Thursday, January 16, 2014

D-STAR...Well...Okay...Why Not?

I received an extra and unexpected gift from Santa last night. It was a little late, but who's complaining? I have never really tried to figure out the ICOM D-STAR thing before, but now that I have a shiny new ID-31a, I might have to.

I've been hesitant to look into D-STAR for two reasons: its inherently "closed" nature--which feels like a slight against the purpose and draw of Amateur Radio--and its prohibitive costs. Let's break these down a little.

D-STAR audio runs on a closed digital codec (AMBE). This is fine in most consumer electronic products, but as an Amateur Radio operator and VERY Amateur electronics experimenter, it simply isn't attractive. I like to hack. I like to build. I like to tear things apart and see how they work especially when dealing with software, but (as you might imagine) ICOM doesn't make hacking, building, or tearing down D-STAR very easy. So until recently, D-STAR was barley a blip on my radar. However, between the ID-31a and this shiny new Raspberry Pi I'm beginning to play around with, a DSTAR gateway might be in my future...interesting...Still, I'm disappointed at the proprietary nature of the operating "mode."

To be perfectly honest, the biggest impediment to my involvement in D-STAR was cost. I simply couldn't justify the money on something so one-sided. I'd much rather buy an Elecraft K1 or K2 (I hope you're paying attention Santa), some new test gear, or a tri-bander for the top of that empty tower on top of my hill. But, since Santa dropped one in my lap, I might as well give it a chance; right?

Luckily (depending on how one defines "luck"), I live in a relatively populated area of the USA with several D-STAR Repeaters within 5w UHF reach, so I should be able to see what the hype is all about. But--and here's another frustrating D-STARism--it's not as simple as programming a few frequencies and hitting the PTT. There is a registration process. It's confusing and there really doesn't seem to be a good place to point the new user, so as I figure it out, I'll report back. In the meantime, I'm off to play with my new unexpected toy.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Raspberry Pi QRP Station Computer

I love to start new things. I love the feeling of learning and stumbling. I’m really good at being a Newb. Following through on projects I began…well, not so much.

I have at least a thousand projects currently under way. So, obviously, I’m ready for a new one. All these feel stale. Do you ever feel that way? I’ve often felt bad about going in so many directions without ever really settling on one, but my sporadic interests have also allowed me some unique opportunities that might not have been available if I wasn’t familiar with so many different things.

If you read around the web or the bookstore, there are a lot of “experts” out there, but no one seems to be selling themselves as a “generalist.” Why is that? Is a lot of knowledge about one thing more valuable than a little knowledge of a lot of things? I’m not sure. But this is the string of thought that I’m using to justify a new purchase and a new project. J Enter the Raspberry Pi.

While this little computer is on order, I am thinking through how I plan on incorporating it into my radio operations. A few ideas I am playing with:
  • Logging contacts on portable ops, especially during SOTA or Field Day
  • A dedicated Packet and/or digital modes computer
  • A mobile web server for ARES activations or club events, especially field day
I have read about a lot of hams buying a Pi and not ever using it, but I think they were expecting a lot more from a mini computer. The Pi isn't meant to replace the shack computer, it's meant to perform computing tasks on a more sparse level. It's design and architecture allows a high play to pay ration, which is also appealing. I'm excited to get tinkering with it as I continue my quest for the "perfect" portable QRP Shack.

I'm also excited about the possibility of interfacing the Pi with my TenTec Rebel 506. The "Rebel Alliance" on the TenTec Rebel 506 Yahoo Group have already developed some great software and hardware hacks for the chipKit(TM) Uno32 (Arduino compatible) platform, but a micro controller like the Uno32 has its limitations. Many of these limitations can be overcome by the processing power of the Pi, without necessitating a full-fledged desktop or laptop powerhouse, or weighing down an already heavy SOTA backpack with more computer than needed.

Here's to a fun new adventure in Ham Radio.