Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Raspberry Pi gives me a lifetime DX record

    The other day I dug out and dusted off my amateur radio logbook. The last entry was in 1993, a 70cms FSTV test with 2m talkback with a friend a few miles away. I noted at the time that my power output on 70cms was 50mW, and that the test was a failure. The transmitter was homebrew and I still have it, though I think I may have scavenged the output transistor.
    It's weird, reactivating a callsign so long dormant. Long enough dormant in fact that what always felt like a rather new callsign is now something of an old-timer. A lot's happened since 1993 in amateur radio, there are some interesting new bands and modes, and I can now use all the HF bands if I want to. I bet that went down like a lead balloon with the sheds-and-allotments nets on 80m! :) But to be honest I'm no longer interested in sitting in a shack at a microphone. I was always in it to experiment with radio and though I spent a lot of happy hours on 2M FM back in the day I'm probably not returning.
    Of the new modes that have appeared since I buried my personal amateur radio time capsule, WSPR caught my eye. Extreme QRP and extreme narrow bandwidth, and best of all, possible using just the internal clock generator of a Raspberry Pi. So with a quickly assembled 70MHz low-pass filter and an equally hastily built dipole I put together a 4M WSPR beacon.

    It's a while since I had an operational transmitter of my own. This one's only producing about 100mW, but it's still important to ensure a minimum emission of unwanted radiation. When your transmitter is at heart a logic level square wave there is a lot of possibility for harmonics.
    I hope it's not a damning admission when I say I was never able to really ensure I wasn't transmitting harmonics back in the day. I had my wavemeter but it couldn't go up into the high harmonics so if I built anything I had to rely on overprovision of low pass filtering. I suspect I was not alone in this and I never had the DTI breathing down my neck so I am happy I got it right.
   Now I have something unavailable to me in the 1980s and '90s, an RTL-SDR. I can have a waterfall spectrum analyser view of any couple of MHz slice of spectrum between 25MHz and 2GHz, so I can take a look for harmonics. Of course it's not a calibrated device so it's difficult for me to check relative values even if I turn off the AGC, but I can still check for presence or absence of radiation.
    In the room next to the Raspberry Pi, there are the harmonic peaks. Much lower than the carrier, but still there. Half a mile away though, the carrier is just as strong but the harmonics are no longer present. The lower-level harmonics I detected in the same room are not reaching my antenna, the LPF is doing its job. Good, that's what I want to hear.
    So, turn on the Pi, run WsprryPi, and keep an eye on the WSPR map to see who spots it. 4M is neither an easy DX band nor a popular WSPR band, so it wan't exactly a surprise when none of the five or so stations active at the time in Western Europe spotted me. But a Raspberry Pi doesn't use much power, so just leave it running.
    After two days, a sporadic-E opening. And a single spot, from just north of Madrid, in Spain. Nearly 790 miles to this part of Oxfordshire, for 4M that counts as pretty extreme DX.
    So, EA4ETR. The first callsign in my logbook since 1993, the first non-G callsign, and far and away my furthest DX on a difficult band all in one go. And all with a £25 computer and a filter and antenna from junkbox parts. Not a fancy chequebook transceiver in sight.
    That for me is what amateur radio should be all about.

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