Station Automation Part 3 – Antenna Cutover And Final Integration

AB1QB Operating Position

AB1QB Operating Position

The final article in our microHAM installation series will be about the cut-over, configuration and integration testing of our station. The first step in the process was to bring the second radio in Anita’s (AB1QB) position into the microHAM system. We also added a PR 781 microphone and boom from Heil Sound to her setup at the same time.

AB1QB Position Design

AB1QB Position Design

Anita’s second radio is an Icom IC-7600 and it’s integration into the system went very smoothly. We also integrated the control of our Power Amplifiers (a combination of Icom PW-1s and an Elecraft KPA500) into the microHAM system. As you can see from the diagram above, the amplifiers are dedicated to specific radios and can be controlled directly by each radio’s Station Master Deluxe (SMD). We used microHAM supplied amplifier control cables for the PW-1s and I built a custom control cable for the Elecraft KPA500 (this was not difficult – both microHAM and Elecraft provide good documentation for the interfaces involved).

Bandpass Filter Control

Bandpass Filter Control

I also built custom cables to allow our SMDs to control and automate the switching of our Bandpass Filter Units from Array Solutions.

Bandpass Filter Configuration

Bandpass Filter Configuration

With the cabling done, I next configured the SMDs to correctly set the control leads to switch the Amplifier and Bandpass filter bands based on the Transmit (Tx) frequency of the associated transceiver. The picture above shows the configuration for the bandpass filters. The configuration for the amplifiers is similar.

Control Box Configuration

Control Box Configuration

The next step in the process was to add some additional microHAM Control Boxes to the uLink bus and configure their addresses. The picture above shows the control interfaces in our system including the four SMDs. The addressing convention that we use in our station has 40-series control boxes which control our 4×10 antenna switching matrix, 50-series control boxes which control our Tx antennas and 60-series control boxes which control our Receive (Rx) antennas and associated equipment. The picture above also illustrates some of the Units that we’ve defined on our Control Boxes to create interfaces to amplifiers, filters, antenna switching and other controls.

Palstar Dummy Load

Palstar Dummy Load

The first step in the cut over of our antennas was to connect the antennas and devices which did not require complex control. This included our OCF Dipole and our Palstar High-Power Dummy Load. As each antenna was connected, the associated path was configured in the system and tested to ensure that everything worked as expected.

Dummy Load Mod

Dummy Load Modification

I made a simple modification to the Dummy Load to allow its lamp to be switched on when one of the radios in the shack selects it. This involved adding a couple of binding posts to the device and running the lamp bulb circuit though the binding posts. The posts are connected to a RELAY6 control box and the microHAM system is configured to close the associated relay whenever a radio selects the Dummy Load. This makes it easy to see that the Dummy Load is selected and extends the life of the bulb.

Transmit Antenna Controls

Transmit Antenna Controls

The next step in the cut over process was to move all of our transmit antennas and rotators to the system one at a time and test them. This required the construction and testing of some RS-232 serial cables to connect our three SteppIR Antennas and our Green Heron RT-21D Rotator Controllers to their associated DATA Control Boxes (top row in the picture above).

SteppIR DB36 Control

SteppIR DB36 Control

The picture above shows the configuration for one of our SteppIR Antennas – The Upper DB36 Yagi. This particular configuration step involved assigning the antenna to a DATA Control Box as well as telling the system the type of control protocol to use to control the antenna. The microHAM system “knows” about a wide array of serial and other controllable devices and implements the necessary protocols.

Receive Array Control And Sequencer

Receive Array Control And Sequencer

The integration of our 8-Circle Low-Band Receive Array involved some special steps at both the Hardware and Configuration levels. The connections on the RELAY10 control box shown above are used to “steer” the Rx array and to enable or disable the associated shared Low-Noise pre-Amplifiers (LNAs). To protect this antenna from damage from nearby transmit antennas, power to the array must be removed a few milliseconds before transmit begins. This is normally done by a sequencer in a single radio station. Our station can have up to four different radios transmitting on any one of several different antennas on the low bands. To solve this problem, I used a RELAY6 control box to create a multi-radio sequencer. Each antenna that can transmit on the 160m – 60m bands has one of the relays on the RELAY6 shown above associated with it.

80m Delta Loop Sequencer

80m Delta Loop Sequencer

These relays are controlled via an optional SEQ control unit that is configured for each of associated antennas. All of these relays are wired in series with the power lead for the 8-Circle Receive Array. Whenever any radio transmits on any band from 160m – 60m on one of the low-band Tx antennas, the associated relay is first opened (with appropriate delay) before Tx is enabled. This approach implements a multi-radio low-band sequencer across the four radios in our station. The control logic also powers down the array when it is not in use by any radio.

Virtual Rotator For 8-Circle Receive Array

Virtual Rotator For 8-Circle Receive Array

The other “special” step involved in the integration of our 8-Circle Receive Array was the implementation of a “virtual rotator” for it. This involves creating a table in the system configuration which maps all possible headings to one of the eight available direction settings for this antenna. Once this is configured, the antenna behaves as if it had a conventional rotator associated with it. When its selected, loggers like the DXLab Suite and N1MM can automatically steer the antenna to the best possible direction selection to work a given station. The front panel rotator controls on the SMDs can also be used to turn the antenna just as if it had a “real” rotator.

Available Antenna Paths

Available Antenna Paths

With all of the antennas and other RF devices properly configured and interconnected in the configuration, the microHAM router software generates a list of available antennas paths as shown above. The software automatically determines the path and associated control resource needed to connect a given antenna to a given radio. Note that some of our antennas have multiple paths by which they can be reached. The software detects this and allows the alternative paths to be selected or, if configured as is the case with our 8-Circle Receive Array, be used by multiple radios at the same time. This table represents all of the antenna selections that are possible in our system.

Antenna Selection Configuration

Antenna Selection Configuration

The final step in the configuration process is to determine which antennas may be used by which radios on a each of the available bands. The microHAM router software initially populates this table with all of the possible choices based upon the “available antennas”. I edited the automatically generated configuration to remove a few choices which were not needed and to reorder the lists for each band so that the displays on the SMD would be the most logical for us to use. With these steps done, our configuration was complete.

Yagi Stack Control

Yagi Stack Control

The system is quite easy to use and provides easy to read and useful displays. The picture above shows the selection of our Stack of two SteppIR DB36 yagis on one of radios. That radio (an Icom IC-7800) is currently on the 20m band tuned to 14.267 MHz for both transmit and receive. The two white squares show that both yagis are currently included in the stack. Options exist to use either antenna independently and to use them either in or out of phase in the stack. Both SteppIR DB36 antennas are pointed to 45 degrees (we can turn them independently) as can be determined from the numbers next to the white blocks and the direction of the arrow next to them. The row of buttons numbers 1 – 7 show the available antenna selections for this radio on the 20m band.

80m Split Tx/Rx Antenna Selection

80m Split Tx/Rx Antenna Selection

The picture above shows the SMD display for the same radio when tuned to 3.658 MHz on the 80m band. Note that the available antenna selections have changed to those available in our station for the 80m band. In this example, I am using different antennas for Tx (our 80m Delta Loop) and Rx (our 8-Circle Receive Array). The virtual rotator for the 8-Circle array is active and you can see that this antenna is pointed toward 245 degrees (the virtual rotator input was actually 255 degrees and the SMD picked the closed direction selection on the Rx antenna). Our 80m Delta Loop is vertically polarized and omnidirectional which is indicated by the symbol next to it on the display.

Station Master Deluxe Keypad

Station Master Deluxe Keypad

In addition to the buttons and rotary controller on each of our SMDs, antennas can also be selected and steered via a keypad that is associated with each SMD. The keypads enable many functions including direct entry of rotator headings, antenna selection and setup for split Tx/Rx antenna operation.

MK2R+ Virtual COM Port Configuration

MK2R+ Virtual COM Port Configuration

The microHAM platform (MK2R+ and SMDs) create an interface to all of our logging and control software on our PCs via a series of Virtual COM Ports. The ports for radio CAT interfaces, PTT and FSK (RTTY) keying, and control of the CW and Voice Keyers in the MK2R+ are created by the microHAM Router as shown above. Each of the two radios at a given operating position have a unique set of ports for CAT and keying.

Station Master Deluxe Virtual COM Ports

Station Master Deluxe Virtual COM Ports

In addition, the SMD associated with each radio creates addition virtual COM ports to allow software programs to control the rotator associated with the currently selected antenna(s) on that SMD. The control also includes any “virtual rotators” associated with antenna(s) that may be selected on a given SMD.

DXLab Radio Control

DXLab Radio Control

We use both the DXLab Suite and the N1MM Logger at our station and both work well with the microHAM system. Shown above is DXLab including its Commander component (lower-right) which provides the radio interface to the suite. If you look closely, you can see the Commander radio buttons which select either of the two radios at this position. DXLab (and N1MM) know the microHAM control protocol and will automatically switch the associated MK2R+ to use the appropriate radio. This includes setting which radio is active to Tx as well as what audio is heard in the headphones/speakers and what audio goes to the sound card for the associated MK2R+ and its radios. The appropriate routing of the shared microphone and CW paddles is also automatically configured.

DXLab and HRD Rotator Control

DXLab and HRD Rotator Control

The picture above shows our rotator control software. We are using two programs here. In the upper left is DXLab’s DXView program which will steer our antennas in the direction associated with the callsign which is currently entered into the logger. The other rotator controller is HRD Rotator (lower right) which displays a map of the world and a path. We can click on any location on HRD’s Rotator’s map and the software will turn the currently selected antennas in that direction. The use of independent rotator control programs is made possible by the microHAM Router which implements two separate Virtual COM Ports for the rotator(s) associated with each SMD’s selected antenna(s) for its associated radio.

As you can probably tell from the articles in this series, the microHAM system is very powerful and can handle most any station’s setup including those which are much more complicated than ours. While the construction and configuration work described here may seem a little complex, it’s really not that difficult if you create a good plan for your system at the outset (see the first post in this series). The documentation for the microHAM system is very good and Jozef (OM7ZZ) and Joe (W4TV) at microHAM were very good about answering my questions and steering me in the right direction as I built and configured my system. There is also a good Yahoo! group for the microHAM system. You may want to look at the other articles in this series for more information as well:

I had the opportunity to use our new microHAM System as part of the 2014 CQ WPX SSB Contest this weekend and it definitely helped be to improve my score. For more on this, check out the article on the contest on this Blog.

We are considering the addition of legal limit solid state amplifiers and high-power bandpass filters to our station and these will be integrated into the microHAM system when installed. I am also experimenting with the addition of a software defined radio to the setup. I plan to provide additional articles here as those projects proceed.

– Fred (AB1OC)

2014 CQ WPX SSB Contest Experience

AB1OC Operating In CQ WPX SSB

AB1OC Operating In CQ WPX SSB

I particularly enjoy the CQ WPX SSB Contest and I had a great time working it this past weekend. Each time we work another contest, we try to do some things to improve our skills and our score. This time was no exception with the following things done to improve:

Band conditions were great this year which made the higher bands (20m, 15m and 10m) a lot of fun to work! At the end of the contest, I was able to muster a score of 7.4m – more than 3.5x times what I did in this contest last year. I am hoping for a Top Ten finish in the United States.

DXCC Entities Worked

DXCC Entities Worked

I made over 2,400 QSOs and worked 117 DXCC entities.

CQ Zones Worked

CQ Zones Worked

I was also able to work all but two of the 40 CQ zones.

Contest QSO Summary

Contest QSO Summary

The picture above is an Athena analysis of my final log from the contest. I was able to use the virtual rotator capabilities of our microHAM Station Master Deluxe (SMD) antenna controller to use our steerable 8-Circle Receive Array alone with 75m Delta Loop transmit antenna to put together some great runs on 75m on Friday and Saturday nights. The combination of N1MM’s Rotator Controller and the SMD’s virtual rotator allowed me to instantly steer the receive antenna to each call as I got it staged. This greatly improved my ability to “hear” on 75m and 160m which helped my score significantly. I was also able to put together several really good runs on 20m, 15m and 10m at various times during the day on Saturday and Sunday. I was also able to sustain a couple of good runs on 40m during the contest.

The contest was great fun and I am looking forward to doing it again next year.

73,

– Fred (AB1OC)

Station Automation Part 2 – Second Operating Position And Antenna Switching

microHAM Gear At Second Operating Position

microHAM Gear At Anita’s (AB1QB) Operating Position

We have continued our work on automating our station’s operation with using microHAM equipment. I have integrated the second operating position into our station into the system via the installation of a second microHAM MK2R+ SO2R interface and two more Station Master Deluxe (SMD) antenna controllers. This position has a Yaesu FTdx5000 Transceiver and an Icom IC-7600 Transceiver. The integration of the FTdx5000 was straightforward and involved a cable hookup to the transceiver. I will add the Icom IC-7600 once the interface cable for it arrives here.

Current Antenna Control Stack

Current Antenna Control Stack

We’ve also begun to integrate the control of our antenna equipment into the microHAM system. I’ve moved our three SteppIR SDA100 controllers for our two SteppIR DB36 Yagis and our BigIR Vertical as well as the two Green Heron RT-21 rotator controllers to a set of microHAM DATA control boxes (all of these devices have RS-232 interfaces). With these steps complete, any of our four radios can control the Rotators or provide frequency data to automatically tune our SteppIR antennas.

Antenna Switching Matrix

Antenna Switching Matrix

The biggest part of this project is the construction of a 4 x 10 antenna switching matrix. This element of the system allows any of our 4 radios to connect to any of up to 10 antennas. We built the Antenna Switching Matrix on a 4′ x 8′ board that is mounted on the wall outside of our shack. As you can see from the picture above, this step required quite a few control cable connections as well as the construction of 40 coax interconnect cables (LMR400 Coax and crimp-on connectors were used here).

microHAM Ten Switch

microHAM Ten Switch

Our Antenna Switching Matrix uses a set of microHAM Ten and 4+4 antenna switches along with multiple RELAY10 control boxes for control.

Antenna Switch Matrix SWR Test

Antenna Switch Matrix SWR Test

It’s important to test an element like this as it is constructed to catch any errors and to ensure that the final system performance is as expected. I did a combination of continuity, voltage and end-to-end SWR measurements on the Antenna Switching Matrix as it was built. The microHAM control boxes have a nice manual mode that is available via their front panel buttons which allowed me to configure each antenna switch manually to fully test all of the coax and control cabling in the system.

Receive Antenna Splitter And LNAs

Receive Antenna Splitter And LNAs

Our antenna farm includes a steerable 8 Circle Vertical Receive Array for the low-bands and we decided to create two separate appearances of this antenna on our switching matrix. This approach allows two different transceivers to use the receive antenna at the same time. Doing this involves splitting the incoming signal from the receive antenna using a 2-port Splitter from DX Engineering. We also decided to include a pair of Low-Noise Amplifiers (LNAs) to boost the signals coming from the splitter before feeding the received signals to our antenna switching matrix. The Splitter and LNAs are 75 ohm devices. The signals are passed through a pair of 75 ohm to 50 ohm transformers from Wilson to match their 75 ohm impedance to our 50 ohm antenna switching system and feed lines. The LNAs are controlled by the SMD(s) which have the associated receive antenna connection selected at any given time. This way, an operator can turn off the LNA at their SMD if they don’t need the extra amplification.

Antenna Matrix And Receive Antenna Control

Antenna Matrix And Receive Antenna Control

All of this antenna switching requires quite a number of microHAM control boxes. We are also planning to terminate our 8 Circle Receive Antenna’s control lines at this point in our system. The receive antenna requires control leads to steer its direction and a sequencer capability to insure that its is not damaged by strong signals from other nearby transmit antennas. The microHAM system handles these functions easily via a combination of RELAY10 and RELAY6 control boxes which are the units in the upper row in the picture above. These boxes also control the two receive LNAs.

With these steps done, we need to complete the hookups of our Switchable Band Pass Filters and our amplifiers to their associated SMDs. With that done, we can begin moving the feed lines for our antennas and radios over to the system. This will be the topic of our next article. For more information on our automation project, you might want to look at these articles:

– Fred (AB1OC)

Station Automation Part 1 – microHAM SO2R And System Design

SO2R Operating Position

One Of Two SO2R Operating Positions In Our Shack (AB1OC)

As some of our readers probably know, it has been part of our plan from the beginning to setup our station for multi-SO2R operation . We took the first step in this direction some time back with the installation of a microHAM MK2R+ SO2R Controller (the box one top of the left radio in the picture above) at one of our two operating positions. The MK2R+ is a full-featured and powerful SO2R controller. It provides many capabilities across the two radios at its operating position. Some of its capabilities include:

  • Sharing  a single microphone, set of CW paddles, speakers and headset between two radios
  • A built-in sound card interface for both radios
  • Integrated voice and CW keyer capability
  • Dual-foot pedal control for keying each radio in the SO2R setup
  • Sharing of SteppIR antenna control between two radios
MK2R+ Audio Routing

MK2R+ Audio Routing

One of the most powerful capabilities of the MK2R+ is its sophisticated audio routing capabilities which are configurable via microHAM’s USB Device Router. The picture above shows the audio routing configuration options for the MK2R+. The operator can do things like listen to a mix of 4 VFOs from two radios at the same time. Hear one radio’s audio in one ear  and the other radio’s audio in the other ear. The routing of audio can be automatically changed based upon which radio is selected for transmit, foot pedal presses, etc. These capabilities are very useful when operating in an SO2R configuration during contests.

MK2R+ Control Ports

MK2R+ Control Ports

The microHAM USB Router software runs on the PC controlling the associated SO2R operating position/MK2R+ and provides a unified set of interfaces to both radios in the SO2R setup via a set of virtual COM ports. The picture above shows how this is configured for my operating position. In addition to a full set of ports to control each radio, there are common interfaces for the integrated WinKey CW Keyer and for controlling the MK2R+ itself. Loggers like N1MM know the microHAM control protocol and can automatically switch audio, sound cards, the radio which has focus for Tx, etc. based upon what the operator does inside N1MM. Again, this is very useful when operating SO2R or SO2V in a contest.

Current Antenna Control Stack

Current Antenna Control Stack

The MK2R+ alone works great for a shack with a single SO2R position but it leaves the operator to manually control antenna switching, rotators, and other antenna-related functions. Up to now, we have managed our antennas via the stack of antenna and rotator control boxes shown above. Manual operation of this type is fine for DX’ing or for one person operating alone in a contest.

Current Manual Antenna Switching System

Current Manual Antenna Switching System

The problem of switching and controlling antennas becomes more complex in a multi-operator station like ours (we have two separate SO2R positions in our shack with a total of 4 radios). We currently use the custom-built manual antenna switching system shown above to assign our available transmit antennas to one of our 4 radios and to select which antenna a given radio is connected to. We must  manually handle control of antenna rotators as well as manually setting the operating frequency of our three SteppIR antennas when they are not connected to the first of our two SO2R operating positions. This sort of manual operation works OK for DX’ing and casual operating with one person in the shack at a time. It is highly error prone with two operators working at once so we decided to expand our microHAM system to fully automate the control of our antennas and associated equipment.

microHAM Station Master Deluxe Antenna Controller

microHAM Station Master Deluxe Antenna Controller

We are using microHAM’s Station Master Deluxe (SMD) antenna controllers to automate the control of our antenna systems.  We are installing an SMD with each of our 4 radios in the shack. The SMD provides a number of antenna control automation capabilities including:

  • Band and frequency specific selection and configuration of available antennas
  • Routing of frequency and other control data to our two SteppIR DB36 Yagis and our SteppIR BigIR Vertical based upon which radio has selected these antennas
  • Control and routing of our two rotators on our tower based upon the radio which has an associated antenna selected. For example, if one position selects  our upper DB36 Yagi and another selects the lower DB36 Yagi on our tower, each SMD will independently control the rotator associated with its selected antenna. If one radio has both antennas selected as a stack, then that radio’s SMD will control both rotators together.
  • Sharing and control of our 8-Circle Directional Receive Array including creating a “virtual rotator” for it which allows its direction to be set via the SMD’s rotary encoder or via a COM port by an external rotator control program or logger. We have also created a “scan” feature for this antenna which switches its direction clockwise by 45 degrees every few seconds. This is useful when one hears a weak station and needs to  determine where to point the receive array for best reception.
  • Automatic transmit/receive antenna switching for each of the four radios in the setup. For example, a radio can transmit on one antenna and receive on a different one. When the associated radio is keyed, the controlling SMD automatically switches the radio between the selected transmit and receive antennas.
  • Automatic control of the four Switchable Bandpass Filters associated with our radios. These are essential for operating multiple transmitters in the station on different bands at the same time.
  • Automatic control of our power amplifiers
  • Automatic same band lockout between the radios in our shack.
  • Enforcement and sequencing of antennas to avoid simultaneous Tx/Rx on closely spaced antennas from different radios.
SMD Rotator Control Ports

SMD Rotator Control Ports

The Antenna Rotator management capabilities of the SMD are very useful for switching and sharing antennas on rotators. Each SMD has a pair of Virtual COM Ports which are automatically associated with the active rotator for the currently selected Transmit and Receive antennas. This allows loggers and other software running on the host PC to control the direction of the current selected antennas no matter which antennas are in use. The SMDs can also create a COM port for the “Virtual Rotator” from devices that are steered via switches such as transmit and receive vertical arrays. These devices behave just like they had a conventional rotator when they are selected and can be controlled by software running on the host PC via the Rotator COM Ports for the controlling SMD.

Our HF-6m Antennas

Our HF-6m Antennas

The first step in this upgrade was to layout a complete design for the RF and control elements of our station. The picture above shows the Antenna switching and control elements of our design. The tan boxes are switches and other RF elements such as Low-Noise pre-Amplifiers (LNAs) that are part of our antenna system. The grey boxes are microHAM control boxes which provide relay or serial data interfaces to shared equipment in our station.

microHAM Control Boxes And Hub

microHAM Control Boxes And Hub

The microHAM control boxes are all part of a shared serial bus (microHAM’s uLink bus) that interconnects all of the control boxes to the four SMDs in our shack. The picture above shows the uLink Hub where the four SMDs connect to the uLink bus (lower right), the serial control boxes (uLink DATA – upper row) which control our SteppIR antennas and Green Heron Rotator Controllers, and several uLink Relay control boxes (uLink RELAY 10 & RELAY 6 – lower row on the left side) which provide relay closures to control antenna switches, stack controllers and other equipment.

SteppIR DB36 w/80m Dipole and Stack Switching

SteppIR DB36 w/80m Dipole and Stack Switching Design

The microHAM SMD system is quite flexible and one can control just about any RF device or antenna system that you can dream up. We have two challenging configuration situations our station. The first is a SteppIR DB36 Yagi antenna with the 80m Rotatable Dipole Option installed parallel to the boom. The Rotatable Dipole uses the same SteppIR SDA100 Controller as the associated DB36 Yagi but must be pointed with a 90 degree offset when its selected. I was able to configure this easily using a virtual switch and antenna combination that made the Dipole appear as an independent antenna which shares the SDA100 controller with its associated DB36 Yagi.

The second configuration challenge was related to my custom Stack Switch and Phasing System. I built this element around the DX Engineering ProStack PS-2B Stack Switch and added a custom-built Feedline Breakout Switch to allow us to pull the lower SteppIR DB36 Yagi out of the stack so it can be used independently by a second radio. This allows one operator to use one of the two SteppIR Yagis on one band while the other operator uses the other one on a different band. Again, the flexibility of the microHAM SMD system allowed me to control the combination of the DXE Switch and the Custom Breakout Switch as a Single Two into Two Stack switch with Both Out of Phase (BOP) capability.

Automated Antenna Switching Matrix

Automated Antenna Switching Matrix

The next stage of the antenna switching system is a 10 x 4 antenna RF switching matrix which allows any of 10 antennas to be connected to any of the four radios in our shack. This part of the design is being executed using microHAM’s Ten Switches and 4+4 Switches as shown above. The 4 SMDs in the system all have access to this antenna switching matrix via the uLink bus and the associated uLink RELAY 10 control boxes so they can connect antennas to their radios. This matrix also provides switching between independent transmit and receive antennas for the 4 radios in our shack.

Operating Position Design (AB1OC)

Operating Position Design (AB1OC)

The final element of the design is the two SO2R operating positions. The picture above shows my operating position. As you can see, the MK2R+ provides the interface to the two radios and exchanges radio frequency, PTT, inhibit and other information with the two SMDs associated with each to the radios at this position. The SMDs provide direct control of the Band-Pass Filters (BPFs) and amplifiers for their associated radios. They both interface to the uLink bus via the uLink Hub so that they can control all of the antennas and switches which are shared across the station as well as coordinate the utilization of shared resources between the four radios in the setup.

The microHAM system has tremendous flexibility and my early work with it has gone well. There is a learning curve involved but microHAM’s documentation is excellent and Jozef, OM7ZZ and Joe, W4TV at microHAM have been great about answering my questions and helping me to configure my system. There is also a microHAM Yahoo! group which has been quite helpful. Many stations will not have the complexity to warrant the installation of a full microHAM system such as ours. For simpler stations, the microHAM Keyers, USB Interfaces or an MK2R or MK2R+ can provide simplified sharing and control of equipment across two radios.

As you can probably tell, the construction of the antenna automation portion of our station is a significant project. I will cover the rest of the project and more about the configuration of the system in a series of future posts. Right now I have our uLink bus built and all of the control boxes installed and configured. Two of our four SMDs are installed and operating. The planned next steps include adding a second MK2R+ and a second pair of SMDs to integrate Anita’s operating position into the system, building the antenna switching matrix and beginning to cut over some of our antennas to the new system. You can read the other articles our series on station automation here:

– Fred (AB1OC)

The 2013 ARRL DX Phone Contest – Occasionally, Everything New Works Out

ARRL DX Phone Contest Ops

AB1OC Operating In The ARRL DX Phone Contest

I participated in the 2013 ARRL DX Phone Contest from our recently completed shack in New Hampshire, USA. This was my first serious effort in a Phone contest and I participated in the Single-Operator, High Power Assisted category within the W/VE segment of the contest.

We have been enhancing our station’s contesting hardware and software recently. These enhancements included the addition of a microHAM MK2R+ SO2R interface the week before the contest.

microHAM MK2R+ SO2R Interface

microHAM MK2R+ SO2R Interface (Courtesy microHAM)

The MK2R+ provides a single interface to the two radios (an Icom IC-7800 and an Icom IC-9100) at my operating position. It allows one microphone, one set of headphones/speakers, one set of paddles, both radios’ FSK interfaces and the MK2R+’s built-in sound cards to be used with both radios in a very flexible way. I used the MK2R+ along with the our logger’s voice keyer as part of the contest. I only operated using a single radio, the Icom IC-7800, in Single Operator 2 VFO (SO2V) mode in this contest as I wanted to prove in the MK2R+ in a relatively simple configuration during the first contest that we used it in. The MK2R+ also provides for control and sharing of our SteppIR DB-36 antennas between the two radios at my position.

The other major station enhancement for this contest was my first use of the N1MM Logger. N1MM is a very sophisticated contest logger which provides many features to enable a more competitive contest effort to be mounted.

N1MM Screen Layout (Left Monitor)

N1MM Screen Layout (Left Monitor)

Anita (AB1QB) used N1MM as part of the 2013 CQ WPX RTTY Contest a few weeks back so we had some experience with it prior to this contest. N1MM presents a lot of information and I configured it to display various pieces of information on two different monitors. The picture above shows the N1MM setup on my left monitor during the contest. This screen is the primary one that I used to operate. It contains the logging and control windows for both VFOs on my Icom IC-7800 (lower left), the spotting cluster data and band maps for the same (upper left and center tall vertical windows), and the Super Check Partial call sign checking window and my contest score window  (to the right of the two logging windows). The final two windows on this monitor are the control window for our rotators (Ham Radio Deluxe, upper right) and N1MM’s cluster telnet window (lower right).

N1MM Screen Layout (Right Monitor)

N1MM Screen Layout (Right Monitor)

The N1MM setup on my right monitor displays statistics and results for my contest operations. The windows here include my contest QSO rates (upper left), map of multipliers (countries) worked by band (upper right), the logged calls during the contest (lower right) and my QSO rate and score statistics throughout the contest shown graphically (lower right). The graphical contest statistics are provided by a program called Athena.

Contest QSO Statistics

Contest QSO Statistics

As you can see from the picture above, Athena provides a great deal of information about my performance by band in real-time during the contest. It is also an excellent tool of analyzing your performance after the contest is completed.

So how did the contest go? Well, I operated for about 40 of the 48 hours of the available contest time. The following shows my final “claimed” score for the contest.

AB1OC's Claimed Score

AB1OC’s Claimed Score

It was very useful to analyze these results against other scores posted in my category on the 3830 website. When I compare the scores posted to these stats, I am pretty satisfied with the performance of my station on all bands but 160m. My 160m performance was a little weaker that the top stations in my category in this contest. My planned addition of a DX Engineering  8-Circle Receive Antenna System which will cover for 160m plus the addition of some longer radials for my 160m Inverted-L antenna should help with this.

I made extensive use of N1MM’s cluster data and band map features plus N1MM’s voice keyer to operate in Search and Pounce Mode at QSO rates which exceeded 150 QSO’s per hour at times. These rates were far better than I have ever been able to achieve. N1MM’s voice keyer coupled with some focus on improving my operating technique while running allowed me to approach QSO rates of 200 per hour at times while running. This coupled with decent coverage of the available multipliers resulted in a good overall score – by far my best so far.

Multipliers Worked In Contest

Multipliers Worked In Contest

One of my goals in every contest is to work as many DX stations as I can towards various DX awards. This contest was also my best effort to date in this area. The picture above shows the final set of multipliers (these are DXCC entities, think of these mostly as countries) during the contest. At the 24 hour point, I had worked 100 DXCC entities, effectively earning a Phone DXCC Award in 24 hours. My final count for the contest was 120 DXCC entities.

I learned a lot about how to select which bands to operate at various times during the contest as well as how to use some of the best capabilities of N1MM. I was also able to improve my operating skills as the contest progressed. I am looking forward to the next major Phone contest so that I can apply all that I learned and hopefully perform better. I am hoping to finish in the top 20 within my category for this contest which fulfills one of the major goals that we had when we set out to construct our new station.

– Fred (AB1OC)

First Tower Part 21 – Antennas On The Tower (Final Odds and Ends)

Finished Tower - Another View

Up the Tower

We completed all of the integration steps for our new antenna system recently and finally got everything on the air. I guess it’s safe to say a big project like this is never truly “all done” but we have all of the important work completed.

I spent some time weatherproofing all of the cables as they enter and exit the conduits to the shack. The conduits are constructed to allow water and condensation to drain into the ground so the goal here was to keep the water entering the conduits to a minimum. I also spent some time to make the cabling at the base of the tower a little neater and to ensure that things were securely fastened. I also weatherproofed several connectors at the tower and shack end of the feedlines and antennas.

Finished Tower Base

Finished Tower Base

We also installed a 1:2 UNUN on our 160m Inverted-L antenna. The antenna has an impedance of approximately 25 ohms at resonance which makes the SWR a little high and limits the antenna’s 2:1 SWR bandwidth.

160m Inverted-L With UNUN

160m Inverted-L With UNUN

We secured a 1:2 UNUN from Balun Designs to better match our 160m antenna to the 50-ohm feedline. As you can see from the picture below, the UNUN worked out quite well and the resulting 2:1 SWR bandwidth of our 160m Inverted-L is about 60 kHz at the base of the antenna.

160m Inverted-L SWR

160m Inverted-L SWR

Our final antenna farm consists of the following antennas:

The next project was to re-cable our antenna switching consoles to fully accommodate the new antennas including the 2m and 70cm Yagis as well the two feedlines to the 4 over 4 array of SteppIR DB36 Yagis. Our current antenna switching system consists of a manual array of switches that can route up to 8 antennas to any of four radios. This is done via two stages of switching. The first selects which antennas are assigned to which radios.

Antenna Switching Consoles

Stage 1 – Antenna Switching Consoles

The second stage consists of a switch at each radio which selects among the assigned antennas.

Antenna Switching At Radios

Stage 2 – Antenna Switching At Radios

This system, in conjunction with a set of ArraySolutions FilterMax III Switchable Bandpass Filters, allows both Anita and I to operate simultaneously of different bands or to operate in SO2R or Multi-Multi modes. We can use our Custom Feedline Breakout System to route our two SteppIR DB36 Yagis to different feedlines so that we can each use of the two HF Yagis simultaneously.

Bandpass Filters

Bandpass Filters

Our tower gets quite a workout when Anita and I are both operating simultaneously!

The switching for 2m and 70cm is much simpler. Our shack has one radio (an Icom IC-9100) setup for these bands and we use two UHF Antenna Switches in our console to select between the our M2 Systems Yagis on these bands or a Diamond X300NA repeater antenna on a 45 ft mast.

Diamond 300-XA Antenna On Mast

Diamond X300NA Antenna On Mast

With the re-cabling of the antenna switching complete, we were able to get our new 2m and 70cm Yagis on the air and fully test the associated preamp and sequencer systems. This setup works very well with our Icom IC-9100 radio. The preamps provide about 20 dB of gain and the M2 Systems S2 Sequencers automatically switch them in and out when we key up the IC-9100. The added gain from the preamps really helps with weak signal work on the 2m and 70cm bands. You can see the sequencers in operations in the following video of a 2m SSB QSO with N1RJX.

It is going to be fun doing weak signal work on 2m and 70cm and we are planning to participate in some VHF contests in the future. I also want to try some EME work when the moon is on the horizon. Our antenna switching setup on these bands can accommodate more antennas and I am planning to add antennas for Low-Earth satellites and possibly EME work in the future.

I also integrated our Green Heron Rotator Controllers with our computers and the Ham Radio Deluxe Software which we use. This allows us to point our beams with a mouse click. You can see the point and shoot rotator operation in action in the following video which captures a QSO between PY7DJ in Brazil and 5H3CMG in Tanzania on 20m. Note how the signals come up out of the noise as the 4 over 4 array of Yagis swings in the direction of the participating stations. You are hearing PY7DJ off the side of the array but he is still quite strong. 5H3CMG indicated in an earlier QSO with me that he was using a low dipole and 100W. The strength of his signal is an indication of the performance of our antenna system.

We also cleaned up the supports for our 80m loop. It is important to have a setup that keeps constant tension on the support ropes when the anchoring trees move in the wind. We used the same setup that has worked well on our OCF Dipole for some time. This setup consists of a pulley attached to a tree and a rubber tarp anchor which maintains constant tension on the support line as the anchoring tree sways in the wind.

Wire Antenna Anchor

Wire Antenna Anchor

Given that I had the ladders out to do this, I also took the opportunity to adjust the supports for our other antennas and do our annual antenna checkout and maintenance routine prior to the onset of winter.

At this point, we are looking forward to enjoying operating our new station! The work to date has been really rewarding and we have learned a tremendous amount from everyone who has helped us. I guess some would say that all of this equipment would not be something they would want to have in their back yard but to a dedicated Amateur Radio operator, a tower and a stack of Yagis is truly a thing of beauty! I sometimes catch my self looking up the tower and staring at all of the gear up there. Each item has a story and there are many good memories about the journey to get to this point.

Up The Tower At Sunset

Up The Tower At Sunset

So what comes next for our station? We are planning to add a computer-controlled automated operating setup from microHAM and we will most likely be installing it sometime this winter. We are also planning to set up our SteppIR BigIR Vertical in a new location and add a receive antenna system for the low bands. We are also considering antennas for Satellite operations, EME, … My next project is going to be to learn Morse Code and become active on CW.

Completed Tower And Antennas

Completed Tower And Antennas

You can read more about our tower project via the articles which follow:

– Fred, AB1OC