K6TU WetWare Neural Processor for FlexRadio 6700

Wow!  Wicked!

I'm not usually at a loss for words (as those who know me will quickly attest!) but I am blown away with my experience using my Flex6700 in the ARRL Phone Sweepstakes this past weekend.

I was cooking along - rate was great, I was well ahead of my previous best performance in the contest when PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric - our local power utility company) struck...  the noise floor on 10m jumped to about S4 with the familiar growl of power line noise.  Not a surprise...  we're just into the start of our "wet season" here in Northern California and arcing/leaking insulators are an annual pre-Thanksgiving visitor at my QTH.

Damn. 

The noise was strong enough to make copying many of the weaker callers much harder.  A real rate killer at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon in Sweepstakes.

SOP (Standard Operating Practice) - change bands - down to 15m I went. Oh... bother!  Same noise, about the same signal strength...  No, I am not going to fight for a run frequency on 20m or put up with the lower rate of S&P on that band.

Wait a minute!  A couple of weeks ago I finally installed the Inlogis PixelLoop that I had purchased at Visalia and which had kept my car company in the garage ever since...  I had purchased the PixelLoop as a receive antenna for the low bands - primarily to help on 160m.  The PixelLoop is good at rejecting local noise sources... wonder how it works on 10m?

A quick selection of the RX-B antenna port for the receive antenna and bingo!  Not bad considering I haven't finished the remote control rotor system to change the (currently fixed 70 degree) azimuth of the loop.

Wait another minute!  What if I run the SteppIR DB18E (the transmit antenna of course) and the PixelLoop in diversity mode on the 6700?  Hmmm.... past experiences with the Flex5000RX2 in diversity were pretty mixed and I'd eventually passed on that experiment even though it was one of the reasons I'd purchased the second RX in the 5000.  All my reading on diversity had suggested that two similar antennas were needed with physical separation... can't get much more "dis-similar" than a loop and a yagi!

[ADDED CLARIFICATION]  Several folks asked my about the Flex5000 results I mentioned above... to be clear, when I did those first experiments with my 5000RX2 it was with two closely spaced and medicore antennas.  The two receivers in the 5000 are phase synchronous - just like the two SCUs in the 6700 - with well separated and similar antennas I would expect similar results from the 5000RX2 as I get on the 6700.  [\ADDED CLARIFICATION]

I punched up diversity mode, set the second slice to use the RX-B input (and therefore the second SCU in the 6700) with the primary slice using ANT1 and the DB18E.

Like many people, I have "bucket" hearing loss in one ear - in my case, likely environmental exposure to too many shotgun blasts when I shot skeet competitively (20K targets in a typical year)... so the default configuration in DIV mode putting one slice full on the left channel and the other full on the right didn't feel quite right especially with the gain differences between the two antennas...  The adjustment didn't take long - equal left/right allocation for the primary antenna, loop full on the right and a slight audio level adjustment to compensate for the bucket hearing in my right ear.

OMG! Wow!  Wicked!  (and my pet peeve despite my British origin) Brilliant!

I had just discovered a way of plugging my brain into two antennas.  Direct high speed bus connection to a neural processor with millions of years of development!  The K6TU WetWare Neural Processor was now directly bus connected to the radio.

In my installation, there is about 600 feet separation between the loop and the DB18E on my tower.  I'm lucky (very lucky!) to have the space and also the distance it provides from my neighbors (most of whom I like ;-) to space out the antennas.

On 10m, this equates to around 20 wavelengths while on 160m, I have about 4 wavelengths between the vertical and the loop.  This gives good spatial separation between the two antennas which helps with selective fading, shifting paths in the ionosphere and different angles of arrival from geographically separated stations.

Its really hard to describe the result and in the heat of the contest, I wasn't about to reach for the audio recorder to grab samples.

Our brain has an amazing audio processor as part of its configuration - some folks are really good at not turning it on (they are the one's who don't listen very well)... but the rest of us have a lifetime of experience in leveraging its controls.

Single signal experience

Strong or weak, using the two antennas in diversity mode sounded like the station was bouncing around inside my head!  When one channel would fade, the other would typically get stronger with the sensation that the station was walking around in front of me.  It made it much (and I mean MUCH) easier to pull out the weaker stations especially with the power line noise issue.

Pile up experience

This was freaky!  In a typical pile up with multiple callers, often the best technique is to get a fragment of a call and focus - "Whiskey Nine - again?" - instead, it was like the calling stations were all around the room - spread out spatially inside my head.  Rather than pulling out a fragment of a callsign, I'd find I could clearly hear a full callsign and go right back to one of the callers.

 

Maximizing score in a contest is about time management...  writing my post on the 2014 Sweepstakes yesterday showed this in spades.  Taking breaks, efficiency in sending and receiveing the contest exchange all contribute minutes per break or seconds per contact.  In the course of 24 hours and 1000+ Q's, seconds turn into HOURS.  My average rate in the Phone Sweepstakes was around 65 Q's/hour - my best hour was over 100 Q's...  gaining another couple of effective HOURS translates in several hundred more Q's.

I ran the entire rest of the contest in diversity mode - my rate was significantly improved, my motivation was higher and the fun factor was off the charts.

I think this is my new closing tag line...

If you aren't using a Flex 6000 6700 radio, you aren't using the best tool for the job.

Period!

 

K6TU - ARRL Sweepstakes 2014

There are certain contests I enter each year - ARRL Sweepstakes is one such contest despite its long exhange and the Sunday afternoon doldurms that result from a combination of being able to work a station only once and NFL football!

Each year I set out to do better - for me, this means attempting to beat my personal best in the contest and generate a better score.  Usually I sit down in early October and attempt to think about what went well the previous year and what I thought I could do better.  Time clouds the memory and I wonder what I forgot - Sweepstakes started as "taking one for the team" for me especially the CW event (more on that below) but I'm beginning to see the finer parts of strategy and preparation required for the event.

Rather than cast my mind back 11 months, I figured I'd document my experiences in Sweepstakes and other contests as I go through the year.  This way, I can capture things while they are fresh in my mind.

CW Weekend

Like any triathlete, I have a weaker event that detracts from my overall performance. For me, I love Phone and RTTY but struggle with CW.  My original license in the UK was a VHF only class B license back in 1973 - no code required.  It was only when I immigrated/emigrated to California that I had to learn CW.  

Time pressures being what they were at the time, I didn't take CW classes or ask for much mentoring (a bad mistake) so learned CW the wrong way - its not about dots and dashes - its about pattern recognition.  I got my US Techncian license by passing the 5 WPM requirement and then started working on the 13 WPM required for the General.  I squeeked past the 13 WPM test on the first shot and then put CW on the back shelf - the prospect of 20 WPM required for the Extra was like Mt Everest - nice to look at but a killer to climb.  I emerged from that test session as an Advanced licnese holder - even though I hadn't prepared for the Advanced written test.  Enough basic theory and regulations stuck in my head that I passed that Element the same day.

I upgraded to Extra when the FCC reduced the CW requirement to 13 WPM and thought I was done.

My fellow contesters here in California encouraged me to support the local club in CW events.  Truth be told, that club is full of excellent CW operators who really dislike Phone contesting.  So I brushed up my CW and jumped into the deepend aided with the excellent multi-channel CW reader built into Writelog - I survived, I wasn't a great CW op but I could generate a decent number of contacts plugging away at 20 WPM or so - barely entry stakes for serious CW contesting.

I'd stuck with Writelog for a long time - its a great logger and well worth the $30 yearly subscription.  I'd tried N1MM but really hadn't liked it and had difficulties getting its voice keyer working with PowerSDR that ran my Flex5000 based station.  Writelog just worked out of the box and so I'd stuck with it.

Then came N1MM+... after operating W1AW/6 for a couple of sessions during the ARRL Centential using it as a logger, I was impressed.  The work flow just seemed more natural and I especially liked some of the additional tools that had been added.

One problem - N1MM+ doesn't have a built in code reader - instead it supports either fldigi or CWGet.  I tired both but they are not as polished as the multi-channel reader in Writelog.

As a result, my CW score this year was down over last year - fewer contacts.  I have since resolved to dispose of the CW reader as a crutch and am trying to spend 30-45 minutes a day using Morse Runner from VE3NEA with the speed set to at least 30 WPM...

Although yet to be proven out, my CW score last year suffered from a number of errors which I think resulted from using a pre-fill file.  Some see pre-fill files as evil (I'm not wasting time on any debate) and deliberatly change things like their Check exchange from year to year.  Looking at my Log Checking Result from 2013, it was clear I'd got dinged for errors in the exchange - usually a single field.  This led me to suspect that I "heard" what I saw from the pre-fill rather than what I really heard.

This year, I threw the pre-fill file under the bus...  down one crutch and now determined to get rid of the other...

My result for 2014 CW was:

Station worked great, my score was limited by my CW skills, not propagation, strategy or anything resembling a good excuse :-)

 

Phone Weekend 

Different story by a long shot.  I had been very pleased with my score last year in the Phone event:

  • Checked score 191,730
  • Raw QSO's 1184
  • Final QSO's 1155
  • Error rate (score adjustment) - 1.7%
  • Operated 22:50 minutes BUT lots of short breaks
  • Sunday afternoon doldrums was dreadful and a real demotivator...

Source of errors?  

  • Pre-fill file likely bit me a couple of times
  • Busted callsigns

So how to do better?

Maximize Butt-in-Chair time

  • Take fewer breaks by preparing light snacks and stocking the operating position with plently of water
  • Operating posture - keep back straight, feet on floor, look down at the logger entry window to minimize fatigue.
  • Keep ergonomic breaks shorter and aim for a full 24 hours in the chair.

Pay attention to sources or errors

  • Eliminate the pre-fill file, log what you hear and ask for repeats where there is doubt due to QRM etc.
  • Use SuperCheckPartial (heck, I am it's maintainer!) and doubly check any callsign not in the database.
  • Watch fat-fingering effects on the keyboard
  • Ask for repeats or verify the information received if I have any doubts at all about its accuracy.

Increase number of QSO's

  • ARRL stats over the years show that there is always more activity on Saturday than Sunday - so maximize the amount of operating time on Saturday and sleep later on Sunday morning.  Reivew of the 2013 logs show that early morning Sunday activity level was weak before about an hour before dawn on the West Coast.  So I planned to operate until at least midnight on Saturday night or later as long as the rate supported it.
  • Set a rate target and when the rate falls, do something different!  Consider changing band, change from Running to Search & Pounce
  • After looking at the propagation predictions from K6TU.NET, it was clear that from the West Coast, hitting the population centers was a high band job.  Time spent on 80m should focus on getting close in sections but there was no margin in spending time trying to work weak stations.  Also, 20m is always crowded and difficult to find a run frequency so the money bands would be 40, 15 and Old Sol permitting, 10m.
  • Remember that most multipliers will come to you - use spot assistance and run Unlimited to take advantage of nailing a full sweep early on in the contest.  Then just go for rate.
  • Embrace the Sunday doldrums and accept the rate will be lower.  Use spotting, band changes and just keep tuning across the bands for S&P.  
  • In S&P, tune high to low.  Most people seem to tune the other way and its not infrequent to find that you are following the same guy doing the same thing you are!
  • In S&P, if you can't get the station in two calls, mark him on the logger bandmap and move on - come back to him later.
  • Spend the time to learn the logger functions ahead of time - RTFM and learn what can help.
  • Minimize the words used in the exchange...  avoid "Please copy", don't spell out my callsign in the Sweepstakes exchange phonetically unless the other guy is weak and I want to make doubly sure he had my call correctly.  As Dragnet's Sgt. Joe Friday said... "The facts ma'am - just the facts".

These were my thoughts going in...

I finished last night with the following:

  • Claimed score 225,096 points
  • 1356 QSO's
  • Clean Sweep!
  • 23:15 hours of operating
  • Much better time utilization with smaller breaks

BUT...

There is still plenty of optimization to be done in break time.  I took fewer and smaller breaks as the attenton to ergonomics paid off.  I had no neck or back pain during or after the contest.  More comfort during the contest.

Rather than taking a break to cook dinner, prepare dinner ahead of time and maybe even eat while operating.  This was a Homer moment... doh!

I operated non-stop except for a dinner break from the opening bell until 12:30 Sunday morning by which time the rate was beginning to drop off.  I went off to sleep about 150 Q's more in the log than last year and needing only NL as the remaining multiplier for a sweep.

Band breakdwon shows that I executed on the strategy I laid out band wise:

Band      QSOs      Pts      Sec

80m       41        82       1

40m      471       942      14

20m       94       188       1

15m      433       866      67

10m      317       634       0

I started operating on 15m and had excellent rate - 90+ Q/Hour for the first three hours and well into the fourth.  It was only after 4 hours of non-stop operation - all Running CQ.  Then I dropped down to 20m for about an hour then took 30 minute to eat dinner about 630pm PST.  I started up after dinner on 40m.  I was late getting to 40m and as a result struggled to find a run frequency - I had to suffer S&P for a couple of hours.  The rate wasn't bad but could have been better.  

Around 9pm I dropped down to 80m but activity was meager here in California so eventually went back to 40m - found a run frequency and just kept running CQ alternated with some S&P whenever the rate fell below my minimum target of 50 Q's per 10 minute rate.  I went off to sleep with about 150 more Q's in the log than last year and needing only NL as my last multiplier for the Clean Sweep.  I had chased only one other multiplier - VI (Virgin Islands) as I saw one spotted and never had one call me.  I made very certain he was in the log and that I was in his!

N1MM+ has a great tool for rate information that I used - it shows the current rolling 10 minute rate plus bars for the last 100 minutes, the previous and current hours.

N1mminfo

I had this in front of me the whole contest and as the 10 minute bar sank below 60, it was my kick in the butt to do something about it!  Writelog has a similar set of rate counters but they are text based and updated on time periods that vary.  This graphic was great as a motivational tool!

Sunday morning I got up and was back on the air by 6am.  I started out on 20m and the first conttact was with my last needed multiplier - NL on 20m.  There was a pile up (of course) and I was having to contend with all the East Coast folks calling him.  Took a few minutes but I nailed it!

Then I found a run frequency on 20m - not so hard early in the morning and then ran until about 730am PST when I grabbed another cup of coffee and then moved to 15m.  After an hour on 15m, I moved to 10m and started running CQ.  The rate held up really well until about 2pm - then started to drop off.  Between 2 and 5pm, I alternated between running CQ's on 15 and 10, coupled with S&P across both those bands and 20m.  It was pointeless trying to find a run freuqency on 20m - the panafall on SmartSDR showed overlapping stations from 14.150 to the top of the band.

At 5pm, I dropped down to 40m an started looking for a run frequency - hard going but eventually parked myself just down from 7.300 and held the frequency until the closing bell.  The last 90 minutes were a lot of fun - the rate picked up dramatically and I had lots of pileups!

Lessons learnt

Early in the afternoon on Sunday I started suffering from power line noise that was on both 15 and 10.  Not very strong but enough to make reception of the weaker stations a challenge and really slowed things down.

Some weeks ago I had installed a Pixel Loop shielded loop antenna - the primary reason for the purchase was as a low band RX antenna.  However, it worked well even on 10m.  In the end, I wound up using the Pixel Loop in diversity with the SteppIR DB18E (primary antenna) - this warrants a separate post as the experience was amazing.  Enough to say here that the diversity helped deal with the noise problem, really helped with weaker callers and helped pick out a full callsign from a pileup in a way that was almost ESP!

I do need to now spend the time to re-program the band segments on my Alpha 9500 for 80m.  There were a couple of segments where the antenna selection jumped to my 160m vertical rather than staying on the 80m broadband dipole.  This is a hang over from past programming and something I'd forgotten to deal with.  Now its on the to-do list.

Not all DX clusters are right for getting the best spots.  My local cluster I've used for a long time was having some reliabily challenges over the weekend so I wound up using VE7CC's own cluster.  The quantity and quality of the spots was much improved!  It really helped make great use of the N1MM+ bandmap and the skip to spot keys.

On interesting thing about spots... when I was spotted, I could instantly see the rate go up.  Even more intersting with a lot of stations signing precedence of A and B that aren't supposed to be assisted. Coincidence?  I don't think so - a couple of my fellow PL259 members saw the same thing even when one of them was spotted 200 HZ off...  guess where the caller was zero beat?  I'm beginning to believe that the solution is to eliminate unassisted - policing this adequately is impractical.  Perhaps the ones abusing assistance are the one's that object to the elimination of "un" assisted?  Food for thought!

The Flex 6700 and the Alpha 9500 operated flawlessly - full legal limit, many reports of great audio and the gratifying - "Wow! you are loud!".

I really like N1MM+ and I think I'm a convert from Writelog - nothing to do with free, I think the $30 for Writelog per year is very reasonable.  But N1MM+ has benefited from all the learning lessons with N1MM and I think Tom (Mr N1MM) and his team have done a good job getting a stable logger out so early in its field exposure.  Kudos to them - this isn't easy.  The UI looks a little funky in places, some of the features need polishing but overall, a joy to use.

Yes I'm biased, but the Flex 6700 is amazing.  The receiver is excellent with much lower fatigue factor than any other radio I've used.  The ability to handle a 20 over signal one call and then an S4 the next while dealing with congested bands is without par.  

If you aren't using a Flex 6000 radio, you aren't using the best tool for the job.

Period!

Summary

  • Still room for improvement in time management.  Really focus next year on keeping the butt in the chair.
  • I need a second transmit antenna for 20, 15 and 10.  Then learn how to run SO2V (which is already supported in one radio using the 6700 and N1MM+.  Being able to multiplex attention across two bands at once would really help during the Sunday doldrums.
  • Personal best in the Phone event!  Really a great experience!
  • Having a gain antenna on 40m gives a west coast station a competitive advantage.  It doesn't offset the population density benefit the East Coast folks gain on 80m but its a great start.
  • Diversity looks very promising - need to make this a standard operating practice.
  • Move down to 40 earlier to get a run frequency established and then dont move!

 

 

 

Why "Unlimited" is boring...

con·test

noun \ˈkän-ˌtest\

: an event in which people try to win by doing something better than others

: a struggle or effort to win or get something

Love it or hate it, ARRL Sweepstakes (SS) is less than a month away...  For serious Contest Clubs, SS is a "must" event as it is one of the ARRL Affiliated Club Gavel contests.

The rules of the Club Gavel Competition provide for three different categories that clubs may enter:

  • Local (10 entries or less, 35 mile diameter club territory)
  • Medium (50 entries or less, 175 mile diameter club territory)
  • Unlimited (> 50 entries, 175 mile diameter club territory)

For SS, an entry is defined as a log submitted for EITHER the CW weekend OR the PHONE weekend.  That's right... if you operate in BOTH weekends and submit your logs from both events, you have made TWO entries.

If you are a small or medium category club (and you don't have exactly 5 or 25 members!) there is a serious element of skill and commitment to be applied if you want to win.  It's in the club's best interest to pick the members who have the best skills and can make an all out effort in EACH event.

In other words, pick those members who have the best CW skills for the CW event and have the commitment to make an all out effort.  THEN, do the same for the PHONE event. 

But, if you are a large club and you want to enter the Unlimited category, you need to have lots of people show up.  It's not about skill or commitment, the Unlimited category Gavel's are like Pony Club participation ribbons - you get one for showing up and taking part.

For sure, all out commitments by great operators from well equipped stations help, but the real stars of the Unlimited category competition are all the little pistols who get on, make whatever contacts they can and then remember to submit their log!

No skill, no commitment - just show up and then send in your log.

Ironically, the really big contest clubs see this as a serious mano a mano contest and encourage their members to participate.  Some even go as far as offering special awards (plaques, coffee mugs...) for acheving a specific number of QSO's - often as few as 100 to 200.  Other's offer a tee-shirt or a baseball cap for their logs.  Since the Gavel rules require a member to "be in good standing", the larger contest clubs generally don't require annual membership dues so that doesn't deter folks from sending in their logs.

In the end, if you want to win the Unlimited Category Gavel, its all a matter of size...

The club with the most members who show up and submit their logs, wins.

BORING!

At least for me as a competitive contester, the real thrill of SS lies in the Local and Medium categories.

SKILL & COMMITMENT - that's what drives me as a contester and provides the challenge, motivation and fun to try to do better!

 

10 GHz roving - Rover Buddy 1.1

One of the things on my Ham Radio bucket list was to get on 10 GHz.  Microwave operation is very different from HF or even VHF - and at least on 10 GHz, a lot more interesting than just "line of sight".

In the course of the last few months, I built myself a rover station for 10 GHz.  "Rover" means that I can fit the entire station into the back of my SUV and drive around (roving) different sites making contacts in the the microwave contests.  I'll document the process I went through in some future blog posts - it was much easier than I expected and doesn't require a room full of test equipment.  Here's a picture of me and the station after making my first 10 GHz contact.

Photo[1]

Operating on 10 GHz requires the ability to point the antenna with reasonable accuracy as the antenna beamwidth is quite narrow.  My 2 foot dish as an example has ~ 34 dBi of gain and a 3 dB beamwidth of 3 degrees - put another way,  1.5 degrees either side of peak!

All antenna headings are measured as TRUE bearings, not MAGNETIC - particularly if you calculate the bearing from a pair of Maidenhead locators (yours and the other guy's).  Like everything else, there is an "App" for that - plug in the other guy's grid, your's is calculated from the GPS in the phone and up comes the bearing.  The compass in my iPhone is also accurate enough to get me within a degree or so of the correct heading but does require some fiddling around with calibration and matching the heading of the antenna to the phone.

My "ah-ha" moment came from watching this video of Goran AD6IW making an 80 GHz world-record contact (289.5 Km).

 

If you watch closely, you will see a small box at the end of a tube sitting above the dish - curious minds were rewarded with an explanation - its a combined magnetometer and accelerometer to provide heading and a digital level.

With this inspiration, I set out to build Rover Buddy (tm) - a small Arduino based system with an OLED display (great in strong sunlight) to provide sensor data for my rover station.

2014-08-05 16.21.10

Arduino open source hardware and software made this project very easy.  With an Arduino Uno, OLED display and combined magnetometer/accelerometer sensor from AdaFruit the project was off to a flying start.  All the heavy lifting software wise was done by the libraries available either from Adafruit or from Arduino.cc.  The libraries provide the code (already debuuged of course) to drive the display and the sensor.

I added a couple of switches for menu selection/navigation plus a reference voltage for the analog/digital converter in the Arduino on a prototyping shield plugged into the Uno.  This also provides a convenient place to attach the wires for the sensor (twisted pair for the I2C bus) and the display.

The sensor is mounted on a small board in the Aluminum box - since Aluminum has the same permeability as air (1), the metal has no impact on the sensor readings.  Nylon screws secure the board and the lid of the box.

Rover Buddy gives me heading (adjusted for magnetic declination), pitch and roll so I can level the tripod holding the station and RF power output from the 10 watt amplifier feeding the dish.  The amplifier has a diode RF power sensor on its output - the voltage from the detector (roughly 0 to 2.5v) is fed to one of the ADC pins on the Arduino via a phono socket on the case.  A look up table converts and scales the voltage to a power reading on the display. 

I'm not too thrilled with the case (also from Adafruit) so post the first weekend of the 10 GHz contest, I'll likely re-box everything but otherwise everything works great.

My final step is to secure the sensor to my rover station and then I'm done!

SmartSDR & FlexRadio 6X00 - Retraining the operator

FlexRadio Systems truly hit a home run with the 6000 series radios and SmartSDR.  Over the last year I've made close to 10,000 QSOs in contesting, DXing and general operating, spend hundreds of hours listening to the bands and integrating the radio into my station.

Count me as a very satisifed Flex-6700 owner!

But even with the experience of the last year, I have only scratched the surface of putting the full capabilities of the radio to work.  Utilizing the full capabilities of SmartSDR and the Flex-6000 series requires RETRAINING THE OPERATOR.  

The last week has seen some excellent conditions on 6m - the band has been open from California to stations across the US and into Asia with Japan and Taiwan appearing on the DXclusters.

So yesterday when I got home from the office, still needing to respond to the email backlog from my vacaction, I fired up SmartSDR and started monitoring 6m from my QTH in Woodside, California.

With a single panadaptor displayed by SmartSDR, I was watching 6m from about 50.025 MHz up to around 50.175 MHz allowing me to monitor the beacon, CW and Phone sections of the band.  Returning to my email, I tuned the  slice from time to time with the FlexControl as I saw stations appear on the band.

I also had SpotCollector running (the spot analyzer incorporated in DXLab) and began to see a number of new spots show up on JT65, much higher up in the band at 50.276 Mhz.  JT65 seemed like a perfect way of monitoring activity while I plowed through email.  Easily done - retune the radio, fire up WSJT and keep a eye open on both spots and WSJT.

About 30 minutes later I saw a JA station spotted by a station in the far north of California.  Email was promptly disregarded as I reached for my headset.  I started to reach for the mouse to retune the radio when a thought struck me...

There's plenty of JT65 activity and I'm going to lose my monitoring capability if I retune the "radio" to chase the JA.  But wait! I don't need to retune the "radio"!

Instead, I used the mouse to pull up a new panadaptor, create a slice and click on the spot - only to find slice A instantly retuned away from the JT65 frequency.  Doh!  SpotCollector and DXLab aren't FlexRadio 6000 aware and so retuned "VFO A" just as I'd instructed.

I quickly retuned slice A to 50.276 MHz,  manually tuned slice B to the reported frequency of the JA spot and set the mode to CW.  I muted slice A  (still sending audio as data via DAX to WSJT) and turned my attention to slice B.  I couldn't hear the JA - I could hear stations working him from a couple of hundred miles away - spotlight propagation (not uncommon on 6m).

With the headset on and monitoring the JA's frequency, I returned to email.  My hope was that propagation might begin to drop further south and west as the solar terminator approached.

A few emails later, I saw some SSB signals on the panadaptor and wondered whether these signals might be from Asia.  I reached for the FlexControl to tune the slice away from the JA, only to realize again, I don't need to retune the "radio"!

A couple of mouse clicks brought up a third slice, selected SSB mode, made the newly created slice C active and adjust the audio pan controls so that I could listen to one slice on each ear.

My 6m Radio

Now I was set!  I never heard the JA but I realized I was beginning to re-train myself to think about the Flex-6000 not as a "radio" but as the server it is!

I could never have begun to do all this with a conventional radio!

We have great hardware (the Flex-6000 series radios), great software (SmartSDR), but getting the best out of the radio requires upgrading and retraining the wetware - a.k.a. THE OPERATOR.

And this is just the beginning...

 

Contest Club California Peninsula - CCCP

About 6 months ago, a group of avid contesters here in the San Francisco Bay Area decided to form a new Contest Club.  Although the SF Bay Area is part of the territory of the Northern Californa Contest Club (NCCC - a 40+ year old venerable institution), we wanted something different:

  • Smaller
  • Competitive
  • Contest focused
  • Motivated members

We decided to form the club as an ARRL Affiliated Club in the Local category and participate in the ARRL Affiliated Club contests as well as other club focused contests like the California QSO Party.  The ARRL local club category allows 10 entries from club members and all members must live with a 35 mile radius circle on some geographic point.

We chose the center of the circle to be 0.5 miles of the end of runway 13L at Moffat Federal Field - a former Naval Air Station here in the Bay Area now operated by NASA for research purposes.

We gave our first all out effort in the ARRL 2013 November Sweepstakes - what a blast!  All our members took part with no flogging required!  Everyone was motivated and kept their Butt-in-the-Chair because we all realized that our score was going to make a meaningful impact on the team result.

Here's our logo...

Formal CCCP Logo - Hi-Res

 

We decided (a little tongue in cheek to be true!) to call the club Contest Club California Peninsula - you can click the link and go to our web site - which we are in the process of updating.

You will see us active in many contests!

We love to compete!

K6TU Control iPad app is available!

The K6TU Control iPad application is now available via the Apple™ App Store.  If you are already familiar with the app and what it does, you can click on the link below to view K6TU Control in the App Store.

Download K6TU Control from the Apple App Store

The genesis of K6TU Control began at the International DX Convention in Visalia, CA back in April 2013.  As in 2011, I had been asked to manage the get-on-the-air station for the convention and so had asked the good folks at FlexRadio Systems whether they would provide a Flex-6700 as the core of the station.  Not only did they agree but they also sent Steve Hicks N5AC and Jim Reese WD5IYT to keep an eye on the radio (and me!).

I was able to spend a lot of time talking SDR and development with Steve and Jim as we watched folks use the N6V station.

As a serious contester, I was keenly interested in the workflow of operating the Flex-6700.  As I wrote in my last post on this blog, computer controlling ANY radio brings with it the necessity of thinking about workflow - how to integrate computer control of the radio with the other tasks you need to perform in a contest, DXpedition environment or other situation where speed and efficiency are paramount. 

The idea behind the FlexControl had been to streamline contest workflow for the most frequent operation of the radio - tuning (either VFO or RIT).  What I really wanted was a way to control the other functions of the radio without needing a second keyboard and mouse.  As Jim, Steve and I talked the idea over, the idea of the iPad app was born.

Here's a screen shot of the main view of K6TU Control. 

 

SliceView.small

K6TU Control shows a list of open slices on the left and then shows the full detail of the selected slice on the right.  A tap on the + button at the top of the Slices list will create a new slice with exactly the same configuration (frequency, mode, antenna, filter size) as the slice selected and displayed on the right.

Click this link for a full description of the application.

Although pictures are worth a thousand words, videos are priceless - so with great thanks to Mack W4AX, this video shows you some of the features in use.

 

K6TU Control requires iOS 7 and runs on all iPad models since the iPad II - you must have your iPad connected via WiFi to your home network and Flex-6000 series radio.  This application is intended to optimize workflow in conjunction with SmartSDR and a FlexControl.  As a consequence, no screen real estate is used for a pan adaptor display and the app does not support streaming audio from the radio.

The app allows you to create and save the radio configuration as a profile together with custom filter configurations.  Access these features via the Profile button at the bottom of the Slices list.

Here's a view of my contest operating position together with the iPad and FlexControl.

Photo

I couldn't have done the development of K6TU Control without the help of the folks at FlexRadio Systems and the folks on the alpha/beta test team who provided feedback on usability, operability on different iPad models as well as testing.  A sincere THANK YOU to all!

Of contesting & computer controlled radios

This is the first post in a series about using the FlexRadio 6700 as an all-out contesting radio. The FlexRadio 6000 series are state-of-the-art Direct Digital Sampling radios but they are different; no knobs, no direct controls and a computer required to operate the radio.  I'm hoping that these articles will provide both perspective and a resource for others interested in exploring the killer performance of this radio.

I made the transition to computer control of my ham station in 2003 after moving to my current QTH and having enough space to put up decent antennas and neighbors far enough away to make RFI mostly a thing of the past.  I started with a station built around a TS-B2000 - the no panel version of the TS-2000 with software control from the PC.  I won't describe this journey here as its document elsewhere in posts on this blog.

Computer control of a radio needs attention to two aspects:

  • Can you control ALL of the radio functions remotely?
  • How do you integrate the radio with your contesting workflow?

The computer control for most radios is via CAT and depending on the manufacturer, you may be stuck with control of a subset of the radio capabilities.  Happily with all the FlexRadio products, there is full control of all capabilities via an extended CAT command set for the radios before the 6000 and a full network API for the 6000 series.

It took precisely one contest with the FlexRadio 5000 for me to realize the importance of contest workflow.  The California QSO Party in 2009 was that contest and within the first 10 minutes, I realized the nightmare of a computer controlled radio when using the same computer for the logging software (in my case Writelog).  Note that it could have been a computer controlled Elecraft, Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood... anything!  Having to mouse the software in focus (accepting keyboard input, mouse commands) from the logging software to the radio and back again was time consuming and a mine field...  typing the wrong key strokes into the wrong window caused havoc.

By the end of the contest I had decided to build what became the FlexControl tuning knob.  This enabled me to command a limited set of the radio capabilies that I needed to access in a contest.  For the most part, I found that access to VFO tuning, RIT & XIT where the most needed.  The FlexControl allows many functions to be controlled thanks to the integration work done by Steve, K5FR with DDUtil.

With the prototypes of the FlexControl and the eventual product, I used my 5000 in many contests - all modes, CW, SSB and RTTY.  I placed well for a station with a single tower - several Call District 6 first places, a couple of records set in the Santa Clara Valley section and more importantly, I had a lot of fun!

When my 6700 arrived I was blown away by the performance of the radio.  Simply without peer!  The receiver is a joy to use and is very easy to listen to - important in a contest when after 48 hours, some radios begin to sound like they have a parott inside - and a raspy parrot at that!

To really leverage the radio, I wanted to take computer control to the limit.  I wanted a separate control panel that let me command all the radio capabilities without creating workflow issues.

Elecraft took an interesting approach to this problem with the K3/0 - this is a K3 chassis and front panel with all the controls... but no RF electronics inside.  Together with a pair of RemoteRig units, you can use a K3/0 to drive a remote K3.  The solution adds about $1200 to the cost of remote control but after a tower, antenna and amplifier, most hams won't bat an eye at that cost.  With decent Internet connectivity the solution works well.

I didn't want a control panel with knobs for controlling my 6700.  A couple of folks had suggested I build a FlexControl on steroids, more knobs, more switches etc.  But a physical device can't readily be configured for specific operating desires.  I wanted total FLEX-ibility!

Back in April this year, I was responsible for the N6V demonstration station at the Visalia International DX Convention.  FlexRadio had generously agreed to provide a 6700 for the station and sent Steve Hicks, N5AC and Jim Reese WD5IYT to help with the station.  During the weekend I spent many hours talking with Steve and Jim - in particular about contest workflow as SmartSDR was still in its early days.  We all agreed that a separate control surface as needed for contest operation.  It didn't take long for the idea of using an iPad as a "soft" control surface came up.

Driving back from Visalia I couldn't get the idea of the iPad app out of my head and after a couple of days back home, I decided to teach myself iPad application development and write one - K6TU Control coming to the app store soon!

The key takeway isn't the app.  The takeay is that contesting with a computer controlled radio - any radio - requires a seamless way of controlling it's operation that doesn't remove focus from the logging software.

It doesn't matter whether its a K3/0 or an iPad with FlexControl thrown in, you simply can't begin to optimize workflow without some independent method of controlling the radio.

Doing well in a contest, let alone winning, DEMANDS optimized workflow:

  • Cut down the number of key strokes
  • Minimize the extraneous information you send (e.g. cut out "please copy", repeating what you were just sent, eliminate unwanted characters in CW or RTTY like DE...  over the course of a contest these add up to HOURS of additional time).
  • Not having to think about controlling the radio - just do it!

For the first time since I began using a remote controlled radio in a contest, I have put the workflow issue of radio control behind me.

 

FlexRadio 6700 - Latest pre-release update

Kudos to Gerald and the team!  This last two weeks has seen huge progresss on all fronts - stability, features and performance. Radios are now shipping beyond the alpha and beta testers to those who indicated their willingness to take pre-release software.

I have to say things are looking pretty good!

More functionality of course means more to test - so between that and completing some new features on my Propagation as a Serivce web site, I've been busy and not really had time to sit down and compose a new post.  Hopefully this will make up for the delay...

Here's a screen shot of SmartSDR showing the panadaptor and the TX controls.

SSDR

You can click on the image for a larger image but its easy to see the addition of the equalizer (for both TX and RX), plus the metering and microphone source select.

On-air reports have, without exception, had great comments on the audio quality - in many cases unsolicted which is always gratifying!  Adding some equalization to my different headsets has given me the option of "BBC Quality" for casual contacts or providing sharper audio for DXing or Contesting.

Also shipped with the last couple of updates has been the CAT control for SmartSDR.  This is started as a separate program and runs automatically.  Gone is the need to install a virtual serial port device driver (although it happily coexists with one) as it has a single ended virtual port driver included.  This means you have a single COM port which you can use to connect to sotfware requiring CAT control.

Thanks to Steve K5FR, there is also a new release of DDUtil available from Steve's web site.  This new version interfaces directly with the CAT control for SmartSDR and as before, allows multiple CAT programs to share the CAT control stream.  I've tested SmartSDR CAT with DxLab and Writelog.  I know that it also works with other programs including N1MM logger.

Having DDUtil able to talk to the 6700 and all my other equipment (amplifier, rotor, SteppIR controller etc) has me back to single button band change and a full legal limit automatic transceiver!  I'm really looking forward to getting on the air in a contest with this radio - it really has an amazing receiver!

 

FlexRadio 6700 - Initial QSO's

This last week I've been test flying the FlexRadio 6700 in a number of QSOs both on HF as well as 6m so I thought I'd give an update on the most recent experiences.

As a reminder I'm still using pre-release software together with the other alpha testers.  Functionality is quickly approaching the release 1.0 level and so on-air testing is now seriously underway.  

My installation is totally remote - all my radio equipment and antennas are located away from the house and controlled via Ethernet.  Audio is handled by a balanced audio link over a spare CAT6 Ethernet drop patched through from the radios to my office in the house.  The CAT6 cable has 4 pairs - two are used for stereo audio from the radio, one for microphone audio to the radio and the last for the PTT line.  For many years I used a homebrew set of balanced audio drivers but early this year, switched over to commercial components made by Radio Design Labs.  Much better fidelity and more audio drive (with gain controls brought to the front panel) make this link a considerable step up on my homebrew effort.

BrandoSince I never got round to training Brando to go and push buttons on command, I spent a lot of effort over the years in station automation.  With my Flex 5000, the CAT port from PowerSDR runs into DDUtil (courtesy of Steve, K5FR) which then handles the different components of the station - amplifiers, SteppIR antenna controller, rotor etc.

The current pre-release of the Flex 6700 software doesn't yet include CAT support (its coming soon!) so I have to go through a few extra steps to handle its operation until CAT is available.

So armed, I've made a fair number of phone QSO's over the last few days.  Mack W4AX (also one of the 6700 alpha testers) and I had a short 6700 to 6700 QSO on Sunday morning.  The bands weren't in good shape with an A index of 58 due to a sneaky CME hitting the Earth's magnetic field and creating a G2 class storm. The severe weather in the mid-West didn't help either - lots of lightning static made for a noisy band.

Mack's business brings him to Silicon Valley from time to time so we have had the pleasure of an eyeball QSO - I mention this because I know what Mack sounds like when he's in the same room - and he sounded just the same during our QSO on Sunday morning - natural and good audio!  I mention this because the TX equalizer we're using has a set response configured in the software - the controls for the equalizer are being externalized as I write this and will appear in SmartSDR shortly.

Late Sunday afternoon, I had a great QSO with Bob K8MLM in Woodbridge, VA.  I was testing on 20m just making sure I had my station control figured out and Bob called me.   Turned out Bob was running a Flex 5000 and so we had a great chat about FlexRadios in general and the 6700 in specific.  Bob was complimentary about the audio from the 6700 and with the bands in better state, gave me 59 once I'd kicked the amplifier in.

Last night (Monday) with the after effects of the geomagnetic storm abated, I checked on 6m before heading to dinner with my wife.  The band was alive and hopping up and down the West Coast and I made a couple of QSO's into British Columbia using the 6700 barefoot.  Tuning down to the CW portion of 6m, I heard WL7N in Ward Cove, AK - located in the sliver of Alaska just to the West of BC, Canada.  Of course, I hadn't hooked up the CW key line from my keyer to the 6700 so sadly a new grid square didn't make it to the log!

A note about SmartSDR and remote control...

Integrating the 6700 into my remote station so far has been very straight forward and easier than the Flex 5000.  In the case of the 5000, I have a computer sitting right next to the radio which runs PowerSDR.  I control that remote computer using UltraVNC over the Ethernet - works great and with plenty of bandiwdth between my home office and the radio, burining 50 Mbps on screen updates isn't an issue.  I can still use my FlexControl to tune the remote copy of PowerSDR as I use the Eltima Serial-to-Ethernet driver to remote my tuning knob.

Since SmartSDR connects to the radio over Ethernet, I run SmartSDR on the computer in the office.  Its a Mac Book Pro running Windows 7 under Parallels 8 for the Mac.  My FlexControl is plugged directly into the Mac and is assigned as a USB peripheral (via Parallels) to the Windows 7 VM.  The whole thing works seamlessly - tuning is smooth with no lag when I stop turning the FlexControl.

Ever time I turn on the 6700 I'm struck by the receiver performance - this radio has good ears!

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STU PHILLIPS
MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA

Intense Brit, lived in Silicon Valley since 1984. Avid pilot, like digital photography, ham radio and a bunch of other stuff. Official Geek.

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