All posts by Matt Robb

Are toy kites a viable option for elevating ham radio wire antennas for field use?

Yesterday afternoon was gray, blustery, and a little wet here in central New Jersey as a result of the remnants of Hurricane Ian. Coupled with the afternoon off from any work or household commitments, it was the opportune time for me to settle a 5-year question that has nagged at me:

Are toy kites a friend or foe to elevating ham radio wire antennas for field use?

A toy kite and a cup of coffee overlooking Joseph Lawrence Park in Bordentown NJ.

Whoah!” — not the namesake of THAT Joseph (Joey) Lawrence

It’s been well over 35 years since I’ve last flown a kite, which was on the beach at the New Jersey shore. I remember my uncle affixing a delta kite to a fishing rod for me, and within seconds the kite shot straight up 200-feet (60-meters). Although I was ten years old, I remember there was quite a steady pull on the pole, and once I grew tired we placed the pole in a rod holder, affixed the line around the bumper or grille of his pickup truck, and there the kite flew unattended for several hours.

Remembering this experience, when I first got interested in amateur (ham) radio in 2017 I wondered if this could be an answer to the age-old “height is might” metaphor when it comes to antennas. The trouble is, I’ve never seen or read about anyone trying it at the annual June Field Day events. Surely I could not the first person to give this a try?

I took a short drive to a brand-new parking lot overlooking Joseph Lawrence Park in Bordentown NJ. The wind here was blowing toward the west instead of the usual east, which likely was coming from the ocean fifty miles away as remnants of Hurricane Ian.

To my back on the opposite side of the two-lane road was a several acre soybean field, and in front of me was a large grass field that looked like it in the final phases of being prepped to accommodate several new soccer fields. Between the wide-open location and the wind, I don’t think I could have found a more perfect kite-flying location.

As for the setup, my vision was similar to that I experienced as a kid. If I could fly the kite up about 100-feet (30-meters) and then place a mid loop knot in the line and affix one end of an end-fed half-wave (EFHW) antenna cut for the 40-meter band, there should be enough pull on the kite to raise my antenna the 65-feet (20-meters) into the air to begin operating on the 20-meter and 40-meter ham bands.

Getting the kite up in the air was … well … it was a breeze. The kite wanted to fly. But once it climbed to 75 – 100 feet (20 – 30 meters), the slightest drop in wind speed would cause the kite to float back down toward ground until another gust of wind picked up. So for every three minutes of passively holding the kite line, I’d have to actively draw the line taught again to get the kite to climb in the air once more. It was a constant dance of putting tension on the line.

There was a bit of pressure tugging on the line between me and the kite. It was maybe 10 – 15 lbs of force that should have easily lifted a length of 14g – 18g antenna wire into the air. But due to the active work of flying the kite, I never had the opportunity to tie off the line to the car, set up the EFHW antenna, and then actually work the bands.

The streamers on the kite were annoying, tangling around my legs in the grass and in the hatch of the vehicle. I cut them off, and this seemed to later inhibit the kite from getting off the ground. I think I remember hearing or reading as a kid that a kite’s tail is more than aesthetic, but actually contributes to flight. But by this time I had had enough kite-flying fun for the afternoon.

So was this a successful ham radio activation?

No. Being alone and actively flying the kite gave me no time to affix the antenna, tune up, and attempt to make contacts.

Is it plausible to think a toy kite and raise an antenna?

Yes, I think it is plausible if wind speeds are significantly faster, and/or one has a helper to tend to the kite while the other makes contacts.

Is it economical?

A $9 toy kite does make this approach economical if the aim is to get an 80-meter or 40-meter EFHW elevated as high as possible.

Is it worthwhile?

No, not at all. I could have easily parked my car next to some trees and thrown my EFHW antenna up over a limb and begun making contacts in a fraction of the time.

Is it fun?

Yes. Experimentation is always fun. Even if the outcome wasn’t what was imagined or deemed “a success”.

Lessons learned from my first portable ham radio Parks on the Air activation

This past Saturday I pulled off my very first portable high frequency (HF) operation by participating in Parks on the Air (POTA), an amateur radio event that promotes portable operation from national/federal and state/provincial level parks.

It was nearly one o’clock in the afternoon by the time I swallowed down a quick lunch and headed into the basement to hastily pull together some assorted radio and outdoor gear. My plan was to take the fifteen minute drive from home to the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area in Robbinsville, New Jersey and operate my radio gear from there.

Radio gear

  • ICOM 7100 VHF/UHF/HF radio
  • 50-feet (15 meters) of RG8X Coax
  • Bioenno 12v, 20aH LiFePO4 battery
  • Powerwerx DC inline power analyzer
  • BridgeCom Systems 40-meter End Fed Half Wave antenna
  • Baofeng VHF handy-talkie radio

Outdoor gear

  • Jacket
  • Sunscreen and bug spray
  • Can of sparkling water
  • Delta kite
  • Notebook

Upon arrival, I planned to park and set up my equipment at the shotgun and archery ranges as I’ve never seen them in use over the last forty years I’ve driven into the property. Except of course that day, as both ranges were packed with archers and sharp-shooters.

I continued driving past the ranges deeper into the property toward the lake and boat launch, then veered off onto a dirt path that split between two narrow corn fields. Pulling off the path, I parked and connected together my equipment to my brand-new Bioenno battery. My equipment came to life, and this part of the experiment was a success.

Because the cooler temperature made it feel like New Jersey’s first autumn day of 2022, a second experiment of the day was to attempt to to launch a toy delta kite about 150-feet (45 meters) into the air and to attach my end-fed wire antenna to the last 65-feet (20 meters) of kite string. But the wind was uncooperative and wouldn’t lift the kite, so this part of the experiment failed. Having no place nearby to hang my antenna wire, I packed up and moved my vehicle to the lakeside asphalt parking lot of the boat launch area.

I must have proved to be entertaining to watch at the boat launch as I enacted my Plan B by affixing my antenna and paracord to a ratchet strap that served as an impromptu throwing weight. It took four attempts to heave the ratchet 30-feet (10 meters) into the air and over top a tree limb. On the third attempt, I felt my wedding band slip off my finger and heard it bounce and skid across the asphalt to my right. Thankfully I found the wedding band within seconds, and was fortunate it slipped off my finger on my downswing, as my throwing arm was mostly aimed leftward toward the woods where it’s unlikely I would have recovered my band.

After the requisite sigh of relief, I affixed my wedding band to my car key ring and made another throwing attempt, finally positioning my wire antenna over the desired tree limb and pulling it back down to the ground where I tied it off to a tree trunk, forming my antenna into an inverted V shape.

By now I was back at my vehicle when my friend Jeff KD2SCR arrived and set up his own equipment. We each enjoyed two hours of company in the sunshine as Jeff successfully activated on the 40-meter band, and then when he was finished I made my contacts on the 20-meter band. All but one of my contacts were domestic to the United States, with the exception of Italy.

My QSOs from my first portable + Parks on the Air activation on September 24, 2022

I enjoyed operating my equipment portable outside on an autumn afternoon where the dropping sun glistened on the water and the sounds of birds and spinning reels could be heard in the distance. This peaceful experience is a stark contrast to my usual operating position in the basement beside painted cinder block walls and the ever-present hum of a dehumidifier.

I definitely see more portable operation in my future.

YouTube’s ‘Filters’ are quirky, but can still help discover videos that otherwise will never be shown

I rarely watch programming on the family room television, but over the past several years I’ve spent a significant amount of my evening downtime watching short-duration videos on YouTube across a variety of hobby-based interests.

YouTube mobile apps and website offers viewers a prominent search bar where one can enter keywords. The feature works great, until after a period of time you begin to question to yourself, “There’s got to be more than five people on YouTube uploading videos about [baking | fishing | woodworking | etc.] outside of the handful of contributors I already follow.”

Whether YouTube realizes it or not, there is a lot of great content to discover that is created by contributors with less than 250K subscribers. But don’t rely on YouTube to show them without you putting in some extra work. Let me show you how I recently discovered how to find them.

In addition to the prominent search bar, at least at the time of this writing, you’ll find in the site a ‘Filters’ feature, displayed as either a button or command depending on whether you’re using YouTube’s website or phone/tablet application.

Here’s where things get quirky. I’ve experimented and had the best luck discovering new content when applying TYPE = Video (or) Channel, and SORT BY = View count.

I’ve included a few screen captures below to better illustrate.

Selecting TYPE = Video and SORT BY = View count will show the videos with the highest play counts at the top. But these are the videos for which I’m already most familiar, and therefore this offers no significant benefit to me.

However, selecting TYPE = Channel and SORT BY = View count, the channels relevant to the chosen keyword are sorted with the smallest number of followers, and therefore contain the videos we’ve likely never seen.

Give this a try next time you’re exploring YouTube and I hope you get to discover new content on your favorite hobbies submitted by lesser-known contributors.

YouTube search filters shown on a desktop computer web browser.
YouTube search filters shown in the YouTube app on an Android phone.

How a box fan sparked my interest in amateur radio

In 2015 I experienced an interesting phenomena. An inexpensive (dare I say, cheap plastic) box fan randomly behaved like a low-volume, flat-sounding AM radio whenever positioned next to a particular window in my home.

At the time I had already owned my fair share of electronic devices. I was familiar with the FCC part 15 label included with electronics that stated something like: this device must accept interference from, but not interfere with, other electronic sources.

In thirty-something years I never gave that label much thought, that is until the characteristic tone of AM radio emanating from box fan gave me a flashback to age nine, sitting in the orthodontist chair within a converted row-home in Trenton. I can still recall with clarity the bitter taste of impression putty and listening to afternoon call-in programs emanating from a 1950s-era radio positioned next to the window overlooking Quimby Avenue. This was in the late 1980s, by the way, which was in a decade well beyond useful life of the AM band in the opinion of a nine-year-old boy, clearly evidenced by the proliferation of Transformers robots popular of the era.

Back to my box fan. A device with no purpose-built speaker resonating faint audible voices across the room? That got my attention! I suppose it shouldn’t be all that surprising, however, as a speaker and a fan are both devices designed to move air. I chalked this up to cheap electronic components manufactured for pennies on the dollar.

In the two years that followed I often caught myself thinking about science, specifically how we are bombarded with particle waves that carry human-embedded signals. I thought about and researched questions like, “What kind of radio waves are surrounding me? How does SiriusXM prevent me from listening to music when my vehicle’s one-year trial membership expired? And how are radio signals encoded and decoded?” This of course led to the ultimate techie question: “How can I build my own radio receiver?”

Via the power of Amazon Kindle, Internet blogs, and YouTube, I inadvertently learned about the amateur radio community and neat homebrew projects like building antennas, receivers, and digital and long-range communication. My journey in amateur radio happened to start by reading Amateur Radio for Dummies by Ward Silver.

What began as casual research has morphed into a hobby.

Feeling nostalgic for ’90s computer games? Play them for free in a web browser

I lost interest playing most console and computer games in the late nineties. Although there are some exceptions that I will explain another time, the high-level reasons are:

  • I never adapted well to using four additional remote controller buttons introduced on the Super Nintendo in 1991
  • Learning how to program computers began to spoil the enjoyment of playing games
  • New PC games seemed to use practically every key on the full-size keyboard, requiring a steeper time commitment and learning curve

In the nineties there were many enjoyable PC games available that used only a few keys on the keyboard to move, jump, and shoot.

A few years ago I discovered that many of these games are available to play for free, online in a web browser, at the Internet Archive website.

Internet Archive is a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, and websites.

https://archive.org/details/softwarelibrary_msdos_games?tab=collection

The Internet Archive website makes these games playable to visitors using an in-browser emulator named EM-DOSBOX. Once on the site, use the left-hand navigation menu to further refine the filter criteria.

Learn basic coding and electronics using Adventure Kit: 30 Days Lost in Space

Six months ago I first began seeing advertisements on social media for Adventure Kit: 30 Days Lost in Space (InventrKits LLC). I was instantly intrigued by the cleverness of the kit and ingenuity of the young men who created it. To show my support and satisfy my curiosity, I ordered one.

The kit is reminiscent of the Radio Shack electronic project lab I once received from Santa Claus as a child. In retrospect, I believe I was probably a few years too young to grasp the enjoyment of the project lab. It sat unused for many years until being tossed out during my college years when my family moved to a new home.

Adventure Kit: 30 Days Lost in Space is a small box of basic electronic components, an Arduino Hero board, and online access to 30 video tutorial lessons (20-30 minute running time each) on basic programming and electronic components.

What I found most clever is how the team at InventrKits LLC crafted a video tutorial series based upon a science fiction scenario that finds our spaceship stranded beneath an ocean of a distant planet. Through the 30 video tutorials, we’re taught how to repair our spaceship by controlling basic electronic components like switches and light emitting diodes (LEDs).

I don’t want to spoil the entire story line, but for example, Day #2’s lesson finds us learning how to restore power to our ship’s lighting system (by controlling the power to a LED).

Once the kit is in-hand, all that remains is to download the free, open-source Arduino integrated development environment (IDE) to a PC, MAC, or LINUX computer. This is the software application where the Arduino firmware code is written, and then pushed from the computer across the included USB cable to the Arduino board.

The kit is proving to be great fun. If you are considering this for a young person, I recommend it is suitable for people age 11 years and up.

The Arduino Integrated Development Environment (IDE) is the software used to write code that controls the Arduino board once uploaded to the hardware using a USB cable. Day #3 finds us controlling the LED via a dip switch.
Arduino Hero board and an electronic prototype bread board mounted to a small piece of pine wood (not included) to help keep the pieces more steady on a work surface.

Watch amateur (ham) radio operator make his first two satellite contacts using the ISS passing overhead

I was excited to assist and record amateur (ham) radio operator KD2SCR (Jeff) make his first two satellite contacts relayed using the International Space Station (ISS) as it passed overhead on February 12, 2022.

In 60 seconds, watch and listen as KD2SCR (Jeff) makes his first two satellite contacts using the International Space Station as a relay repeater.

In the video, Jeff sits in my New Jersey home’s basement while talking on a radio that is connected to a Yagi antenna in my backyard that is aimed in the northwest direction.

As Jeff transmits, his signal is received by a relay repeater radio aboard the ISS that is traveling eastwards at 17,400mph. Jeff`s signal is received and re-transmitted on a different frequency back to Earth where it is heard by other amateur radio operators.

Explanation of the short exchanges

First, you`ll hear N3NJ (Mark) respond to Jeff stating his Maidenhead Grid Square FN20 (foxtrot november 2 0). This grid square covers eastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey. Mark was located in Pennsylvania at the time of contact as noted by his grid square.

A second amateur operator, KD4QNA (Pete) then calls to Jeff stating his grid square FM17 (foxtrot mike 1 7). Pete was located in eastern Virginia.

An amateur radio operator has approximately ten minutes of direct “line of sight” to the ISS before its path of travel puts it out of range due to the curvature of the Earth.

Amateur operators intentionally keep exchanges brief to give others the opportunity to make contacts in the short ten minute time window.

The featured image shown in this article is a screen capture from NASA’s Live Space Station Tracking Map that displays where the station is located at any time above Earth. The tracker shows current position and its path 90 minutes ago (-1.5 hr) and 90 minutes ahead (+1.5 hr).

Ubuntu 22.04 included Software Centre is too amateurish for this modern OS

Canonical’s Ubuntu 22.04 desktop operating system is a polished open source PC operating system that for the last two years has replaced Microsoft Windows in my home. And frankly, that’s a wonderful feeling.

I agree with Canonical in its advertisement that Ubuntu is:

  • Complete because includes essential applications like a browser, email, photo and video media applications, and office suite
  • Secure due to security-by-design and included firewall, as well as five years of included security updates
  • Visually Stunning with a shallow and robust settings menu offering a simple, intuitive way to browse and make changes

Where this package falls flat for me is in the included Software Centre application. This application is too amateurish to be included in this modern operating system.

Software Centre, Software Center, or Ubuntu Software?

Across the operating system and when compared to Canonical’s own website, there are discrepancies whether this application is formally named the Software Center (EN-US), Software Centre (EN-UK), or Ubuntu Software (application ABOUT window). Pick a standard and stick with it, please.

An advertisement?

When the application opens, what is shown to the user front and center? A banner advertisement, of course! Advertisements in Ubuntu feel out of place. But don’t be too discouraged as this is not typical of the overall Ubuntu experience.

Non-descriptive tiles

The next three images display tiles, tiles, tiles, tiles, tiles, tiles. There’s no shortage of non-descriptive tiles.

And this is largely my problem. I don’t shop for applications simply looking at icons and quirky application names like postman, Hopsan, and functy. You’re making me work too hard. I can’t click forever browsing for applications like this. Please just show me a sentence or two description of each application.

Software Centre opens to reveal a front-and-center banner advertisement, followed by the Editor’s Picks of favorite icons. It’s up to you to click the icon to discover what purpose kdenlive serves if you’re not already familiar with the application’s name.
Drilling into a category (like Science) reveals pages and pages of tiles that offer little more than cute icons and quirky names.
Drilling into a category (like Finance) reveals pages and pages of tiles that offer little more than cute icons and quirky names.

Mediocre application descriptions

I suspect I can’t blame a mediocre application description on Ubuntu, but instead the application developer.

While in the Finance group, I decided to drill down into a green leaf. Because of course, green leaves and Finance go hand-in-hand in most users’ minds.

This particular application is called nervatura. It’s Open Source Business Management Framework. Ahh, I see. Okay, let’s read more.

Nervatura is a business management framework. It can handle any type of business related information, starting from customer details, up to shipping, stock or payment information.

Phew, that’s good. Because I have business related information that I need handled.

Through no fault of Ubuntu, some application descriptions are written poorly by the developers.

In summary

Kill the tiles, and add a sentence or two description of each application.

The 6-year inspiration that drove the creation of Series-V: A game of space of space exploration

I’m out of the professional coding world for over fifteen years, but it hasn’t stopped me from creating a multi-player online game inspired by 80s/90s computer bulletin board systems (BBSs) in the spirit of TradeWars 2002 and Legend of the Red Dragon.

To try the game yourself, visit https://series-v.com. Or, watch the short narrated demo walk-through below.

Watch a short demo of Series V: A game of space exploration

I still remember the specs of my first brand-new PC in the fall of 1993 that cost me $3,000: an Intel 486DX2 processor with 8MB RAM, 340MB hard drive, SoundBlaster Pro sound card, and a USRobotics 14.4K modem. With that PC came the joy of exploring local dial-up BBS systems, namely the Trenton NJ area It’s All Rock ‘N Roll and the text-based multi-player games the SysOp offered his members.

During the winter of 2016-17 I felt nostalgic for the bygone era of personal computing. To kill some time in the evenings I installed a DOS emulator on a second-hand netbook and loaded a copy of the WWIV BBS system to see if I could get it to run: and it did. While I knew there was no merit to keeping that setup, I turned my attention to creating a multi-player, text-based space exploration game playable in the browser on desktop, laptop, and tablet devices.

Initially, I had little expectations that I would fully finish the project, but I saw the challenge behind building a proof of concept. As a bonus, I would learn PHP and MySQL to experience new-to-me technologies.

Because the game is text-based, players are encouraged to use pencil and paper to draft maps and to note the location of objects and obstacles.

The objective is to win the game by having the highest score among all players when time expires. Players earn points by exploring space and mining asteroids, but should be cautioned that points are also deducted for mischief.

Designed with casual gamers in mind, the short-duration “pop up” nature will allow me to activate the game during long holiday weekends. I can then focus on building out minor enhancements and features as time permits throughout the year. Because the universe is reconfigured at the start of each game, it encourages players to skip rounds and jump back in at a later date to explore a newly-configured universe with different players and objectives.

Frequency Recorder/Graph by KD2OTG

History

When I earned my first amateur radio license in autumn of 2017 and purchased a hand-held transceiver, I wanted to know what frequencies, modes, repeaters, and times-of-day that were popular with other amateur operators near me. To accomplish this, I created a heatmap – a grid on a sheet of paper showing hours of the day down the left-hand column, and various modes and frequencies across the top of the page. Over the period of several weeks I listened to my transceiver and placed checkmarks in the grid whenever I heard activity. After some time and effort, I had a visual heatmap representation of the popularity of amateur radio in my area.

It is now two and a half years later and I continue to enjoy the amateur radio hobby, therefore I decided to take this concept to the next level by creating a software application that can run unattended while I am at work or asleep.
I have successfully used the application for:

  • Determining popularity of local 2-meter and 70-cm analog and digital repeaters
  • Determining popularity of 2-meter SSB by monitoring 144.200 MHz
  • Monitoring the International Space Station for unscheduled 2-meter FM voice transmissions on 145.800 MHz
  • Monitoring popularity of the 40-meter AM calling frequency on 7.290 MHz
  • Monitoring VHF air band frequencies, amateur simplex frequencies, and rail/public transmissions

Download and Use for Free

Visit https://mattrobb.net/frg/