My Blog & Expedition News

Amateur Radio: Relevance in Modern Radio Communications Engineering Careers – Part 1

I wrote the following article on Linked-In in February 2021 in response to challenges I saw to the Amateur Service, as well as challenges in my work place where I am looking for opportunities to give new graduates the chance to experience radio outside of a computer model at their desks. It deserves wider exposure, so I am presenting it here too.


Telecommunications Engineering – how do graduates receive hands on training today?

I have been a radio systems and cellular networks engineer here in Australia for nearly 27 years, starting out in what was then Telecom Australia. As a young graduate in 1994, I was given many hands on opportunities to design, then measure and field test radio systems right across the radio spectrum. I was lucky enough though the first 15 years of my career to work on systems from 150 MHz to 18 GHz including point to point/multi-point, fixed link, cellular and Ku band satellite networks. I was also lucky enough during those years to be able to merge the knowledge I gained at work, with my own radio communications experiments conducted within the amateur radio service, something I had started in high school. (I actually started my amateur radio journey transmitting TV pictures across my home city on the UHF bands back in 1987).

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Desktop Computer coverage modelling

Fast forward to today, I find many of the VHF/UHF point to point technologies have disappeared from telecommunications. More importantly, however, has been the loss of opportunities to gain field based professional experience across the radio spectrum.

Given the changing technology landscape, as well as the unfortunate dominance of accountants over engineers in many of today’s major telecommunications businesses, where do today’s and tomorrows graduate engineers go to learn their radio trade craft? How do they gain hands on insights into how radio waves get from A to B?

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Telecom DRCS network terminal circa 1980s/90s

Radio Engineering in the 90s and 2000s

Looking back at the 1990s and early 2000s, the value of radio engineering was inherently recognized within telecommunications businesses. It also was a skill that was not just learned in the office. We were encouraged to get out in the field to learn and refine our craft. I know in my early years I gained a wealth of knowledge about radio systems design from the practical work I was allowed to undertaken as part of rolling out radio-telephony services across regional and remote Australia.

Of course, it is expensive to have engineers roaming the countryside measuring radio paths. However as computer modelling was still in its relative infancy, and mapping details in remote Australia had not entered the satellite age, it was mandatory to gain practical knowledge of the radio paths we were going to use to deliver reliable telephony services. The practical data we gathered enabled us to in fact refine the computer models we had, so that we could guarantee service reliability in some of the remotest parts of Australia.

That practical field experience, setting up transmitters, receivers and working with different types of antennas, also was invaluable in gaining an appreciation of the systems design challenges at hand, operating radio equipment in the harsh interior of Australia. Ultimately, that experience helped train me to be a better RF engineer!

What do telecoms graduates experience today?

The disappearance of the VHF/UHF fixed links from telecommunications systems following the rise of satellite systems, and the improvements in available mapping data have combined to drive more and more design work to be done from a desk rather than in the field. In the cellular engineering world today, the push to limit hands on drive testing by the network design engineers due to perceived costs, removes the real time feedback mechanism that also teaches those engineers how radio waves really propagate, as well as when to believe the computers and when to investigate further.

Today’s new graduates no longer are given the opportunity to even gain practical skills at connecting up, configuring and operating transmitters, receivers and antennas. Understanding UHF spectrum’s characteristics however is fundamental to cellular systems. From these perspective, it is now much harder for a new graduate to learn the art that is radio-communications engineering, compared to the opportunities I was given back in the 1990s.

The professional opportunities I had,
simply are no longer available.
So, where to from here?

What I see today is that most graduates are ultimately discouraged from leaving the office. Practical learning environments have all but disappeared. So, what can they do to develop that all important practical experience of what radio waves can and cant really do? How do we teach them to view the computer simulations with the right amount of skepticism?

The Role of “Amateur Radio” in Professional Development

The engineers of tomorrow need to have a very sophisticated understanding of the radio spectrum and what you can do with it. In today’s wireless connected world, understanding antennas, propagation characteristics and even basic power and mechanical issues of how to place network equipment out in the environment is paramount. Post graduate (including in house on the job) programs however teach very little of this, mostly due to a lack of opportunity in the workplace. So, where can you go to really gain a deeper understanding of what all of the theory represents in the real world?

In my opinion, if you want to experiment with radio techniques and learn how the radio spectrum behaves, one of the last bastions available today is in fact the Amateur Radio Service!


ITU-RR Article 1.56: A radiocommunication service for the purpose of
self-training, intercommunication and technical investigations
carried out by amateurs, that is, by duly authorized persons
interested in radio technique solely with a personal aim
and without pecuniary interest.


Amateur Radio experimenters have access to slices of the radio frequency spectrum from 137 kHz right through to 248 GHz in which to carry out investigations and gain improved understanding of the radio communications art-form. Within that spectrum, all manner of experiments can be attempted, using narrow-band and wide-band analogue and digital modes from fixed and mobile stations that can facilitate terrestrial, stratospheric and satellite communications. Whats more, in each niche area, there is a pool of individuals who have often traveled the path before who are willing to mentor and share their experiences.

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Photo: VHF/UHF portable station seeking out long distance terrestrial communications on the 50 / 144 / 432 & 1296 MHz frequency bands

How can this not be considered a great professional development environment?

Why is this not promoted?

Holding an Amateur Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency, in days gone by, used to be looked upon by senior engineering managers as being a valuable additional qualification for a radio engineer. Today it seems it is not even known or recognized, or has been all but forgotten. Indeed it is sad to say many professionals who hold their Amateur Radio Service qualifications refuse to disclose them.

Why? Is it because people hold less than flattering perceptions of what Amateur Radio is? I do wonder just how much is understood by professional people today of what is possible within the amateur radio service? I believe that many engineering managers today, who have never been radio amateurs themselves, overlook the amateur service’s self training and technical experimentation capabilities. I sense that many actually believe that the Amateur Radio service is nothing more than people talking on radios and tinkering in their back shed. The prestige that once went with holding an Amateur Certificate of Proficiency has been lost, along with the recognition of what that certificate enables an individual with an inquisitive mind to do.

Mention Amateur Radio and it seems people think we still just use Morse Code even (we do of course, but we also use advanced signal processing modes that can resolve signals many dB weaker than a Morse transmission). The corresponding conclusion seems to be that such pursuits dont have much to do with engineering. In my mind, they couldn’t be further from the mark. However, it does show that Amateur Radio has a serious image problem. This is likely why many professionals today will not reveal that they are also amateur radio enthusiasts. That is a real shame, as I believe that amateur radio is as relevant today to engineering professional development as it ever was.

The Challenge for Amateur Radio today

The challenge seems to be, how to restore the status holding an Amateur Licence once held within the professional engineering community. Further, pathways need to be re-established to again introduce an amateur licence as something worthy of encouraging graduates and junior engineers to obtain. Otherwise, we will continue to see many new entrants in telecommunications engineering who have never personally operated a transmitter or panned an antenna, who indeed have no actual practical experience of radio to draw upon at all.

In Part 2…

In the next part of this series, I will explore some of the facets of the Amateur Radio Service and their relevance to engineering skill development. I hope to show how they can form part of an self-educational journey that can drastically enhance a new graduate’s understanding of antennas, radio propagation and spectrum management, thus making them on the whole, a more effective RF engineer.

Kangaroo Island Attractions with VK5KI

The reason we went back to Kangaroo Island this time was to have more of a holiday on the island and spend some time looking around. The good news at least for domestic travellers is that most of the major tourism attractions have reopened after the disastrous bush fire that destroyed over half the island in January 2019.

Now, one year on, the scars from that event are still widely evident in the landscape, but the people on the island have shown remarkable resilience in getting back on their feet. Here are some of our favourites from our January 2021 visit to Kangaroo Island

Places we can recommend

The following is a guide to the places that the family visited during this trip. All we can recommend as worthy stops if you visit Kangaroo Island.

1. Seal Bay National Park

This is the home of one of the regions biggest Sea-lion colonies. These sea-lions are on the endangered species list and access to the beach where the colony is located is now strictly controlled by the National Parks and Wlldlife service.You need to book for a tour and can do so here:

Seal Bay Website

2. Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Distillery & Kangaroo Island Ciders Cellar Door

The eucalyptus distillery and cider cellar door were 5 minutes from us. We had lunch here several times at the cafe. Another KI business worth supporting if you visit the island – and the Apple Ciders are very nice indeed! The oils are made on site and the apple orchards that the ciders are made from are grown on Kangaroo Island.

Emu Ridge Eucalyptus Distillary

Kangaroo Island Ciders – Cellar Door

3. Cliffords Honey Farm

Honey production is something special on Kangaroo Island. The island is the world’s oldest bee sanctuary and is home to the only pure strain of Ligurian Bee in the world. Due to their isolation they have remained free of the major bee diseases, which infect mainland bees. Bees cannot fly to Kangaroo Island because it is too far, even with strong winds to propel them.

Cliffords Honey Farm (one of several on the island) was only 10 minutes south of the VK5KI station location. Definitely worth the trip down. If you like Honey, this is something special.

Cliffords Honey Farm

4. Vivonne Bay

Vivonne Bay Store – KI

Located approximately half way from Kingscote to Flinders Chase national park, Vivonne Bay is one of those idyllic picture spots you have to visit. The burgers at the Vivonne Bay store are also top notch. We planned our day trip to Flinders Chase around stopping here for lunch. Note also, Vivonne Bay is the last place you can buy fuel on the south coast for the time being as the facilities in Flinders Chase National Park have yet to be rebuilt after the catastropic bushfires of January 2019. The island is bigger than you think so it is best to top up here before heading further west on the islands south coast.

Vivonne Bay – Kangaroo Island

5. Flinders Chase National Park

The facilities at Flinders Chase are now very basic but the natural attractions are still as stunning as ever. Park fees can be pre-paid online.

Flinders Chase National Park

a. Admirals Arch

b. Remarkable Rocks

6. Kangaroo Island Raptor Domain

This Kangaroo Island attraction is located at the turn off into Seal Bay national park. The team here can give you an amazing opportunity to learn about the various raptor birds we have in Australia and the free flight show provides plenty of opportunities to see the birds up close. Our favourite is still an owl named “Shhhhh”, although the Wedge Tailed Eagles are definitely the most magestic of the birds on display. If you plan your day right you can visit Flinders Chase in the morning and then attend the 2.30pm show back at Raptor Domain on your way back to Kingscote.

Kangaroo Island Raptor Domain

7. Cape Willoughby Light House

Located at the eastern end of the island is Cape Willoughby Light House. Tours are available.

Cape Willoughby Light House

8. Red Banks – Nepean Bay, Kangaroo Island

Another interesting corner of the island – located part way between Penneshaw and Kingscote on the north coast of the island – access is tricky and steep but worth the climb.

9. Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park

Kangaroo Island wildlife park is located just west of Parndarna on the Playford Highway. This was about 25 minutes from our accommodation and hosts a great collection of rescued wildlife. There are plenty of opportunities to interact with the animals including Kangaroo and Wallaby feeding and plenty of keeper talks. Come and see the reptiles, dingoes, penguins, birds, monkeys and more here at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park!

Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park

9. Other Recommendations

Other places we visited and enjoyed included

  • Kingscote Fish and Chip shop. Dont be put off by it being located in the petrol station, the seafood here is delicious and its LOCALLY CAUGHT. The Whiting was excellent.
  • Cafe Bella Pizza Bar – Kingscote – book ahead to get into this very popular venue – the Pizzas are excellent
  • Kingscote Rock Swimming Pool – as the beaches are very shallow on the north coast, if you fancy a swim then the sea pool in Kingscote is the place to go!
  • D’Estrees Bay – Located on the South Coast of the island, this was about 15 minutes south of our accommodation, this almost deserted beach was pristine and fantastic to spend time on with the family building sand castles. Be mindful in the water however as we did see Singrays only metres from the shoreline.

10. Accommodation

We must say a big thank you to Barbara our host at Hilltop Lodge on Kangaroo Island. If you are looking for somewhere to stay this house is central, well appointed and really feels like your second home away from home.

Hilltop Lodge – Kangaroo Island

VK5KI now QRT: QSL Card Requests Open

Thanks everyone for all of the QSOs over the past 10 days. It has been a lot of fun. Hopefully I have been able to give out OC-139 IOTA to a few more people for an All Time New Island (ATNI).

Those seeking QSL cards for IOTA credits will be happy to learn that the log has already been delivered to my QSL Card Manager Charles M0OXO. Cards have already been printed and are available NOW for immediate request. While I recognize time is short to make this year’s IOTA Hall of Fame list you might just make it if the postal service is still working between yourselves and the UK.

Thanks again until next time!

Last Chance: 1830z-2100z today – Low Bands

Folks, the expedition is almost over. I need to start station tear down tomorrow in order to be ready to board the ferry early Friday morning. Thanks everyone for the QSOs!

I will have one last run on air from 5am ACDT (1830z 20th Jan) for about 2 hours before we will finally shut down. Look for me on the low bands 80-30m in any of CW, SSB or FT8 modes.

73 de Grant VK5KI / VK5GR

 

VK5KI 2.0 – On the air (at last)

The family and I have arrived safely on Kangaroo Island and have settled into our temporary home. As there is only myself interested in radio this time things are taking longer than expected. However I have now at least completed 24 hours on the air for about 300 contacts this trip.

The antennas so far consist of a MW0JZE HexBeam on my new Clarke pump up mast (ideal for one man installation but too heavy for anything but domestic operations) with a tuneable vertical built on a 12m Spiderbeam pole that I can configure for all bands from 160-30m (160/80m are inverted Ls).

Operation So Far

So far I have been active on a few bands including 6m with some domestic QSOs to VK4 and VK6 yesterday. The busiest band however has been 20m SSB into Europe. Both nights so far I have attracted a crowd. The lack of DXPeditions over the past few months have certainly allowed some stations to forget pileup etiquette unfortunately which slowed things down. Switching to split helped – although in the end the pileup was 10kHz wide! I haven’t worked traffic like that since A35JT in 2019.

There were a couple of stations that were duping me on the same band and mode last night. Please, if you worked me the night before don’t work me again. Lets give other IOTA chasers a chance to get OC-139 Kangaroo Island into their logs too!

Where am I operating and did you make it?

A good way to keep track of where and when I am on the air is to look at the Clublog Livestream. You can see it here: https://clublog.org/livestream/VK5KI

QSL Cards

Charles M0OXO, my QSL manager, has VK5KI QSL cards available right now! You can  order your card via the Online QSL Request Service (OQRS) within 24-48hrs of making contact. I am sending daily logs to Charles as the activation progresses.

Thanks again Charles for all your hard work!

Clublog Log Feed

You can also check (within minutes of a contact) to see if you are in my log here on Kangaroo Island by looking at Clublog, thanks to Michael G7VJR. The log on Clublog includes both this activation and the previous activation back in July 2020.

See you all on the air!

VK5KI – 160m Operation Planned

Final antenna packing lists are being drawn up today and at this stage I hope to also include an inverted L for 160m. Having tried to operate 160m at home recently I decided I was silly not to give it a go in a much more RF quiet location, and with a better antenna with a better ground plane. I will try and pay attention in particular to my morning grey-line into Europe, but will also do some activity during the NA morning grey-line as well.

Only 4 days to go before we depart Adelaide and head down to IOTA OC-139. See you on the air!

VK5KI – Return to Kangaroo Island – IOTA OC-139 – 11-22 January 2021

As announced in October, I am heading back to Kangaroo Island over the summer holidays with the family.

This time it will be more holiday and less radio, however I am taking the station down with me and will be down there for nearly 2 weeks as opposed to 5 nights. I hope to be active on 40/30m with a vertical, 20-6m with my Hex Beam and possibly 80m with a dipole. There is a chance 160m might get activated as well (depending on what gear I can fit into the car). This is a single op trip holiday style. I will be down there from the 11th to the 22nd of January. Most likely operating hours will be evenings and mornings. Daytime will be spent with the family and touring the island.

I will run the live logging into Clublog for the activity to help you find me. OQRS will be available via Charlies M0OXO and logs will be loaded to Charles at least daily. QSL cards are already available so there will be no waiting for this one.

Activity will be a combination of CW, SSB and FT8, possibly with some RTTY and PSK thrown in for fun. I also hope to put VK5KI on air during the WIA Summer VHF/UHF field day on 6m/2m/70cm (and maybe 23cm). With the 90m elevation we will have I hope to be heard at least up in Adelaide. Worst case I will take some gear mobile up to Stokes Hill for the day (200m elevation).

See you on  the air from VK5KI Kangaroo Island – OC-139!

 

VK5KI Expedition 2.0 Announced – January 2021

We are returning to Kangaroo Is OC-139 – January 11-22 2021

After a successful trip in July 2020, I will be returning to Kangaroo Island in January for a longer break. This will be a part time holiday style operation, while  we spend 2 weeks over the summer holidays away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The nature of the station that will be taken hasn’t been decided yet. As we get closer, details of what bands and modes will be active will be announced.

VK5KI – Logbook of the World posted – QSL Cards are in the mail!

 

The final acts of this expedition are now complete. The log has been posted to LOTW, eQSL and QRZ.com for the Kangaroo Island activation from July 13-18th 2020 (IOTA OC-139). Charles has completed the mailout of all of the OQRS cards that have been requested. Should you still wish to make an OQRS request for the VK5KI activation you still can. Please visit M0OXO’s OQRS service.

NOTE: My new Clublog IOTA matching policy is as follows. Clublog/LOTW matches for IOTA Award credit in the iota-world.org system will be available for VK5KI in February 2021. I still prefer that, those who take the trouble to request QSL cards, should have first rights of claiming the IOTA using those cards rather than via electronic means. After the yearly honour roll listings are counted, any new IOTAs activated by me in the previous year will be then become available for electronic matching. I am one of those amateurs that still likes to receive paper cards and, while electronic matching is valuable, particularly in this age of disrupted postal services, I still wish to see the art of paper QSLing preserved.

Thanks for all the contacts! See you all next time we take Amateur Radio out into the world!