Youngsters on the Air 2017

This is an abridged version of my article published in RadCom Vol. 93 No. 10 October 2017. You might also like to watch the recording of my lecture at the Radio Society of Great Britain Convention on this topic, embedded below.

Lecture at RSGB Convention 2017, Milton Keynes

YOTA 2017 saw young people from all over the world come together in the UK for a week of fun, amateur radio based activities.

Saturday 5 August saw the arrival of participants to the Scout Activity Centre at Gilwell Park, north London, in dribs and drabs, as volunteer minibus drivers collected participants from Heathrow, Luton and Stansted airports and the nearby railway station. Participants were divided into five streams each led by a young person. Sunday then saw the much-anticipated intercultural evening; a great experience where we got to know each other as delegates as well as sampling various food and drink from the various countries in attendance. We were thrilled to see a representative from the Romanian Embassy’s community engagement department arrive to lend a hand to Team YO.

Summits on the Air

Attendees were fortunate to have Kevin Richardson, G0PEK and his daughter Lauren, M6HLR at YOTA 2017, fresh from completing their challenge of activating all 214 Wainrights in the Lake District the week before. Kevin and Lauren were able to tell us about their experiences – and more importantly, lessons learned – through their time spent on the mountainside. This included accounts of their building of ultra-lightweight antenna systems, repurposing mountaineering equipment such as Nordic poles into masts; and a discussion on power sources (the humble mobile phone ‘power bank’ is remarkably versatile) and logging methods (waterproof notepad and a pencil wins!). Thanks to Kevin’s background as a Mountain Leader, the discussion was not just limited to the technical challenges faced in activating summits, but included topics such as weather, appropriate clothing, navigation (and back-ups) and emergency shelters – helping to ensure we stay safe when SOTA-ing.

Building a transceiver

Hans Summers, G0UPL of QRP-labs.com designed a specific 17 m Morse transceiver kit for attendees to build. It gives an output of 3 W to 5 W depending on supply voltage, which can range from 7 V to 15 V, and comes with a software Morse decoder – making it ideal for those for whom the Foundation Morse Appreciation was their first encounter with CW. A microswitch on the printed circuit board could also be used as a surprisingly effective straight key, making CW operation even more accessible. Steve Hartley, G0FUW, known for his work on the Bath buildathons and annual RSGB Convention buildathon said it was “easier to say what the kit doesn’t do” than what it did – Hans even included an integral signal generator and alignment tools for set-up, and test equipment such as a voltmeter, RF power meter, and frequency counter. The kit’s beacon mode also allowed for automatic CW or Weak Signal Propagation Reporting (WSPR) operation.

Bletchley Park

Each stream visited Bletchley Park, the home of Britain’s wartime codebreakers; they received a guided tour courtesy of Martin Atherton, G3ZAY. We were interested to learn about the role of RTTY, still used to this day on the bands, in World War, in the form of a lesser known, but far more advanced, German cipher machine. The Lorenz was connected to a teleprinter and used to encode and decode radio teletype – used instead of the Enigma for sending much longer messages. It was surprising to learn that the logical structure and workings of the machine were deduced only from a couple of received messages, three years before one of the Lorenz machines were obtained by Britain. Some visitors also had the opportunity to go round the National Museum of Computing, seeing a working, rebuilt Colossus – the first electronic, digital computer which was developed to break the Lorenz cipher using statistical analysis.

Direction-finding

Participants had to find a number of low power transmitters in YOTA 2017’s very own ARDF challenge. Two courses were devised by Frank Heritage, M0AEU, assisted by Alan Wilson, G3WNS, and Barbara Wilson, G8AKU, each with five transmitters. One course was on 80m, and the other on 2m; these had the participants running across most of the 108 acre site.

All the transmitters were AM carrier sending Morse. Each would transmit for 30 seconds giving an ident, and would then fall silent allowing the next beacon to transmit. This meant that when searching for a specific beacon, participants needed to wait 2½ minutes between transmissions.

International Space Station contact

The ARISS UK team, led by Ciaran Morgan, M0XTD, arrived at Gilwell Park on Monday in advance of the planned contact with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli aboard the International Space Station on Tuesday evening, and had their station assembled by 17:00 .

Everyone assembled at 18:30 for some presentations from Mike Jones, 2E0MLJ, and Steve Hartley, G0FUW, Event Managers, as well as from Nick Henwood, G3RWF, RSGB President, and Rob Chipperfield, M0VFC on the progress of GB17YOTA so far. A letter from the Society’s Patron, the Duke of Edinburgh, was read out wishing us all luck.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to establish communications. Ciaran M0XTD explained the possible issues faced – and that, in the end, contacting the ISS is an experiment that isn’t always guaranteed to work. However, he was able to make a call with the famous words, “Houston, we have a problem,” and received the suggestion of contacting the ISS Mission Control Flight Director to look at the possibility of trying the contact again on the next orbit, with Paolo having moved to the transceiver in the Russian module. This second attempt was successful, with twelve young people asking questions.

Ofcom Baldock monitoring station visit

Delegates were able to look at some of the new technology in use at Ofcom’s monitoring station at Baldock in Bedfordshire, including kit from Texas Instruments to record and later play back RF samples from a site, and backpack based equipment for surveying mobile phone coverage – as well as a similar unit designed for inclusion in Network Rail’s New Measurement Train to monitor and thus help improve mobile coverage for those travelling on the National Rail network. For those of us in Team UK, it was also a great opportunity to discuss career opportunities!

A visit to the Operations Room gave us an insight into the work tackling pirate stations in Band II (FM broadcast), as well as HF direction finding using geographically diverse arrays. We also had an interesting visit to their screened chamber lab, where participants were able to demonstrate experimentally the absorption effects of various materials on 5G frequencies (26 GHz) – with tree branches leading to surprisingly significant losses, whereas those from polystyrene were comparatively small.

GB17YOTA Special Event Station

One of the main highlights of the week was operation of the HF radio Special Event Station with callsign GB17YOTA. We were very fortunate to have the support of the Camb-Hams, the social side of Cambridge Repeater Group.

The station was active on a wide variety of bands and modes throughout the week, such as meteor scatter MSK144 on 6m/4m and PSK, DominoEX and other digital modes on HF 30m. The German team held a seminar on digital communication modes including some more obscure ones such as Hellschreiber. Just over 20% of QSOs of the final 10,384 contacts were made by Morse code.

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