FlexRadio 6700 - Latest pre-release update
K6TU Control iPad app is available!

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.