I attended Hamvention® in Dayton, OH again this year. This brings my visit total to around a dozen times, always travelling from the western half of the US.

Hamvention® is a gathering of Amateur (Ham) Radio operators and draws from 20,000 to 30,000+ visitors for one weekend in May every year for over 50 years. It’s a time to catch up with old friends, visit commercial and flea market vendors, and attend some educational seminars, or just plain have fun hanging out with your buddies from all over the world.

Most years I have wandered around the exhibition halls and flea market to see if there was any treasure I could buy at a good price, attend a seminar or two, and socialize with amateurs from around the world. Sometimes, like last year, I would volunteer to man information booths for aspects of the hobby that interest me. This year was going to be different!

I had 3 objectives and they consumed the whole time I was there.

The most minor of these was to look for a good deal on Icom’s latest D-STAR® handheld, the ID-31A. It has a lot of new features that make it a new breed of handheld. It has a built-in GPS which, when activated, reports your position through a repeater and over the Internet, this is an interesting feature, especially in public service, search and rescue, and emergency communications as it keeps you on the map. The ID-31A has an internal database of D-STAR® repeaters, which you can update via a MicroSD card or serial cable using online data, which includes the latitude and longitude of each repeater. Because of this database and GPS, selection of a nearby repeater is a couple of button pushes! If you travel it saves a lot of homework and fiddling with the radio to get it on the right frequency. It’s memory layout is a lot more flexible when you want to change who or what you want to talk to over D-STAR®. So, like I said, I wanted one.  To my surprise and delight, I didn’t have to scour the booths for the best price (I heard they may have sold out) as I won one as a door prize at a dinner the first night I was there!

The second objective was to put on a good D-STAR® Forum on Friday afternoon. The purpose of the these forums is to introduce people to the topic if they are new to it, and to provide some tips to those who are more experienced.  I was honored to be selected as the forum organizer/moderator this year.  I lined up some experts from around the country that had a track record.  I went first and took care of the basics of getting digital voice, then introduced topics on DIY radios, repeaters, and gateways.  I also presented a quick overview of STARnet Digital.  The presentation stand was hot, and we were pressed for time, so I wasn’t as engaging as I like to be in such venues, but I made my time mark.  I think overall the forum went well, considering the talented folks who presented.  My slides are available here.

Lastly and most importantly, we introduced a new radio by NorthWest Digital Radio. The history and creation of the radio, along with the company, is an interesting tale —

Back in the late 1970s, a digital movement started in Amateur Radio.  Ham’s were creating digital protocols for  radio, and developed what became known as Packet Radio.  At that time, the Internet wasn’t as pervasive and over the radio email, bulletin boards, chat rooms and file sharing were intriguing  enough that many hams spent a great time and energy building networks on packet radio.  It mostly ran on 1200 bps modems over analog FM radios.  I was very involved in the movement, being an early adopter even before standards were settled.  Gradually, over the years, the networks fell into disuse as the Internet rose, but a hearty few found applications that used the network and there are very active communities on packet for emergency communications and position reporting (APRS).  The path to a higher speed network, that could travel many miles, was and is elusive, so much of the data for these applications is still 1200 baud or less.

Along came the JARL (Japanese Amateur Radio League), who invented some protocols for digital voice and a data service.  These protocols are open and available for anyone to implement, and Icom Corporation jumped in providing radios, repeaters, and access points along with software to allow local pockets of activity to reach others via Internet transport.  After a slow start, D-STAR has grown to a world wide network of interconnected  repeaters and access points.

I got interested in D-STAR a few years ago and was intrigued by the data service side of things, but there were a couple of barriers.  The radios for it only operated on the 1240-1300 Mhz. band, which makes putting up good feed lines for antennas expensive, and properly done beyond the average technical skill of the users.  The radios also are quite expensive, having a street price in the range of $1000 after nearly a decade on the market and because of the cost of components to generate high power at that frequency range, they only run a few watts to the antenna.  So not a lot of hams are ready to put out that amount of money for a 128kbps data radio.  It’s a fine radio, but these factors hurt its adoption.

Fast forward to September 2010 and I was giving a couple of talks on D-STAR at the Digital Communications Conference sponsored by TAPR (who brought us much of early packet radio), in Vancouver, Washington.  I did a talk on “home brew” D-STAR Repeaters and after going over what was happening in the area of DIY on D-STAR, I had a list of things I would like to see.  One item on that list was a radio for D-STAR’s data service (Digital Data or “DD”), it would be a simple “headless” radio, power and Ethernet in one end and a good antenna connector at the other end, affordable, and simple.

After the talk I was approached by a gentleman, who introduced himself as Bryan Hoyer, along with his friend Basil Gunn, and that he would like to build that radio.  He lives on San Juan Island between the mainland and Victoria, BC, Canada in Washington State. Over the next several months we three became friends and started meeting to plan the radio.

Bryan, living on an island, is very active in Emergency Communications, and had noted that most of the data communications systems developed by hams were still this 30 year old packet technology, sometimes lashing together an old computer, an old modem/TNC, and an old radio.

Today with very high integration technology both for computing and for radios, all of that can be built into a quite small package and as long as you have a full computer bundled in with the radio, there is no reason not to support multiple protocols and applications in the radio.  There’s no extra hardware to do so, it’s a matter of software and firmware.

We stayed true to the original concept, while providing additional capabilities in the design.  All digital radio is 1s and 0s going to and from a modem and the transmitter and receiver.  After surveying the available components we were able to come up with a design called the Universal Digital Radio or UDR, the break-out model is designated the UDR56K-4.  This radio operates on the 420-450 Mhz./70cm amateur radio band at 25 Watts.  It is capable of multiple protocols such as packet radio’s (AX.25) standard as well as D-STAR’s Digital Voice and Digital Data services at rates up to 56+Kbps.  One constraint is that the data, when modulating the radio through the modem, cannot generate more the a 100 Khz wide signal — however, this is a 46.7x improvement in data rate over what is common on packet radio, and half the rate of the ID-1 (at 40%) of the cost, including a built-in computer.

Announcing the new radio at Hamvention® started a flurry of interest.  We have individuals and groups who are ready to lay down cash to get the radio.  We won’t take orders until we have a firm delivery schedule, but the interest is very strong.

We had a booth in one of the exhibit halls, and were inundated with folks coming by to learn more. Many of them came with projects they wanted to do, including other protocols for voice and data.  The radio is an open development platform built on the Linux open source operating system.  Interaction is typically by using a web-browser or custom application.

This occupied the majority of my Hamvention® 2012 weekend!

Since returning home, we have created a community forum on Yahoo! Groups — UniversalDigitalRadio

This weekend we’ll be at the SEA-PAC convention in Seaside, OR to show what we have been working on and answer questions.