We’ve been planning to add a remote operating capability to our station for some time now. We also did some previous work with a FlexRadio Software Defined Radio (SDR) in our station, and we felt that an SDR would be a good platform to build a remote operating project around. We decided to combine our remote operating goals with a next-generation SDR upgrade (a FlexRadio-6700) for our station. This project has turned out to be somewhat involved, so we will be providing a series of articles to explain what we did:
- Part 1 – System Design and Hardware Installation (this post)
- Part 2 – Client/Server Setup and Software (Shack Equipment, Computers, and Software Enabling Remote Operation)
- Part 3 – On The Air Remote!
- Part 4 – Remote Operating Enhancements
- Satellite Station 4.0 Part 7 – Flex SDR Satellite Transceiver to Enable Remote Satellite Operation
- PTT Switch for Remote Operation
- Operating FT8 Remote on the 6m band
We will tackle our goals of building a Remote Operating Gateway (GW) in two stages. Stage 1 will focus on operating our station from other rooms in our house (our Home Offices are prime locations for this). Stage 2 will involve operating our station “On The Go” from anywhere in the world that has sufficient Internet Access is available. We also want to enable full control of our station when operating remotely, including:
- Use of our Amplifier
- Antenna Selection
- Rotator Control
- Equipment Power Monitoring and Management
We also use a microHAM station control system and contesting equipment as part of our remote operating gateway, and we want to fully integrate our new Flex-6700 SDR with this gear. Our Flex-6700 uses a dedicated Microphone to avoid audio integration issues that we encountered between the Flex-6700 and the microHAM MK2R+ that we use in our station.
The first step in this project was to develop a system design (pictured above). We opted for an architecture that uses the Flex SDR as a third radio in Anita’s Operating Position. Her position is now an SO2R setup with a Yaesu FTdx5000 as the primary radio and a choice of an Icom IC-7600 or the Flex-6700 SDR as the second active radio.
The Flex-6700 SDR has an associated Elecraft KPA-500W Amplifier/KAT500 Auto Tuner combination, an Elecraft W2 Wattmeter, an automated bandpass filtering via an Array Solutions FilterMax IV, and a dedicated microHAM Station Master Deluxe (SMD) Antenna Controller. The Elecraft components are good choices for our remote operating project because they all have applications that enable them to be controlled and monitored over a network (more on this later in this series of articles).
Our setup also includes a K1EL WinKeyer to enable computer-controlled CW keying of the Flex-6700 SDR. This device is relatively inexpensive in kit form and was fun to put together. We have a Bencher Iambic Paddle connected to the WinKeyer for in-shack CW operation.
The diagram above shows the details of the device interconnections which make up the SDR Radio System. The microHAM SMD Antenna Controller requires a serial CAT interface to its host Flex-6700 SDR to determine what band and frequency the SDR is on. The Flex-6700 SDR does not provide such an interface directly but creates CAT control virtual ports on a host Personal Computer (PC).
To solve this problem, we used an application called DDUtil to bridge the derived CAT port associated with the SDR to a physical serial port on the PC. The PC’s physical port is then connected to the microHAM SMD associated with the Flex-6700 SDR. The pictures above show how DDUtil is set up to do this.
The microHAM gear, WinKeyer, Rotators, Radio CAT Interfaces, Amplifier/Auto Tuner Interfaces, etc., all use serial or COM ports on a host PC for control. It’s also true that many loggers have trouble accessing serial ports above COM16. This requires a carefully developed COM port allocation plan for a complex station like ours. The figure above shows this part of our design.
The last part of the hardware puzzle required to integrate the SDR into our station was the installation of a second microHAM uLink Bus Hub, microHAM Relay 10 Control Box, and an A/B antenna switch controlled by the microHAM SMDs. This allows the 4th radio port on our antenna switching matrix to be shared between the Icom IC-7600 and the Flex-6700 SDR.
The last step in integrating the Flex-6700 SDR was configuring the microHAM system for the new equipment. This involves adding SMD #5 to the microHAM system and configuring it (and the rest of the system) to know about the Flex-6700 SDR, associated amplifier, and its interconnections to the rest of the system.
The Flex-6700 SDR Hardware is controlled and operated over a network via FlexRadio’s SmartSDR Application. We have 1 Gbps wired and an 802.11 b/g/n Wireless Ethernet system in our home, and the SmartSDR/Flex-6700 SDR combination works well over either network. The software-based approach with most SDRs allows new features to be added to the radio via software upgrades.
It is very important to prevent the Flex-6700 SDR and the associated Amplifier from keying up when the antennas in our station are switched or tuned. The screenshot above shows the configuration of SmartSDR to enable the keying and interlock interfaces between the Flex-6700 SDR and its associated microHAM Station Master Deluxe Antenna Controller to implement these functions. This setup enables the Tx Keying and Tx Inhibit interfaces between the Flex-6700 SDR and the microHAM Station Master Deluxe to work properly to key all of the equipment in the setup (SDR, Amplifier, active Rx antennas, etc.) and to lock out keying when antennas are being switched or when one of our SteppIR antennas are tuning.
Flex-6700 SDR With CW Skimmer
We will cover additional software and integration steps to realize our Remote Operating goals. Check out the above video to see how the system performs. This video was recorded using our Flex-6700 SDR and CW Skimmer during the 2015 ARRL CW Sweepstakes Contest. We are really enjoying operating in CW mode with the new SDR setup!