Wireless Systems Design

Amateur Radio Still Going Strong

Dayton’s Hamvention reveals latest products and activities.

The Dayton Hamvention is one of the longest running continuous amateur radio conferences in the world. This year was the 56th installment of the event and it was held in its usual place, the Hara Arena in Dayton, Ohio, May 16-18. I haven't been to the event since I worked for Heathkit back in the late 1970s and early 80s. With a major article on amateur radio and the latest equipment facing me, I thought I had better take a look to see what is going on in this amazing hobby. I was not disappointed.

With nearly twenty thousand in attendance, the conference gave a clear view of the latest activities and products. What struck me immediately is that the predominant hair color was gray. Suffice to say you wouldn’t mistake this event for a youth rally or science fair. I do not know what the average age was, but it had to be about 50 or so. Though, there were many younger folks there and many women—wives and girlfriends, I guess, with the occasional enthusiast mixed in.

Walking around the exhibits and taking in latest in hardware, it is clear that this hobby is dominated by the commercial transceiver makers, mostly Japanese, such as AOR, Icom, Kenwood, and Yaesu. There are still some U.S. manufacturers of transceivers such as TenTec, Elecraft, and FlexRadio. Mostly, the hobby involves choosing one's transceiver then getting on the air. There is very little actually home brewing these days. Even the simpler QRP (low-power) transmitters and receivers are available in kit form. It is amazing how popular this QRP movement is. There is just something challenging and thrilling about making a very long distance contact with just a couple of transistors and a piece of wire. Despite the fact that I have a nifty high-priced Yaesu transceiver, I recently built a kit receiver and transmitter (Ramsey) for 30-meter CW. It is still more fun (to me at least) playing around with the low power stuff.

THE FLOOR
Visually the dominant theme in the exhibits was the antennas. They were everywhere. Everyone needs a good antenna, and it is certainly one of the few things that hams actually still build for themselves and experiment with endlessly. I can attest to that personally. Endless varieties of verticals and beams were on display. And along with the antennas, there were a huge offering of tuners. Some of those being older manual types of tuners with large capacitors and tuning coils, and others of the automatic ilk, offering continuous adjustments to maintain a good impedance match and low SWR between transmitter and antenna. Most of these tuners switch capacitors and inductors with reed relays in some kind of closed loop control circuit while monitoring output power and SWR.

The movement to more software-defined radio (SDR) products was also evident. Most of the main transceiver manufacturers already incorporate some form of DSP filtering but the trend to more SDR is clear. Several new companies are offering SDR receivers and transceivers including FlexRadio, Perseus, and WiNRADIO. The Tucson Amateur Packet Radio (TAPR) group pioneers in digital packet radio. It had an impressive array of high performance SDR kits on display and more on the way. I will be reporting on that movement in my article in the August 14th issue of Electronic Design.

One of the most interesting exhibits was from AMSAT, the amateur radio satellite organization that builds the ham satellites and promotes satellite communications. This is certainly not a new thing but I was again impressed by what you could do with simple equipment to work through the satellites. They gave a great demo of SSB voice communications with one of the low earth orbit (LEO) satellites with a 146-MHz uplink and 440-MHz downlink. LEOs have such high speed and short period that their visibility is only up to about 10 minutes or so from horizon to horizon. So you have to have a pretty good tracking antenna array to do any good. In this demo, the tracking was manual with a couple of handmade Yagis, but nonetheless very effective. Several contacts were made from coast to coast right from the Dayton Hara Arena parking lot with 5 W of power. Not bad.

HAM HOCKING
The highlight of the Dayton show is the flea market. Hams who want to sell their old gear set up tents and tables or just open the trunks of their cars. Thousands of hams flock to the entire Hara parking lot each year for this circus. What I saw was lots of surplus gear (WW II even) and junk but there were probably some jewels out there. Lots of antique radios which get more scarce each year as collectors buy them up. And tons of used and new vacuum tubes were up for grabs. I didn't buy anything but there were lots of guys hauling off major purchases in kid's wagons and loading dollys maybe to be resold at next year's event.

My main impression was that ham radio is definitely alive and well and just as much fun as ever for us geeky radio guys. It is a great way to play around with the latest technology. Too bad more young people aren't interested.

There are still about 600,000 or so hams in the U.S. today, and the number has been increasing, slowly. Recently, the FCC changed the long standing requirement needed to pass a code test to get a license. Dropping that requirement caused a mini-spurt in new licenses, but that seems to have tailed off a bit. I will be getting a more accurate count on the ham population later in the month when I talk with the ARRL (American Radio Relay League).

Speaking of the ARRL, they had the largest exhibit at the show. It was a display of all the services and publications this great organization has. I did meet their CEO, David Sumner, K1ZZ. I will be interviewing him later this month for my forthcoming article on SDR in amateur radio for the August 14th issue. The ARRL has about 150,000 members and is a major force in fighting for and keeping spectrum space and ham rights in general. They do a good job, and their magazines like QST and QEX are world class.

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