Radio antics on the Inner Hebrides

I have just returned from a much needed break away to the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, consisting of a week on the Isle of Skye and then a week on Islay.

It was our fourth visit to Skye but Islay was a new destination for us. While it was primarily a holiday away with the wife and dogs doing some walking, sight-seeing, visiting the numerous malt whisky distilleries (especially on Islay and Jura) I also planned to do some operating.

Last year I did operate from the same rented cottage on Skye but this year I wanted to do some portable working on both islands. With this in mind and following my disappointment last month I had taken time to properly prepare. As well as repairing the end-fed wire “magitenna” that had caused issues last time out I had constructed a linked dipole for 40m/20m for a simple inverted-vee using a fibreglass windsock pole.

I took the Yaesu FT857-D with a small SLA battery for portable work and a small power supply when in the cottages. Unfortunately things didn’t get off to a good start when I dropped the battery when unpacking. I had used a small screw-terminal chock block to connect to the power loom and the weight of the battery simply ripped both wires out of the terminal block and they touched with an almighty spark and welded themselves together. I acted quickly to remove them from the battery but it has almost certainly affected the battery. Despite this set back the battery performance proved more than sufficient for my needs.

During the first week on Skye, the South Kesteven ARS, which I am the chairman, had their monthly meeting and we planned to try and make a scheduled contact (sked) I did have a run through one evening to test the set up and antenna, drinking a beer and making contacts while sitting on a bench at the cottage watching the sunset going down over Loch Bay with the Outer Hebrides in the distance – sheer bliss!

On the night of the sked the famous Scottish midges were out in abundance and I opted to work from inside the cottage. A successful contact and conversation was made even if there were a few issues at the club that night. They were unable to get the planned antenna up due to activities in the nearby scout hut but like all good hams they improvised using an Ampro-40 magmounted vertical on top of a large saucepan until they were able to get a dipole up but by then band conditions had started deteriorating, but a contact is a contact.

Going portable I had planned to do some Worked All Britain Award activations, the W.A.B scheme uses the Ordnance Survey (OS) mapping agencies National Grid Reference (NGR) system to divide the country into 10km x 10km grid squares. The aim is for activators to operate from the squares and for other operators to “work” those squares.

In addition to activating squares, operators can also activate pillar type triangulation points (commonly known as ‘Trig Points’) which were originally used to carry out the surveying for Ordnance Survey maps but have now been abandoned and have become interesting relics and many are now sadly falling into disrepair, however many people still seek them out and a database exists at www.trigpointing.uk

I planned to try to activate some squares and trig points as the more remote locations such as the Scottish Islands are highly sort after as they don’t get activated as often.

Firstly before I describe my adventures let me be brutally honest! I am fat, in fact very fat and unfit!

I haven’t always in such poor shape, in fact I used to be a keen walker regularly going out at weekends walking miles and even completed several long distance footpaths, including The Coast to Coast Walk back in 1991. I then spent many years competing in dog agility most weekends which kept me reasonably fit but the last few years circumstances have changed and I now have a sedentary lifestyle and desk bound job. This coupled with stress, apathy and being a more than willing victim of comfort eating mean I have piled on the pounds.

Why make this confession? Simply because most trig points are on prominent hill tops and high ground throughout the country and therefore will require some physical climbing to get to them. I was under no illusion there were many on Skye and Islay that I stood no chance of reaching without some form of coronary episode! But I had identified a number of more attainable ones requiring on paper just a modest exertion.

How wrong I was.. 

On the Isle of Skye we were staying on the Waternish peninsular and I had identified two possible candidates the nearby Ben Horneval (TP1275) and Ben Geary (TP1269) while both were over 260 meters in height the maps and descriptions seemed to indicate reasonable but still strenuous approaches. However prior to us arriving the weather had been very wet and the ground was very boggy and when actually standing looking up at the hills I sensibly thought “Not a chance!”

Instead I opted to go to the coast, specifically Talisker Bay which is glorious and simply activate a WAB square NG33 while the wife and dogs occupied themselves on the beach. So off we went, drove across Skye and walked the mile or so from the parking area carrying the rucksack with radio and pole. I went of to a nice spot just up of the beach to set up to then discover I had forgotten to pack the coax… never mind had a good few hours on the beach and stopped off at the Talisker distillery on the way back.

I hadn’t given up on a Skye trig-point and I had spotted Culnaknock (TP0664) on the North East coast of Skye, which was tantalisingly described as “one your granny could do” and had the advantage of also having a Geocache for the wife to get. So we set off in the car with the dogs for a grand tour round the island and ended up there late one afternoon.

There were a number of suggested approaches, on the first we were met with fences, livestock and a sign saying private and seeing no obvious path up we investigated another through a gate on the main road. This was more straightforward however the nearest parking area was a little way down from the gate. The road was extremely busy and we weren’t comfortable trying to walk up the road with the dogs due to the traffic. I was feeling at little peeved at this point and opted to stay with the car while the wife retrieved the cache and took a photo so I know what I missed.

In the end I made no trig point activations on the Isle of Skye, but should we go back at least I am more prepared.

The second week of our holiday was on Islay. Islay is simply a fantastic place to visit, much quieter than Skye, probably due to the two hour ferry journey involved and I did manage some portable operating between visiting the eight whisky distilleries and a trip to a ninth on nearby Jura.

The cottage we were staying in overlooked Lagavulin Bay with the Lagavulin Distillery and the remains of Dunyvaig Castle, it was a two minute walk to a high point near the ruins where I set up one evening and had an hour operating in the setting sun, again band conditions were poor but I didn’t care, NR44 was activated.

There were two trig-points quite near to the cottage. Ardmore Point (TP0875), from the map this looked simple enough, however the road to Ardmore was a private road so couldn’t take the car and while walking there from the nearest parking space was simple enough time didn’t allow it.

Cnoc Rhaonastil (TP2293) was another potential trig point, locally called the Fairy Hill it promised spectacular views for short but steep walk, however again parking and access proved problematic and so was never attempted. 

The Mull of Oa (TP4976) trig-point I actually walked to being next to the American Monument which commemorates the loss of two troop ships in 1918, the Tuscania and the Otranto and the spectacular location overlooks the very spot where the Tuscania sunk. The monument built to thank the inhabitants of Islay for their help is built in the shape of a lighthouse and is visible from many areas on Islay. Despite the very wet ground conditions the walk was straightforward however the weather put paid to any attempt at activating. The wind was very very strong, as this short video demonstrates.


The attempt on An Curran (TP0839) really was a comedy of errors, being a fairly modest 49m high and close to where we were staying it should have been straightforward. To get to the summit you have to navigate a dense conifer forest and I had read the description on the trigpointing.uk website of how to ascend via a gate and distinct path.

It looked short and simple so didn’t take a map or the GPS with me. I found a gate and what seemed like a path along a wall and set off and quickly the path became indistinct and the trees were indeed very dense, so dense I was struggling to get through them. But I carried on going up gaining altitude thinking I must be nearing the top, however it got to the point I just couldn’t get through the trees anymore and there was no sign of them thinning out as they supposedly did at the summit. It started raining and was having to negotiate water filled hollows, heather and bracken hummocks and swarms of midges – this was not fun!

Eventually I did spot a clearing only to find it was where a power line ran up the hillside. I knew I was too far south and since going north through the forest was neigh on impossible I instead descended following the power line through chest high bracken back to the road, all the time worrying about “Serpents” as the locals quaintly called the adders which were prevalent this year.  When I did reach the road I had to climb a low dry stone wall and promptly slipped into a deep water filled ditch on the other side, losing a boot in the peaty mud much to the amusement of a passing group of horse riders.

I almost decided that this was enough, I was doomed not to activate a trig point however one remained on the hit list and I succeeded in activating it on the final day.

I had spotted Cnoc Lolairean (TP2283) when visiting the nearby Bruichladdich Distillery earlier in the week, only 29 meters high it was on a small ridge along the side of Loch Indaal and it involved just a short walk up a farm track and up a narrow track to the top.

The wife went of to get a coffee from the nearby mini-market and took the dogs for a walk on the nearby beach while I went to the trig point. What it lacked in height it made up for with the position with fantastic view across to Bowmore and down the Loch.

I used bungee cords to hold the pole to the pillar and soon had the inverted-vee up on 40m. I had around 40 minutes of operating, and band conditions were again poor with lots of noise but I did make a decent number of contacts running approximately 20W before the battery voltage started to drop off. I was especially pleased to work Stewart M0SDM a fellow SKARS member.

One unexpected radio highlight on Islay was capturing a SSTV image broadcast by the Russians from the International Space Station to celebrate 40 years since the Apollo-Soyuz link up. I didn’t know about the SSTV operation before we went on holiday and so hadn’t taken any VHF aerials with me so I just stuck a piece of wire into the back of the FT857-D and dangled it out the window to hopefully catch one of the passes early on the Sunday morning, I hadn’t had time to unpack properly but the captured image was actually quite good considering.

My first contest

Last night I attempted my first contest, the RSGB 50MHz UKAC

I am a complete novice at using HF, in fact I am a complete novice at transmitting anything!

My Chinese Baofeng handhelds have pretty much collected dust since getting my licence. However with the purchase of the FT-857D I must, despite my trepidation, step up to the microphone.

I had hit a snag when testing out the new radio, my antenna was showing high VSWR on 6m, even with the ATU I was struggling to get it to 2:1, therefore I decided to construct a simple dipole and sling it up with an ugly choke ‘balun’ I had constructed.

Due to some unexpected delays I was running out of time but eventually did manage to get something up, it was only around 2 meters off the ground and the VSWR still wasn’t ideal, but I was ready.

At the appointed time, well nearly an hour late I started turning the dial and was met with a load of static, wasn’t hearing anything! This continued for a quite a time then suddenly I started hearing “CQ Contest  CQ Contest” I listened in for a while to try to get the gist of the exchanges, wandering up and down the band.

Then I decided to have a go at a QSO, giving my callsign out, I waited nothing! “QRZ CQ Contest CQ Contest” another go.. still nothing.. and so on..

Changed frequency to another stations, tried again and I was heard, but they couldn’t make out my call sign despite several attempts.. another change of frequency and the same results.

Now I know I had only got it set a 5W, the lowest I can till I get some confidence in my set up and am not going to damage anything! But I was a little disappointed, but I persevered until suddenly I was in the middle of my first contest QSO and my brain turned to jelly..

Thanks to M0MDY and his patience and prompting I successfully completed the QSO, details suitably written down. I carried on with no luck and called it a night just after 10pm, and went back in the house and manually entered the details of my solitary contact on the RSGB Contest website www.rsgbcc.org

Checking this morning and there I am at the bottom of the list, but not the very bottom, with a whopping 48 points.

http://www.rsgbcc.org/cgi-bin/claim.pl?Contest=50MHz%20UKAC&year=2014

Roll on next week, it is the 144MHz UKAC and I have a proper 2m YAGI… just got to work out how to mount it up on the poll and how to rotate it..

73s

Pinneberg (DDK3) HF Weather Facsimile Transmissions

I have posted before about receiving weather and shipping facsimile transmissions on HF, for a couple of days I have been using the FCDP+ and WXSat to do some decoding, also been investigating some of the mysterious RTTY transmissions you also find.

Interestingly my previous experiment was using an Alinco Scanner with SSB capability, produced better results than using the FCDP+ and SDR#. not really sure why. It appears the some processing of the audio upsets WXSat, I have tried many settings and adjustments but the decodes haven’t been brilliant clear despite the signal being very strong and clear, many of the faxs have come in with odd ‘stepping’ where portions of the image go out of sync which I have corrected in PaintShop Pro.

Any way, here is a small selection of the images I’ve decoded from the Deutscher Wetterdienst, broadcast on 7880 kHz (DDK3) from Pinneberg in Germany,

 

STRATODEAN – High Altitude Balloon

After yesterdays successful first attempt at receiving the telemetry from HABs (High Altitude Balloons) I spotted another was being launched this morning, the STRATODEAN Project.

The STRATODEAN team is made up of Mark Ireland and Cassie Phelps, two graduates from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire who were launching their payload from their hometown.

The launch took place just after 10am, and I set the receiver going and was getting some faint signals but no successful decodes and took the dogs out for a morning walk, a few hours later I returned to find the signal had increased in strength and decodes were occuring.

I carried on receiving successful decodes after the balloon burst and it was making the decent, the final decode being received as it was around 700m from the ground, quite near the final landing spot.

I managed to get the spacenear.us tracker working (by turning off adblock plus) so was able to follow the track of the payload in real time as decodes were received.

Congratulations to the Stratodean project it was an enjoyable few hours.

WSPR using a FUNCube Dongle PRO+

For sometime I have been using my FUNCube Dongle Pro+ SDR as an HF receiver station for WSPR, so. I thought it was about time I posted something.

Introduction
By its very nature radio propagation isn’t totally predictable so someone transmitting can never know exactly where their signal will be received. There is whole science behind radio propagation prediction and amateur radio operators are always on the look out for openings or skip conditions for DX communications. To aid operators a number of propagation beacons exist, usually operating in CW mode transmitting their identification (call sign and location). Some of them use frequency shift keying and some transmit signals in digital modulation modes.

While invaluable operators have to actively receive and monitor these signals and what they really want to know is how their signal is getting out to the rest of the world. This is where the WSPR system comes into its own. The WSPR system uses a protocol which probes these potential propagation paths using low-power QRP transmissions.

WSPR (pronounced “whisper”) stands for “Weak Signal Propagation Reporter” and is a computer program that enables amateur radio stations to participate in a world-wide network of low power propagation beacons. The station transmits beacon signals and receives signals from other stations operating in the same amateur band. These stations then upload ‘spots’ that they receive in real time to a central website wsprnet.org enabling operators to find out where and how strongly they were received, and can view the propagation paths on a map.

It is also possible to operate a receive only station uploading ‘spots’ to the same website, all that is required is a receiver capable of receiving single side band transmissions and feeding the resultant audio into the WSPR program where it is processed. The WSPR program was written by Joe Taylor, K1JT.

These “whisper” signals are often barely audible but their presence can be detected by the WSPR program using signal processing. The WSPR signal uses frequency shift keying (FSK) with a very small shift and a very slow data rate. The signals bandwidth occupied is only about 6 Hz so many stations can operate within the 200Hz WSPR window without interference. WSPR transmissions are encoded to carry a station’s callsign, grid locator, and transmitter power in dBm. The program can decode signals with S/N as low as -28 dB in a 2500 Hz bandwidth.

Each transmission lasts for just under two minutes, and starts at the beginning of each even-numbered minute. Therefore it is vitally important that transmitters and receivers are synchronised, so one of the fundamental pre-requisites of success with WSPR is an accurately-set computer clock. This is achieved by using internet or GPS time synchronisation methods.

Setting Up

This diagram shows the set up I am using at the moment. I have a long-wire antenna connected to the FUNCube Dongle Pro+. I am using SDRSharp (SDR#) to operate the FCDP+ and the resulting audio output is then used as the input into the WSPR program.

I am using SDR# but any suitable SDR program could be used, I have used SDR-Radio and HDSDR but I have found the SDR# program uses less resources on my ageing PC.

Routing the sound output from one program to be the input into another can be problematic and depends on the soundcard and its driver, you might be lucky and have a ‘stereo-mix’ or ‘what-u-hear’ option to use the main sound card output as a recording input, or alternatively you will need to use something like virtual audio cable VAC.

Since the WSPR signal is very narrow band it is desirable that your receiver is accurately calibrated. Most SDR program that support the FUNCube Dongle PRO+ allow a correction setting so that the tuned signal is at the correct frequency, the use of beacons, repeaters, time signals or broadcast stations is an excellent method to set this correction if required.

You will need to download the WSPR program from http://www.physics.princeton.edu/pulsar/K1JT/ the current stable version is WSPR-2.11. The installation is straightforward and when you start the program a window will appear that looks like a command prompt, don’t close this window, it will give important debug messages if there problems. Then the main console window will open along with a window where you set the station parameters.

Don’t worry about the Callsign and Grid locator at the moment, the first thing to do is select the correct audio in source, the rest can be ignored as it relates to a transmitter and I am describing how to set up a receive only station.

Firstly slide the Tx fraction (%) to zero, since you won’t be transmitting and make sure the upload spots is unchecked at the moment, then select the appropriate band you wish to receive. Then set the appropriate dial frequencies in your SDR receiver program, this is shown in the window and your SDR program will need to operate in USB, with a bandwidth of 2500Hz.

The current WSPR dial frequencies are (MHz)
0.136, 0.4742, 1.8366, 3.5926, 5.2872, 7.0386, 10.1387, 14.0956, 18.1046, 21.0946, 24.9246, 28.1246, 50.293, 70.091,144.489

I suggest you turn off any AGC and any filtering in the receiver, uncheck the idle box in WSPR and then wait for the next ‘even’ minute at which point the program should show receiving, alter the sound level so the Rx Noise is ideally around 0dB, but it will work between -10dB and +10dB.

When the two minute interval is over a segment will appear in the waterfall in the top panel and the program will decode any WSPR transmissions received, you will see them as lines in the waterfall as the above image shows. Any successful decodes will appear in the bottom panel.

Once you have got it working, the next thing is to register on the WSPRnet.org website for a SWL callsign, mine is G-SWL10 you will also need to know your grid-locator, you can find this easily using http://f6fvy.free.fr/qthLocator/fullScreen.php

Once registered then putting the data into the station parameters and checking the upload spots will send your spots to the website database, where you can view your spots in the database and on a map, the map at the top shows my spots on one day this week on 20m, getting stations from Australia, the Far East and the US as well as Europe.

Some important things to note are ensure you computer clock is accurately set, if it is wrong you will be out of sync and decodes won’t happen and ensure you are tuned to the correct frequency as you have set the WSPR program otherwise spots will be reported for the wrong band.

It is a fascinating activity and even as just a receiver you are offering a valuable service to amateur operators.

ARISS school contact reception despite the interference

Yesterday morning (10:57 UTC) saw an ARISS School Contact with participants at Ecole Les Muriers, Saint-Maur-Des-Fossés, France.

This was a nice opportunity to listen in since the position of the ground station at the school meant the UK could listen in to the majority (if not all) of the downlink. Usually when it is further east in Europe (Germany/Poland etc) you get the initial calling and the start of the contact but the ISS goes out of range before the session ends.

So I set up my FUNCube Dongle PRO PLUS connected to the discone in the loft and the new SDR-Radio V2 Preview software. I had to start the recording remotely as I was in work, but have played back the IQ file and made a video showing the decoding.

As you can see/hear I appear to get the full contact and the questions were (source)

1. What is the temperature outside the ISS?
2. What does the Earth look like from the ISS?
3. What does the Moon look like from the ISS?
4. Have you already passed through an asteroid belt?
5. Are you able to go outside the station, into the space?
6. What is your speed? Can you feel it?
7. How do you sleep? Do you have the same sleep pattern than on the earth?
8. Do the crew members sleep one after the other, or do you sleep all at the same time?
9. How do you know if it is morning or night on board?
10.Do you do any sports and physical activities? Do you lose weight?
11. Do you shave every day? If so, how?
12. Do you see any space debris? Can you see evidence of pollution of the earth?
13. What are your hobbies on the ISS after a day of work?
14. Are you happy to come back home at the end of your mission?
15. What is your current mission?
16. Why did you choose to become an astronaut?
17. How do you cook food? What is a typical meal in the ISS?

I was lucky to receive it given the interference monster was back! It does manage to get in on the act a few times but thankfully doesn’t stop the show completely.

Over the last few months I’ve been suffering from increasing interference on the VHF/UHF and HF bands. Some of which I know about, the router I have puts out quite a few spikes on VHF but something local to me is putting out huge amounts of QRM.

I know it isn’t internally generated as it disappears when I remove the antenna. I have gone around and powered off all the potential culprits in the house and discovered a switch-mode power supply for an external USB hard drive was throwing out some HF noise as was a digital photo frame.

I’ve suffered with interference on and off since getting back into the hobby back in 2010 and appreciate it is something I have to live with but it is quite annoying at times. I suspect the interference might be one of those power-line networking devices, but if anyone has any idea I would welcome a comment!
 

Two more ARISS downlink recordings

Seems to be lots of ARISS activity at the moment. There have been a number of school contacts over the last few weeks that have had downlink transmission from the International Space Station receivable over the UK and Europe. Tomorrow morning (September 19th) there is another one, but it is unlikely I will be able to have a proper attempt at receiving it.

However these are the last two downlink transmissions I managed to receive.

  ARISS School Contact 09-Sep-2012 by nerdsville

ARISS School Contact 13-Sep-2012 by nerdsville

On a related note found this video today that made me smile can you spot the deliberate mistake?

 

Some reception reports

Not much to report, but have had a few decent monitoring sessions with the FUNCube Dongle.

A couple of ISS ARISS School Contacts took place over Europe during the last couple of weeks, with another taking place on Sunday morning. I was in work during the passes but managed to remotely log in to my computer to do some ‘unattended’ SDR-Radio recordings.

ARISS School Contact 31-Aug-2012 by nerdsville

ARISS School Contact 07-Sep-2012 by nerdsville

Late last night there was a bit of a lift on VHF and managed to receive the GB3VHF 144MHz Beacon which while it may not seem very news worthy is given there is a huge hill in the way when you look towards Kent! I have received it before using the Yagi in an horizontal polarization. But last nights reception was via the discone in the loft, which was a first. Love the JT65B tones, very musical.

GB3VHF by nerdsville

Earlier last night was also quite amusing when I stumbled across the Hucknall Rolls-Royce Amateur Radio Club who were trying to run an Amateur Radio Direction Finding Fox-hunt but were being completely blotted out by another, seemingly deaf, local operator pumping out 100W, though he did turn it down to 10W eventually.

Amateur Radio Direction Finding – Or Not! by nerdsville

Finally last weekend was the RSGB 144MHz Trophy Contest, again I got to get some decent SSB reception.

144MHz Trophy Contest – Part 1 by nerdsville

144MHz Trophy Contest – Part 2 by nerdsville

Some audio from the 144MHz SSB Contest

Not had much radio time since Saturday due to family duties but did managed to find time to edit down some of the audio from the 144MHz SSB Amateur Radio Contest I received.

The first part of the audio was from the FUNCube Dongle, the latter part from the Ultra cheap NewSky DVB-T stick running the RTL-SDR driver.

Both were received using the loft mounted discone antenna which I believe is vertically polarised and so wasn’t optimal since SSB is broadcast using horizontal polarization. Even so I was quite impressed with what I did receive with such humble equipment.The stations calling in the audio were G0VHF (morse and voice), M0KWP, M0BAA, 2E0KWM and G4SIV

  144MHZ SSB Contest by nerdsville

Please note the corruption that can be heard toward the end of audio appears to be an artifact of the sound editor and/or the transcoding used by soundcloud as it wasn’t in the original audio.