Thursday, May 19, 2016

W6KWF Repeater at Maker Faire Bay Area

This weekend is the Bay Area Maker Faire! For once, I'm actually attached to a booth; I'll be helping the Bay-Net group show off their Software Defined Radio themed booth, so make sure to come find us if you're at all interested in SDR.

It isn't SDR related, but I will be setting up a UHF analog repeater, so if you're coming to Maker Faire and happen to have an amateur radio license, make sure to bring your radio and have 441.875MHz programmed with a +5MHz offset and 100.0Hz PL and Tone Squelch.

This is the first time I've set up a repeater at Maker Faire (and I'm not aware of it happening before). I'm really interested to see how many users an ad-hoc repeater collects at an event like Maker Faire. If you do get on it, make sure to say hi!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Talk on Wildflower Communications


Last Friday I drove up to the Marin Amateur Radio Society to give a talk on my involvement with the Wildflower Triathlon and how we build their communications network out in the middle of nowhere. The slides are also available.

As always, if you're a club in the bay area or central coast, let me know if you'd like me to come speak on this or one of my other amateur radio related projects.

Somewhat related, we managed to get custom boot screens on our HTs this year!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Wildflower Triathlon Lake Visit #3

Since it's now April, most of my free time is being dedicated to preparing for the Wildflower Triathlon. Of course, I'm nowhere near crazy enough to actually attempt to run a triathlon; I'm on the communications team, so my triathlon experience involves more radios inside a dispatch center than running or swimming out on the course.

This weekend was the last of several big work weekends before the event, where we worked to get all of the communications systems and plans ready, as well as cleaning up the whole park in general. When we weren't out setting stuff up or cleaning, we were sitting in meetings going over the event timelines or crisis plans for if anything happens (rain, heat, major injuries, etc).

My weekend started a day early; I took Friday off from work so I could beat the rush out of the bay area, and managed to get to Lake San Antonio around 1PM. First thing I did was stop by our radio site and turn on one of our UHF commercial repeaters, which is solar powered before the event and used to coordinate the pre-event logistics. Once that was sorted, I pulled into the committee campground and was immediately put to work unloading food and supplies to keep the committee fed and happy all weekend while working around the park. The majority of committee (~70 people across all the functional groups this weekend) showed up around 6PM, at which point we had dinner, a couple hours of presentations, and a scavenger hunt to familiarize the new volunteers with all the important locations around the course. The day concluded with some well-earned drinking, and it's off to bed at 2:30AM.

My Saturday started at 6:00AM, by which point the hospitality team had already made breakfast available, so a quick bagel and Greek yogurt for breakfast before it's off to work. Rumor had it there was a "tree issue" down at Beach City where all the Cal Poly volunteers camp event weekend, so I drove down there and showed up to this:
A tree had fallen over, and needed to be cut up into firewood/chipped before the event. Normally, the park rangers take care of issues like this, but since the San Antonio park was shuttered last year that work load has fallen on us to get the park ready for the event. A few hours of cutting wood, and it was time to go work on getting our dispatch center set up with the rest of the communications committee.
Normally, we run our dispatch center out of the park visitor center, but the building was recently condemned, so we've been getting creative with where we set up all of our radios.
Thankfully, the next building over happened to have an office available, so the rest of the morning was spent setting antennas up on this wooden frame we built last year, running coax, and reorganizing the inside of the office to how we'll need it event weekend. It's hard to see, but the unistrut has three commercial UHF antennas, two VHF commercial antennas, and an amateur X-50 dual band antenna. As you can imagine, needing six antennas means it can sometimes get a little fast and heavy in dispatch.
We also needed to set up a few lines of lathes for marking off the communications campground to afford our volunteers some separation from the event when we're off-duty. I left the communications committee with a pile of 50 lathes and a mallet, and later came back to discover their creative solutions on how to all pound lathes at the same time. Sticks and stones may drive our lathes, but something something something...

Having made it to lunch time, it was cold cuts for lunch, and then I reported to Race Command for a 90 minute meeting on planning EMS response event weekend. During the event, we're usually juggling several ambulances, a few fire response trucks, and a med-evac helicopter, so there's a lot of moving parts which we need to make sure all move in concert.
After the EMS meeting, it was back to Beach City to work on that fallen tree more, and have a meeting with the operations committee on how we were doing on the master to-do list. These are the great guys which you never see during the event, but who all make the entire event possible.
Chris and I caught the action item to go do more wood cleanup around the park. Various branches have fallen off trees, so we went out and Chris cut them up while I loaded them in my pickup to deliver to our firewood piles. My Ford Ranger may be the smallest truck of everyone on committee, but it pulls its weight.

After a few hours of branch cutting, it was time for dinner, and then more well-earned partying for the committee. Thankfully, I managed to get to bed sooner on Saturday: an opulent 1:30AM.

It's remarkable how well trained my body is after a few years of helping with this event; even after a day and a half of hard work and hard partying, Sunday I'm still up at 6:00AM sharp without an alarm.

Just as I'm sitting down to breakfast (again magnificently ready when I got up thanks to our wonderful hospitality volunteers), word comes in that one of the committee members is stranded a few miles outside the park where her car just died. A few of us load up in a truck and head out to see what we can do. We didn't manage to get the car re-started, so we hitched it to the truck and I got to steer the car back into the park while getting towed.

After grabbing a few bites of what was left of breakfast, it was back to dispatch to continue with some fit and finish there. Things were going smoothing, so Chris, Casey, and I loaded up to go attack another branch laying in the middle of one of the camp grounds.
This branch had clearly fallen a few years ago and been simply dragged off the road. We had need for the firewood, so the challenge was to see if we could again fit such a large branch in my pickup.
This was about when Chris looked over and saw a very young rattlesnake coming towards him in the grass. One point on the board to Casey for dealing with it.
Success! And working on it didn't even run over into lunch. We may have gone a little past my truck's load limit, but thankfully I only needed to limp it back to our volunteer campground. After dropping the wood, it was back to the committee campground for lunch.

After lunch, we started cutting volunteers loose as they finished up their final prep for before event week. Most of my afternoon was spent discussing our policies for using the computer aided dispatch system that I spin up for the event, and lots of cleanup around the committee campground. By 4:00PM, pretty much everything was cleaned up, so I dug deep and braced myself for the three hour drive home and rolled out.

At this point, the next three weeks for me will be spent in the bay area configuring and testing radios to be ready to drop in event weekend, which for me starts the Tuesday night (April 26th). Most of the rest of the volunteers show up Friday (April 29th), and work through Sunday afternoon (May 1st).

If you're interested in volunteering on the communications committee, we're still looking for more signups until this Friday (April 15th). It's best if you have your amateur radio license, but even if you don't we can still put you to good use in places where an amateur license isn't required.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tower Climbing on Mt Toro

This Saturday was a nice change of pace; I got to climb a 180' radio tower.

Starting several months ago, my buddy Marcel and I decided to get serious about our amateur tower climbing and started putting out feelers for anyone in the bay area/northern California looking for volunteer tower climbers. This got us in touch with the WB6ECE repeater group and the Salinas Valley Repeater Group, which are both extensive repeater networks which inevitably have some tower work in their queues which we can get in on.

I had actually encountered the architect of the WB6ECE network before (Matthew Kaufman), when he gave a talk on simulcast repeaters at Pacificon in 2014. He had a project where he needed to move one and add another antenna to the Mt Toro radio site, which is south of Salinas.
The subjects for the day are the two black folded dipole arrays on the left of this picture. The four bay UHF set was already on the tower, but needed to be moved up to make room for the VHF pair which we added right below it. We also needed to run new 7/8" hardline for both antennas.

The UHF antenna feeds one of the several WB6ECE 441.300+100.0Hz nodes, which are all on a single frequency and use simulcast magic to allow you to wander up and down the whole coverage area while using the same frequency. The new VHF antenna was to bring up the 147.270MHz repeater, which will eventually be linked into the Salinas Valley network (which I often monitor from the bay area via KE6STH).
So the site details: The site is shared between MBARI and the department of education (for Santa Cruz county? Monterey county? I don't remember). The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute had some really interesting radio systems on the site; particularly the two tracking microwave dishes (in the big white spheres) which point themselves at the MBARI research vessels out on the water so they can still have high speed Internet and HD video, etc.

The tower is 180 feet tall, and Matthew's mounting bracket was at the 110 foot mark. Moving one antenna, adding another, and hanging some coax may not sound like much, but that really is a full day's work on a tower like this. Marcel and I spent about five hours on the tower, and climbing 110' is tough enough that we opted to have our lunches delivered to us up on the tower. We were both rudely reminded that we don't do this on a regular basis, so hand cramping was a major concern (as was my ability to move at all on Sunday; my back is still complaining).
This was our view during lunch. This is why I'm willing to drive 1.5 hours to climb a tower for free.
When you're a radio nerd, Saturdays don't get much better than this.

Do you live in the bay area/Northern California and have a tower in need of climbing? Are you interested in tagging along and working on the ground crew for one of these visits? Drop me a line and we can talk.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016