX3 10W QRP transceiver is edging slowly towards formal release for orders. There is an enormous pent up demand for this 0.1- 10W QRP full featured HF/6m radio. Elecraft are still expecting to be able to announce that orders can be placed by the end of December with first products reaching customers in Feb 2012. I am still unsure if this is a possible candidate for my replacement to the IC703.

FT-450D hum?

Although usually/mostly a QRP operator, I've been considering an update to my main station transceiver since selling my 10W IC703 to a local friend. One possible candidate rig is the 5-100W Yaesu FT-450D. It is getting very good reviews with excellent comments on its  receiver features. For a "full feature" HF/6m radio it is good value for money.

But, I am bothered about one thing: many reviews and comments on the FT-450D Yahoo group confirm a design issue with TX hum, believed to eminate from the poor grounding of the display unit. Nothing I've seen or heard has convinced me this widely reported issue has yet been properly fixed by Yaesu. This is not a problem with the display set to its brightest setting, but should one pay around £800 for a radio with a fundamental design issue not solved in a recent upgrade? No.  A question to Waters and Stanton asking if Yaesu has fixed it has not received a reply yet after 2 days: I suspect they don't want to say "no". I have said that if it hums it would be returned.  So, until I hear the problem has been resolved my "buy" decision is on hold. I am in no great hurry.

More optical comms tests

A few days ago I received some 10000mcd 5mm "high brightness" Toshiba TLSH180P LEDs from Maplins.  Today I did some tests without optics using these. Still using just my NE555 1kHz oscillator output directly driving the LED the signal is considerably brighter. It should be some 10dB better than the high brightness LED used before. Using the Toshiba LED both as TX and (unbiased) RX detector the signal could be detected over a range of around 20m in daylight. The beamwidth of the LEDs is narrower (8 degrees) so aiming is quite critical. Further may well be possible with very careful beam alignment.

So, with 100mm lenses at each end (24dB minimum gain each) 5km should be possible and maybe up to 20km.  Progress on the full FM/SSB systems has slowed as Christmas approaches with other activities taking priorities in the family, but the 481THz work is my main priority ham radio-wise.

7 Dec 2011

You Kits SSB transceivers

For some reason I have missed the news that YouKits are producing (or about to) 2 band and 4 band HF SSB/CW transceiver kits at very reasonable prices. See http://www.youkits.com/ . One is a backpack and one a handheld. Quite interesting. See TJ2A and TJ4A code numbers on their website.

Micropower generation/power harvesting

Linear Technology lists the LTC3108, an Ultralow Voltage Step-Up Converter and Power Manager than runs with an input of just 20mV producing a 5V output to power things such as low power wireless devices and processors. Surely there must be an application for such a device in ultra-QRP portable equipment? Imagine, where can you find 20-500mV of noise from? 50Hz crud in the ground, a thermo electric sensor, solar cells etc. I wonder who will be the first person to make a QRPp uW beacon powered using the 50/60Hz buzz available between a couple of earth electrodes in the ground?

Elecraft KX3 internal photos

Elecraft KX3 rear view inside
Lots of QRP operators are eagerly awaiting the release of the KX3 from Elecraft early in 2012. This is a very compact all mode 10W rig suitable for home or field use. It was first lauched back in May 2011 and Elecraft have been busy completing the design and doing field tests. I came across some internal photos on VA3KV's site that I'd not seen before which give some idea of the design. It can be fitted with internal batteries and an internal wide range auto-ATU making it a very versatile transceiver packed with features. Spec is expected to be excellent and not far off that of the K3.

5 Dec 2011

481THz progress update

TX beacon optics
This morning I bought a length of 110mm waste pipe from the local Plumb Centre shop. It came in a 3m length and only just fitted in the car to get it home! After lunch I created my first attempt at some optics inserting my Poundland 100mm lens into the end of a cut section of the pipe. At the focal length I mounted my 10 pence high brightness, prefocussed, LED beacon with Bluetac. With this (crude) set-up on an old tripod and with a taped on gun-sight to help with aim, I set the TX baseband beacon running and pointed it from the stairway through a double glazed window aiming down the road. With my handheld baseband head using just the high brightness 10p LED as the detector I walked down the road to see how far I could get. In the beam in daylight I could detect the signal at the receiver at 120m. With a magnifying glass in front of the RX LED signals at 200m were strong (could not test at greater range), but it was difficult to keep the RX aligned. The red LED was quite strong visibly at the 200m test point even though running just 15mA or so through it. The double glazed window no doubt added a small amount of attenuation. What I'm not sure about is how good (or bad) this result is. Clearly with a really high brightness Golden Dragon LED the range even with this system would be considerably further.

4 Dec 2011

LF tests with the earth electrode "antenna"

Following the great success on 160m with the 20m spaced earth electrodes yesterday, I fired up the WSPR transverter into the same "antenna" today on 137.5kHz. Although I managed to decode G8IMR at 188km several times, no reports of my signal were received. This ties up with tests last year which suggested the earth electrode system was around 8dB down on my 80sq m vertical wire loop. With results on 137.5kHz hard to get with 500uW ERP it was perhaps not surprising that no-one managed to decode me on the earth electrodes.

I now have a choice on 137kHz: either re-erect the wire loop, but double the wire thickness when I do so, or change to a Marconi vertical with a large loading coil. The thicker loop will increase ERP by up to 6dB but I suspect more is to be had with the vertical. It would be daft of me not to give the Marconi a try both on 137.5kHz and on 500kHz. Even with my limited space I can still manage around 8m of vertical with around 20m of top section.

3 Dec 2011

Amazing evening on 160m ...without an antenna

160m WSPR reports - using 5W to 20m spaced earth electrodes

What an amazing evening: tonight I let my 5W WSPR beacon run with my VLF earth electrodes (20m separation with a low wire feed) as the "antenna" i.e. no conventional antenna in the air at all. Just look at these results! 6 countries and best DX 896km to the Shetland Is. If the earth electrodes are acting as a "loop in the ground" then the Shetlands are in the wrong direction i.e. in the null of the loop.

Sunday I intend to try 137kHz with the earth electrodes as I now have some 6dB more power than the last time this was attempted.

Earth electrode "antenna" on HF

Today I had to prune the tree to which my 80m sq wire loop is attached, so the loop had to come down for a while. Instead I connected up my 20m spaced earth electrode pair "antenna" with the connecting wire about 1.5m off the ground coming back along the garden fence. This is the antenna I use on VLF earth mode tests with the best DX reception of my signal being 6km away when using 5W at 8.76kHz.

I have been amazed how well this works on 160-40m this afternoon. This is the log this evening on 160m with 5W WSPR - best DX report so far from OZ7IT at 853km. On 40m I reached over 2000km with a report from the north of Norway.

10m - still WIDE open

A small wire halo antenna, 5W from an FT817 and WSPR software and these are the loggings of my 28MHz QRP signal in just a few minutes this morning. Best DX report 16964km from VK2ALC.