|Subject:||Re: [Discuss-gnuradio] ham/amateur getting started|
|Date:||Sun, 27 Dec 2015 16:36:45 -0800|
|Thanks for the interesting comments.|
My friend (also a ham) is a senior RF design engineer, and in hiring new EE grads he rarely sees anyone who has time “on the soldering iron” and who has actually designed and built “real gear”. The EE grads who are hams tend to be significantly more capable, as they have hands-on tinkering and design experience, and he is inclined to hire them as they do better in industry out of the gate. Theory is great, but industry needs grads who can get into the design/build/test cycle easily.
The first challenge is getting hams into DSP/SDR/gnuradio in the first place. The new digital radio technologies are vastly different than what is covered in typical amateur radio theory and licensing classes, although the material is catching up a bit, I hear. New hams may be better equipped in the area of use of, and understanding of, digital technologies than the older amateurs, but this will be based on their personal experience, and not on training they will receive on their way to a ham license.
Even young folks (well, most of them) don’t really understand how wireless technologies work. A good example is the “maker community”. There is lots of interest in wireless projects among these folks, but as an experienced amateur radio operator I see the “makers” stabbing around in the dark in regard to understanding radio, propagation, antennas, and other key aspects of wireless. They are making classic mistakes due to their lack of basic understanding of radio. They would all benefit from an amateur radio license.
These super-keen “makers" don’t realize that there is 100+ years of experience and knowledge at their fingertips in amateur radio. If amateur radio did a better job of marketing itself, it could recruit and properly train them. Who knows where this would lead in future innovation?
On the negative side of the argument, the majority demographic for amateur radio today is roughly “males above 55 years of age”, and although these folks mostly got their licenses when technical requirements were more dominant in the licensing process, they don’t really (again a rough generalization) have a strong math/digital/software/computer-based background, so the leap to digital radio and SDRs is quite big for the majority. They learned radio stuff in the 60s-70s-80s when "analog ruled".
There are lots of younger hams, but the changes in licensing requirements in Canada and many countries at least (I am not sure of the current US standards), has moved the licensing focus from “technical" to "regulatory and operational”. Licensing is driven by governmental goals - the government sets the requirements. The current licensing goal is to teach hams just enough theory so that their activity will respect regulations and not cause interference with other (commercial) services. They need to know a bit about how radios work, but the licensing focus is on usage, not technologies.
While very basic theory (e.g. voltage, current, RC/LC, electromagnetic radiation, antennas, transmitters, receivers, etc) is still covered in training, the treatment is superficial compared to the depth of theoretical training say 20-30 years ago. I can attest to this as a former instructor in amateur radio training classes. New folks learn basic theory, but the majority of the syllabus is concerned with operating techniques, public service, regulations, how to not interfere with other services.
I do not think that the current approach is necessarily bad - ham radio still provides excellent and critical support to the community in emergencies and during special events. But the value of amateur radio as a whole could be enhanced by raising the technical bar a little higher.
There is still a cadre of highly technical people who get involved in amateur radio in order to learn about and play with new technologies, and invent new techniques, but that percentage of hams is probably one tenth what it used to be.
This is the segment of amateurs that will primarily be interested in SDR and gnuradio. There may be others as well, but as they will come from generally non-technical backgrounds they will have difficulty appreciating a powerful tool like gnuradio without availability of a “soft" introduction to radio technologies in the basic sense, and then SDR on top of that. We as a group can help these folks take their first steps on learning curve.
An interesting modernization approach within the amateur radio community would be to develop a radio training program that teaches radio from scratch in terms of SDR, rather than on a foundation of analog techniques and components. I don’t know if any amateur radio clubs or associations have adopted such an approach.
One idea would be a series of articles about gnuradio for mainstream amateur publications or on web sites, etc. There have been several articles about SDR over the years in amateur journals, but my recollection of these is that they target the highly-technical segment of “hams". Those without a good theoretical foundation get discouraged and just flip past the article. I think that this happens too with gnuradio. I’ve sent “ham” friends to gnuradio.org but they don’t take up the activity as it seems too complex.
There is a need for a “soft” introduction to SDR for the non-technical amateur (or would-be amateur) population. This could attract technically-minded, if not technically experienced hobbyists and encourage them to develop their skills. “Makers” would also be a great target audience.
Disclaimer: there may have been lots of gnuradio articles in QST and other ham journals, or on ham radio sites. My apologies if this has been the case. I don’t follow the amateur community as closely as I used to.
Another approach could be “gnuradio tutorials for amateur radio operators”. I think that this was the intent of the recently added new gnuradio wiki page. This was a great addition. These articles would help hams feel “at home” a bit, and the articles could be developed with an amateur radio-centric theme. I’d be interested in contributing some material there. Perhaps some other “hams" on this list would like to get together and collaborate to develop some additional articles for the wiki.
I agree, the syllabus for licensing needs to be updated (it may have been updated in some jurisdictions already, I don’t know), but the other bigger issue is the change in focus of the licensing program from a technical to an operational focus, as I described above. In the 1970s in Canada and the US, amateur radio candidates had to draw schematics of a transmitter, receiver, power supplies, and various pieces of test gear, and explain them in detail to the examiner. It was gruelling! The focus of licensing was radio theory and technical knowledge. This component has been reduced to probably 10 percent of what it once was.
Note that I am NOT saying that the earlier amateur radio licensing standards were “superior” to current standards - just they were matched to the goals of the amateur program at the time. Goals and objectives need to change over time.
The licensing focus has changed, and this in itself is not intrinsically bad. The current testing reflects the government’s goals for amateur radio. Communication in emergencies and for public service events is very important, and hams continue to provide excellent service to their communities and the world in these areas.
Finally, in terms of the math and signal theory, I think that one can’t expect “something for nothing”. gnuradio is a powerful tool, but you need to know a bit about fundamentals in order to know how to use it. You don’t need a Ph.D., but you do have to read, and think, and invest some time in it. Plus, you’ll have to invest your own time in terms of building, making mistakes, and revising. This is where the guided tutorials come in. In my case, I found these articles super-helpful. With a lot of reading (and head-scratching), and a few questions posed to the community, I have (so far) figured a bit of gnuradio and SDR out.
If we can collectively “smooth the path” for newcomers, including amateur radio operators, to make their first steps a bit easier, then that will be great.
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