A very valid and useful technology

| July 28, 2015

RSGB response to PC Pro article by Jon Honeyball, Issue 250, August 2015

We enjoyed Jon Honeyball’s trip down memory lane to when he took his exam 30 years ago and become licensed as a radio amateur. We’re also delighted that he is thinking of contacting the authorities to get his licence reestablished. However, after 30 years away from the hobby he is likely to be surprised—and delighted—by the changes that have occurred in that time.

Amateur radio—and by amateur we mean ‘unpaid’ rather than ‘unprofessional’—has always been at the cutting edge of developments in science and technology. In 1924, Cecil Goyder, 2SZ, made history with the first two-way radio communication across the globe, when from London he established contact with Frank Bell, 4AA a sheep farmer in New Zealand. Today, Howard Long, G6LVB a British amateur, has designed and sold many thousands of his Funcube Dongle which is used by radio amateurs, universities and schools to receive, at low cost, both satellite and other signals.

From working with, and for, over 60,000 licensed radio amateurs across the UK, we know that computing and radio will continue to converge and be complementary. Radio amateurs use digital voice with data and have extensive networks linked through the internet. There is also an amateur radio designed codec for voice. Software-defined radio (SDR) is in the ascendancy with both transmitting and receiving being increasingly software-defined; in fact it is the hidden part of many consumer electronic devices that we take for granted these days.

Within the realm of amateur radio there is also the amateur satellite service. In the last 40 years over 40 ‘traditional’ amateur satellites have been launched and the numbers are increasing as micro or CubeSats are developed. Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) is one of the UK companies involved in designing a number of these satellites. It grew from the work of a group of amateurs at the University of Surrey into a company that now employs some 600 staff with a turnover of £125m.

However, SSTL’s success story is, sadly, not representative of the current state of STEM skills in the UK. As a country we are aware that we’re not producing the depth of high-level engineering skills that we need, and we often have to look abroad to fill those gaps. STEM initiatives are now a key focus of the UK’s education system, and amateur radio has a significant role to play in encouraging the development and practice of those science, technology, engineering and maths skills. In fact, those skills are probably needed even more than a few decades ago because of the greater significance of embedded software and system engineering across so many of the products that we use.

For many of our Members, an early interest in amateur radio has led to a cutting-edge career in science and technology. As the UK’s national society for radio amateurs, we have a number of initiatives underway to try to bring practical skills to school groups. In one of those, we’re working in partnership with ESA and ARISS through the mission of astronaut Tim Peake, to encourage schools to participate in a wide variety of science-related activities. Tim has challenged schools to suggest digital experiments he can carry out in space using Raspberry-Pi computers. He will also make contact with a number of schools via amateur radio while he’s in orbit, and answer questions from pupils based round his science experiments.

As to the image of men in sheds. Yes, some radio amateurs do go on the air from their sheds as it is the quietest place in their homes. But our newly-formed Youth Committee would take to task anyone who dared to suggest that amateur radio was an old person’s hobby! They are building links with schools and other youth-oriented groups, introducing young people to a wide range of radio-related activities, most of which depend on computer links in some form or other. They have organised their first DXpedition to Wales later this month and will be taking part in a variety of activities including transmitting from the tops of summits, amateur radio direction finding (ARDF), creating videos and using software and social media to share their experiences.

So, amateur radio is alive and well. Whilst it has an important role to play in the crises that arise out of natural disasters like the recent one in Nepal, the technological expertise of its operators also continues to push forward the boundaries of science in every form.

Whether you enjoy writing software, getting hands-on with practical equipment, developing new technology or simply want to use what’s already there to communicate with others across the world, you’ll find all of this, and more, within amateur radio.

Jon Honeyball—we look forward to hearing G1LMS back on air.

John Gould, G3WKL
Radio Society of Great Britain

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