Oct 132016
 

Well, today’s mail had a surprise.  Back about 6 years ago, I was sub-contracted to Jacques Electronics to help them develop some device drivers for their video intercom system.  At the time, they were using TI’s TLV320AIC3204 and system-on-modules based on the Freescale i.MX27 SoC.

No driver existed in the ALSA tree for this particular audio CODEC, and while TI did have one available under NDA, the driver was only licensed for use with a TI OMAP SoC.  I did what just about any developer would do, grabbed the closest-looking existing ALSA SoC driver, ripped it apart and started hacking.  Thus I wound up getting to grips with the I²S infrastructure within the i.MX27 and taming the little beast that is the TLV320AIC3204, producing this patch.

As the code was a derivative work, the code was automatically going to be under the GPLv2 and thus was posted on the ALSA SoC mailing list for others to use.  This would help protect Jacques from any possible GPL infringement regarding the use of that driver.  I was able to do this as it was a clean-room implementation using only material in TI’s data sheet, thus did not contain any intellectual property of my then-employer.

About that time I recall one company using the driver in their IP camera product, the driver itself never made it into the mainline kernel.  About 6 months later, another driver for the TLV320AIC3204 and 3254 did get accepted there, I suspect this too was a clean-room implementation.

Fast forward to late August, I receive an email from Jeremy McDermond on behalf of the Northwest Digital Radio.  They had developed the Universal Digital Radio Controller board for the Raspberry Pi series of computers based around this same CODEC chip.  Interestingly, it was the ‘AIC3204 driver that I developed all that time before that proved to be the code they needed to get the chip working.  The chip in question can be seen up the top-right corner of the board.

Universal Digital Radio Controller

Timely, as there’s a push at the moment within Brisbane Area WICEN Group to investigate possible alternatives to our aging packet radio system and software stack.  These boards, essentially being radio-optimised sound cards, have been used successfully for implementing various digital modes including AX.25 packet, D-Star and could potentially do FreeDV and other digital modes.

So, looks like I’ll be chasing up a supplier for a newer Raspberry Pi board, and seeing what I can do about getting this device talking to the world.

Many thanks to the Northwest Digital Radio company for their generous donation! 🙂

May 032015
 

The Problem

I’ve been running a station from the bicycle for some time now and I suppose I’ve tried a few different battery types on the station.

Originally I ran 9Ah 12V gel cells, which work fine for about 6 months, then the load of the radio gets a bit much and I find myself taking two with me on a journey to work because one no longer lasts the day.  I replaced this with a 40Ah Thundersky LiFePO4 pack which I bought from EVWorks, which while good, weighed 8kg!  This is a lot lighter than an equivalent lead acid, gel cell or AGM battery, but it’s still a hefty load for a bicycle.

At the time that was the smallest I could get.  Eventually I found a mob that sold 10Ah packs. These particular cells were made by LiFeBatt, and while pricey, I’ve pretty much recouped my costs. (I’d have bought and disposed of about 16 gel cell batteries in this time at $50 each, versus $400 for one of these.)   These are what I’ve been running now since about mid 2011, and they’ve been pretty good for my needs.  They handle the load of the FT-857 okay on 2m FM which is what I use most of the time.

A week or two back though, I was using one of these packs outside with the home base in a “portable” set-up with my FT-897D.  Tuned up on the 40m WICEN net on 7075kHz, a few stations reported that I had scratchy audio.  Odd, the radio was known to be good, I’ve operated from the back deck before and not had problems, what changed?

The one and only thing different is I was using one of these 10Ah packs.  I’ve had fun with RF problems on the bicycle too.  On transmit, the battery was hovering around the 10.2V mark, perhaps a bit low.  Could it be the radio is distorting on voice peaks due to input current starvation?  I tried after the net swapping it for my 40Ah pack, which improved things.  Not totally cleared up, but it was better, and the pack hadn’t been charged in a while so it was probably a little low too.

The idea

I thought about the problem for a bit.  SSB requires full power on voice peaks.  For a 100W radio, that’s a 20A load right now.  Batteries don’t like this.  Perhaps there was a bit of internal resistance from age and the nature of the cells?  Could I do something to give it a little hand?

Supercapacitors are basically very high capacity electrolytic capacitors with a low breakdown voltage, normally in the order of a few volts and capacitances of over a farad.  They are good for temporarily storing charge that needs to be dumped into a load in a hurry.  Could this help?

My cells are in a series bank of 4: ~3.3V/cell with 4 cells gives me 13.2V.  There’s a battery balancer already present.  If a cell gets above 4V, that cell is toast, so the balancer is present to try to prevent that from happening.  I could buy these 1F 5.5V capacitors for only a few dollars each, so I thought, “what the hell, give it a try”.  I don’t have much information on them other that Elna Japan made them.  The plan was to make some capacitor “modules” that would hook in parallel to each cell.

My 13.2V battery pack, out of case

My 13.2V battery pack, out of its case

Supercapacitors

Supercapacitors

For my modules, the construction was simple, two reasonably heavy gauge wires tacked onto the terminals, the whole capacitor then encased in heatshrink tubing and ring lugs crimped to the leads. I was wondering whether I should solder a resistor and diode in parallel and put that in series with the supercap to prevent high in-rush current, but so far that hasn’t been necessary.

The re-assembled pack

I’ve put the pack back together and so far, it has charged up and is ready to face its first post-retrofit challenge.  I guess I’ll be trying out the HF station tomorrow to see how it goes.

Assembled pack

Assembled pack

The Verdict

Not a complete solution to the RF feedback, it seems to help in other ways. I did a quick test on the drive way first with the standard Yaesu handmic and with the headset. Headset still faces interference problems on HF, but I can wind it up to about 30W~40W now instead of 20.

More pondering to come but we’ll see what the other impacts are.

Mar 192015
 
Tropical Cyclone Nathan, Forecast map as of 2:50PM

Tropical Cyclone Nathan, Forecast map as of 2:50PM

This cyclone has harassed the far north once already, wobbled out in the Pacific like a drunken cyclist as a tropical low, has gained strength again and is now making a bee-line for Cape Flattery.

As seen, it also looks like doing the same stunt headed for Gove once it’s finished touching up far north Queensland.  Whoever up there is doing this rain dancing, you can stop now, it’s seriously pissing off the weather gods.

National and IARU REGION III Emergency Frequencies (Please keep clear and listen for emergency traffic)

  • 80m
    • 3.600MHz LSB (IARU III+WICEN)
  • 40m
    • 7.075MHz LSB (WICEN)
    • 7.110MHz LSB (IARU III)
  • 20m
    • 14.125MHz USB (WICEN)
    • 14.300MHz USB (IARU III)
    • 14.183MHz USB: NOT an emergency frequency, but Queensland State WICEN hold a net on this frequency every Sunday morning at around 08:00+10:00 (22:00Z Saturday).
  • 15m
    • 21.190MHz USB (WICEN)
    • 21.360MHz USB (IARU III)
  • 10m
    • 28.450MHz USB (WICEN)

I’ll be keeping an ear out on 14.125MHz in the mornings.

Update 20 March 4:31am: It has made landfall between Cape Melville and Cape Flattery as a category 4 cyclone.

Jun 152014
 

This is a simple vertical groundplane antenna intended for mounting atop a 10m Squid Pole. These can be made to nearly any frequency you desire, and can be self-supporting if needed. The main limitation is the stiffness of the wire used.

The antenna gets its name as the original was one I quickly knocked up just prior to a horse endurence ride event that took place at Donnybrook in 2011. I was assisting Brisbane Area WICEN with the emergency communications at this event, and this antenna, worked very well. 10W was more than sufficient to get back to base on 2m FM.

The design is very simple. You’ll need some stiff copper wire, and a panel-mount BNC connector. I used some strands from a thick mains cable: this was being tossed out at a ham radio meeting some years back. The cable had a black plastic coating and inside were 7 strands of solid copper, each about 2mm thick. Perfect for small antennas.

Similar wire can be found in non-stranded house mains cable.

First step is to work out what length to cut the elements. They should all be roughly the same length. This can be calculated by the simple formula:

v=f\lambda

which if you take v as being the velocity of light in a vacuum (~3\times10^8 m/s; radio will travel a little slower through air, but who’s counting?) and f as being 147.050\times10^6 and solve for \lambda you get 2.04m as the wavelength.  We want ¼ of this, so I’ve aimed for 51cm long elements.

Don’t worry about them being perfectly straight when measuring, extra length is good at this point, you’ll want a good 2cm extra.  You can make a wire shorter, you can’t make it longer.

Measuring the elements

Measuring the elements

Measure and cut the 4 elements. 3 will become your groundplane, and the 4th the radiating element. Also cut off about 10cm or so, give or take, which will be the ground wire used to hook the groundplane elements to the BNC connector. Also add to your parts list, some small velcro strips: you’ll find these handy to strap the coax to the squid pole.

Procured parts

Procured parts

Start with the short piece of wire. You’ll want to bend it into a rough triangle shape, with loops of wire at the corners. The groundplane radials will loop through these holes. The excess wire should be coiled up to one side: this is the loop the squid pole will pass through. The BNC connector will be fitted in between the 3 small loops.

Ground wire

donnybrook-03-ground-wire Ground wire

Be sure you can still put the nut back on.

Take 3 of the four elements, and make a hook at one end. Pass this hook through each of the small loops in the triangle. Try to make them sit roughly straight out from the centre of the triangle, then solder each hook into the loop.

Hooking the radials

Soldering the radialsAttaching the radials

Having done this, put the BNC connector in and do the nut up tight. You can do away with the eyelet with the solder tag. To finish off, take your remaining element, make a hook just big enough to go around the centre pin of the BNC connector, then solder into place.

Preparing radiating element

Hooking radiating elementSoldering the radiating element Attaching the radiating element

To finish off, bend this until it is vertical. The antenna is now ready for tuning.

Completed untuned antenna

Completed untuned antenna

Double check the length is about right. It should be around the 51~52cm mark.

Checking length

Checking length (close) Checking length

To check the tuning, use a SWR meter or antenna analyser if you have one. Here, I used the built-in SWR meter on my Yaesu FT-857D. When using a SWR meter, ensure you’re running minimum power. The following are some results from my set.  It is at this point, you do any trimming of your antenna.  The following are without trimming the antenna, you’ll note that in most examples, the SWR is very low, just a point or so showing up on the left side of the screen.

On 2m:

donnybrook-13-test-144500 donnybrook-13-test-145500 donnybrook-13-test-146500 donnybrook-13-test-147500

On 70cm:

donnybrook-13-test-432100 donnybrook-13-test-433100 donnybrook-13-test-434100 donnybrook-13-test-438100 donnybrook-13-test-439100 donnybrook-13-test-440100

To mount the antenna on your squid pole, feed the tip of the squid pole through the remaining loop.  Bend the tip of the antenna around the tip of the squid pole.  Hook your coaxial cable to the BNC connector and use velcro straps at regular points to hold the coax to the side of the squid pole.

Mounted antenna

Mounted antenna

Recommended coax for this purpose is RG-195.  RG-58 will work, but is lossy, RG-213 and LMR400 are too heavy to use on a squid pole and will cause it to bend or collapse.

Update: This antenna performed quite well.  Saturday, we used it for 2m packet, providing a digipeater for the stations in our area in case they couldn’t reach the main node (at “the pineapple farm” just outside Imbil).  We had stable packet communications all day.  Since the stations around us found they could work the main node directly, we swapped antennas around and used it instead for a VHF/UHF cross-band voice repeater.  Signal reports were good through the Imbil state forest.

Jul 152013
 

Well, this year’s International Rally of Queensland didn’t go the way everyone expected. We were there with Brisbane Area WICEN, providing the backup communications for the event. Our primary role was to relay the scores given to us by the post chief in the timekeeper’s tent. They looked after scheduling the cars, getting times, and sending the cars through. We just passed on scores (start/finish times) and other traffic.

Saturday went well. My father and I were set up at Kandanga North running the WICEN checkpoint for stages 6 and 12 of the rally. After some early hiccups getting the packet radio network going, we had the scores being sent out on time and everything running smoothly. Apart from some cows holding up traffic, there were no delays.

Sunday however… just about everyone would have heard about the fatality. My father and I ran the WICEN checkpoint at the start of the fateful Michell Creek Special Stage 14.

Having now seen the ABC website footage, looking at the competitor lists and my own logs, I can say with 90% certainty which car (and therefore 45% certainty who the deceased is) the unfortunate car was and when they left the stage.

My condolences go out to both driver and co driver at this difficult time.

Update: The names have been released.

Jun 142011
 
  1. The BP servo on the way to Donnybrook is bad when it comes to caravans… the one heading back to Brisbane is even worse.
  2. Horses have an aversion to orange and red coloured clothing (pity the organisers handed out red caps and orange shirts… also good thing we’re not the SES).
  3. Do not shine a torch in the eyes of a horse, especially not a 3W LED torch!
  4. Be prepared for organisers to give you information at the last possible minute, and not consider the needs of the radio communications people.
  5. Sometimes a short-cut, isn’t.
May 202011
 

During the International Rally of Queensland, it was interesting to observe how people made use of the radios provided for the event. In fact, watching peoples’ behaviour to me, made it clear that none of them had any training in how to use one of these devices. And they all struggled, mostly as a result of each others’ bad habits.

This isn’t an isolated case… my mother who works at the Brisbane International airport, often complains about the radio etiquette of her fellow colleagues. A lot of people have a radio thrust into their hands, and haven’t a clue how to use them. In trying to figure it out, they often fall trap to the same bad habits.

I myself have found a lot of this by mistake, and by observing others. A lot of this is also applicable to using regular telephones … I found the tip of standing still when talking helpful when I needed to make a call to emergency services on my mobile phone — the particular spot where I was at the time, the phone would drop out if I moved more than 6 inches in any direction. Learning not to talk too close, or too loudly into a microphone, also helps.

The following is a little chart I came up with. No, the stick figures are not XKCD grade, they’re not meant to be. Click on the image below for a copy as a PDF, or get the SVG source here.  File is provided in the public domain, but attribution would be appreciated.  If you use radios in your workplace, and observe this kind of behaviour in your colleagues, you might like to print this out and stick it on a wall somewhere.