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Amateur Radio Today - Not Your Grandpa's Ham Radio

I think some people still have an image of Amateur Radio as old guys sending Morse code with big radios full of glowing tubes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not that Morse code ("CW" in hamspeak) is dead- far from it. Although not used much in commercial communications, CW is still a very efficient means of radio communication. Many hams are also still using old tube radios, but that's no different than people who like working on and driving classic or antique cars.

At the other end of the spectrum (pun intended), there are sophisticated digital data communications modes and software defined radios that push the state of the art.

Although traditional SSB and FM voice communications are still prevalent in Amateur Radio, hams have developed digital voice modes such as D-STAR and C4FM, and have also adapted commercial modes such as DMR and APCO P-25 to amateur use. (P-25 digital is the new standard for US public safety communications systems including the new Lewis County radio system.)

Hams have been integrating radios, computers, and the Internet for a long time. Systems such as Echolink and IRLP connect traditional analog VHF and UHF radios over thousands of miles, and the digital radio systems provide even more capability.

Along with digitized voice, hams exchange all kinds of digital data by radio.

The Narrow Band Emergency Messaging System (NBEMS) can be used over virtually any radio to transmit text messages, images, and other files completely independent of the Internet or other hard-wired connection.

The Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) is very popular. Hams send telemetry such as GPS data or weather station data, or short text messages, typically over a VHF radio link. A network of digipeaters relays this information over wide areas and connect to the Internet make it available on line.

In short, Amateur Radio today is much more than just 'talking on the radio.' It offers the opportunity for all kinds of technical experimentation and learning, and it also has the potential to support other scientific endeavors.

The Maintenance In Space High Altitude Patch Project was a great high-tech example of this fusion of Amateur Radio with scientific experimentation. Last Sunday, a high altitude weather balloon fitted with an APRS tracker and other instruments was launched from Watertown. Its flight path was tracked and it was recovered outside of Schenectady.

I followed the balloon track using APRS. It reached a altitude of 85,000 feet and speeds up to 90 MPH.

I stayed in contact with the chase team via radio. Since I was familiar with the terrain along most of the route, I could provide situational awareness at the projected landing zone.

When they reached the limit of local radio coverage, I was able to advise them of the repeaters to use along the route. By connecting to those repeaters via Echolink, I was able to maintain contact throughout the entire flight.

I was also able to get in touch with some of my ham friends near the actual LZ to provide coordinate info and to help coordinate the search and recovery effort, while the chase team was still on the way from Watertown.

Pretty cool stuff if you're at all interested in technology. With the emphasis on STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, Amateur Radio is a teaching and learning resource that should not be overlooked.


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