Even though I've been insanely busy with home life and running Etherkit, I felt like I needed to get out and do a bit of operating to get back in touch with that aspect of amateur radio. In the past few years, Dave W8NF has invited me to come up to the OTVARC Field Day site at Stub Stewart State Park, but I've avoided it due to the fact that late June is usually the time of year when my grass allergies peak here in western Oregon. Fortunately, this year has been a bit of a La Niña year, so it has been unusually wet and mild, which means that the pollen is under good control after a nice rain. A few days before Field Day this year, and my allergies had been pretty mild, so I decided to invite myself up to the public site to check it out and maybe do a little bit of operating.
I arrived at the park at about 4 PM on Saturday. As you can see from the photo above, the weather probably wasn't to the liking of most people, but it was perfect for me: dry, having just previously rained. OTVARC had four operating positions set up: one CW/digital tent (two K3s), one phone tent (two IC-756IIIs), one VHF (where the above photo was taken), and the GOTA station in the RV you can see in the center of the photo. It's hard to tell from the photo, but the antenna farm ran in a straight line from where I was standing down towards the pavilion in the background. There were 40 foot masts roughly equally spaced out with fixed beams on them, then wire antennas for the lower bands strung between the masts.
After a bit of chatting with W8NF and some introductions to club officers and members, I partook in the grilled hamburgers which were offered (wasn't going to eat OTVARCs food, but thanks for the invite!) and then Dave and I sat down in the phone tent to try to work some 20 meter SSB. I was at the logging PC and Dave was manning the mic (each phone station was equipped with Dave's brilliant Logiklipper, natch). We didn't have much success for some reason on 20 phone, probably due to the antenna we were stuck with (the G5RV, if I remember correctly). I ended up moving over to the other phone station, which was on 15 meters. I actually had a decent run of search & pounce operation, for a non-contester like myself. I wanted to try to park on a frequency and CQ, but I noticed it was 8 PM by this time, so I needed to get back home.
Both before I left for Stub Stewart and after I returned, I also used Field Day as an opportunity to test out the "mainframe" of a new SSB transceiver design I've been working on (meaning the RF stages, minus the microcontroller/DDS/LED frequency display). A breadboarded DDS-60 was used as the temporary VFO for the radio, and I connected the whole works up to battery power to work as 1E OR from my own station. This iteration of the radio is monoband (20 meters on this unit) and QRP (power output is about 7 watts max with a IRFIZ16G final), so I knew I would be a little guppy in a big pond, but figured it was worth a try just to see that it was working properly. I actually ended up doing better than I expected. In about 1.5 hours of casual search & pounce operation, I was able to make 11 QSOs with stations in the sections NE, ID, AK, PAC (x3!), KS, AZ, and NM. The PAC stations were all in Hawaii and were booming in easily 20 to 60 dB over S9. Two of those three PAC QSOs were snagged on first call. It's a little spooky having such an easy QSO only using 6-7 watts SSB over such a long distance. Yes, all of the heavy lifting credit goes to the other station, but QRP SSB can work if you take care to know your propagation and try to work the stations which are loudest. Given a QTH from a peak (such as a SOTA activation) and a decent antenna, I don't doubt that it could be quite effective.
So the rig seems to work, and I don't even have a name for it yet, but it's shaping up quite nicely. The microcontroller/DDS/LED module is nearly complete, then I'm going to package the rig in a WA4MNT-style copper clad chassis so that I can take the rig with me to Salmoncon in a few weeks. With any luck, beta testing will begin in no more than two months, and hopefully a quick entry to the market after that. On a side note, as much as it pained me to set aside the CC-Series to develop something else, I think it was vitally important for me to do so. I was too stuck in a rut with the CC-Series design and needed a mental breakout to something different. I've learned some good circuit design ideas from this radio, which should translate into vast improvements in the next iteration of the CC-Series. I do intend to give my CC-Series beta testers a worthy radio in this next round of testing.
Disclaimer: For those who don't know, I'm an employee of Buddipole, and I do speak quite a bit of my positive experiences with some Buddipole products in this post.
Yes hams, it's that time of the year again. Field Day, the Super Bowl of the ham radio world. I haven't had the best track record of participating in Field Day over the years, due to a few different factors. The largest stumbling block is the nasty allergies that I get during late spring, which usually end up peaking in intensity right around the end of June. The other problem is that I've never been a big fan of the big-time organized local clubs. I won't go in to the reasons for that (you can dig back in the blog if you are really interested), other than to say that in my experience they are not the kind of places that I find interesting.
Now that I own a house with a proper backyard, I feel like I now have the option to participate in Field Day by setting up out back, so that I can duck inside if my allergies get too out of control. It also helped that I recently started taking some new meds, which have helped to control the allergies quite a bit better than anything else so far. So I was more than happy to give FD a go this year, even though it wasn't going to be more than a backyard adventure.
Given the recent development of my employment with Buddipole, and the demise of my main station random wire antenna in a recent spring storm, it only made sense to deploy the Buddipole. I could have dragged out the IC-718 sitting idle in the shack and paired it with my very heavy 35 Ah gel cell, but I was feeling up for a bit of a challenge. I settled on using the FT-817, and considered pairing it with my recently constructed 20 watt linear amp, but I realized that running 20 watts would give me the same power multiplier as running 100 watts would. So I figured, why not take the dive and go QRP for the entire event? Not only that, but why not make SSB the main mode of operation? This was appealing to me not only because I am a QRPer at heart, but also because it would push my limits, and give me something new to try.
I've run into my share of hams who think that QRP is the devil's handiwork, and that anyone running less than 100 watts is inflicting undue hardship on the poor receiving station. While I know that a QRP signal does have a more difficult time being heard (especially SSB), I also know that there have been plenty of times when the receiving station would have had no idea that I was running QRP unless I told them (and many times, I won't tell them). The fact is, if you can hear me well enough, you'll answer me. If not, you won't. Yes, I get less contacts running QRP. But if the conditions are too painful for the other station, they will just not answer me or will politely cut it short. I especially feel absolved of any guilt running QRP SSB on Field Day because of the whole nature of the event. The concept is to test how well we do under less-than-ideal conditions. Quoth the rules (emphasis mine):
2. Object: To work as many stations as possible on any and all amateur bands (excluding the 60, 30, 17, and 12-meter bands) and in doing so to learn to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions. A premium is placed on developing skills to meet the challenges of emergency preparedness as well as to acquaint the general public with the capabilities of Amateur Radio.
The great thing about using the Buddipole was the ability for me to use it in conjunction with the frequency agility of the FT-817 to hop around the bands. Yes, it does take a bit of time to change bands, which is not quite as fast as using a multiband doublet with a tuner. However, with just a bit of practice, you get to know what setting sare needed to resonate your antenna on any band and can reconfigure and tune it in a matter of a few minutes. Given that I decided to run QRP SSB, I needed every bit of power I could get, so I was glad to not have a lossy tuner in the way.
Given the somewhat last minute nature of my decision to play in Field Day, I didn't have a way to power a notebook PC with a battery, so I settled on the old standby of paper logging. Since I decided to stay strictly search & pounce, it wasn't a big deal to paper log. The biggest pain is in dealing with dupe avoidance, but I figured that I wouldn't have to worry about that too much since I would be racking up huge QSO counts.
The only thing left to nail down at this point was power. I knew that I wanted to try out our brand new A123 lithium nanophospate battery technology that we are ramping up at Buddipole. If you don't know about this battery technology yet, prepare to be blown away when we officially roll these out. This technology has been used in the R/C hobby for a few years, and is just now making it's way into amateur radio use. It also happens to be the same technology used in the upcoming(?) Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid vehicle. It would take too long to list all of the advantages of this technology here, but the amazing flat discharge curve, long life, very quick charge time, and incredible safety are all reasons why I'm confident that this will be the dominant battery technology in the portable/pedestrian mobile ham circles within the next few years. The particular pack that I was using is a 3S1P configuration, which means 3 cells in series, one parallel set (we also have 4S1P and 4S2P packs). Each cell is 3.3 V nominal, so this pack is rated at 9.9 volts, which is perfect for use with the FT-817. A **1P pack has a capacity of 2.3 Ah, which I figured would give me at least a few hours of operating time.
Being at a bit of a disadvantage in the "contest", I wanted to pick up some extra bonus points, so I remembered the 5 watt Harbor Freight solar panel that I had gathering dust in the closet. Using that in conjunction with my half-depleted 7 Ah gel-cell, my power strategy was fully formed in my mind. During the sunny part of the day (my backyard is on the north side of the house and is fairly narrow, so it doesn't get a ton of sunlight) I would use the solar panel/gel cell combo, then switch to the A123 pack when there wasn't anymore sunlight to be had at the station.
Given the set up that I described, it looked like I would fall into the 1E class for the event. Given a very strict reading of the rules, it seemed like I might have been able to claim 1B Battery, but in the spirit of the event, 1E was the appropriate choice.
I wasn't able to start operating right at 1800 UTC due to some chores that needed to be completed first before play time. When I did get going, I started on 20 meters with the Buddipole in vertical dipole configuration and quickly started to get QSOs in the log. As I mentioned earlier, my strategy was strictly search & pounce, choosing only the loudest stations to try to work. For the most part, it was a successful strategy. I was able to work just about everyone that I heard at a S5 - S7 signal level or better.
Once the afternoon wore on and 20 meters started heating up, the pileups started to heat up as well. I found that it was getting harder and harder to be heard as I was the little fish in the big pileup. So by mid-afternoon, I started working my way up the bands. By jumping to 15 meters (then 10, and eventually 6) was the band was starting to open, I was able to stay ahead of the really competitive pileups. One of the coolest things about the operating was the feeling of riding the QSB like a wave up and down; waiting for a crest in the propagation to strike fast with my callsign. It could have all been in my mind, but it did seem to help to operate like this.
As the sun started to set behind the neighborhood houses, a good sporadic E opening hit the West Coast and I was able to get some nice 6 meter and 10 meter QSOs out to about 1000 miles or so. I had big plans for staying up late after dark to operate, but by the time that dusk fell on Beaverton, I was totally exhausted. So I laid down on the sofa and set the alarm on my iPhone to wake me in a few hours. Not surprisingly, I must have turned off the alarm in my sleep, because the next thing I remember is that it was 5 AM the next morning.
A bit disappointed, but feeling renewed, I put on a pot of coffee and decided on my strategy for the morning. It seemed obvious to give the lower bands a shot, since the propagation was bound to be best there and I hadn't worked them the day before. So the Buddipole was reconfigured as a Versatee Vertical with the low band coil, and the power was supplied by the A123 pack. Once I got going again around 7 AM, I was shocked at how well I was doing on 75 meters. The puny 5 watt signal from the FT-817 into the Buddipole had some good mojo, as I got multiple unsolicited "great signal" reports from the stations that I contacted (many of them VE7s). In my QSOs on the previous day, it was obvious that I was a QRP station, often needing multiple calls to bust a small pileup and sometimes needing a repeat or two. But both 75 meters and 40 meters were working remarkably well for me. The call got through on the first try nearly every time, and almost no fills were necessary. It truly felt like I was running 100 watts.
After a morning of fun, I had to go QRT for the day in order to complete some other chores that I had put off for far too long. It was a bit tough to tear myself from the station, but responsibility trumps fun, even if you try to put it off for as long as you can.
Before I started operating, I thought that 50 QSOs would probably be a reasonable goal to shoot for as a QRP SSB station. As it turns out, I got really close; with a final tally of 49 QSOs, all of them SSB. Twelve of those QSOs were on solar power, so I qualified for the 100 point alternate power bonus. Since I was on emergency power the entire time, I also got 100 points for that. Given my 5 watt power limit and 100% emergency power status, I qualified for a power multiplier of 5. I also managed to copy the special W1AW bulletin for 100 points, and plan to submit my log via the web for another 50 points. If I did the arithmetic correctly, that should give me a final score of 595 points.
I also want to make note of the performance of the A123 battery pack. I started the event by charging the pack to a full charge with my Cellpro Multi4 charger. Although I did the majority of my operation timewise on the solar panel, by far I had the most QSOs with the A123 pack. According to my rough log calculations, I used the A123 pack for over 3 hours of operating time and logged 37 QSOs with it. When I returned the pack to the charger after Field Day, the charger reported 19% of the charge was left (the voltage display of the FT-817 never dipped below 9.6 V the entire time I was operating with the A123 pack). The next charge only took 38 minutes to get me back to 100%, and ready to go again. The 3S1P pack only weighs about 8 oz. and gave me a ton of operation time, much more than I expected. It sure blows away the much heavier and bulkier 5 Ah gel cell that I usually use with the FT-817. Ask the Goathiker, he'll tell you how great these things are.
I could wax poetic about the event, but I think you get my feelings about the thing by now. I'll just end by saying that this was my best Field Day by far, and that I had more fun with QRP SSB than I thought possible. I have a great appreciation for the excellent ops that put up with my peanut whistle, and learned a lot more about how capable a QRP SSB station can be.
So it looks like I will be heading up to Stub Stewart State Park to spend some Field Day time with OTVARC and some of the hams from Tektronix. Seeing that the current forecast is for temperatures near 100° in the valley (it may not be much cooler up in the mountains) and that my allergies are killing me right now, I don't predict that I will be spending a lot of time out there. I'll see if I can work up the nerve to man the key for a little while, although I have no idea how that will work out. My code speed is only about 13 WPM comfortably, and I'm sure that most CW ops working FD will be a lot quicker than that. I will probably have to troll the upper parts of the CW bands for some slow speed QSOs. Wish me luck, I'm pretty rusty!