September 23, 2023

This Week in Amateur Radio

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Foundations of Amateur Radio

Via Southgate: Foundations of Amateur Radio

Much Ado About …

There are days that my brain just cannot keep up with all the ideas that I have spinning around and today is one such experience. Before I take you on this wild ride I will mention that I’m only going to focus on the amateur radio specific things going on, but I tend to have a couple of projects on the go at any one time, much like a messy desk piled high with paper, books, gadgets, parts and coffee cups, my mind has this sometimes exhausting tendency to see connections between various projects and often this results in deeper rabbit holes, so with that in mind, I’d like to make an attempt at describing all the amateur things that are going on at this very moment.

So, here goes, hang on!

It all started with two friends, independently and until now, unbeknownst to each other, playing with a mode called Digital Radio Mondiale, or DRM. It’s something I’ve talked about before. One friend is trying to decode it, the other is trying to generate it. I’m sitting on the side cheering on because I think that there will come a time when I understand enough of my PlutoSDR that I can create any form of any mode and not be limited to the SSB bandwidth that current technologies use and be able to receive and generate say a 20 kHz DRM signal.

In order to advance my learning, I started the day wanting to describe a PlutoSDR project. I wanted to spend some enjoyable time playing, making some progress and then telling you about it. I did play, I did have fun, I did make progress, but trying to explain precisely what and how was where I came unstuck.

I began describing the difference between analogue and digital radios and how there’s a fundamental difference in how a signal comes to exist in both. That quickly turned into a conversation about I/Q signals, a discussion that I’ve been putting off for a while because I’m still not happy with my own understanding of it, let alone any attempt to explain it to you in a coherent and hopefully fun way.

The complexity of explanation was brought home to me during the week when NASA Administrator Bill Nelson used an example to explain an image taken by the James Webb Space Telescope.

The phrase he used was this:

“if you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that is the part of the universe that you’re seeing”

That seemed pretty clear to me. I could imagine a grain of sand on my fingertip, extending my arm and grasping the idea that hidden behind it was a small slice of the sky representing how big the image was. For me that explanation was excellent, especially when Bill Nelson went on to say that the things you were seeing were galaxies, each made of a hundred billion stars, each likely with planets in orbit.

Only I discovered that the explanation using a grain of sand wasn’t universal. I was surprised to learn that for some it got muddled up with the grains of sand in the universe and the relationship between those and the one on your finger.

To be clear, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with misunderstanding, but it reminded me in a visceral way that how we explain things matters and there are plenty of times when my own efforts fail to achieve their intended purpose, of making things easier to understand.

Given the importance of I/Q signals within the whole conversation on software defined radios, I don’t want to do a half baked attempt and fail. I will say this, an I/Q signal is a way of precisely representing a radio signal, but only to stop you thinking about it further.

I was talking about how my mind accumulates things.

The NanoVNA that’s sitting on my desk, gifted to me by a friend, is a fantastic example of the similarity between it, software defined radio and say a TinySA which I came across last week. Let me unpack that a little.

A NanoVNA is a piece of testing equipment, as is a TinySA. They test different things. Both have the ability to generate and measure a signal and in that they share the abilities of an amateur radio transceiver that can also generate and receive a signal.

That right there is a very deep rabbit hole, so I’m going to purposefully step away and continue the journey of observation, only pausing to mention that my PlutoSDR has all the same capabilities and in that it’s not alone.

The fundamental difference between these three devices is software. There are a few other things, but on the whole, software.

So, I’m carrying around this mush of things that are almost the same, but different, almost understood, but not quite, almost ready to explain, but not yet.

In an attempt at going forwards by moving sideways, I went on to investigate other things, prompted by people who send me emails. For example, code plugs and DMR and frankly I felt unclean reading the various explanations. I’m a firm believer in Open Source and this is like asking an Icom owner to explain the benefits of using Yaesu hardware.

Another question was around bending antennas, as-in, what happens when you drive down the road and your VHF antenna bends, or what happens if your HF dipole is bent to fit in your garden. Superficially I can say that the antenna changes as its bounding box changes shape. That means that the feed point impedance will change, as will the resonant frequency. The radiation pattern will also be affected, but sitting down and discovering just by how much is going to take more time than I have available whilst attempting to string together some coherent words on a topic I love.

So, in an attempt at telling you what’s going on in my world of amateur radio, I leave you with this question:

“What was I talking about again?”

Now I remember, this is about just how complex, fluid and interesting amateur radio is for me and in that observation lies why I’m here doing what I do.

“What makes you keep coming back for more?”

I’m Onno VK6FLAB

 This article is the transcript of the weekly ‘Foundations of Amateur Radio’ podcast, produced by Onno Benschop, VK6FLAB who was licensed as radio amateur in Perth, Western Australia in 2010. For other episodes, visit Feel free to get in touch directly via email:

 If you’d like to join a weekly radio net for new and returning amateurs, check out the details at, the net runs every week on Saturday, from 00:00 to 01:00 UTC on Echolink, IRLP, AllStar Link, Brandmeister and 2m FM via various repeaters, all are welcome.

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