Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cruising Along

I've made some more headway on the Linux/Amateur Radio front. Now I have Xastir running on the desktop and I'm picking up stations. Well, I'm sort of cheating I suppose. I don't have a TNC so I'm using internet feeds. At least it's a step in the right direction though. Once I get either the TinyTrak4 or perhaps an OpenTracker+ running I'll have true APRS capabilities.

Xastir Image

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Think I Got It

I had a moment of lucidity this afternoon over lunch. I think I realized why the placement of the nylon washer had such an effect on the Arrow antenna. I believe that fact that when it's placed on the bottom where I had it the isolation between the feedpoint and the rest of the bracket throws things out of whack. At least that's what I'm going with. :-P

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Sweet Smell of Success

I haven't been able to use Echolink since I made the switch from Windows to Linux. I've been bummed out about it since I used to be on Echolink running a weekly net for about two years and then I got in this huge dry spell. I downloaded Echolinux but never really got around to trying it out. The more I read about it the less appealing it became.

Well, today I'm working on a presentation on radio direction finding and wanted to take a break. It's raining so I can't do the things in the yard I need to (like move the VHF beam antennas on the ground so our new puppy doesn't hurt himself on them). Instead I decided to see if Echolink works under WINE.

I'm happy to report that it DOES! I not only successfully connected to the test server to configure my audio but also had my first Linux-based Echolink QSO. I connected to our local node and chatted briefly with our District Emergency Coordinator and got a good signal report. I guess I did a good job of setting up my headset. He was a little weak, though, so I need to see about increasing my receive audio. I'm very happy to have it working again.

Echolink in Linux

The previous screenshot shows Echolink running with the Ubuntu 9.10 desktop behind it. You can see there is a station list on the right and the audio is active at the bottom.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

River Cleanup & A New Antenna

Today we (Duval County ARES) did another special event with the City of Jacksonville. It was the 2010 St Johns River Celebration Cleanup. There were about 20 sites around the city where volunteers gathered to collect trash and debris from the parks and waterways. It's a fun event and gives our radio operators the chance to get out and about.

I was net control with a new operator assisting me. Things got off to sort of a rocky start. We weren't sure where to setup first off. I'm usually at one of the cleanup sites and not net control. The event coordinator hadn't communicate where I was to setup so I went with what the park foreman told me when I arrived. We set everything up and started doing initial checkins. Many people were still en route so I decided to wait about 15 minutes.

During the waiting period the event coordinator arrived and said I was in the wrong place. No big deal. I just announced to everyone on frequency that I'd be offline while we relocated. Since the event covers the entire city I decided to use two repeaters to give everyone the best chance of making contact. The secondary repeater was UHF. This posed a problem to me as most of our work is done on 2M and I didn't have a dual-band antenna.

This wasn't really a big deal as I was withing spitting distance of both and could've easily used my HT but I wanted to use my FT-8800 go-box since it's more geared to net control usage. I'd been wanting to build a knock off of the Arrow Antennas j-pole but haven't had time. The materials are in the garage but the opportunity hasn't presented itself. Instead I took advantage of HRO's close location and ordered one that arrived the next day. I assembled it last night but couldn't check it out because my MFJ analyzer batteries were dead.

On location I put the new Arrow on the 14' telescoping pool handle that serves as my portable mast I always keep it in the toolbox of my truck. I mounted it to a railing away from any metal and ran a 50' section of RG-8 to the room we moved to. I couldn't get the SWR below 3.5. I tried a different piece of coax (RG-8X) and it was worse. Keep in mind that I still hadn't gotten back to the net checkins and time was wasting. Well, as it turns out our UHF repeater was offline. Now what? Well, I picked another VHF repeater and put out the word via my HT to use that.

The good news is that I had my standard deployment antenna, the EE-3, with me. I put that on the same mast, in the same location, with the same coax, and read 1.5! Once we were back on the air the event flowed very smoothly.

EE-3 Antenna

Over the course of the event the volunteers collected over 1200 bags of trash and all sorts of items that shouldn't be disposed of around our lakes and parks such as couches, TVs, used motor oil, etc. After the event everyone was invited to Metro Park to enjoy a free lunch and entertainment.

Net Control Station

When I got home I decided to investigate the high SWR issue and was surprised with what I found. As I reviewed the assembly instructions again I noticed that the nylon washer that was supposed to be on top of the feedpoint connection was on the bottom.

Incorrect Washer Placement

I really didn't see how how the location could matter. Top or bottom it seems to me that the measurements would still be the same. However, the SWR was definitely showing a problem. (Sorry for some of the blurry shots. The macro feature on my camera quit working for some reason.)

High SWR

I disassembled and reassembled per the instructions and was shocked.

Proper Washer Placement

That fixed the problem! I still can't figure out why but I can't argue with the meter.

Perfect SWR!

I guess I'll just accept that the placement of the washer is critical and move on. Here's a close-up of the antenna after the proper assembly.

Arrow J-Pole

And the total deployment on the bed of my truck.

J-Pole deployed in truck

All in all not a bad day. Had a great event and figured out the source of my problem. If only every day were like this one!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Another Successful Event!

And more APRS goodness to boot!

Today Duval County ARES supported the 2010 Gate River Run. This is an ever-growing 15K race that draws runners from around the country in search of $85K in prize money. I was happy to have every mile marker covered this year (though I did decide to skip mile 1). We also had a few additional positions along the route for extra coverage.

Myself and another operator serves as net control. He handled most of the radio traffic and I monitored the tail car. Once again we used APRS in the patrol car that was serving as the tail car at the end of the race. I think it's safe to say that we considerably reduced phone and radio chatter since nobody had to try to get in touch with the office to find his location, they just had to ask us and wait for us to check the map. Our APRS updates were set to broadcast every 180 seconds at a fixed rate. This worked very well for us and we always knew where the last runners were within a block or two.

In addition to the LEO and Fire personnel in the communications tent with us, other LEO got a sneak peak at what we were doing. One of our operators used his iPhone to show the position of the tail car to two motorcycle officers. "They were very impressed and wanted to understand how the heck that was working....!" is the report I received.

Unfortunately next weekend's event, the St. Johns River Celebration Cleanup, won't really provide us any opportunity to use APRS. While we do have several boat ramps in areas that are being cleaned we won't have any maritime mobile stations at these locations.

River Run APRS Track

I was quite pleased that I finally had what I would call a successful round with Depiction. I had my doubts as it didn't seem to want to work for me but during the net I spent some time working on it again. Fortunately this was a very small area we were working in and I only had a few stations to add. I fired up the Quickstart and was pleasantly surprised to see our tail car (JSOTL-9) appear on the map. I think I still have a number of kinks to work out but at least it would appear that I'm making some progress.

On Monday I meet with the Tour de Cure team again. I'm looking forward to sharing with the event director the results of our test last weekend. Now we just need to start scrounging up some radios that we can use as well as some inexpensive GPS units to go with the TinyTraks. I know we won't have enough this year to put one in every vehicle but if we can cover even half of the vehicles and cover the others with actual radio operators that would make me happy. We can spend the rest of the year coming up with more self-contained units that we can deploy as needed.

Our APRS testing has also caught the eye of our Red Cross liaison. He's very interested in putting these soon-to-be kits to use with vehicles that are deployed as part of disaster assessment.

We're making headway with our goals to really implement some good technologies in the county. I can't wait to see what the future holds.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tour Trial Run

Well, a number of us from a couple of counties did a trial run of the 100-mile route for May's Tour de Cure. We started at 2pm with stations located at key mile markers along the route. I then drove the route from start to finish to see how well my APRS packets were received.

Several of the guys had Kenwood 710s running and the hope was that they'd be able to digipeat for me. Unfortunately this didn't quite happen as planned and I went off the grid for over an hour. We had one station positioned at a rest stop in the middle of our "dead" zone and he was running UI-View on his laptop. We made a great discovery. He could see all of us and his packets were being seen online. So as long as we can work out the technical kinks so that the digipeating actually works then we should have full coverage. Another point about this critical location is that we have some former ARES members that moved and now live 15 miles south of his location along another portion of the route. Hopefully we can stage a digipeater at their QTH and see the same results.

While I was driving I also used today as on opportunity to test my new Virgin Mobile Wireless Broadband adapter. It worked great the whole way with covering ranging from 1 to 4 bars. I only briefly lost the signal in one area and it was back quickly. I also noticed that I have very little bandwidth usage when just trying to get APRS updates and not browsing, emailing, etc.

I left the course about 6:00 with good feelings about what the future holds. Overall I think it was a great learning exercise for everyone involved. Now my critical need is to figure out a way/place to download individual APRS tracks so I can overlay every station's track in Google Earth. So far the only KML options I've found (through and are only real-time options and don't let you download the resulting track. The latter says you can save tracks but it hasn't seemed to have worked for me yet.

Well that's all so far. I'm sure I'll have more to report back later.

Friday, March 5, 2010

APRS Coverage Testing

Well, tomorrow is our first attempt at multi-county APRS tracking in preparation for the 2010 Tour de Cure. Much of the course route is in very rural country and the current coverage is slim to none. We've got four operators from Duval and Clay counties capable of digipeating and tracking via UI-View. I'll be driving the 100-mile route from start to finish to see if having multiple digipeaters along the route will improve our odds of getting accurate updates.

After talking to the event director we have a better idea of what we need communications-wise. I don't know that we'll be able to track every vehicle with APRS since we just won't have enough trackers but we'll do what we can. We'll have 8-10 SAG vehicles along with a sweep vehicle for both routes. I at least want to have the sweeps tracked so we always know where the end is. I'm also keeping my fingers crossed that we'll be able to get more tracking systems setup.

There's a lot to do between now and May. I'm very excited that we've got some new people involved and that we're planning well in advance of the ride. It's a huge undertaking but I really think it'll blow some minds when we pull it off.