RaDAR News – How an OCF Dipole changed my life

I’d used an OCF dipole in the past but wasn’t very happy with the results. It needed considerable height and there is definitely a lot of radiation coming off the coax feedline. This antenna however fits in well with RaDAR for quick deployments and has multiband capability. So I took the dimensions of a resonant 40m dipole, devided the total length of the half wave dipole into three and fed it a third of the way via a LDG 4:1 balun. Good SWR on 40m even without a tuner. Good SWR on one or two other bands too. The antenna however needs a tuner for most of the amateur radio HF bands.

I used my newly aquired second hand FT-817ND and LDG z817 ATU to do the antenna tests using WSPR as a signal source and then I went onto the Internet on the WSPR website to see how the listener stations worldwide could hear my 5W WSPR signal. It’s a pretty nice way to test the effectiveness of any antenna. All the results are stored in a database and you get a graphical representation of where you’re being heard.

All went well but I noticed during WSPR transmissions that my SWR would go sky high at times. WSPR is quite strenuous on a QRP rig running full power (5W) for continuous two minute sessions. I have witnessed the heat generated on finals while doing WSPR when I built the Hans Summers QCX 40m CW transceiver kit that can do WSPR too. The heat generated on high SWR is intense as I once witnessed on a 49er QRPp 300 mW transceiver kit I once built for CW (7.023 MHz only).

The 817 was pushing 5W with an intermittent SWR. I felt the heat sink, it was HOT! The cause of the SWR was a nut on the antenna socket of the z817 auto ATU that had come loose due to regular connecting and disconnecting of the antenna coax. This is a common problem. I tightened it also using a “locktight” liquid so it wouldn’t come loose again as suggested by my friend Jonathan ZS1ARB. It was too late though, the damage had been done and the 817’s output power gradually went to zero. My last QSO was with Jannie ZS3CM on 40m CW. I was in the bush using my link dipole strung up permanently in the blue gum trees. From the report Jannie gave me I wasn’t getting out very well. So after almost 45 years of hamming I experienced my first finals failure!

I accepted the fate of the 817. I did some research on the 817’s finals module and it seems to be a relatively easy process if the whole module is replaced. The whole situation made me think a little differently as I will try to sketch in this article. The 817 can no longer be used for transmitting but it is an excellent rig for receiving signals on the HF, FM Broadcast band (RX Only), Airband (RX Only), VHF and UHF bands. It’s not entirely useless in its present state. Fully legal in the hands of an unlicensed operator and my thoughts went to my grandson Eduan (13) who shows a lot of interest in space having recently bought a telescope to look at the planets and galaxies. I thought maybe he could use the rig to do some short wave listening and to look out for satellite transmissions. I still have my Arrow dual band yagi I use for the sats.

I’ve always promoted the use of QRP but I’m really starting to have my doubts. The problem is QRM. Even where I mostly stay out of town, there is QRM, 59+ QRM! I walk further away from the residential area into the bush where the noise a much less. That helps me to hear better but the majority of hams work from home also in pretty noisy environments, They battle to hear weak signals. I’ve proved that during good conditions 5 Watts is sufficient for CW and even SSB. Conditions lately are mostly not good so QRP is becoming more of a challenge. For RaDAR there needs to be effective communications.

Recently we have been playing around with the digital modes JS8Call a derivative of FT8 but even there I have found QRP power too low to be effective. These are weak signal modes. Allow me just talk about FT8. There is no way I can even be heard on FT8 using QRP. It’s totally useless as the world fires away at higher power trying to make high counts of FT8 QSO’s within a tiny space of 2 kHz per band. It’s a fruitless battle using QRP. Whatever happened to PSK31? (Not to mention the numerous other digital modes available on the excellent software FL-Digi). FT8 is maybe keeping the bands alive but it’s killing everything else ….

Allow me talk about the RaDAR Challenges which are practised world wide. A few years ago we had around SEVENTY participants. Now we have four if we’re lucky. Usually it’s Sid ZS5AYC and his XYL Adele ZS5APT and Kobus ZS6BOS. I try to join in using QRP with a touch of satellite comms which in my mind is the future. It’s there for us to use and is clinically predictable unlike short wave plagued by bad propagation and QRM caused by noisy uncontrolled household appliances. The challenges will continue but we need more participation. Maybe many are in the same boat as myself. I have doubts whether I want to replace my rig with something like a FT-891 which can do 100W. Is it really worth the expense?

I had an eye opener. I set up the 817, WxtoIMG software on a laptop, Arrow yagi on a tripod and showed Eduan how to monitor the NOAA-19 weather satellite on 137.100 MHz. He thoroughly enjoyed it. He tracked the satellite by hand checking the S Meter for maximum signal strength. His school friend from Std 6 (Grade 8) was visiting, they both enjoyed the experience.

On another occasion, Eduan did everything by himself even doing slight doppler adjustments on the FT-817ND’s frequency settings – he was in control! He adjusted the antenna’s azimuth, elevation even twisting for best polarisation. All these fine adjustments made a difference to the overall quality of the weather satellite image transmitted by NOAA-19. He was in total control, not his granddad living in his own dream world and him watching. I realised, this is what young people want, the freedom to be in control. He loved it!!!

My friend Christi ZS4CGR was doing a SOTA activation via the AO-92 and AO-91 cubesats and I wanted to support him. I forgot though but was fortunately reminded by Sid ZS5AYC before the last pass. I set up my TH-D7A handheld, connected to the yagi, headphones on ….. in my own little world ….. and Eduan showed little interest. He couldn’t hear anything anyway, I was listening to the downlink running full duplex on AO-91. I had a successful QSO with Christi. He managed nine QSO’s within a ten minute pass. I was glad to be able to be part of his activation. AO-91 hears QRM as it flies north over central Africa but this is an exception to the norm..

I want to take this opportunity to wish all a prosperous New Year. I think my five year license is renewable in 2020 which I hopefully will be able to do without difficulty. As for replacing a rig for HF, I still need to be convinced that it is a priority amongst other priorities? I can still do FM RaDAR SatComms which can provide effective communications other than 59 “My grid is” ….

In the meantime I no longer have to go away from the family to live in my own little world for an hour or three every now and then and I will now share my experiences with others in a shared world. It’s a happy place!!!

RaDAR News – December 2019

The year is coming close to its end. The three RaDAR Challenges have been completed locally and internationally, the hotspots South Africa and the USA. Many thanks to Greg N4KGL for his consistent promotion of RaDAR in the USA through action, you tube videos and his daily RaDAR newsletter which always makes interesting reading and viewing.

During the recent contest, conditions were not good as they have been for most of the year. Eddie ZS6BNE was thinking that maybe the level for the RaDAR challenge was too high and needed to be looked at for future years. It is the time for changes to the “Blue book”, the SARL’s contest manual.

On mentioning of the possibility of changes, Sid ZS5AYC and his XYL Adele ZS5APT said they were quite happy with the levels required for the RaDAR Challenge. They even mixed their RaDAR Challenge with SOTA activations this November and did very well indeed.

Kobus ZS6BOS did exceptionally well again during this challenge even walking longer distances between activation points. This proved to Eddie that the levels required for the RaDAR Challenge are achievable and no changes need to be made.

The April 2020 date clashes with the SARL AGM but considering that the Rugby final game between South Africa and England played in Japan did not deter the few die hard’s that usually take on the challenge, the SARL AGM will be no less. The times are not fixed and choosing your four hour period within the twenty four hours available, anything can be fit in.

Publicizing the RaDAR Challenge a week or two before any RaDAR Challenge has been proven to be a waste of time. Eddie, as always, tried the satellites again seeing HF conditions were extremely difficult but could only make one contact per satellite pass. It’s quite sad that the majority of hams don’t make the effort to support those trying to make a difference. It may be different in other parts of the world but sadly that is the case in ZS.

Kobus ZS6BOS made use of two meter simplex at times and left early in the morning. He used 80 meters too. One thing that really starts to show is that QRP is becoming more and more difficult as high power stations are the norm amongst new radio amateurs. The very few CW operators in South Africa is also a contributing factor.

Possibly this post that is included in the monthly Radio ZS will fall on deaf ears as are the numerous advertisements made before each challenge. Apologies for the negative views but it needs to be said. We, as radio amateurs need to support each other. I’ve said that so many times – it makes no difference.

But, the level of RaDAR will remain as it is. It is achievable. The dates and times will remain. We will fit in. We look forward to the new challenges we will face in 2020.

73 de Eddie ZS6BNE

RaDAR news – Horses for courses

Testing the RaDAR Satcomms gear

I always like to think amateur radio should serve a purpose. I often imagine a hiker out in the wilderness far away from anything modern society is used to using. This hiker has one thing that can save him from possible life threatening danger and that is amateur radio. Usually this hiker would carry with him, at minimum, a ham radio transciever that in the event of having to make contact with someone it will be possible. This hiker needs to practice the scenarios regularly that he knows what is possible and what is not.

Ideally this hiker should have a ham radio friends that he can rely on having regularly practiced through activities like contesting, SOTA, POTA and even regular contacts with guys using satellite communications. Knowing the Morse code and also knowing who could possibly be listening out for a weak signal could only make your chances of successful communications even better.

Sometimes you need to do things a little differently like using manual control while using a SSB satellite. It may be your only chance but you need friends to practice these things with and regularly too. Amateur radio is a team sport and if you don’t support each other, even if doing things a little out of the norm, then there is no hope of success when you need to communicate in an unusual way where there are no other options.

Amateur radio communications can be made using various modes via shortwave, sometimes digital communications may make it easier. They can also take place on VHF and UHF and usually a combination of the two using the satellites.

Tools used for satellite pass predictions usually reside on a computer or cell phone. A cell phone is a useful tool not necessarily used as a phone but as a small computing device. It should be reliable and up to date! It may be a good idea to make hard copies of times and frequencies as a backup as the phone can be lost or fail when you need it most!

On Saturday the 2nd of November 2019 the final RaDAR Challenge for 2019 takes place. My friend Greg N4KGL assured me that the RaDAR wave in the USA is still strong and that is good to hear. I have tried to promote the challenge via large QRP based groups on Facebook. Strange though, a group can have over six thousand members but you only really read input from a few regulars.

Try combining SOTA activities with RaDAR. Sid ZS5AYC and Adele ZS5APT are doing exactly that and my four hours will coincide with their plans. If there are satellite passes within that time frame I will certainly make an effort to do some RaDAR SatComms. Otherwise there is a ZS CW sprint that takes place from 10:00 UTC that I may be able to fit in depending on the SOTA time frame.

RaDAR is all about planning with regular practice and being ready to communicate at any time. My batteries are charged and the pack is packed with all I need for a successful challenge. We need to support each other whether you’re a rag chewer, a high power fixed station, a regular computer controlled satellite station operator or a FT8 operator. We need each other.

73 de Eddie ZS6BNE

RaDAR News – The basic requirements for RaDAR

In order to practice RaDAR or Rapid Deployment Amateur radio you need a radio. The radio needs to be reliable and be able to do all modes. Having a simple radio that can only do CW isn’t going to get you anywhere. The problem is that even when you may be in dire need of communications you are not necessarily going to be able to communicate with anyone for few have interest or know morse code at all. It is no longer a requirement for an amateur radio licence. So really you need a radio that can at least do SSB.

So talking about radios. Radios are not cheap to buy especially when buying new. Then most important is how are we able to see a new generation of hams coming into the hobby if the cost is so high? The second hand market is there but many hams are holding onto their radios because replacing them may even be impossible. There is the occasional opportunity to find a good second hand radio but they are rare!

For over a decade I used a FT-817ND for RaDAR. It was the most practical solution that I know of but sadly I sold mine and it was a mission to find another! I was very, very fortunate to find a good one including accessories for a reasonable price. But, many hoping to practice RaDAR are unable to do so because of the cost. This is a very real situation.

Then one looks at the cell phone market. Every second cell phone user has a contract of sorts and a reasonable level of smartphone for use in their daily lives. Money doesn’t seem to be an issue here? Many are quite happy to spend hundreds of rands per month so they can share pictures, videos and comments on social networks. Let’s face it how would us hams keep sked without WhatsApp or Facebook? Does amateur radio really have a place amongst the technology available to anyone on the street. They don’t require technical ability or even a licence? They don’t have to write exams?

Personally I think making it easy to enter the ranks of amateur radio just to keep up the numbers has been detrimental to the hobby for it appears ham radio has become a toy for those able to afford the latest technologies and equipment but simply used to chat on a radio. Amateur radio has become the new citizen band. In the past CB operators that really did many experiments radio and antenna wise became good radio hams. They usually started at QRP levels too. Hams nowadays that can afford the latest radios and linears and antennas will have powerful stations that they can use to work DX but what about the basic things that radio amateurs became famous for, being able to communicate when other options were no longer available.

WhatsApp is a very effective way of keeping in touch. Groups are created for various reasions. Even emergency groups. We often hear of cell phone tower batteries being stolen. If the cell networks go down the whole social media network goes down too. If the criminals in our midst realized this, maybe they do, they could cripple any communication medium reliant on cell networks and the Internet.

That’s where the RaDAR operator comes in. He / she has practiced this over and over whenever communications are done on amateur radio networks. RaDAR operators should be proficient in morse code too. At least they can understand each other using the mode. HF conditions are not always favorable but CW will get through at low power levels. SSB requires a little more but not much.

So how do we take the new generation forward that amateur radio is used for what it was originally there for. Experimentation, being there when nothing else is. Let that be food for thought.

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.