Hampton Hills Portable Operation

Backpack, mAT-705, Lightsaver Max, IC-705, MS Surface Go 2, and my dad’s water.

On Memorial Day, my dad (AC8NT) and I headed out to Hampton Hills Metropark to see if we could get some contacts on a gorgeous summer day. The spot we found at The Top O’ The World was perfect. There were two benches situated beside a very large tree that was perfect for the end-fed wire antenna we brought along.

The branches of the tree couldn’t have been better. I got my arborist’s line up onto my intended branch on the first toss! With that out of the way, the antenna itself was deployed in about 2 minutes. I can’t imagine using a tennis ball or fishing line for this task. Of all of the little things I’ve picked up from the internet, this is definitely a Top 5 item.

There are two things that were really important about this trip out. The first was that the setup was as fast as I’d hoped. This was my dad’s antenna, but it was tuned nearly perfectly for 20m and as such, my tuner, which was still locked into its last deployment, got us to a very nice SWR right away. The IC-705 was up and running and ready for me to connect with the Surface via WiFi in about 2 minutes. In fact, getting the software up with the radio was probably a 3-5 minute task. This is exactly what one would hope for in a portable setup! I also can’t stress enough: No Wires between the computer and the radio. The WiFi solution from ICOM in this radio is phenomenal. No USB cable noise and no extra wires flopping around.

The other important lesson was something I should have thought of reflexively. Our plan was to operate FT8 or FT4. We had WSJT-X up and running quickly. That went really well. The waterfall was full! But nothing was being decoded. After about 5 minutes of puzzling, something did seem off: the transmit progress bar on the WSJT-X UI was out of sync with what we were hearing on the radio. It was just enough that…well… Huh.

The truth as I know it is that being out of sync within a second is tolerable for FT8. But once you get past 2 seconds, life gets rough. And this was rough. We could hear that we were about 5-6 seconds out of sync with the traffic we were seeing. Why was that? Well, I shut down the computer the last time I charged it and I powered it up in the field. It hadn’t been on a network at all in that time and a drift of a few seconds isn’t unlikely.

I have a write up of how to set a computer’s time using the GPS on the IC-705. But between us, ya know what’s faster? Setting your phone up as a hotspot and pointing the computer at it for long enough to get the right time from the cellular network. In a grid-down situation where cellular communications are in a state of failure, this won’t solve the problem, but for a trip to the park where we just wanted to grab some contacts, it was an expedient solution that should come highly recommended.

Another thing to point out here is that we would have stared at the screen of the computer for a lot longer and come no closer to a solution if we hadn’t had the speaker on and up on the radio. Actually hearing the signals brought us to our solution much faster than if we had the speaker off.

With the time set correctly, we were getting completed contacts as far away as UT and TX. We captured 6 contacts from 5 states. We did spend some time trying to get contacts across the pond, but pskreporter.info told me that no one on the other side of the Atlantic was hearing us. That doesn’t mean we didn’t try! Imagine if we’d gotten Belarus with 10w from a hill in Akron. Talk about bragging rights! Oh well. Next time, maybe.

Some other thoughts: the Lightsaver Max from Powerfilm Solar that I added to my toolkit performed flawlessly in its first trip to the field. I used it to get up to 10w out using its 12v output to the IC-705. We were only at the park for about 2 hours, so we didn’t come close to depleting the charge of that battery or the battery on the IC-705. We also still had many hours left on the Surface. I imagine that when hitting the 6 hour mark, I’d have a better idea of actual performance, but that wasn’t the plan for this trip. After I got home, I setup the Lightsaver on my patio table in direct sunlight and it was topped off in about an hour (though I didn’t time it). Definitely pleased with this piece of gear so far. It will likely see some time in my pack this summer as we do more backpacking.

I’m also feeling a lot less harsh about the mAT-705 tuner. I have the v1 tuner so there’s no rechargeable battery or USB-C port on it, but there is an off switch and it does allow for operation when the power is off. That’s a no-brainer of a trade-off for me. I still dread changing the battery, but the tuner itself is performing nicely. And its rugged case makes me feel good about tossing it into my backpack which isn’t always treated with care. There’s a lot less buyer’s remorse with this piece of equipment, but I’m glad they discontinued the version I have so I don’t have to think about recommending it.

The verdict? We had a great time in the field. Each piece of gear we used was up to the task and getting things up and running took a negligible amount of time and effort. I’m sure that there are things that I’ll tweak over time, but it’s hard to imagine a better overall setup. With power, antenna, computer, and radio all covered in a package that probably weighs in at under 10 lbs. I have to say that I’m quite looking forward to more trips to the field this summer. I’m also weighing taking some of this gear on a backpacking trip through western PA (I’d likely forego the computer and stick to SSB). There’s much more to come.

IC-705 WLAN with WSJT-X

With the usual tip of the cap to OH8STN I dug in on the v1.24 firmware of the IC-705 to rid my field setup of yet another cable. I think I’m about as close to field nirvana as I’m going to get. So what did I do and what did I learn?

First off, I have to say that I totally gave up on some things. Being in Ham Radio as a hobbiest with limited time means that I had to re-examine the three legged stool principle. What’s that? Well, there are three legs: Time, Money, and Scope. In this case, my scope is QRP operation on primarily digital modes at the park or while I’m camping. My time is, as I’ve mentioned in the past, very valuable to me and is a fixed amount. I do keep a close eye on my hobby budget and I’m not made of money. That said, if I wanted to keep pushing for a Raspberry Pi based solution, I was going to need a lot more time for fiddling with computers and that leads to less time for operating because I don’t have blocks of time for both. So I followed the lead of the mighty OH8STN and got a Surface Go 2. I will say that the world of Ham Radio operators has embraced the Raspberry Pi and GNU/Linux, but at the end of the day, most of the software that works with minimal time investment lives on Windows. Maybe someday…when I have a bit more time?

So what were the ingredients?

  • IC-705 patched to v1.24 firmware
  • Microsoft Surface Go 2
  • ICOM RS-BA1 Version 2 at the latest version
  • WSJT-X

That’s it. Now, what did I do?

First, I turned on the WLAN feature of the IC-705 and set it to Access Point Mode. This broadcasts an SSID of my choice and has a password requirement for joining that network. I spent a lot of time playing with this feature alone as I was hopeful that I could use the IC-705 as an access point for more than one device. After all, it’s just handing out an address and maybe acting as a low-functioning router given that there is no internet capability in this mode. But sadly, only one device can be attached to the IC-705 at a time based on my experiments. This constraint is not anywhere I could find in the documentation and it might be so simple that it’s not worth noting. But I had some ideas…and they’ll have to wait.

With the Access Point mode engaged, I set up the Connections menu to have MOD as WLAN. This means that audio as well as rig control commands will come and go over Wi-Fi. Easy enough.

IC-705 Menu for setting MOD to WLAN

Then we go over to the computer. I connected the computer to the SSID of the IC-705 under the usual Wi-Fi networking panel. I don’t think that the docs for setting up the connection software are particularly cumbersome. Once the software is installed, the connection utililty is launched and the user is left to fill in the blanks on the device that is the server and in that respect it’s not any more difficult than attaching any other device to a basestation. If you leave all of the defaults alone, the connection should Just Work.

When setting up the connection utility, there is the option of selecting a name for the virtual COM port. I chose COM1 because that’s what the software picked for me and I’m not attached to these kinds of things. With that done, one can launch WSJT-X and set the rig to IC-705, the port to COM1 (or whatever you chose), and then set the audio to the ICOM Virtual Audio port. Not really a huge difference here when compared to setting it up for use over a USB connection, though you do need to change the COM port and the audio port depending on your connection.

BUT!

There’s always a “But”…

Deep in the undocumented bowels of the connection utility, there is a button. Actually, it’s right up front and, in my opinion, poorly defined. It says [MOD]. Push that button. In the resulting dialog box, there is an area called [MOD Select]. It defaults to “Mic – Default Device” when what I really needed was “V Audio – ICOM_VAUDIO-1”. Special thanks to SM0TGU on the IC-705 groups.io list for pointing me in the right direction.

Before I was gifted with this configuration information, I was running WSJT-X and receiving just fine but unable to send audio. That is to say, the rig went to TX but had no sound to send. In fact, the whole reason for this post was to highlight this for later when I inevitably have to rebuild my setup from scratch. Now, with that option selected, everything was a GO!

ICOM Remote Utility Dialog for MOD Select

I made a contact not minutes later with W1LEM on 40m using my attic dipole. Not bad!

WSJT-X QSO with W1LEM

This is all great, but isn’t it just chasing a weird little feature for digital modes?

No. This removes the USB cable from the equasion and with it a lot of potential noise. My Surface isn’t awful, but I’ve used laptops that seemed to be purpose built for throwing off RF and noise. It’s also a neater solution. At this point, the only cables I will have in play will be auxillary power to the IC-705 from my battery box, the ATU, and the ATU control cable. All of those things can sit in a pile (for the most part) or in/on my pack while I use any number of digital modes or even a bluetooth headset for phone contacts from almost anywhere at my operating point or campsite. It’s amazing.

I have another post I’m working up on my antenna setup (a wire in a tree vs. the MP1 Super Antenna). I will also be keeping a better log of work in the field (even if that’s just my backyard) with the IC-705 and this setup.

I hope this is helpful! 73!

Computers: An Aside

Working closely with technology for an extended period of time has colored my views on computing. I’ve gone from full-on, build it all myself or die to using whatever works reliably and jettisoning anything that fails. I can trace the completion of that transition to the point where I had a little baby boy to care for and no more time in my day for compiling things or tweaking hardware.

That was 13 or so years ago. Since that time, I’ve kept myself mostly in the default use cases covered by MacOS and iOS. Why? Because it works for me 99.999% of the time. I don’t ever find myself having issues that other people hit. Part of this, I believe, is because I understand the use cases. The applications I use are good for what they do and I expect little else from them. That is to say, I have an application for my notetaking and journaling. I have one for music making and editing audio. I have one for browsing. I have one for mail…OK…that’s a lie. I go through mail clients like most people go through shows on Netflix. I hate all email clients for different reasons. They all suck. All of them. Even the one you love. It’s horrible and I can tell you why. At length. You will regret asking.

Anyway, I try to stick to applications that do what I need done and use them for their strengths. I do take the time to give them the respect of learning their primary use cases so that my expectations are in the right place. You won’t catch me keeping an address book in a spreasheet program, for instance. That said, if an addressbook app loses one piece of my data? It’s gone. And I won’t look back. To my mind, the app’s failure is complete and that I do not forgive.

When I started messing around with Ham Radio software, I learned quickly that the vast majority of it was built for Windows. I’ve made a lot of money in my lifetime developing software in Microsoft’s ecosystem, so it’s a stretch for me to complain too loudly. I will simply say that I don’t do Windows at home because of the poor driver support and the endless interventions required on my part to keep things running. This is no less true in the radio sphere as there is always a driver to install for any given cable or device. It’s a disappointment in 2020 that manufacturers can’t read a spec and provide a device that meets it without imposing on the user to add software to their systems. But I digress.

About 2 years ago, I purchased a WinBook TW110 at Microcenter. It has an Atom processor, a touch screen, and is a weird little multi-form-factor device. It also runs Windows 10 and weighs almost nothing with a pretty impressive battery life. I set it up with WSJT-X and some logging software and off I went. I used it primarily to program my radios as there is no Mac software for that outside of CHIRP and not every rig I have likes CHIRP. But then we hit that moment that I hit with every Windows tablet: I ran out of space to update Windows.

This hits me like clockwork. I’ve had some really cool tablets that did really well for my limited use cases that eventually hit this wall. My HP tablet for instance, had a single USB port that was also used to charge the unit. I needed to use a USB stick to hold the updates. The update took longer than the battery could survive. I tried a USB hub to no avail. Finally, it ended up in the parts drawer waiting for me to use the screen for something at a later date.

The real disappointment with the WinBook was that it is really, really lightweight and it charges off of a USB port with 5 volts in a pinch. It’s ideal for FT8 in the field. Having it fail like this made me sad. So my little WinBook was destined for a life as maybe a clock that showed timezones and the position of the sun or sattelites or something. But in the back of my head a voice said, “Just throw Linux on it. If it fails, the worst case is you reload Windows 10 and maybe have enough space.” So I grabbed a Mint image and it worked first shot.

Side note: I used Debian for YEARS. It was my OS of choice for everything and I was intimately familiar with every part of the system. I wrote device drivers for sound cards and had a lot of fun playing with it and learning how it worked. Note that all of that is past tense.

Naturally, the touchpad isn’t supported, but a Bluetooth mouse and a functional touchscreen mitigate that. The battery life is really good. And behold! The entire OS doesn’t really make a dent in the 32 GB of internal storage that this little beast has available. This might work!

Naturally, the current stable version of FT8 doesn’t have the IC-705 in it yet and thus requires spoofing as an IC-7300. The 705 is in the first release candidate for the next version. Which I’ll have to compile from source on this distro. Which will require some time to get dependencies in a row. Which…takes me back…to why I don’t do this anymore.

That said, maybe it’s time. My kids are fully functional and mostly self-sustaining on the weekends and after bedtime. Maybe I do have time a little time to wrestle with this and see if I remember anything from those long nights of compiling entire distributions from source so I could run a new soundcard. It could be that I might even have fun doing it. If I do get this WinBook working for FT8, I know that my back will thank me and my field operations will be easier and last longer.

This feeds my thesis that Ham Radio is the Old Magick and it will take its adherents back to the beginning of all things, in time.