Amateur Radio Tools & Test Equipment Part One

I thought it was time to answer a few questions about amateur radio that I’ve gotten over the last couple of months, specifically about what kind of tools and equipment you need if you want to do some serious fiddling around.

Someone once told me that most hobbies are little more than an excuse to buy lots and

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 8.33.49 AM
Admit it, you really want one, don’t you, even though you don’t know what the hell it is.

lots of tools that you’ll never use, and for a lot of people, like me, that’s pretty much true. It’s even worse for me because I build furniture as well, so in addition to a whole slew of tools and test gear for amateur radio that I almost never use, I have a whole slew of tools for wood working that I almost never use as well.

One thing they don’t tell you when you get your amateur radio license is that you will immediately be overwhelmed with an intense desire to buy tools and test equipment that you never knew you had to have before.

Do not resist this urge. You have joined the dark side. You are ours now… Ah, oh, sorry. Slipped off there for a minute. Happens sometimes. Solder fumes, I think. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, tools for amateur radio and fiddling with electronics.

Since amateur radio is about electronics, you need the basic gear that all electronics

IMG_0022
Small hand tools. You probably already have most of ’em, but you probably can’t find them either, can you?

fiddlers need. The stuff isn’t expensive and is widely available. You probably have a lot of it already. Wire strippers for stripping insulation off wires. Unless you want to use your teeth which is really isn’t recommended. Not unless you really want to pay for sending your dentist’s kids through college.

Needle nose pliers, two sizes and two types. Medium and small, and straight and curved. Wire cutters (no, nail clippers will not work!) are essential. Screw drivers are essential as well, both straight and philips, and you might as well get those funny torx ones too while you’re at it. A set of nut drivers will come in handy, needle nose vise-grips are often very useful, especially the small ones.

Do I really need to tell you not to get the bargain basement variety out of the one dollar bin? Hmm? They don’t last and can actually damage the stuff you’re working on.

Oh, some type of non-conducting probes with pointy ends come in handy for digging around through rat’s nests of wiring, prying components up off of circuit boards, etc. Non-conductive because while the nice women and men in the ambulance are more than willing to try to restart your heart after you’ve jolted yourself senseless, sometimes they can’t get you jumpstarted and… You’re life insurance is paid up, isn’t it? Hmm?

That’s the basic hand tools. out of the way, sort of. Most people who’ve done any kind of messing around with anything (no, not that kind of messing around. My, you have a dirty mind, don’t you?) will have the basic tools already in the cupboard, or under the sink, or in the basement. If you can’t find them, don’t worry. They’ll turn up sooner or later. Usually after you’ve bought another one to replace the one you lost.

Let’s assume you have the basic tools in hand, and look at things specifically related to electronics and especially amateur radio, shall we?

Tools and test equipment generally fall into one of three categories: Things you absolutely, positively need to have, things that are nice to have but you can probably get along without them at least if you can borrow it from someone else, and things you pretty much will never need unless you’re into some kind of exotic and unusual kind of activity. Like,

well, this, for example. I can firmly attest to the fact that a set of scale calibration weights is pretty much useless in amateur radio. I keep telling myself I should schlep them around to hamfests along with all of the old laser gear I have laying around, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of the stuff because, well, there might be a scale I really need to calibrate some day, or I might run into a 30 year old laser I can finally use that stockpile of tubes and power supplies I have laying around. You never know, right?

So let’s concentrate on stuff you actually need first. And if you’re in amateur radio, right IMG_0039up at the top of the list is this, an SWR meter. Having one of these is pretty much essential. While a lot of modern transceivers have SWR meters built into them, a lot don’t, especially mobile and hand held transceivers. You really do need one of these. They don’t cost all that much, you can get a decent one for well under $50. It isn’t just essential for tuning antennas, it can help prevent you from seriously damaging your transceiver if something goes wonky with your antenna system without your knowledge.

And while we’re on the the topic of SWR meters, let’s talk about jumpers. This is a short piece of coax with a PL-259 connector on each end (or whatever connector you need) that connects between  your IMG_0035radio and your meter or dummy load or other test gear. They look something like this, and you’re going to want to have a few of them ready to go. Of course you won’t be able to find them when you need them, but that’s the way it goes.

A lot of people make their own. Or claim they do. But soldering PL-259 connectors to coax is such a pain in the neck that I suspect most people just buy them pre-made. You don’t need really super hefty coax for jumpers. They’re generally only 2-4 feet long, so any losses are going to be fairly insignificant.

If you’re cheap, like I am, you can make your own, but don’t make the mistake I did. I picked up an entire spool of LMR-400 coax a few years ago, so rather than spend actual money to buy jumpers, I made ’em out of the 400, neglecting to take into consideration the fact that people tend to move test equipment and radio gear around and LMR-400 doesn’t actually bend very well.

While we’re on the subject of coax, let’s talk about, well, coax. While you can use things like ladder line to connect to your antennas, most amateur radio operators use coax cable IMG_0031because it’s more convenient. Now you can buy coax from a lot of different sources in various lengths, with the connectors of your choice already installed, or you can save a few bucks by buying the cable in bulk and then making it to the specific length you need and installing your own connectors. The type of connector used for most HF and VHF antenna lines is called the PL-259(1), and you either love them or hate them. Well, no, I don’t know of anyone who loves them. Most people either hate them or, well, hate them. Unless you have a lot of practice installing connectors on coax, you may save yourself considerable grief, the use of language you do not want your spouse/children/pets to hear, burns, solder all over the floor, melted coax, etc. and just spend the extra money and buy it pre-made in the length you need.

But that being said, it’s not all that hard to install the things, it just takes patience and practice. There is also an alternative to soldering the connectors, and that is crimp connectors which use a special tool to crimp(2) the connector onto the line instead of soldering. And while a lot of amateur radio operators swear that crimp connectors are utterly worthless, the fact of the matter is that they have been in use for decades and work pretty darn well and seem to be as durable and reliable, when done correctly, as soldered connections.

When it comes down to it, you don’t absolutely, positively need to be able to make your own coax, attach your own connectors, etc. It’s nice to be able to do it, but you can get the stuff in any length you need, with connectors already attached, and probably attached a hell of a lot better than the average amateur radio operator could do it.

To be continued…

 


  1. I know some guys who will drop five or six grand on a new transceiver or amplifier, and then complain about spending money on high quality coax connectors and buy the cheapest garbage they can find. And then complain later about corroding connectors, solder not adhering to the connector, threads on the collar stripping… Sigh. Do yourself a favor. If you make your own coax, don’t go cheap on the connectors.
  2. Stay tuned! There’s a photo of a crimping tool coming up later in this! Maybe. I think, anyway. Not sure because I haven’t written that bit yet.

 

 

Stuff In Ag: Catching UP

I was going to talk about farming less often here but there’s been so much going on and it’s hard to do that. So let’s see what’s going on, shall we?

Bird Flu – We haven’t been hearing much about bird flu since 2015, but it hasn’t gone away just because it’s fallen off the news media’s radar. There have been some serious

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I don’t have a photo of a bird flu, so how about a cat instead?

outbreaks in China, including at least 84 human deaths from one form of the virus. China either already has or is in the process of shutting down live bird markets and putting other rules in place to try to curb the spread. In France the government was forced to slaughter all of the ducks in an entire region, and it’s popping up in the US now. An outbreak of a very nasty strain of the virus was found in Tennessee. A mild version of the virus was found at a turkey operation here in Wisconsin. And as a result a lot of people are very nervous indeed.

What about a vaccine? Well, vaccines are out there for some, but not all versions of the virus. Flu virus evolves very rapidly, which is why it’s necessary for us to get vaccinated every year, and even then the vaccine may not do much good. A year or so ago they estimated that the vaccine that was distributed for human use was only about 30% effective because the type of flu sweeping the country was different from the one the vaccine was developed for.

Even worse, a lot of farmers raising birds are reluctant to vaccinate their birds because the tests that are required on poultry being exported to other countries will flag vaccinated birds as having virus because vaccination gives the bird the same antibodies as if it had the actual disease. So it’s complicated.

Labor – Trying to find reliable, intelligent farm labor has always been difficult, and it’s become especially bad since, oh, the 1970s or so.  The days of being able to hire a couple of high school students to stack bales, pick rocks or milk cows are long gone for a variety of reasons, some legal, some economic, some social. Even though wages and benefits have risen to the point where they are often competitive with the manufacturing sector (starting wages at some of the farms around here are higher than they are at most of the local manufacturing companies) it’s still almost impossible to find employees unless the farm is willing to employ immigrant labor, usually from Mexico and Central America. Something like 80% of the farm jobs here in Wisconsin are now held by immigrant laborers, either legal or undocumented. While it is illegal for a US employer to hire undocumented workers, the penalties for doing so are often little more than a slap on the wrist. So when a worker presents a slightly dodgy looking set of papers to prove he or she is in the country legally, well, let’s just say it’s really easy to overlook problems with the paperwork when your choice is to either hire that person, or go out of business because you can’t get people to do the work. Besides, with modern technology it’s possible to crank out very official looking documents that can fool almost anyone except the experts.

So in today’s political climate, a lot of farmers are very, very nervous about the real possibility that they are going to get up one morning and find that most of their employees are gone and they can’t replace them.

If one adheres to the ideas of the far right, then the belief is that these immigrants are taking away jobs from “real Americans”, and the reason unemployment is so high and people aren’t making money is because the immigrants are somehow stealing our jobs…

But wait a minute. Right now Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is under 4%. Almost every time I turn on the radio I hear businesses claiming they can’t find employees. Now granted a lot of the people who are employed are under-employed, that is they are working at jobs below their qualifications, at pay rates less than they really would like to have. Many, far too many, are the working poor who, despite working one or two or even three jobs, are just barely hanging on by the skin of their teeth. But the claim that we have huge numbers of “real Americans” unemployed because of immigrant labor is not really true.

And most of the jobs the immigrants are “stealing” are jobs those “real Americans” don’t want to do in the first place: like shoveling manure out of calf pens, cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, the backbreaking work of picking fruit or vegetables…

Uncertainty – Right now one of the biggest worries in agribusiness isn’t climate, isn’t flooding, isn’t weed or insect infestation, isn’t drought, it’s politics. Everyone in any kind of business associated with agriculture right now is nervous about the new administration and for very good reasons. Between threatening to institute huge tariffs on imports that would decimate the markets and cause massive retaliation by trading partners, to immigration policies that would cut off badly needed labor, to renegotiating long standing trade agreements that would open the country up to restrictions on our exports, the current administration has done little or nothing to curb the nervousness in the ag sector. The commodities markets have been churning, prices refuse to stabilize making planning difficult. No one knows what the FDA or USDA is going to be like under the new administration. Some farm operators I’ve talked to are terrified they’re going to wake up one morning and find their entire labor force has fled out of fear of the immigration authorities. One fellow I talked to said even people who are here legally are leaving because they’re hearing rumors that anyone who looks or sounds even vaguely “un-American” is going to be rounded up and deported or put in concentration camps somewhere.

Scandal – Everybody loves a good scandal, so let’s wrap this up with a nasty and expensive scandal going on in the University of Wisconsin system at the Oshkosh campus.

Apparently former UW-O chancellor Richard Wells and vice chancellor Sonnleitner, both now retired, are accused of funneling university funds to the private UWO-Foundation, a separate nonprofit that supports UWO projects through fundraising and other activities. Under state law the university is not permitted to support a private organization like the foundation in any way.

But it is alleged that Wells and Sonnleitner gave university money to the foundation and issued “memorandums of understanding” in which the university promised to cover the foundations debts in order to help the foundation procede with several multi-million dollar building projects that included two biomass digester systems, one on a private farm, a new hotel, a conference center and a sports complex. In addition it’s alleged that Sonnleitner gave money amounting to well over a quarter of a million, and signed a $700,000 a year lease agreement with the foundation to use one of the digesters.

In all it seems to have cost UWO around $11 – $12 million.

The head of the foundation has been fired, the foundations accountant was put on “administrative leave”, and everyone is wondering how the hell this happened in the first place and how they’re going to keep it from happening again Investigations by the DOJ and law enforcement are going on, lawsuits are already in the works, and the whole thing is a massive mess.

What’s that got to do with agriculture? I said this post was going to be about agriculture, didn’t I? Well, the digester, of course.

One of the projects was a massive biodigester system built on a farm in Rosendale not too far from Oshkosh that was backed by the foundation. The system cost $10 million. Manure digesters use bacteria to produce methane which is then burned in generators to produce electricity. The idea is that it reduces pollution from spreading manure (it doesn’t), it produces methane (which it does, although not very well and methane has some serious problems in the first place) which is then burned to produce electricity which, apparently, none of the utilities actually want because they don’t want to pay more than a token amount for it. For reasons I won’t go into right now, manure digesters are a “solution” to a problem which doesn’t actually solve anything and which creates a whole new set of problems.

I’m not exactly sure why the foundation got involved in this project in the first place, but it’s in it up to its neck. As of June the foundation still owed almost $7 million on the thing. The university itself dumped over $4 million into the project via illegal funds transfers to the foundation. And while some of the money was repaid, the foundation still owes the university almost one and a half million.

Milk Prices: Sigh…

Milk prices, especially the price of skim and whole powdered milk, plummeted at Global Dairy Trade of New Zealand, dropping 12.4% and 15.5% respectively. (Source: Agrimoney.com | New Zealand milk prices follow Europe, US lower)

People were starting to think that milk prices were beginning to stabilize, and that milk prices were finally starting to go up to the point where dairy farmers might not be under such financial stress from low prices.

But that might all have been little more than a house of cards. There were always a lot of problems with those hopes.

The first problem was that except for the New Zealand and Australian producers, milk production in the rest of the world had not really declined all that much, and in large parts of the world like North America, production had actually been increasing. While prices have been going up here in the US, that increase in milk price seems to have been due more to market stabilization and corrections than to anything else. There has been no significant increase in demand for dairy products to push prices up.

The second was that many seem to rely on prices at GDT as some kind of indicator of the overall health of the milk market. They shouldn’t. Global Dairy Trade is owned by Fonterra, the huge milk co-op in New Zealand. It markets it products mostly to Southeast Asia and China. And because it is owned by Fonterra, Fonterra can do whatever it likes with it. Fonterra has deliberately restricted or increased the amount of product flowing through GDT in order to manipulate the market prices in the past.

So relying on a sales organization that serves a rather narrow market, and which is wholly owned by a milk producer, and which has used that sales organization to manipulate market prices in the past… Well, do I really need to tell you that relying on sales figures at GDT as some kind of indicator of market conditions is really not a good thing to do?

 

Dicamba

Let’s talk about herbicides. It’s almost the time of year when we’ll start seeing the spraying equipment hitting the fields around here, so let’s talk about herbicides, one in particular called dicamba. And if you read the agriculture press, you’ll be seeing articles like this one that warn of the pitfalls of using this old-but-new-again herbicide:  Caution Lights Ahead For Dicamba Use | Ag Professional. (And before you ask, yes, there are already dicamba resistant weeds out there and one experiment showed it took one type of weed only three generations to develop resistance to the herbicide. <read that article here>)

Now I should point out that dicamba has been around for a long time. It was developed back in the late 1950s and has been on the market ever since. It’s used to control broadleaf weeds and brush. What’s new about it is that Monsanto has developed a line of dicamba resistant crops such as soybeans which can tolerate the herbicide. With these crops being resistant to both glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUP, and dicamba, the hope is that this double dose of herbicide will help to control weeds that are resistant to glyphosate alone.

But there are, as always, problems.

The first of these is dicamba itself. It volatilizes easily, going into vapor, which then moves over large areas. It also is subject to drift while spraying. The droplets from the sprayers can drift over large areas as well. This combination of easy volatility and tendency to drift makes it troublesome to work with because it can spread over large areas, killing or damaging plants well outside of the area being treated. In order for dicamba to be used in the way Monsanto wanted, special blends and compounds had to be created to help prevent the easy volatility and drift of the product so it wouldn’t contaminate adjacent fields.

Monsanto decided to sell its Xtend seeds before the herbicide blend it was designed to work with was approved by the government. The result was that farmers who should have known better planted the seed, and then used dicamba blends that were not approved for use, and tens of thousands of acres (some estimates are in the hundreds of thousands of acres) of crops were damaged or killed by the drift from the herbicide. There are currently lawsuits going on against Monsanto claiming the company is responsible because it released the Xtend seed before the accompanying herbicide blend was available, and Monsanto should have known that some farmers would use dicamba illegally.

The new legal blend is now available, but even that isn’t going to solve the problem. There are a whole host of restrictions, requirements and warnings adorning the labels of the new herbicide. It can only be used with a particular type of sprayer nozzle, has to be applied no more than X inches above the weeds, has to be used at a certain point in the weeds’ life span, the wind can be no more than 10-15 MPH… The list goes on and on. All of the warnings and requirements indicate that this new “safer” blend isn’t all that much safer than the original form of dicamba was.

And in the long run dicamba is going to end up being just as useless in controlling weeds as glyphosate is becoming because as that article I linked to at the beginning points out, weeds will quickly become immune to it as well.

I keep wondering how much longer we can keep this up, concocting ever more toxic and complex blends of herbicides to try to control weeds, when we know that it is, at best, a temporary fix and that the weeds will eventually become immune to even that.

Meanwhile over in France the government has been trying to push things in the other direction, trying to get agriculture away from the ever increasing reliance on herbicides and pesticides. France <story here> has set a goal of cutting the use of pesticides of various types by 50% over the next ten years through the use of alternative methods of pest and weed control. How successful the program has been is a bit questionable, but studies have indicated that farms could significantly cut their use of pesticides and herbicides without a loss of income. But it would require some significant changes in farming practices.

Can we get away from this apparently never ending cycle of herbicide/pesticide resistance? We’re going to find out and in the not too distant future because the current situation simply cannot continue indefinitely.

 

Drones: Do You Need One on the Farm

So I ran across this little item over at AgWeb, the website of the Farm Journal:  How Much Should You Pay for a Drone? – News | Agweb.com and it was a huge disappointment because it’s one of those so-called articles that just doesn’t really tell you anything about drones, what they can be used for, how they work, and gives you pretty much no information at all. So let’s take a look at drones, what you can do with them, how they work, look at the photographic and video capabilities of the different models, etc.

Oh, and there may even be video! Oooo! Well, there will be if I can figure out how to upload video to this thing. But let’s get on with this, shall we?

What are you going to do with the thing? – Well, that’s not my problem, now is it? I’m sure you’ve come up with some kind of excuse to give to your spouse to explain why you dropped $1,500 on a drone, and for all I know maybe you really are going to use it to scout crops or track down missing cows or inspect roofs or something like that and you aren’t at all going to use it to annoy the cats or race other drone owners or build 3D obstacle courses in the back 40. Let me give you a bit of advice, though. When it comes to just having fun, the smaller, less expensive drones are generally more fun to play with than the big ones. They’re faster, more maneuverable, and don’t do as much damage when you hit something with one. Also a lot cheaper to fix. You fly a $50 Walmart special into a tree it’s going to be a lot less financially painful than flying your $2,000 DJI camera drone into a silo or something. So if you’re just looking to play, start small and cheap.

(Oh, and if you are tempted to try to play with cats with one of these things, here’s a word of advice: DON’T. Just don’t. Seriously. Those props spin at hundreds and hundreds of RPM on even small drones. And while they don’t have a lot of mass, those props can slice, dice and otherwise do very nasty things to living tissue.)

That being said, they can be useful in agriculture and other serious applications. Agriculture because this is grouchyfarmer.com after all and I need to put some kind of farming reference in here, don’t I?

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In case you were wondering, this is what the top of an old silo looks like

They are genuinely useful for inspecting roofs and a lot of roofing contractors are using them for that. They’re useful for scouting crops, finding trouble spots out in big fields. And they’re using them to try to find lost cows, and if you’ve ever had to try to find a heifer running around in a 40 acre corn field, you can understand why. They’re very useful for looking at the roofs of old silos as well. Exactly why you might want to look at the roof of an old silo is something you might wish to discuss with your therapist. But just in case you do, here’s one to get it out of your system. Ooo, exciting, isn’t it? And here you thought drones were just silly. I mean, just look at that! A silo! From above! Ooo!

Okay, now I’m just getting silly, aren’t I?

Money: So, how much is one of these puppies going to set you back? Well, it depends on what you want to do with it and how well you want to do it.

Now, if this editor put this photo in the right place, over there on the right is a Hubsan drone, one of the first video capable ones I bought, along with its controller on the left. It’s a nifty little gadget which streams video directly from the drone’s built in camera to a live video display built into the controller. It records video to a SD card that is inserted into the controller. Something like this goes in the $150 – $200 range, and it is about the bottom end of the scale for something that will give you some useful photo/video.  Well, almost useful. Okay, be perfectly honest, it’s completely useless for anything serious.

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TIny battery means tiny flight time for a drone. Hubsan gets about 4-8 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great fun to play with it, but it’s basically a toy that shouldn’t really be used except indoors. You can fly it outside, but if you do all bets are off. The range of the controller and video transmission is limited, just a couple of hundred feet at best, the video quality is, well, pretty miserable, to be honest, and flight time with the tiny batteries is about 4-6 minutes maximum. It’s also extremely unstable in even a light breeze.

Now if you’re flying around in the living room or kitchen taking photos of the dust on top of the cabinets, a 5 minute flight time is no big deal. But if you’re trying to fly around a 40 acre corn field, well, forget it.

If you’re going to do something serious with it like crop scouting, building inspection, etc. you’re going to be up in the $1,000+ range almost immediately. And even then you have to be careful, because what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. In order to keep costs down, a lot of these drones are “bare bones”, no camera, no camera mount, not even a controller. You’ll need to purchase a camera like the GoPro, and use an IOS or Android tablet or smartphone to actually operate the thing. So be careful. Before you buy one make sure you know what is actually in the box so you don’t find out the hard way that you need to drop another $500 or more just to get the thing in the air.

Video/Image Quality: Then there is the video quality on these itty bitty drones. It’s not exactly good, to be honest. Especially if you get them near the limit of their range. Let me give you an example.screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-22-36-amscreen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-23-21-am

The top image is a still from the video feed from the Hubsan drone. The bottom image is the same scene from approximately the same altitude and location but taken with my Yuneec drone. You may notice just a wee bit of difference between the two images if you examine them very closely.

Let’s see if I can figure out how to put video into this to give you a better example of the difference between the toys and the more professional versions.

The above is video from the Hubsan from about 150 – 200 feet in the air above my house. Oh, dear. This should have been well within the stated range of the controller, but obviously it was already at the limits of its communication range. If you can see through all of the static, you can also see the drone is bouncing around a lot, even though there was only a light breeze. It was almost impossible to keep under control and I barely avoided crashing the thing.

The video above is from about the same altitude and same location taken with the Yuneec, and under wind conditions that were actually worse than they were when the Hubsan was in the air. Again, as was the case with the still images, you may notice a bit of difference in the quality of the two videos if you examine them closely. Just a bit.

There is also a bit of a difference in size between the cheap drones and the Yuneec Typhoon I own, as you can see here.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-08-53-am

That’s my Yuneec with a microdrone sitting on top of it to give you an example of the sizes of these things. The Hubsan that was used to take the still images and video is a bit bigger than the red microdrone shown here, but not by much.

Let me guess, you just came up with an idea to turn a big drone into a flying aircraft carrier for micro drones, didn’t you? Hey, go for it. Who am I to tell you not to do it?

Flying: Okay, so, how do you fly one of these things? Well, it turns out they are ridiculously easy to fly. They basically fly themselves. Especially the big ones. Built in gyros, motor controllers and onboard computers and GPS do all of the work for you. In fact, if it weren’t for all of that technology built into them, they’d be completely unflyable. The basic controls are generally a joystick for up, down, left, right, spin, that kind of thing.

The Yuneec, for example, will just hover wherever you put it. Park it over a specific spot 50 feet in the air, take your hands off the controls, and it will just stay there until the battery runs out, automatically maintaining it’s position and altitude. Even if a significant gust of wind comes along it will stabilize itself and return to its set position. There’s a panic switch. If you lose control of it, lose sight of it or something, press the button. It will go up to a height of 60 feet, return to it’s launch point, and land itself.

Well, if there’s nothing in the way, that is. This unit doesn’t have collision avoidance systems like some do so it can’t avoid obstacles.

The point is that just about anyone can fly one because they essentially fly themselves. The more sophisticated models allow you to plot out a flight plan on a map, and the drone will fly the route all by itself.

Still, you can get into trouble with the things. If the drone goes out of range of the controller, all bets are off. Some models will return to their launch point if they lose communications with their controllers, but a lot won’t.

Wind can be a real problem. The bigger ones are amazingly stable even in a good breeze, but I would not want to fly one if winds of more than 20 mph or so, especially anywhere near a structure or tree.

Regulations: Well, there are a lot of them. And there is still considerable confusion despite the FAA recently updating and clarifying things. If you’re just a hobbyist flying them for fun, you don’t need any special licensing or permits except for registering the drone with the FAA if it exceeds a certain size/weight category. The Hubsan shown above does not need to be registered. The Yuneec does because of it’s size and weight. If you’re flying for a business, you need a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate and have to pass a TSA background check. I won’t go into all of the rules and regulations. You can find them at the FAA’s website: https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/ That will give you all of the information you need about how to stay legal.

So let’s wrap this up: Prices on these things are fluctuating all the time. You can get some real deals on even the better quality drones if you keep an eye out. I dropped about $1,500 on the Yuneec drone I’ve shown you here, but I’ve recently seen it going for under $700 because Yuneec is coming out with new and improved models. I don’t know what the used market is like, but I’m sure there is one. I’d be very cautious about buying a used one, however.

Recommendations: Ah, well, that gets a bit difficult. I’d like to recommend that if you’re interested in a camera drone you start with one of the cheap, small models before you drop a thousand bucks or more on one of the big ones. But it’s difficult to do that because they are entirely different beasts. The small, cheap drones are suitable only for flying indoors, are often twitchy to control. The slightest breeze can send them tumbling out of control. The cameras, if they have them at all, are virtually useless for any kind of decent photography or video. They are basically cheap, unstable toys. Don’t get me wrong, they are a lot of fun to play with, but that’s all they’re good for, play.

Drones like my Yuneec are much more stable, easier to fly outdoors, can handle wind better, feature gimbal mounted high def cameras that provide good video and still photos, but they are much, much more expensive than the $59.99 specials at Radio Shack or Amazon, or even the $180 Hubsan I have. So if you buy one and now decide it’s not something you want to do, well, now you’ve spent over a grand that you could have used to pay off your student loans or something, and you’re going to be mad at me because I recommended it.

Let’s say you’re thinking of doing actual serious work with it, like scouting hundreds of acres of corn or soybean fields. If you’re thinking of that kind of thing, well, even something like my Yuneec isn’t going to work all that well for you. Yes, it’s a damned good flying camera platform with a good, stable camera. But you only get about 20 minutes out of a battery so you’re going to need a lot of pre-charged batteries to scout any kind of significant acreage. You can’t pre-program a flight plan into it…

If you want to seriously do that kind of thing for a large far, you’re moving up into an entirely different and more sophisticated level of technology and, of course, an entirely different price range. For that kind of capability you’re getting out of the $1,000 – $1,500 range and getting into the $3,0000+ range and you might be better off getting one of the professional crop scouting services to come in and do it for you.

Addendum: I really need to point out that the claimed flight times for drones are often wildly optimistic. If the manufacturer claims you can get 30 minutes flight time from a fully charged battery, you can generally assume it’s going to be closer to 20 or even 15 minutes out in the real world.

The same is true for the claimed range of the controllers. As with battery life, the range of the controllers are estimates at best, and done under ideal conditions, not under the kinds of conditions you will find out in the real world.

Generic Stuff and Irritations

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Tumblr: Pulling the Plug At Last – I’ve had a blog over there for ages. I’ve put up with all of the nonsense they’ve pulled for far too long now. The company’s various attempts to make money off the service have done little except alienate the bloggers who made the service successful in the first place. Things have gotten much worse over the past year. Advertising is so invasive I can’t even read my dashboard without my ad blockers running full on. The service now seems to be in the process of being taken over by fake automated blogs that don’t have an actual person behind them. Most of these seem to be automated systems that “harvest”, so to speak, cute photos from Tumblr or other internet services, then offer them up on the blog, interspersed with dozens and dozens of fake posts that are links to advertising. The porn bots, the automated porn blogs that were “following” random blogs in the hopes of generating page hits were bad enough, but these new fake blogs are even worse. I’ve had about 50 new followers over there in the last couple of weeks and every single one of them has been one of these automated advertising systems.

I’ve had it with the whole mess over there. I’ll keep reading the blogs of people I follow over there, but I’m not going to be posting anything there any more.

Not sure what that means for this blog. You’ll probably see an increase in activity here. Maybe?


Amateur Radio Irritations Part One: “Contesting” or “Radio Sport” – The first time I heard someone use the term “radio sport” in amateur radio I almost fell over laughing. Until I realized they were serious. What they are trying to do is rebrand various contests as some kind of sport, and failing miserably. But I wanted to talk about contesting, didn’t I? So let’s get on with this.

Let me explain what contesting is in the amateur radio world for those of you who aren’t familiar with it. The basic idea is you have a limited amount of time, 48 hours, let us say, to contact as many other amateur radio operators as possible using a specific mode of operation; CW, SSB, digital, etc. The rules vary from one contest to another. Some are restricted to specific frequency allocations, some restricted to specific operators like the Rookie Roundup, etc. You get points for every contact, with some types of contact being points multipliers. And it’s just – well, it’s just silly. I’m sorry, but it just is.

The two print publications still catering to the amateur radio market, QST and CQ, make a Big Deal out of contesting. They claim it is wildly popular, fun, etc, etc, etc. And while it may be fun for those who enjoy that kind of thing, popular it is definitely not. One of the “big” contests was just reported on in the last QST magazine. They devoted four pages to the thing. How many participants did it actually have? About 4,500 if I remember right.

Now, there are something like three quarters of a million amateur radio operators in the US alone, so 4,500 participants world wide when there are around 750,000 operators in the US alone isn’t exactly popular by any stretch of the imagination. That’s a participation level of – what? About 0.006%?

Now don’t get me wrong. Contests are just fine and dandy if you get into that kind of thing. I can certainly see how someone might even enjoy it. But popular? I’m sorry, it just isn’t. When less than one percent of the total number of a particular group of people do an activity, it is not “popular” by any stretch of the imagination.


Amateur Radio Irritations Part Two: Own Worst Enemy – If you get on the amateur radio websites or read the letters in the magazines, there seems to be one question: Where the hell are all the new amateur radio licensees? We know they’re out there. People are getting licensed in droves. But you never hear any of them actually on the air. So where are they?

If my own experience is any indication, the biggest problem is that the amateur radio community isn’t exactly very welcoming to newcomers. I know there are many exceptions to this, but first impressions count, and when your first experiences are as difficult as mine were, well, you have to have a thick skin to deal with it.

Join a club, they tell you. Well, first of all, good luck even finding one. And if you do, chances are good you’ll have the same experience I did when I joined the Fox Valley club. I dutifully sent off my check, my email address, call sign, and all the other stuff they wanted, and heard — nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even a confirmation they got the check. The only reason I know they got it was because it was cashed. No email reply, no information about membership, nothing. Meetings were scheduled when I was working so I couldn’t get to those. Emails to them asking about my status never got a response.

The local ARES group was more responsive and more helpful. But the only thing they care about is emergency communications, an area where amateur radio is increasingly irrelevant and unwelcome, only ARES hasn’t figured that out yet.

If you dare to get on the air, especially down on HF, watch out. The very first contact I made on 10 meters was to someone out in California who spent ten minutes telling me I was an idiot, I was doing everything wrong, that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, all because I hadn’t been required to learn morse code. A few days later I was talking to someone down on 75 meters when someone jumped in and launched into a long rant about how people like me were ruining amateur radio, how I was an idiot, didn’t know a resistor from a capacitor, how all us new operators couldn’t repair a piece of equipment to save our lives and had to buy everything we used. We dropped down to a different frequency and let him rant. He was still at it twenty minutes later.

I’ve been told that most newcomers don’t run into that kind of nonsense, that amateur radio is generally very welcoming. I was probably just very unlucky, at the wrong place and the wrong time. Perhaps. But it only takes one or two unsavory encounters like that to make people wonder if they should be looking at a different hobby.


The Future – So, what’s going to happen here at grouchyfarmer now that my other blog on Tumblr is no more? I’m not really sure yet. There will probably be more activity here in the future. Other than that I don’t know. yet.

Fun Stuff

I’m a tinkerer. I love fiddling with stuff, playing with gadgets, and building my own stuff. I’m always scrounging around for interesting little gadgets, widgets and components to messscreen-shot-2017-02-25-at-9-46-26-am with. A while back I picked up a bunch of these LED lighting panels and I’ve been fiddling around with them and I like ’em so much I thought I’d tell you about them.

My office/radio shack is a bit of a black hole when it comes to lighting. The room doesn’t have ceiling lights so we make do with a floor lamp and some desk lamps, but I wanted some under-counter style lighting to make it easier to see the controls on my radios because it was impossible to put a desk lamp near them.

These are 12V LED lighting panels designed to replace dome lights in vehicles. They come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. This particular model comes with a fuse and adaptors to replace the incandescent lights in a car or truck dome light, but it was the LED I was interested in. They’re fairly cheap. I just looked ’em up and they’re going for $8 for a pack of two on Amazon and you might find them cheaper if you look. There are a lot of these out there from various manufacturers and distributors, with prices all over the place. Mine came from a company called Cutequeen Trading (yes, that’s the real name).

For the size they put out an amazing amount of bright, white light. One of them in the recess my TS-990 lives in was more than enough to light up the whole front of the rig plus most of the desk around it. They have a peel and stick adhesive back. Just peel off the protective paper, stick it up, hook up the wires to a 12V source and you’re good to go.

Where do you get 12V from? Well if you’re an amateur radio operator you probably already have a 12V power supply because a lot of amateur radio equipment runs on 12V. In my case I have a big 12V supply that feeds a distribution box with Anderson Power Pole connectors already in place to feed other equipment. I just wired up a plug to fit, added a toggle switch from my junk box to turn it on and off and was ready to go. They only draw about 0.4 amp so the power consumption is fairly modest for the amount of light they produce.

One gotcha was I found if I fed it directly, the thing got real hot real fast. Not to the point of burning my hand if I touched it, but painful. I ended up putting a small resistor in line to drop the voltage a bit (think it was a 480 ohm but not sure now and I’m too lazy to go dig into the wiring behind the desk to look). That kept it from getting hot without reducing the amount of light.

Another issue is that the point where the wired connect to the panel are a bit fragile and won’t tolerate a lot of movement. Avoid putting any stress at all at the point where they connect and they should be okay. I’ve heard from other people fiddling around with LED panels like this that this is a fairly common problem.

I could see these easily being used for interior lighting in an RV or enclosed trailer. It would be very easy to turn several of these into an under-counter lighting system in a house if you have a place to tuck a 12V power supply out of sight. Find a cheap, rechargable battery, some kind of box, mount a few of these on the box and you’d have a fairly inexpensive and pretty bright portable work light or flashlight.

So get out there and fiddle with stuff.