Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Radio Fail... But not disappointed.

The backdrop for the test.  Holland Lake, MT.  Grid DN37ek

Before heading out for a few day's vacation to one of our favorite spots, I thoroughly tested the hardware, software, and my own ability to operate.  Even with my far from ideal antenna setup here in town, I was able to work out a few bugs and successfully send SMS and email via APRS using JS8Call, as well as send/receive emails using ardop with Pat Winlink.  I used both 20 and 40 meters at different times of the day.  I also replaced the BMS for my DIY solar charged LiFePO4 12V battery pack.  As suspected, I had burned out the BMS board, and a quick replacement restored full functionality as tested with a full solar charge.

So, we were all set and off to the mountains!
















We, of course, spend most of the time enjoying the location.  We hiked the trail to the waterfall overlook, kayaked the serene lake a few times, and oh, yeah... enjoyed two separate visits from a confident and carefree black bear.

















But, yes.  I also had a mission.  Primary goal:  get an email out on hf and successfully receive the reply as coordinated with my friend Lenny in FL.  Secondary: use the APRS messaging feature within JS8Call to send out an SMS and email (there is no provision to confirm success nor to receive a reply via this method.  Therefore, I would have to confirm once I had cell/internet.)

I brought a couple antennas.  The main one (can handle my radio's max 100W output) was the dipole with hamsticks for both 20 and 40 meters.  I have successfully used them remotely in our local parks.  HOWEVER, I cannot get them very high and this proved to be a huge issue in the thick wooded area from which I chose to deploy.  I attempted contacts to each ardop server on 20 and 40 meters for CL, CM, CN, DL, DM, DN, EL, EM & EN grids.  At home, I could connect.  Assuming it could be directionality of the dipole, I did manually sweep and try everyone again.  I repeated this at different times including time spent around the transition from day to dark.  Meanwhile, I also suspected the signal just wasn't getting out.  Too low, creating a severe NVIS situation?  The trees just soaking up the rf?  Well, I know.. switch to JS8Call and send out a beacon.  That never fails to confirm my signal is getting out.

THIS is where my planning failed to include a very important test.  Lesson learned!  

As you may see from the radio picture here, there is a bit of orange jutting out of the side of the Raspberry Pi.  That is a stubby GPS antenna.  It is not sensitive enough to lock onto the satellites from within my home shack.  I do have an "external" GPS antenna with LNA that does the tick at home.  However, I was deploying outdoors.. under the clear skies.  Surely, there would be NO problems locking to the satellites.  After all, I had done so before at the local park.  Well....  when I launched JS8Call to send my beacon, I noticed the date and time were off.  And JS8 requires a rather precise time sync to decode.  Problem #1.  The GPS antenna was inadequate.  And I left the external one at home.  Problem #2.  I never wrote down the Linux commands to manually update the date and time.  FAIL!
Yaseu FT-891 connected to the Raspberry Pi with DRAWS hat
attempting a Pat Winlink connection via the ardop protocol on 40 meters.
So, this issue not only prevented me from confirming if a signal was getting out, but mission objective #2 was out now too.  

All I could do was keep trying to connect.  Several times I heard the distinctive ardop connection begin, only to realize it was a different station making the connection, and not mine.

I did swap out the dipole for an end-fed wire antenna, but also had the issue of getting it high up.  Yet another fail.  I have yet to incorporate any methods for hoisting antennas and baluns up into the tree tops.  That is on my TODO list now.  I did change the wire antenna orientation, and likewise attempted contact to all the stations on both bands and over time.  This antenna maxes out at 20W, but I gave it every chance for success.

The limits became in being able to keep my batteries topped off as the tree cover severely limited direct sunlight to my solar panels.  Secondly... I was on vacation after all and didn't want to spend all of the time working on this project.  Yes, I could have pulled everything and tried a somewhat more open spot.  A parking area near the trail head comes to mind.  But I just didn't wish to make the trip.


 So.  The radio test was an enormous fail.  However, the vacation itself was not a disappointment at all!

We will unlikely be able to repeat this test at this precise location for a while.  However, when we do make it back here, we'll duplicate the test, having incorporated the lessons learned.  In the meantime, we'll fix the mistakes and try again in mountainous conditions a little more local to my QTH.



This 360 photo doesn't display properly in this blog.  However, you can probably make out the setup next to our nice campsite campfire.

Monday, August 12, 2019




After a hiatus of over 2 months due to "life" happening, we were finally able to set up our radio for a bit at our favorite mountain camping retreat.

I ran a simple end fed wire through the trees (low to ground), mainly as a receive antenna.  I did not transmit at all this session.  Around 3:30 I was pleased to hear an Arkansas "Parks on the Air" activation on 20 meters, and then a BOOMING station from Slovenia pulling in DX contacts from North America.  I must have had the antenna situated in my favor as I heard him very clearly, though seldom could pick out the US stations in the weeds.. although I could just make out NC, PA, TX and CO to name a few.

A bit later as 20 meters died off, 40 picked up and I was able to hear a LOT of activity... made me want to pull the wire antenna and set up a dipole as I had on previous outings.  But, I didn't as I was really more interested in shaking out some of my bugs from a couple months of inactivity.

Besides.. something interesting happened, that proved to be a good lesson.  I initially plugged the radio into my DIY battery pack.  It had worked flawlessly on all previous tests.  It fired up, displayed a 13.7V charge and we were in business... however, I glanced over after a minute or so and saw it was already at 11.8V, and that was just with receive.. no transmit.   After about 5 minutes, voltage dropped too low and the radio cut off.  Did all of my cells just die?  Very unlikely.  There had to be a power drain in there... I suspected a short for it to drop that rapidly.  No smell and no noticeable heat when I checked.

I then plugged in my solar panel... it wouldn't open the charge gate at all.  Hmmm...  I tinkered with the solar charge controller, and when I plugged it into my Bioenno battery, it began to charge it.  So.. Solar panel was good.  Charger was good.  This pointed to the BMS (Battery Management System) board wired to the LifePO4 cells.  They are inexpensive.. and reputed to fail.  This one did after maybe a dozen uses.  So....   I have TWO on order (roughly $7/each).  I will wire one, and carry the other as backup.  THIS is the weak point in my system, that could take everything down had this been an emergency setup.  I need to consider a better solution.

BTW.. I did plug in my "store bought" Bioenno battery and continued my session.  It hardly drew any current and after a lot of receive, the battery was barely drained (13.7V down to 13.4V).

So.. though I had a redundant power supply.  I really need to consider redundant components in key areas.


My radio setup with my DIY battery and solar panel.
That "what's happening?" look hobbyists often get.
Simple end-fed wire antenna.  Max transmit is only 20W.