4 reasons why you should become a HAM radio operator
Imagine pursuing a hobby that’s directly connected to electronics, communication, space and so much more. We are talking about Ham Radio or the Amateur radio. When every other means of communication succumb to the wrath of nature and human conflicts, ham radio provides hope. More and more individuals are beginning to look at this hobby as the need of the hour for many reasons. Being useful in times of disaster is one thing, but the ability to teach us various life skills in a variety of domains is unique to this hobby.
Do you remember a scene in the movie Independence Day where the officers use code to transmit information around the world? Check out the video below to refresh your memory.
The video shows an example of what’s known as ‘morse code communication’. It’s a way of communication employing transmission of dots and dashes (dit and dah tones). Teaching this to school children helps to improve their grasping power which in turn improves their learning ability. The simple morse code has lead to many psychological studies which have helped psychologists better understand the way our mind works. On the other hand, morse code has special importance in disaster communication. You may not understand the spoken words but your brain will easily understand the morse code tones in some of the worse conditions.
Pursuing this hobby will open avenues for individuals to explore the exciting world of practical physics. Being active in your favourite frequency band will improve your alertness trying to decode what others are saying. At times, you will become a meteorologist while relaying WX information (weather information). On some days you may be busy understanding space weather. Going to the moon may be far fetched, but you can have your signal visit the moon and come back.
1. Communicate with people across the world (on certain frequency bands)
Mobiles, WiFi, wireless industrial applications, televisions, radars and so on all operate on specific frequency bands allotted to them. For instance, whoever wishes to use any part of the frequency spectrum needs to vomit a considerable chunk of money to the regulatory authority. This is simply unfair for those who wish to use it non-profit use! If the technological advancements don’t fall into the hands of people for free use, then what good are they? Fortunately, the amateur radio spectrum in various frequency bands is available for licensed use, and it does not cost money, unlike your cell phone. People have been making QSOs (radio contacts) across the world over these frequency bands. All you need to do is pass a simple exam and you will be awarded a license with a station call sign. Your call sign becomes your identity in the world of amateur radio.
You heard that right. You can literally communicate with people across the world. How does that happen? Let us try to understand that in brief.
Our Earth’s atmosphere comprises of several layers. One of the layers known as the ionosphere which absorbs solar radiation and the air molecules over there become ionized. In other words, the air in this layer is electrically charged. This ionosphere occurs between 60 km to 400 km from the sea level. The higher we go, the more electrically charged the air is as compared to the lower regions of the ionosphere. This ionized air appears like a mirror to radio waves. As a result, the transmitted radio waves bounce back to the earth. Now, considering the height of the ionosphere from the sea level, our radio signal can reach places which are much further, even continents apart.
DL4MFM‘s 20m QSO (radio contact) map shows the radio users he made contact with on that particular day. Note that DL4MFM is the station call sign of the individual. Here, 20m being the wavelength corresponds to 14MHz band. It is interesting to see how DL4MFM could reach all the way out to Ukraine and Romania.
Usually, after reading such exciting stuff, people tend to get afraid. The usual thought that might come to the mind may be “I could never do something like this”. Let’s put a stop to that kind of thinking right away. A Base station and an Antenna will be more than enough to achieve what I described above. “For the interest of the common man” stands to be the motto of pursuing the hobby of ham radio.
2. Transmit images using SSTV (Slow scan television)
Sending morse coded messages and voice communication are not the only things you can do over the Ham radio. You could even transmit an image if you wished to do so. Image transmission can happen with coded audio tones. Various coding techniques are available for use. For example, Martin modes, Robot36, Scottie mode and so on. The time taken to transmit image varies with each mode.
This audio clip will give you an idea of how SSTV transmission sounds like. Below the audio clip is the image received in the decoding application.
Sometime in June 2017, Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) was continuously transmitting SSTV images it had gathered over the past two decades. Anyone on the earth could receive those images whenever the ISS passed overhead. Fortunately, I was able to capture a good copy of the image using very basic equipment; a handheld VHF receiver, Yagi Antenna and the android phone with the SSTV decoding app.
Amateur radio on ISS
Additionally, SSTV from ISS is not the only signal you could receive from the heavens above. Amateur radio satellites actively revolve around the earth and they carry a repeater on them. A repeater primarily receives signal of a certain frequency and transmits it on another frequency. By doing this, the satellite helps in extending the range of communication to a great extent. You can only go to a radius of few tens of kilometres over VHF frequencies and it gets worse if you are in an urban terrain. Moreover, amateur radio satellites work on VHF and UHF frequencies too, but being at a height, they allow communications to happen across nations. Figuring out the satellite orbit path across the sky and aligning your antennas for a good signal is all a tricky business but an enjoyable one. The excitement to speak with someone far away on a traditional radio can be far more exciting than having a chat on the internet. Words simply cannot express it.
3. Earth Moon Earth (EME) Communication
Moon is a natural satellite of the planet Earth. Why not use it? Some people took this question as a challenge and came up with this new means of communication. In the world of science, we know that radio waves bounce when they hit an object. Larger the surface, larger the reflection we get. Fortunately, the moon being really large behaves like a huge reflector sitting up in the sky. I am sure you must be understanding where we are going at.
EME is a very straightforward concept. All you need to do is emit some radio signals on the way to the moon, wait for them to get reflected back to earth. Anyone on the earth that can view the moon will be able to receive your signal on their radios. It’s known for a fact that you can practically cover the entire globe with HF frequency band. They said the VHF and the UHF could never do something like this. Surprisingly, the moon stepped in and offered help to our VHF/UHF folks. Although it’s possible to do EME on these frequency bands, the returning signal is extremely weak. Afterall, the signal had to travel a huge distance. In comparison, most amateurs prefer ionospheric bouncing on HF bands.
You need to be crazy enough to do this at home
In the world of hams, many exciting things have happened over the moon. Take a look at OE5JFL’s page where he has demonstrated his EME station. I guess you need to be crazy enough to do this kind of thing. Do you remember the supermoon from last year? While you were busy staring at the moon with your eyes wide open, the moon was really busy reflecting radio waves. Surprisingly, we would have never thought that people would do such a thing!
4. When disaster strikes, you can rely on your HAM radio
It’s not a surprise for two people separated by a huge ocean to talk over the radio. We all saw that in the movie “High frequency (1988)” where the two individuals who witnessed a murder, try to warn the next victim. They happen to achieve this over ham radio. Similar stories happen in real life and you could be a witness to it if you come up on air.
Hams bring coordinate the rehab efforts
The year 2017 alone has provided many instances where communication completely fell apart. For example, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Katia all caused a colossal damage to the places where it hit. Puerto Rico took a severe beating from hurricanes Irma and Maria. So much so, that majority of the region was out of power and essential resources such as groceries, clean water, etc. Not to mention the amount of infrastructure destroyed by the hurricanes. Destroyed infrastructure also included the cellphone network which meant that Puerto Rico remained disconnected from the outside world.
Amateur Radio operators across Puerto Rico and around the region activated coordinated efforts to expedite the restoration of the area. As you can imagine, things become tough when communication between people breaks down. For example, food and other resources might be on the way from the USA, but there is no way of knowing what region requires it on priority. In such cases, Ham radios help in establishing the communication link and reporting information from the ground in real time. This effort leads to prioritising disaster recovery operations. In other cases, ham radio greatly helped in channelling the rescue operations to most needy places. Hams being present at the ground zero can communicate with the outside world when no one else can.
Channelling rescue operations in Nepal
The earthquake that happened back in April 2015 killed over 9000 individuals. On the other hand, thousands got trapped at various places across the mountainous country. The Himalayan nation completely collapsed with no means of channelling proper rescue efforts. Ham radio operators from India and surrounding countries rushed to the ground zero and started reporting information from the disaster struck areas. Hams from France, Nepal, India, Portugal and many other countries picked up the information coming from Nepal and started making it available for other people. Correspondingly, vital information from the ‘Ground Zero’ started becoming available for the relatives of the victims. Parallelly, this information also helped the authorities in channelling the rescue operations to required areas.
Interested in the hobby?
Operating the amateur radio station requires a license from your government. Getting a license requires you to give a short and simple examination. You pass the exam and get the license and a call sign. For those interested in my callsign, I go by VU3XEN over the radio.
Acquiring a license is not the end of it. The real journey starts right after you get your license. To begin with, you can now purchase amateur radio equipment such as a base station or a hand held transceiver, legally. We have made a short video showing the process of getting your first VHF station up and running.
Oh, and do not forget to check out how I had my VHF station installed at my QTH (Q-code for “my home”).
Icom IC-718 HF base station happens to be the most recommended for beginners. On the other hand, Icom-2300H or Yaesu FT-2980R are two excellent VHF base stations. The Yaesu FT-60 hand held transceiver is a rock solid device that can last atleast a couple of days before the battery dies. The list of equipment would go on but to use it without a license and a call sign would be illegal. So, go ahead and become a HAM.
QRT 73s An amateur way to say Good bye and Best wishes.