An Innovation To Innovate (originally published in ARRL QST)

Change, for the amateur radio community, is constant. In the past century we have seen technologies invented, matured and superseded – not just once or twice, but continuously. Now, as always, amateur radio is innovating and evolving, so what should we be looking out for? I want to discuss three specific developments; firstly, advancements in the way we receive; secondly, the question of competitiveness on the air; and lastly, how we are affected by the internet.

Antennae and receivers

Over the past decade or two, we have become experts in dealing with interference, with increasingly elaborate digital signal processors (DSPs) in our receivers that help us operate within the context of man-made noise and congestion. But we have only just begun to explore the possibilities of DSPs right at the input – that is, a DSP sampling directly from an antenna. Now we have the computer power at our disposal, this is becoming a hot topic.

Some of the possibilities of this receiver architecture are remarkable. A few years ago I was lucky enough to tour the UK’s radio monitoring station at Baldock, Cambridgeshire . It is part of a network of listening posts that can be used to combat spectrum abuse, including on the HF bands. It has the capability of direction-finding signals, and through international coordination this can lead to fast, accurate location of rogue transmitters.

To my surprise, the antenna farm for the Baldock station is only a small field of ground-mounted monopoles! Each is connected to an independent DSP receiver and then to a computer. The timing and phase differences of each of the signals are analysed in real-time, and then displayed as traces on a two-dimensional plot of azimuth and elevation.

Using a computer mouse, one can simply click in this space to listen on a specific bearing. I witnessed this remarkable way to differentiate between signals that are coexisting on a single frequency and realised its potential for DXing. As radio amateurs, we are mainly accustomed to azimuth controls – assuming we even have a beam – and simple audio or bandpass filters. Yet, here I saw a system that has no moving parts, offering gain or rejection in any direction, azimuth or elevation – instantly. It is effective across the entire range of HF bands, too.

Thanks to the realistic cost of computer equipment today, this technology is within the reach of radio amateurs. In this era of internet-connected receivers, such a DSP station could be an extremely powerful resource for our purposes. Hard disks are large enough to record hours or days of the entire spectrum for later review (perhaps for contest adjudication, DQRM research or as an adornment to online log search tools), and numerous users could use the software-defined system without inconveniencing one another.

While cost issues have admittedly held us back, we’re getting closer than ever to having the capabilities of a government listening station within our own amateur budgets.

Is amateur radio a competition?

Certain areas of amateur radio have become extraordinarily competitive. My work in building Club Log has brought me into close contact with an ambitious side of the hobby, both through the development of DXCC leaderboards and through connecting with DXpeditioners and DXers along the way. Understanding what motivates DXers is simple: it is the wish for recognition. This has brought an arms race to our bands, especially with respect to amplifiers.

Thankfully, though, there is also a positive trend toward making DXing more accessible. Those with modest stations are being catered for by increasingly sophisticated expedition teams, for example. We are in an era where rare DXCCs are activated by experienced and technically savvy travellers with the commitment to take high-performance stations and new lightweight amplifiers to locations that were once considered impossible. Teams operating around the clock on all modes bring DXing closer to all of us – no matter what our station and antenna equipment – and encourage us to improve our stations if we don’t get through.

On top of that, contests open the opportunity to make exotic DX contacts to almost everyone, while also satisfying the wish for the biggest stations to compete with each other. It strikes me that in this way, contesting is truly inclusive.

A vibrant contest environment also means that we can expect more tools – CW Skimmer perhaps being the best example – to keep drawing in more players. So long as we devise contests, award schemes, chase DXCC entities or slots, or set ourselves personal goals, amateur radio will have a tendency to be competitive and encourage us to build higher performance stations. I think of this as a good thing; it encourages us to make progress, and prevents our hobby from stagnating.

Computers, the internet and amateur radio

The internet shook our hobby in the late 1990s. For the first time, our monopoly on free communications was taken away from us – and realistically, we know now that many youngsters are sufficiently absorbed by the internet that they will have no time for investigating amateur radio, as they once might have done.

However, we have benefited enormously from the internet, too.

My personal ‘internet favourite’ is the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN), which has knitted itself into our operating habits almost overnight. RBN is a spectacular achievement: a worldwide network of listening computers monitoring the bands and reporting back to a central hub. If you call CQ on a quiet band, it’s almost certain that your call will be heard somewhere, if any propagation exists.

Testing antenna performance is also far more quantifiable thanks to the automatic signal-to-noise reports provided. In a contest, you’ll never waste much time calling, since the RBN data is readily integrated through old DX Cluster interfaces with contest software. Without the internet, we could not have RBN.

Also thanks to the internet, we can study propagation in greater depth than ever before, perhaps using the empirical data in Club Log, or by accessing space weather forecasts online. Spacecraft studying the Sun from all directions can show us new sunspots even before they come into view!

Beyond propagation, we are also now connected to an incredible source of news, rumours, expedition photo galleries, and audio recordings of rare DX and band-specific chat rooms that help us schedule difficult VHF/UHF contacts.

Requesting QSL cards online is now simpler and less wasteful, too. Thanks to the widespread adoption of Online QSL Requests (OQRS), unwanted cards have been eliminated from the bureaux, and we have been saved from sending green stamps in envelopes. Meanwhile, we have preserved our tradition of exchanging QSL cards when requested.

Of course, the internet has given us a hybrid, too. We are now in an era where remote transceivers allow us to live in a location where radio is not viable, and to still control a station that we own, or share, in a more favourable location. There are technical challenges associated with this, not least of which is the safe and reliable functioning of a station that may be miles from home (in all weather), and I am inclined to welcome these challenges as new sources of enjoyment.

If we were to take the internet back out of amateur radio, I think the nostalgia for the pre-digital age would soon fade! We thrive on the extra information and connectedness that the net has brought us, and we should not look back.

Let’s stay close to the action

Some of the possibilities I’ve described with DSP receivers will find their place – perhaps as projects for dedicated constructors, contesters and DXers – and I hope their designs will gradually find more general use. Meanwhile, we will continue to enjoy the timeless joy and efficiency of Morse code, the delight of hearing our digital signals reflected off the moon (or just via an internet receiver on the other side of the world), and the thrill of working a new DXCC by studying the pile up on a PC waterfall display – calling in the right place, at just the right moment. When we make full use of the tools at our disposal, and still ask “What if?”, we are inviting innovation into our hobby, and I like to think that more change is inevitably around every corner.

It is amateur radio’s charm and enduring appeal that it continues to cater to all comers, while offering endless new challenges to even the most experienced amateur. Let’s stay open to innovation, and light up our bands for another century!

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