The Most Exciting Era in Amateur Radio -- the Merging of Radio with Computer/Internet Technology by Reg, VE7IG
We are now in one of the most exciting, if not the most exciting, eras in amateur radio. This is due to the successful merging of radio with computer technology (including internet). So many new things are happening all at the same time. Some have been around for a while but are just now seeing usage peaking way up. One of these is IRLP. Most repeater systems have a standalone IRLP node where, as long as the internet is up, you can talk to hams around the world through your local repeater.
Another fairly recent addition is APRS-GPS tracking. Imagine having your mobile location tracked on a map on the internet. This is a lot of fun but also a safety measure for amateurs who routinely travel in wilderness areas, such as repeater technicians. For some time amateurs have been building equipment around VHF radios and GPS receivers for this purpose but recently the major radio amateur equipment companies have offered radios with this application built in.
Computer digital modes have been around for quite a while but recently WSJT-X with its array of new weak signal modes has been developed by radio amateur PHDs at Princeton University physics department, and offered free to the amateur community. One of these, FT8 mode, has become extremely popular almost overnight. Much has been written about FT8 recently but all that is required is a computer with a sound card interface to a ham radio transceiver. With the sun-spot cycle in decline this mode will become increasingly popular.
Then we have the Arduino microcontroller board with a host of amateur radio projects you can easily build and program. Books are available on amateur radio projects using this board and the internet has a lot of others, just google to see. You can also learn some programming working with this board.
One of the greatest and most exciting recent developments is the building and programming of remote amateur radio stations, controlled over the internet. Basically there are three kinds of these remotes. One is where you remote your home station so you can operate it away from home. The other is where you establish another station at a different location and operate it remotely. There are also club stations and commercially available remote stations you can pay to use. These are increasingly important for hams who live in antenna restricted areas or older hams living in retirement centres. Building a remote station and programming the controllers and internet routers is not a simple exercise. Some have used computers at the remote location and internet programs such as Ham Radio Deluxe and Skype to facilitate voice transmission and control but there is relatively inexpensive specialized equipment available which does this without needing computers at the remote site or Skype or other third party equipment. Since the internet only serves as control lines and all RF is received and transmitted at the remote site, operating these remote stations is little different from operating right at the remote station itself. For a great example enter VE6WZ in QRZ.com and take some virtual trips around Steve’s fantastic remote station on the videos he has provided.
DXCC, IOTA and other amateur radio awards have developed internet data bases for recording and application of QSOs/QSLs for these awards. With LoTW you can confirm DXCC and some other award applications quickly and inexpensively if desired without the need to mail envelopes through the postal system. IOTA has recently developed such a system as well. With ever increasing postal costs this amateur radio internet technology makes it easier for amateurs to pursue their favorite awards. FT8 users are increasingly jumping on the LoTW bandwagon since FT8 includes an automatic log of the type suited for LoTW uploads, making it so easy!
The last recent addition I will mention here is the tiny inexpensive Raspberry Pi computer with its complement of amateur radio applications. You only have to google “raspberry pi amateur radio” to come up with a ton of stuff!
There are of course a lot more examples of the recent growth in the merging of radio and computer/internet technology but this is enough to show what it is and what it means for amateur radio. For one thing it makes amateur radio far more attractive to young people and we sure need more of them in the hobby. Further, it is well known that learning a host of new things as people grow older helps stave off dementia. Retired amateurs should have the time or maybe should make the time to involve themselves in this new technology. It is fun and very rewarding.
There will be detractors as usual and several of them will come out of the woodwork to negatively comment on this article. I think of them as Neo-Luddite dinosaurs and have to laugh at them coming on this forum, which is itself a fine example of amateur radio internet technology, and complaining about it as they are prone to do. The same types questioned the transition from spark to CW, from CW to radiotelephone and other important additions to amateur radio asking “ok but is this really ham radio?” Of course it is and it is amateur radio at its best and finest. Jump in and enjoy the fun.
If you are interested in digital here are some great products to start.