Visit to ARRL

IMG_20131226_151413On Boxing Day, I was getting a little stir-crazy at my in-laws house in Mount Vernon New York, where we are spending most of Christmas Break.  After a few frenzied days of presents, trips into New York City, and late night game-playing sessions, everyone was in the mood to crash, read books, and maybe watch some TV.

I was in the mood to play radio, hadn’t brought along any radio equipment. However, it occurred to me that I knew of at least one station within a short drive: the mothership, the radio station of the American Radio Relay League itself, W1AW.  I did a quick check on google maps showed it less than 90 minutes away.

I gave ARRL a quick call to make sure that some staff would be there and then pointed the car at Connecticut. I drove though light flurries on the way up — the sort that did not even require windshield wipers, but also the sort that would shut down the government for a week if they were to occur in the DC area, where I usually live.  The trip to Newington, CT was uneventful, and as I drove down Main Street, I stopped checking street address numbers when I started to see antenna towers through the tree branches.  These are  monstrously tall towers like you might find in the middle of the plains states or West Virginia, but more the sort you’d expect in the suburbs. What is remarkable is that each of the towers is chocked full of antennas, some of them really not very high above the lawn.

The W1AW station itself faces Main Street, and the picture was taken almost from the road. Behind the station, there is a parking lot, and behind that is the ARRL administrative office.  I parked and headed into the office building, the front portion of which is a large reception area. One side is a display area for ARRL publications, tee-shirts, etc., but there is also a front desk. I signed into the log book at the front desk and was told that if I wanted, I could join a tour and/or operate W1AW.

The day after Christmas, many of the staff took the day off, so it was quiet at HQ, but a volunteer, Jim, took me around to see the place.  We started in some offices related to member activities including the outgoing QSL bureau, VEC, and EMCOMM support. We peeked in at various offices related to creating the ARRL publications like QST and QEX: the editorium, the graphics department, and the labs in which product review testing takes place. The product testing room is essentially fully shielded and has a solid wall of test gear. Across from it, there is a more conventional lab with work benches, soldering irons, and typical test gear piled high. Walking through the halls, there were several display cases with all sorts of antique radio and electronic gear, documents related to technical and political milestones in radio, and some of the original Wouff Hong artifacts.

After touring the admin building, we walked across the parking lot and spent some time in W1AW itself.  In the foyer area, there is a rotary spark gap generator (not connected to an antenna), and the Old Man’s desk, with vintage gear.  There are three modern operating rooms, each with two positions.  In the first room, boom-mounted Heil mikes are attached to top-end contesting rigs — $15k+ radios with more knobs, buttons and glowy bits that I knew what to do with.  The middle room was also set up for voice operation and perhaps digital, and the room nearest the front of the building had more middle range rigs and was set up for CW.  There is also a computer console in the center of the station that controls the automated transmissions. Behind it, there is a wall of rack-mounted equipment including the patch bays that allow RF to be routed from any operation position to any antenna.

Screen Shot 2013-12-28 at 9.02.53 PM 1When I got back that evening, I took a moment to renew my license.  I just took a look at QRZ, and it appears that the renewal has already been processed by the FCC.  Looks like I won’t have to think about this again until 2024.

 

A tale of two contests: 160m and 10m

I worked both ends of HF this weekend — the first time I’ve worked 160m with my own call sign. On Saturday night, I spend about four hours on a borrowed dipole to crank out about 50 contacts in the ARRL 160m contest. I was psyched for the contest because myK3 was able to tune my 40m attic dipole for 160m, but on Friday evening I got no (zero!) acknowledgment when I  tried to reply to juicy-sounding CQs. I must have been putting out only a few milliwatts. I gave some thought to temporarily modifying my vertical as an inverted L, but with rain and snow, that wasn’t appealing. So, I ended up operating from a friend’s station with a multiband dipole that worked on 160m. Probably not an optimal antenna, but better than the attic. The background buzz was about an S9, so I’m sure I wasn’t hearing everything there was to hear.

On Sunday from about 1 to 5 pm local, I worked the 10m RTTY contest. The was some solar activity and K reached about 4, and contacts became water around 2 pm, when I took a couple hour break. When I came back, I signals jumped back up for a bit before disappearing into the night. I was using my attic 10/17 fan dipole, and for whatever reason, I seemed to have a direct line into Colorado. I also worked Brazil (PP1CZ) and two stations in Chile (CT8/DK9WI and CE3PG) That last call sign was familiar to me: Dino Besomi is the president of the Amateur Radio Club of Chile, and helped me connect with the club when I visited Chile last month.

Between the 10m contest and the 160m contest, I covered most of the contiguous United States:

160m contacts
160m contacts

10 contacts
10 contacts

JackYack Rev A

The Version A circuit laid out in Eagle CAD. Top of board view.
The Version A circuit laid out in Eagle CAD. Top of board view.

Back in October, I mentioned an open source keyer developed for the ATTINY 45 and requiring only a few components. The source code for the controller and an example schematic were uploaded to a repository. Subsequently, I decided to try my hand at producing a PC board. Rather than try some sort of printer-based method based on toner transfer, I wanted to try going a more professional route and having the PCB run off by a fab. Initially, I thought I’d have to go overseas and wait upwards of a month for my boards to come back, but I found a domestic fab that provides an amazing service for low volume prototype boards: OSH Park.

I had already laid the schematic out in Eagle CAD, which seems to be popular among hobbyists. Most of my components were available in off-the-shelf libraries, but I had to layout the piezo speaker as a custom part (although I started from another similar piezo speaker and just had to modify the dimensions). It took a while to get the hang of laying everything out on the PCB, laying down ground planes, routing the traces, and making the silk screen look nice, but after many hours with online tutorials, it all looked right. I ran some rules checks, and everything reasonable, as far as I could tell.

Next, I shopped around using the online check and quote tools available from a number of popular fab houses. To upload my design, in most cases, I had to send a zip file of the various Gerber layers — top copper, bottom copper, top silk, etc.  But, for OSH Park, all I had to do was upload the Eagle board file itself. This makes a lot of sense, as the Gerbers are generated from that file, so all the information is already there in the board file.

The OSH Park site interprets the board file on the fly and provides a rendering of approximately what the board will look like when final. There are a number of options regarding cost, turn around, etc., but I opted to get three copies of my design for about ten dollars by agreeing to have my boards made as part of a larger run to take place in about two weeks from the date of submission. The way OSH Park makes prototype boards affordable is by merging multiple designs into one larger board and then cutting that board apart.  Their cost is per square inch, and I had designed my board to be one by two inches — not bad considering that I used all through-hole components and did not go out of my way to pack them tight on the surface of the board. In fact, my design is a little generous in that I give a number of ground connection points, whereas only one is really necessary for the sake of wiring in external components.

The board as rendered immediately after upload at OSH Park.
The board as rendered immediately after upload at OSH Park.

From the time of submission until the envelope arrived, I was able to track progress of the order, so there was particular excitement on the day that I knew the package would be waiting in my mailbox. When I opened the padded shipping packet up, I found three little purple boards, just about identical to the rendering that was provided when I had uploaded the design.

The front of the board, with components added.
The front of the board, with components added.

The back side of the board, before I started soldering.
The back side of the board, before I started soldering.

The PC boards are excellent quality, with no alignment issues. The solder mask went where it was supposed to go, all the vias are functional, and the pads take solder well and have no tendency towards lifting. Components went onto the board without any fuss and when powered up, the board worked perfectly, the first time.  Having verified that the design works, I’ve shared the board on the OSH Park website.

Now that this seems to be working, one option would be to run off more copies of the boards and do something with them — embedded keyers, stand alone kits, etc., but now that I’ve tried out designing a through hole board, I’m curious how much more compact the design would be with surface mount parts (and how much more difficult it would be to assemble).