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.

April Radio Antics

It has been an extremely busy month since my last post, sadly not all of it radio related.

During the Easter holiday I was away in the caravan at a dog agility show in North Yorkshire, camping in the grounds of Duncombe Park just outside Helmsley. When not competing I was able to find some time to operate.

Boris combining both hobbies!

Using just an M0CVO Magitenna I had some reasonable low power SSB operation on a number of bands and activated a square for the Worked All Britain Award (WAB) (SE58) and gave some points away during the Polish SP DX Contest.

The WAB scheme was something I signed up for last year when I went to Skye but haven’t participated till now. The WAB net on 7.160MHz is a little daunting to listen too but once I jumped in it was relatively painless to activate the square and I plan to do some more when I go back to the Isle of Skye and Islay later this year, but I must improve my portable HF antenna.

Over the weekend of the 11/12th April there was another SSTV activation from the ISS in celebration of Yuri Gargarin’s life. I had some good results decoding images and decided that I’d use it as a way to promote South Kesteven ARS locally and contacted the local newspaper.

The Newark Advertiser did indeed feature the story both in print and on their website and they were very good in mentioning the radio society. It was also printed in the sister free paper.

Copyright Newark Advertiser

It was nice to get some very complimentary reaction to my publicity drive in social media and other websites including an article on the Amsat-UK page http://amsat-uk.org/2015/04/15/iss-sstv-in-the-press/

Last weekend I and other members of the South Kesteven Amateur Radio Society operated the special event station GB5ROC at the Buckminster Cold War Royal Observer Corps (ROC) Nuclear Bunker Open Day.

Situated on the Lincolnshire/Leicestershire border ROC Post Number 62 is leased to the UP AN’ AT EM! History project and has been restored as a museum and is managed by ​​​Jed Jaggard. The free open day was a rare chance to visit and experience an important part of British post-war history.

These bunkers are underground structures found all over the United Kingdom, constructed as a result of the Corps’ civil defence nuclear reporting role and were operated by volunteers during the Cold War between 1955 and 1991. There was a network of over 1500 such monitoring posts around the UK designed to detect nuclear detonations and monitor blast and subsequent fallout and radiation levels should an attack take place.

Thankfully they were never used and the last of the posts were closed in 1991 when the majority of the ROC was stood down following the break-up of the Communist Bloc. Many have been demolished, fill in or adapted to other uses but the majority still exist, although in a derelict condition.

During the open day visitors had the chance to climb down into the bunker so for reasons of practicality SKARS operated GB5ROC from a tent close to the bunker hatch.

Along with Stewart Mason (M0SDM) and Sean Burton (2E0ENN) we operated on 40m from 10:00 till 16:30 BST and made a total of 151 contacts mostly UK operators with a number of European stations.

Equipment was supplied by Stewart who did the majority of the operating and consisted of a Yaesu FT-897D at 100W feeding an off centre fed dipole at around 30ft on top of a Racal push up mast. Stewart also provided a new club banner.

The open day was very well attended and a number of local and not so local amateurs (one visitor from Australia VK4UA ) came along thanks to the publicity the event had received on Facebook, Twitter, GB2RS and the Southgate ARC newsfeed. It was great to meet up and chat.

Encouragingly members of the general public were keen to learn what amateur radio was all about and they were able to take away a number of leaflets with information about the hobby and contact details for SKARS.

It was an excellent day all round with the operators have a fun time and gaining useful experience of operating a pile-up. The weather was kind with blue skies and sunshine. Hopefully it will become a regular activation at future bunker activations.

The video below Stewart operating Richard M6GPT who had tried most of the day to make contact and was successful just before the station was closed down.

SKARS member Mark (M0OBL) had monitored GB5ROC and made a video of his Elecraft K2 receiving us load and clear.

Next month is going to be very busy as I have GB2EGG and the Eggsplorer-1 HAB flight to organise and that too has made the press. http://www.sleafordtarget.co.uk/Egg-sent-space-World-Egg-Throwing-Championships/story-26372439-detail/story.html

Oh and lastly remember this is the original “Radio Antics” blog, often imitated but never bettered.. 73

Update, the visit of VK4UA to GB5ROC wasn’t due to any publicity or advertising – it was simply because Stewart had his van parked on the verge with his callsign clearly visible and he was visiting the area – the simplest ideas are the best it seems!

More SSTV from the ISS

Like many others around the globe I spent yesterday attempting to receive and decode the SSTV transmissions being broadcast from the International Space Station by the Russian Cosmonauts.

The SSTV activity had been due to last three days starting on Saturday but commencement was delayed by the NASA space walk.

Receiving the signal and decoding is relatively straightforward due to relatively high power used (around 25W) however getting a perfect image is a challenge and dependant on a number of factors.

  • The timing of the overhead pass. Due to the time taken to transmit the image and the three minute delay between each image it is possible to only be in reception range for the end of one image and the start of the next. 
  • The ISS is moving quickly and so the transmission suffers noticeable Doppler shift. FM is more immune to the effect but for optimal performance adjustment of the tuned frequency is required especially on high elevation passes (more information).
  • The ISS moves position, both in direction and elevation as it moves across the sky and will show up the peaks and troughs in a static antennas radiation pattern. This leads to bands of noise when the signal level falls. The use of a rotatable (and if possible tiltable) antenna (or even an handheld one) is the dirigour mode of operating satellites (and the ISS) for serious enthusiasts. 
  • Noise and local interference will also obviously affect the image.
Mission Control

I opted a two pronged approach, the Yaesu FT857D connected to my rotatable four element YAGI which is mounted horizontally for SSB and the old TRIO/KENWOOD TR9000 was connected to the X50 dual-band collinear mounted vertically.

I had two copies of the MMSSTV program running on separate laptops The TR9000 was left running largely unattended tuned to 145.800MHz, while the FT857D was tweaked to the optimum frequency while the YAGI antenna was rotated to the correct azimuth during the pass.

All adjustments were done manually and I use the Orbitron program for prediction and under the Rotor/Radio tab the frequency and azimuth are shown and updated during the pass (as can be seen in the screen show below)

I missed the first low elevation at 11:07UTC, but was able to monitor and decode images on all the remaining passes during the day, with some excellent results, the images show the full images decodes on both radio set ups as a comparison.

FT857D – Yagi

TR9000 – Collinear

FT857D – Yagi

TR9000 – Collinear

FT857D – Yagi

TR9000 – Collinear

FT857D – Yagi

TR9000 – Collinear

FT857D – Yagi

TR9000 – Collinear

I was especially pleased when one of my best images was featured on the Amsat-UK and the Southgate Amateur Radio News websites.

What was slightly worrying and it also happened during the last SSTV activities were some operators transmitting on the downlink frequency even during a pass, what sounded like someone keying up was responsible for the single noise line on another perfect image. I even received an unexpected SSTV image, complete with a call sign while the system was waiting for the next pass. I won’t publish it here as everyone makes mistakes.

The experiments are continuing today but I am in work so will just leave an automated set up running on the collinear.

Judging by the messages on social media these SSTV activities seem to have captured the imagination of a lot of operators and several members of my local club South Kesteven Amateur Radio Society (SKARS) had their first go with some excellent results and are hooked! The images can seen on the SKARS Facebook page

Long may the activities continue, hopefully started to transmit some live images from space.

Freeband SSTV Reception with RTL-SDR

Over the last few days there has been a lot of activity on some of the normally quiet amateur and ‘CB’ bands due to some Sporadic-E propagation yesterday the 50MHz (6 metre band) was a mass of SSB signals as operators chased some DX contacts.

I set up a WSPR receiver using my FUNCube Dongle and got a few contacts on 6 meters over a couple of hours.

The 27 MHz (11 metre band) was also very active, while I know it can be an active band I normally don’t receive much here due to location but last night I was getting lots of SSB transmissions by the ‘DX Freebanders‘ and I even caught a couple of SSTV transmissions.

I didn’t get many clear pictures not because the signals or audio was weak but mainly because one transmission would be broadcast over another before it had finished, causing noise, or worse stopping the decode and getting a truncated image..

Tonight conditions were similar but instead of the FUNCube Dongle+ I tried the RTL-SDR dongle with the R820T tuner chip which can tune down to the 27MHz frequencies and I managed to get some decent if again noisy and sometimes truncated images.

I used the SDRSharp/SDR# program and the free MMSSTV decoder, here are some more of posts concerning SSTV. I made a quick video showing the decode process.

Two SSTV Images from the ISS

I love Twitter!

Several messages appeared on my news feed indicating that the Russian Cosmonauts were testing the SSTV system on board the International Space Station, activity was continuing to around 16:00UTC, as luck would have it this coincided with as pass over the UK, at around 15:30UTC.

Getting setup and monitoring the pass with the FUNCube Dongle got two absolutely clear images (and one partial) with a very very strong signal being received via the 2m yagi.

 

Digital SSTV Decoding

I’ve decoded analogue SSTV transmissions before (check out some earlier posts) using the MMSSTV program, but another form of picture transmission is referred to as Digital SSTV.. It isn’t technically slow scan the the SSTV part has stuck because it sends images. In very basic terms it is file transfer using DRM “Digital Radio Mondiale” encoding.

The advantage over analogue SSTV is the use of error correction, with the error correction you can get a perfect image.

This afternoon while the snow was falling outside I had got SDR# with the FCDP+ running and noticed that there was some activitiy on 14.233 Mhz and fired up the EasyPal software and decoded a few images, and made a small video showing one image being received.

As you will observe in the video Easypal actually decoded the image before the end of the transmission because it didn’t need the extra data to error correct because of the very strong clear signal.
 
These were the two nice pictures I decoded today from OE3AWA based in Austria

Interestingly the only other previous D-SSTV image I have received was at the end of December last year, from the same operator!

Some SSTV Pictures

Over the last few days have been trying out the technology preview of SDR-Radio Version 2 with the FUNCube Dongle Pro PLUS and it seems excellent. While monitoring the bands I stumbled across some SSTV broadcasts on 14.230MHz, I haven’t decoded any for a while so left it running for a few hours and these are some of the better images.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Rainy Sunday, Damp Monday SSTV

With the total washout at the weekend with very heavy rain on Sunday I was able to spend a decent amount of time monitoring. I recently brought a dry-cell adapter for the Alinco DJ-X10 receiver (EDH-16) allowing me to power it using normal AA Ni-MH batteries as the rechargeable battery pack it came with doesn’t hold its charge any more.

So as the rain hammered on the window I decided to decode some SSTV images on the amateur bands. I connected up the discone and the computer tuned to 14.230Mhz USB and fired up MMSSTV. Some of the better decoded images I’ve got over the last couple of days are included below.

I did have an attempt at decoding some digital SSTV using EasyPAL but despite some strong signals couldn’t quite get a full sync, but I think that was down to the conditions and the relatively poor rejection of the DJ-X10. With no ATU the out of band signals and nearby signals from what I suspect are high power operators were just too much for it, as the following sound file demonstrates.

Swamped SSTV by nerdsville