Nov 242019
 

The past few months have been quiet for this project, largely because Brisbane WICEN has had my spare time soaked up with an RFID system they are developing for tracking horse rides through the Imbil State Forest for the Stirling’s Crossing Endurance Club.

Ultimately, when we have some decent successes, I’ll probably be reporting more on this on WICEN’s website. Suffice to say, it’s very much a work-in-progress, but it has proved a valuable testing ground for aioax25. The messaging system being used is basically just plain APRS messaging, with digipeating thrown in as well.

Since I’ve had a moment to breathe, I’ve started filling out the features in aioax25, starting with connected-mode operation. The thinking is this might be useful for sending larger payloads. APRS messages are limited to a 63 character message size with only a subset of ASCII being permitted.

Thankfully that subset includes all of the Base64 character set, so I’m able to do things like tunnel NTP packets and CBOR blobs through it, so that stations out in the field can pull down configuration settings and the current time.

As for the RFID EPCs, we’re sending those in the canonical hexadecimal format, which works, but the EPC occupies most of the payload size. At 1200 bits per second, this does slow things down quite a bit. We get a slight improvement if we encode the EPCs as Base64. We’d get a 200% efficiency increase if we could send it as binary bytes instead. Sending a CBOR blob that way would be very efficient.

The thinking is that the nodes find each-other via APRS, then once they’ve discovered a path, they can switch to connected mode to send bulk transfers back to base.

Thus, I’ve been digging into connected mode operation. AX.25 2.2 is not the most well-written spec I’ve read. In fact, it is down-right confusing in places. It mixes up little-endian and big-endian fields, certain bits have different meanings in different contexts, and it uses concepts which are “foreign” to someone like myself who’s used to TCP/IP.

Right now I’m making progress, there’s an untested implementation in the connected-mode branch. I’m writing unit test cases based on what I understand the behaviour to be, but somehow I think this is going to need trials with some actual AX.25 implementations such as Direwolf, the Linux kernel stack, G8BPQ stack and the implementation on my Kantronics KPC3 and my Kenwood TH-D72A.

Some things I’m trying to get an answer to:

  • In the address fields at the start of a frame, you have what I’ve been calling the ch bit.
    On digipeater addresses, it’s called H and it is used to indicate that a frame has been digipeated by that digipeater.
    When seen in the source or destination addresses, it is called C, and it describes whether the frame is a “command” frame, or a “response” frame.

    An AX.25 2.x “command” frame sets the destination address’s C bit to 1, and the source address’s C bit to 0, whilst a “response” frame in AX.25 does the opposite (destination C is 0, source C is 1).

    In prior AX.25 versions, they were set identically. Question is, which is which? Is a frame a “command” when both bits are set to 1s and a “response” if both C bits are 0s? (Thankfully, I think my chances of meeting an AX.25 1.x station are very small!)
  • In the Control field, there’s a bit marked P/F (for Poll/Final), and I’ve called it pf in my code. Sometimes this field gets called “Poll”, sometimes it gets called “Final”. It’s not clear on what occasions it gets called “Poll” and when it is called “Final”. It isn’t as simple as assuming that pf=1 means poll and pf=0 means final. Which is which? Who knows?
  • AX.25 2.0 allowed up to 8 digipeaters, but AX.25 2.2 limits it to 2. AX.25 2.2 is supposed to be backward compatible, so what happens when it receives a frame from a digipeater that is more than 2 digipeater hops away? (I’m basically pretending the limitation doesn’t exist right now, so aioax25 will handle 8 digipeaters in AX.25 2.2 mode)
  • The table of PID values (figure 3.2 in the AX.25 2.2 spec) mentions several protocols, including “Link Quality Protocol”. What is that, and where is the spec for it?
  • Is there an “experimental” PID that can be used that says “this is a L3 protocol that is a work in progress” so I don’t blow up someone’s station with traffic they can’t understand? The spec says contact the ARRL, which I have done, we’ll see where that gets me.
  • What do APRS stations do with a PID they don’t recognise? (Hopefully ignore it!)

Right at this point, the Direwolf sources have proven quite handy. Already I am now aware of a potential gotcha with the AX.25 2.0 implementation on the Kantronics KPC3+ and the Kenwood TM-D710.

I suspect my hand-held (Kenwood TH-D72A) might do the same thing as the TM-D710, but given JVC-Kenwood have pulled out of the Australian market, I’m more like to just say F### you Kenwood and ignore the problem since these can do KISS mode, bypassing the buggy AX.25 implementation on a potentially resource-constrained device.

NET/ROM is going to be a whole different ball-game, and yes, that’s on the road map. Long-term, I’d like 6LoWHAM stations to be able to co-exist peacefully with other stations. Much like you can connect to a NET/ROM node using traditional AX.25, then issue connect commands to jump from there to any AX.25 or NET/ROM station; I intend to offer the same “feature” on a 6LoWHAM station — you’ll be able to spin up a service that accepts AX.25 and NET/ROM connections, and allows you to hit any AX.25, NET/ROM or 6LoWHAM station.

I might park the project for a bit, and get back onto the WICEN stuff, as what we have in aioax25 is doing okay, and there’s lots of work to be done on the base software that’ll keep me busy right up to when the horse rides re-start in 2020.

Apr 112019
 

Lately, I had a need for a library that would talk to a KISS TNC and allow me to exchange UI frames over an AX.25 network.

This is part of a project being undertaken by Brisbane Area WICEN Group. We’ve been tasked with the job of reporting scans from RFID tag readers back to baseā€¦ and naturally we’ll be using the AX.25 network we’re already familiar with. The plan is to use APRS messaging (to keep things simple) to submit the location, time and hardware address of each RFID read.

For this, I needed something I also need for this project, a tool to encode and decode the UI frames. I had initially thought of just using LinBPQ or similar to provide the interface to AX.25, but in the end, it was easier for me to write my own simple AX.25 stack from scratch.

aioax25 obviously is nowhere near a replacement for other AX.25 stacks in that it only encodes and decodes frames, but it’s a first step in that journey. This library is written for Python 3.4 and up using the asyncio module and pyserial. At the moment I have used it to somewhat crudely send and receive APRS messages, and so with a bit of work, it’ll suffice for the WICEN project.

That does mean I’m not shackled in terms of what bits I can set in my AX.25 headers. One limitation I have with my mapping of 6LoWHAM addresses to AX.25 addresses is that I cannot represent all characters or the “group” bit.

This lead to the limitation that if I defined a group called VK4BWI-0, that group may not have a participant with the call-sign of VK4BWI-0 because I would not be able to differentiate group messages from direct messages.

By writing my own AX.25 stack, I potentially can side-step that limitation: I can utilise the reserved bits in a call-sign/SSID to represent this information. I avoided their use before because the interfaces I planned on using did not expose them, but doing it myself means they’re directly accessible. The AX.25 protocol documentation states:

The bits marked “r” are reserved bits. They may be used in an agreed-upon manner in individual networks. When not implemented, they should be set to one.

https://www.tapr.org/pub_ax25.html

Now, the question is, if I set one to 0, would it reach the far end as a 0? If so, this could be a stand-in for the group bit — stored inverted so that a 1 represents a unicast destination and 0 represents a group.

The other option is to just prepend the left-over bits to the start of the message payload. This has the bonus that I can encode the full-callsign even if that call-sign does not fit in a standard AX.25 message.

So a message sent to VK4FACE-6 (let’s pretend F-calls can use packet for the sake of an example) would be sent to AX.25 SSID VK4FAC-6, and the first few bytes would encode the missing E and the group/unicast bit. If the station VK4FAC were also on frequency, the software stack at their end would need to filter based on those initial payload bytes.

We support 8-character call-signs, so we need to represent 2 left-over characters plus a group bit. Add space for two-more characters for the source call-sign (which may not be a group), we require about 3 bytes.

At this point we might as well use 4, store the extra bytes as 7-bit ASCII, with the spare MSBs of each byte encoding the group bit and one spare bit. An extra 8 bits is bugger all really even at 1200 baud.

Obviously, NET/ROM has no knowledge of this. Stations that are on the other side of a non-6LoWHAM digipeater need to explicitly source-route their hops to reach the rest of a mesh network, and the nodes the other side need to “remember” this source route.

This latter scheme also won’t work for connected mode, as there’s no scope to shoehorn those bytes in the information field and still remain AX.25 compatible — it will only work for 6LoWHAM UI frames.

Anyway, it’s food for thought.