Wednesday, April 24, 2019

WSPR receive antenna comparison

My normal 40m antenna here is in the back yard hanging between the house and a tree. Operating position is at the front of the house so a long run of co-ax is used. I've tried dipoles at the front of the house but they've always seemed more noisy - presumably because of the power lines in the street.

Yesterday I ran WSPR receive on both antennas and found just how amazingly more noisy the antenna at the front is than the normal one out the back.

The front antenna is reported as VK2TPM/1. As you can see, signal to noise ratio is consistently 13dB worse out the front. Now, these are different receivers but I doubt they would make that much difference. There is also a 3Hz difference in reported frequency.

Keen eyed observers might notice that I'm searching WSPRnet for "vk2tpm*", yes wildcards do work in some contexts. The app here is WSPR Watch.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Home again - after crossing Australia

A very enjoyable adventure. Being away, living in a van, helps me appreciate the comforts of home. This post is a collection of observations on the journey.

I slept in the van for about three out of every four nights.

TVs in motels often don’t have all the available channels. I auto retune them and find more. Perhaps a result of re-stacking?

There are people riding bicycles over the Nullarbor. The road is quite narrow and this seems very dangerous.

I saw two groups of vintage cars being driven. Beautifully restored.

There are large numbers of people towing caravans across Australia.

Nullarbor is Latin for no 4G coverage. Just kidding, it is Latin for no trees.

There are about four parts of the highway which are marked up as Flying Doctor emergency runways. You can pull off to the side if a plane lands.

Signs showing the distance to a service station also show the distance to the following service station so you can make a decision about whether you need to stop. The longest run I did between refuelling was 460km, I think the van would make 500km but I didn't test this.

Oncoming drivers will often raise a finger or make a peace sign, or wave, as you approach. I think it means that if you broke down they’d stop to help. Most truck drivers don’t bother but some trucks are aware of the effect they have on me as we pass and will pull way off to the side as they approach, I give them a friendly wave of thanks.

Google maps is superior to Apple maps in several ways. It has a lot more points of interest, particularly in the outback. Google maps seems to behave better when there’s no data, I guess it caches more. In Google maps, you can drag up from the bottom and do a “search along the route” to find petrol stations for example.

The Google maps search ahead feature makes odd choices about what to display, it shows the brand or name, the number of stars in Google reviews, and that it’s a “quick detour”, it does not show how much time to get there or the kilometres.

Motel rooms have a can of insect spray in the room.

Many small towns have FM stations. Larger ones have relays of ABC Radio National, News Radio and Local Radio. Sometimes the ABC relays are distorted and on one occasion the carrier was there but no audio. In most cases two FM stations are working, the horse racing station and the Christian propaganda station.

Australia is often called a “wide brown land” but my observation is that a lot of it is very red. In some places the earth is red, trees are red and green and the sky is deep blue.

During the trip I listened to some music but many podcasts which entertained and informed me. What a fantastic new media.

Not surprisingly I used up my monthly data allowance and the excess data fee is a high $10 per GB. On Telstra, I can buy data packs at a slightly cheaper rate but they will charge again in the following month. I've now learned that cancelling the data pack in the next month means you only get charged pro-rata which seems fair.

When data is scarce, it’s a new world. iOS lets me choose app by app what can use mobile data and I’ve turned off lots of apps. Free Wifi is very attractive but I’ve found it’s actually limited to 500MB and it’s easy to use this just downloading a few podcasts. Netflix downloads have been great.

I sleep a lot when living in the van. When it gets dark, it’s bed time although I spend hours tuning around on the broadcast band and particularly shortwave. When the sun comes up, I get up, make coffee and hit the road.

Listening to shortwave in a low noise environment, away from power lines, switching power supplies and plasma TVs is amazing.

There isn’t a lot of English on shortwave these days. China Plus is everywhere, a bit of Voice of America and a bit of BBC. I haven’t been able to receive Radio New Zealand International in the west so I guess it’s beamed at the Pacific. I really miss the Radio Australia inland shortwave service.

A shortwave broadcast from India talked about the anniversary of a masacre by the British, they reported the deaths as 1,000. The BBC covered the same story but reported 300 deaths.

China Plus sometimes refers to the “peaceful re-unification of Taiwan”.

My antenna is a dipole cut for 40m. It’s held up by a 6m squid pole tied on to the van. The wire is a figure 8 twin cable fed from the balanced output of my antenna tuner. I tied the ends onto any trees or bushes near by using brickie string.

I drive at about 100km per hour, the van gets much noisier at higher speeds and I think it’s more economical at this speed. Drivers approach at higher speeds and when it’s safe I indicate left and slow a little. After they pass they indicate left and then right briefly, I think this is a way of saying thanks.

The largest cost of the trip was petrol.

Some drivers are slow until there’s an overtaking lane and then they speed up.

There are cellular telephone towers on the Nullarbor but they’re not close enough for continuous coverage. There’s no 4G. When you get to one of these towers they are a sight to behold, the guyed tower is about 100m high and at the base are satellite dishes and solar panels.

Broken down cars can be seen at the side of the road. Recent ones have police tape on them, older ones are missing the tyres and are sometimes burnt out. Most have broken windscreens and I assume they’ve hit a kangaroo.

There are frequent skid marks on the road where a vehicle has hit the brakes. I guess these survive many years.

There are many museums in small towns and it's a great amusement to visit and see what's on show.

The most seen dead animal on the road is a Kangaroo. Signs warn of Kangaroos, cattle, camels and wombats. Leaving Broken Hill, heading west, there are a large number of goats but luckily goats walk away from oncoming cars rather than jumping in to their path.

On the way home I ran into a bit of a heatwave in northern South Australia. As I result I drove more than planned and have arrived a bit early.

I felt calm and happy during the journey. Watching the country change slowly is interesting. Tuning shortwave and the 40m amateur band was an absolute joy without all the noise heard in a city. Thanks to John VK2ASU and Kevin VK2KB for attempting contacts with me on several occasions.

It's good to be home again.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Crossed the country - but waiting for parts

It's official, well from the WSPR Watch map, I've reached pretty much the western edge of Australia.

I was able to receive Kevin, VK2KB's WSPR beacon. We tried for an SSB contact but while I could hear John, VK2ASU, calling he couldn't hear me. We'll try again when I'm a bit closer.

As I mentioned in a Tech Head spot on RN Drive, it's quite a drive.

A few days were spent with old friends looking around Perth, which is a lovely place. I took the opportunity to drop in on the local GovHack folks.

On the way to Margaret River I heard a noise under the van that sounded rather like I'd run over a branch or something. Later I noticed it was rather difficult to steer, particularly while parking. Bridgetown has a few car service places and it was rather obvious (in retrospect) that a belt is missing.

It's the belt that drives the power steering. So, I'm checked in to the Hotel on the main street waiting for a replacement and I'm going to have the vehicle serviced on Friday.

Quite a nice little town with lots of local art on display and for sale. How about a miniature shed for the van?

While enjoying a cider at the bar downstairs I chatted with a bloke who works at the local Lithium mine which he tells me is the largest in the country and going really well presumably due to big demand for the metal for batteries. He said it's half owned by Chinese investors.

Responding to user feedback, I've done some updates to the WSPR Watch iOS app. In particular there were problems using the settings view on the smallest phones and iPads. I'm now looking in to decoding WSPR on an iOS device (you can transmit in WSPR Watch as of a few months ago).

Friday, April 05, 2019

Ultra low noise HF radio in the outback

One thing I've been particularly looking forward to is listening to HF radio devoid of all the interference we get in the cities.

My favourite free camp site so far is the one at Fraser Range. There’s a waterhole here in the rock and you can park overlooking a gorge. I chose a spot with some small trees so a dipole for 40m could be set up.

The noise level was astonishingly low. The only sounds were distant lightning crashes.

I carry a 6m squid pole to hold up a light weight balun seen here. The ends of the dipole are strung up on trees.

Tuning around I heard mostly Japanese hams but also europeans and a few east coast Australians. I brought a complete setup for WSPR reception and transmission.

The HP Stream laptop is handy in that it has very long battery life, 7 hours or so, and I've built a voltage boost charger circuit to give it the 19V it wants from my 12V supply.

I decoded up to 11 unique stations in a 2 minute WSPR slot. Here's a sample:

Transmit also worked well and I was spotted around the globe. At first I ran 5W but turned it down to 1W with almost the same result. Here's a display in WSPR Watch.

There are some noise sources in the van. The fridge creates a racket when it's running, the solar charge controller makes noise and the LED lighting that's built in is terrible. My little laptop charge booster unsurprisingly is terrible. I'm running the radio from an SLA battery but even so the fridge needs to be off for best results.

Crossing the Nullabor

It’s a long stretch of paved road through country devoid of trees. There is scrub and sometimes quite large bushes but never any shade. When I crossed it was hot and when stopped the flies are very persistent.

My anxiety about petrol was not warranted. The van’s range is about 500km and generally there is fuel every 200km. There are signs letting you know how far it is to the next fuel. A tail wind certainly helped with fuel consumption but I topped up at every opportunity.

The views of the great Australian bite are spectacular and well worth stopping for. It's an amazing contrast to the desert just next to it.

Often there was no mobile reception. I scanned the FM, AM and Shortwave bands and the only station I could hear was a Chinese shortwave station.

Australia is a big country and it’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity to drive across it.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Broken Hill to Ceduna

Broken Hill is not a bad place to get car repairs done. There's lots to see although sometimes I felt like I was paying an entry fee to go in to a shop.

The place has both wind and solar power to quite a big extent. Here's a tiny bit of the 43MW solar collector.

After Broken Hill I visited Peterborough, which is a nice town, passed through Port Augusta.

The van is going well and I'm gradually adjusting the layout and improving my van cooking. Signature dish here:

Stayed a night at Kimba.

I set up the ham radio gear but regrettably there was a very high noise level from a power line running through the camp site.

Now I'm at Ceduna, which is a lovely place. Here's the main beach.

The caravan park in the town is super crowded so I'm further south at Shelly Beach which is lovely.

Once again, the 40m dipole is up and here the noise level is very low. It's mid-afternoon and I'm receiving WSPR well and am being heard. I'm going to have a better shot at it closer to dusk.

As you can see from the WSPR map, I'm half way to Perth.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Cobar to Broken Hill

I had to wait a few days in Cobar for a new brake drum to come in and be fitted. There's not a lot to see and I saw it all. Picked up the van and the brakes are still not right so I decided to push on to Wilcannia.

An end fed for 40m was set up but storm activity made it not worth while. The van's solar system and the fridge create a lot of HF noise so in Cobar I purchased an SLA battery so that the radio can be run completely isolated from the van and this seems to work.

The road is pretty good but coming out of Cobar it was mostly goats which was better than kangaroos which have a nasty habit of jumping in front of cars. Plenty of them lie dead on the road being eaten by crows.

The van is very comfortable. At Wilcannia the night was hot at first - I ran the fan for a while - but there was a cool change and it was even cold by morning.

It's Saturday now and I've arrived in Broken Hill. A major attraction for me was to visit the Mad Max 2 museum at Silverton.

They've got lots of artefacts from the production including some of the vehicles. Clearly the production left a bit of trash in the desert that people have been finding and bringing in for the display.

Tonight I'm going star gazing again, it's one of the most amazing things about the outback.

The brakes in the van are very soft and I'm going to stick around in Broken Hill to get this issue fixed before heading further west.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Heading west in the van

Now that the weather has cooled a little, I've hit the road from Sydney in the van and am heading west. (I emailed old friends George and Harry and told them to put the kettle on).

I'm taking it considerably slower than Google's navigation suggests.

First stop was a visit to the wonderful QTH of Brian VK2AAF and Susi in Linden. We've spoken via Twitter, email and 80m but never met face to face and it was a real pleasure.

Next a quick stop at the stunning Govetts Leap.

First night was spent at Lithgow in a very nice camp ground over looking a farm with ducks.

An attraction here is the small arms factory.

I'm not really interested in guns but the history of the manufacturing was interesting and particularly how they struggled with the second world war ended. They made everything and anything including prototypes and sewing machines.

Next day on to Dubbo where I camped in a vineyard right next to the observatory.

The observatory show begins at 8pm led by the appropriately named Peter Starr who has an amazing knowledge of the night sky.

There were three telescopes set up and Peter used a powerful green laser to point things out in the sky. After a few cloudy nights we were in luck and my little Sony camera captured this with about a 10 second exposure. (Click to enlarge).

As I drove to Cobar, a squeaking in the rear left wheel started getting worse so I dropped in to a local mechanic who took a look and diagnosed that the brake pad is sticking to the drum and a new drum is needed. This part won't be here for two days so I'm enjoying a bit more of Cobar than originally planned.

The town is the site of a rich copper deposit and has some wonderful buildings. The local historical display is fantastic.

Cobar has three pubs and two IGA supermarkets. I'm doing a load of washing at the laundromat and when it gets too hot for walking this afternoon I'll head for the library.

Next stop is planned to be Broken Hill either Friday or Saturday depending on the van repair. Keep that kettle on gentlemen, I'm on my way.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

New features in WSPR Watch iOS app

A few years ago I wrote a simple iOS app called WSPR Watch that lets me quickly check the WSPRnet site for reports of my WSPR spots. It's on the App Store as a free app - I get the data free from WSPRnet so I don't think it's fair to then ask for money to view that data.

While I don't make any money from the app, I do get nice emails from time to time from users. Some users report that this is their most used app!

Recently I've had a string of great feature suggestions from John, AA7US. The app has some new features which you may not find, so I'll show them here.

Tapping a spot in the spot list now more quickly shows information about that spot and also requests more detail from the XML API.

There's a button to show the call on the QRZ website (which unfortunately doesn't look too good on a phone).

Finally there's a button, with a search icon and the call sign, which searches the loaded spots for just that callsign.

This also works if you tap a spot on the map. The first tap shows the basic info. If you tap the Info icon you get the same detailed info.

In settings there's a button to let you use your QRZ login and if you have a paid account you'll get some extra information in the info display.

In the callsign search fields the little book icon is a button that takes you to a list of recently used callsigns.

The callsigns list is built automatically based on what you've searched. You can simply tap a callsign to put that call into the search field. The list itself is editable, swipe left to delete an entry, tap the edit button to allow you to re-order the list. This feature is nice if you like to watch a few different calls.

Finally, in Settings, if you have the Apple email client set up on your device there's a little email button that creates an email to me for feedback about the app.

The bad news is that the WSPRnet seems very slow recently and often I see requests timeout even though I have set a 30 second timeout. There's not much I can do about this, I don't want to hammer the site with more requests.

I wish there was an answer to this issue. The database of WSPR reports is a very valuable research tool.

Friday, March 15, 2019

CubicSDR working well on MacOS

Some previous versions of CubicSDR have given me some grief on macOS. Today I found that the current release, version 0.2.5, seems to work really well.

Here you see it working with an Airspy HF+ but RTL-SDR also works very nicely.

I like CubicSDR because it has some keyboard and mouse actions that are really handy.

  • Arrow up and down zooms
  • Arrow left and right moves the visible spectrum
  • Dragging with the mouse moves the visible spectrum
  • Like others, clicking on the spectrum tunes to that frequency
  • Spacebar brings up a box where you can type the frequency
  • Shortcuts are shown in the window footer
Great work, I wonder when they'll get to version 1.0?

One bug I see is that if you click in the audio waveform panel it crashes.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The right hat for soldering

Inspired by the latest podcast (210) from Soldersmoke, in which Bill and Pete talk about wearing a Beret while home brewing, Stephen VK2BLQ and I went Beret shopping today.

It turns out that berets are widely available and there were several options. Naturally we went for the most economical one, shown here, from Targ├ęt at AU$10.

Bill, in the podcast, generously offered a prize for pictures of home brewers working in the shack wearing the approved head gear and I submit the entries you see here.

We enjoy the podcast very much and when a new episode is available messages fly around here to let everyone know. I'm hoping to win the free subscription!

Ross, EX0AA, is getting in to the spirit too:

He hasn't got the soldering iron grip quite right yet.

73s Bill & Pete from Pete and Stephen down under.

Update: Winners!

Bill wrote (on his blog) "Your dediscation to the cause and your adherence to our dress code is truly, uh, REMARKABLE! I hearby award all of you FREE SUBSCRIPTIONS to the on-line version of the SolderSmoke podcast.
But seriously, thanks a lot fellows. I have sent Pete the blog link and I'm sure he will be as pleased as I was. 73 Bill"

We're very excited of course, although the berets might be a bit warm as today it's predicted to be 34C (about 200F in your units I think).