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
I made over 2,400 QSOs and worked 117 DXCC entities.
CQ Zones Worked
I was also able to work all but two of the 40 CQ zones.
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.
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.
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).
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
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
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:
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 microHAMMK2R+ 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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)
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:
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 (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)
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)
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Stage 1 – Antenna Switching Consoles
The second stage consists of a switch at each radio which selects among the assigned antennas.
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 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 SteppIR DB36 Yagi antennas swing 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
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
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
You can read more about our tower project via the articles which follow: