RaDAR – Amateur radio’s special forces

I tried to take part as a RaDAR operator this weekend, an on foot field day station. This is a category built into South Africa’s field day rules. I took it on as a challenge to myself having only a QRP morse code transceiver, my HB1A. I primarily used 40m which is rather difficult to use lately for short distance communications but good for a few hundred kilometer distances.

In ZS there are a few CW operators, a good bunch of guys that promote the mode whenever they can but being in the far west I’m usually skip to most of them during the day.

My only other options were to try and do some cross mode QSO’s with the guys on SSB. Some of them had powerful signals but impossible to know what power they were using even as field stations. It was shocking to say the least, I’d respond to CQ’s but it felt as if I was being ignored. I know from experience that even my 3 Watt signals could be heard well over a few hundred kilometers.

I made ZERO QSO’s!

” What has ham radio become? The new CB? I’m a morse code only station trying to take part in the local field day challenge. The CW guys are skip to me, too near I can only just hear them. Then I try to call very strong SSB stations. I know they can hear me. No acknowledgement of at least a signal. At least just say you can’t read morse code and I’ll be happy but these guys just ignore a CW station ….. “

I have experenced the fact that some SSB stations don’t even recognize morse code! My friend Marinus ZS6MAW made a valid statement that explains all this. “The CW requirement for an amateur radio licence was dropped”. I guess that answers my concerns and maybe confirms my statement above ….. ” What has ham radio become? The new CB? “

RaDAR operators are different and should be. We are capable of communicating in different ways, even cross mode SSB/CW like in the old days. We are the “Special forces” of ham radio communicators.

There’s nothing wrong with mixed mode QSO’s. I know even at 3W I’ll be getting through with a pretty good signal. Maybe I could have been someone lost in the fish river canyon with a broken ankle and my only chance of getting a message through were through the powerful contest stations actually practicing emergency communications????

ZS6BKW / G0GSF parts

RaDAR – The end of a nightmare

The X5105 in its “Reset state”

Just over a year ago my X5105 arrived on my doorstep via a courier. It was what I was looking for. I’d heard about the Elecraft KX3 and wanted something similar. The X5105 was out of the box retailing at around R10,500 way cheaper than the KX3! I could even trade in my immaculate FT-897d + LDG 897 ATU + a built in optional power supply at no extra cost even though the 897 was worth twice as much of the retail price of the X5105 but still less than a KX3. If all went well it would have been a good deal, well if it came even close to a KX3 – it didn’t.

The firmware on the original unit was not up to scratch, the built in ATU did not work. Then I learnt the tricks of the trade by having to regularly update firmware. The radio was never free of problems even with regular updating of firmware.

Now coming from a fault free Yaesu environment I sat with irritation, frustration and disappointment. I had no support, I had to fight through Facebook politics and I was stranded but never gave up still having faith for the future.

My radio started losing it’s settings, no one would understand the way I felt. I so missed my fault free Yaesu’s and had to sit through frustration for months. I still never gave up. Then through trial and error I got the radio to be reasonably stable. I had started a Facebook group for X5105 users and I found others having similar issues. My stability went back to the radio resetting itself again. Firmware issues, one after the other. The hardware appeared to be okay but impossible to really know.

Although I felt guilty trying to sell the radio, everyone was afraid even when I lowered the price considerably but being open to the X5105’s “problems”. It was always “Functional” I did make many contacts with it.

Imagine, in practical terms I laid out, in effect, over 20K to be saddled with problem after problem. You can understand the anger that built up inside me. So only just two days ago I advertised the radio as a GIVEAWAY. I would rid myself of these disappointments forever. There was a catch though, candidates had to write a motivation for getting a fully functional X5105 with it’s “MINOR” problems for free. They are minor, well unless you imagine the relative 20K it cost me!

If the radio was for free, these minor irritations will not mean much. I’m happy with that and any new owner would no doubt be happy too.

Out of about 30 requests for a free radio only one or two satisfied my criteria but not quite. Some were shocking to say the least. The X5105 needed a special owner. Just before I was about to announce, well not perfect but the best out of 30, I had a request from a friend of a friend. His motivation, his passion for outdoor radio, his fair outlook on life and our transaction surprised me beyond expectations, well especially after reading the 30 emails!.

The rig has a new owner and is already on it’s way to the Cape where I know it will be happy there and my new friend I know will be happy too.

RaDAR – Losing sight of the goal

The Xeigu X5105 loaded with Version 3 firmware, a failed test.

My personal goals for RaDAR is being an effective, on foot, communicator that can move quickly to my destination and establish communications on HF and FM Satellites within a short amount of time. This requires regular practice.

For the past few months, HF conditions have been pretty difficult unless you’re in the right place and distance from others. Forty meters is practically skip most of the time making NVIS comms practically non existent. The RaDAR operator relies quite heavily on NVIS communications much like the military.

Together with marginal conditions I have been plagued with buggy firmware for the Xiegu X5105 for almost a year rendering my HF radio practically useless until discovering a version that appears to work reasonably well, November 11 2018. That has given me renewed hope for my mobile HF station.

In the mean time I have been working hard in getting my RaDAR training ground suitable for practicing RaDAR that it be safe to walk / jog there in the coming summer months where snakes and other dangerous things come out to play. I have had some close encounters in the past. I believe too that they have their place in nature.

I have also installed two permanent antennas, a 80m / 40m delta loop and a little further away a linked dipole for 40m through to 10m. Having the antennas permanent defeats the object of RaDAR but are there to be used when the need arises but I still have to walk there with my radio and sit outside in the wind or hot sun. I don’t have a shack. Often I’ve thought about getting a shack radio again but that defeats my dream of being a RaDAR operator at all times and always ready. I must build a new antenna for the back pack that could basically do 80m / 40m / 30m and 20m. That’s all a RaDAR operator needs really.

So with a year of being almost dormant it’s time to face new challenges. I still need to cut the paths with a bush cutter and petrol lawn mower but then playing radio in the bush is really good fun. There is not much QRM out there either! The X5105 receiver is not the best there is but it makes a good trail radio and therefore ideal for RaDAR.

Spring is on its way and already the leaves on the trees are starting to show and it hasn’t even started raining yet! I’ve built a small fireplace amongst some trees in the bush and putting up some shade and a table and a chair which may be an ideal place for field day operations and being a portable station. I don’t always have to do the moving thing. QRP only of course.

It’s become too easy now or maybe a necessity to use high power but really my belief has always been that QRP is sufficient if conditions are favorable. It can be quite demoralizing though hearing a station booming through at 59 PLUS and they can’t hear me or the worst hear something and ask me to try again later. The opportunity presents itself, look out for the little stations we’re not all running 100W and more.

RaDAR – Kobus ZS6BOS’s challenge results

Kobus ZS6BOS has become one of the leading competitors in ZS. His operating style and reporting is neat and friendly.

Kobus left his QTH at 08h30 UTC and made his first stop at KG33sp.  (See log sheet for contacts) Next stop KG33so94os where he made my 5 contacts and went on to KG33tp40be and spent the rest of his 4 hours as a field station. As per RaDAR rules, Kobus included a foto of each position.  Here is one of them.

Well done Kobus! Hope to see you in the November challenge again.

RaDAR – Challenge July 2019 review

I eventually found the time to write my review. Being recently retired I found I’m quite a busy man and wonder where I ever got the time to go to a “saltmine” for eight hours a day!

HF conditions are really a challenge nowadays and even under less strenuous timelines than the RaDAR challenge it’s days or weeks that I go without a QSO! That determined my strategy for the day.

Usually I don’t rely too heavily on satellite communications and I hadn’t done RaDAR SatComms in quite a while. Choosing my four hours I had to make the first attemt a test. I had a great QSO with Tom ZR6TG via the AO-91 cubesat.

In the background, my RaDAR training ground – a full 1.6 Hectare of dense bush.

Then the four hour challenge started. I made no attempt at setting up any HF antennas but there were two permanently in place in my RaDAR training ground, a 40m / 20m delta loop (In the background above) and another two hundred meters away, a linked dipole.

I at least walked to new locations for the satellite QSO’s deploying quiclky and making quick pass evaluations for direction and elevation. I used the SA AMSAT satellite antenna which is very lightweight and effective. It’s a wonder antenna as the theory behind it goes well beyond that of a straightforward yagi and diplexer.

A low elevation pass but three good QSO’s ZS1LEM, ZS1OB and ZS2BK . As could be expected it’s difficult to near impossible to get the full quota of five QSO’s as per RaDAR movement specifications, so I just returned to “base” after each successful deployment.

ISS Detector Android app for pass predictions

Three QSO’s via SO-50 with ZS2BK, ZS1OB and ZS6GL, Graham is very involved with the RAE and inspiring young people to become radio amateurs.

An area I cleared using a bush cutter and standard petrol lawnmower modified to handle the rough environment.

I had included the last hour for possible CW QSO’s through a local CW sprint that takes place every Saturday and Sunday between 4pm and 5pm. I managed one QSO using my X5105 Xeigu and the linked dipole.

Not a true RaDAR challenge but I had lots of fun and that what it’s all about.

RaDAR News – July 2019

It’s almost that time of the year when the mid year RaDAR Challenge takes place. A good place to start if you have not already done so, is to download the SARL Contest manual, alias “The Blue Book”. The URL is http://www.sarl.org.za/public/contests/contestrules.asp

The section to look out for are the RaDAR Challenge guidelines. The times and date are 00:00 UTC to 23:59 UTC on Saturday 13 July 2019. You are free to choose your own four hour time within the twenty four hour window. Conditions have been really bad lately so it’s going to be a challenge of note!

A few months ago the author opted for the Xiegu X5105 all mode compact QRP HF radio for RaDAR ops but it is badly in need of reliable firmware. Fortunately one can revert to the last known good version but is pretty old already, November 2018! Unless some miracle happens, that would be the only route to success.

There is a massive drive in ZS for CW (Morse code) which is really ideal for RaDAR and with present conditions that may be the most effective way of getting your grid square through to the other stations. Keep your speed down to about 12 wpm with good spacing between the characters for easy copy.

South African Morse Code
Contact ZS6MSW to join the Movement !!!

Try to negotiate a common four hour time that we all operate within the same time frame. Advertise your intentions and others may follow and visa versa. We need each other, the challenge is not only a physical one, it is about communications and sharing accurate information while working in difficult conditions. We need those shack bound stations too. Don’t use too much power, if QRP stations can hear each other then the channel is open. A hundred Watts or more isn’t going to make it easier.

Of course there are also options for satellite communications but from experience The tight pass schedule is sometime detrimental to the overall plan unless it’s somewhere towards the end of the challenge. Note, you always need at least five QSO’s before moving and satellite communications may not always provide a full quota!

RaDAR Challenge exchanges are simple, the most important being an accurate grid locator. An awareness of more than 6 characters to a possible 8 or even 10 will make copy easier. The RaDAR challenge requires more than a minimalistic information exchange. Accurate information exchange is considered more important than a large QSO count. Call sign, name, RS (T) report and grid locator. The grid locator of six characters is acceptable but should preferably be accurate to 8 or 10 characters for higher position accuracy (especially for moving RaDAR stations). Various smartphone apps are used for this or pre-planning using maps is an alternative.

Here’s hoping for a successful RaDAR challenge – Have fun!!!

Xiegu X5105 – Cutting my losses

I started this journey less than a year ago in September 2018. Yesterday I made the decision to cut my losses. I advertised my X5105 for sale but this final review will be mentioned so that any potential buyer will know what he or she is in for.

What would you pay for an immaculate FT-897d including a LDG AT-897 automatic ATU and optional internal DC power supply. My estimate on this around R16,000. That’s what I essentially paid for it …. I’m selling the X5105 for half that price which makes it affordable for someone with renewed patience for a potentially awesome trail radio. Let’s face it, the radio does have potential BUT is totally reliant on RELIABLE FIRMWARE. You’re in the hands of the Xiegu engineers.

I have become an unhappy ham ever since I went down this road but always kept an open mind and being part of the “work in progress”. The only problem is when is the work in progress going to come to an end, reliably?

With every version of firmware for this radio there have been improvements. The latest version 3, BETA 3 can be downloaded from https://www.dropbox.com/s/49uwifixuiqmqmt/X5105_App_V3.00_beta03.xgf?dl=0 which really looks awesome but is no where near free from bugs! Now where did this version come from? A friend got it off the Facebook group from which I and many others have been banned and although I’ve tried to renew ties with the admin I was left to start my own X5105 group. Why the politics? I know of really serious politics too, WHY? We’re hams playing radio but since going down this road I have had to contend with such unpleasant situations.

Yesterday was the final straw. I managed previously to store pre-programmed CW messages but with this version I can find no way to send them? Then I was testing a home brew CW paddle and I found no way where I could adjust the CW w.p.m. speed? The battery indicator showed full but with a superimposed 66 on it. The unit shut down without a warning – flat battery. You see I was calling CQ for about five minutes. Oh at one stage the power output was intermittent too.

I can’t revert back to the previous firmware because I lose my basic settings every time I do a power down. I got tired of doing that after a few weeks!

How long can one put up with BAD FIRMWARE???

I have lost patience with Xiegu and this radio. By the way, Xiegu does not provide the latest firmware on their website nor an updated manual. The new firmware is TOTALLY DIFFERENT!!!

So I’m looking for someone who can patiently wait for an update and try using the radio. I’m going back to my You Kits HB1A CW only QRP radio.

For sale

Selling my Xiegu X5105 160m to 6m all mode QRP radio.

It presently has the latest beta firmware installed. USB programming cable and external power cable included. (Has internal rechargeable battery). External multifunction mic. (Rig has internal mic too)

Asking price R8000 o.n.o.

Email negotiations only please and first come first served.

PostNet for buyers account.

73 de Eddie ZS6BNE