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Re: [Discuss-gnuradio] ham/amateur getting started

From: Kevin McQuiggin
Subject: Re: [Discuss-gnuradio] ham/amateur getting started
Date: Sun, 27 Dec 2015 16:36:45 -0800

Thanks for the interesting comments.

And that's why it's so exciting to have amateur operators to talk to -- I don't come from a ham background myself, and so I'm learning new stuff every day. It's often the practical things that stop you if you're a "theory and lab person”.

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.
Here on the list, I think that we'll see that remaining small percentage of amateurs who are technically inclined, and willing to invest time in a steep learning curve in order to figure this really interesting SDR stuff out!

Yeah! I really really think we must learn how different hams learn how to use GNU Radio, and its style of DSP in general. I've taken the easy route myself: after having been tediously taught a lot of math (including some math that I don't need any more), they've tediously taught me signal theory (amongst basics of a lot of other EE disciplines that I don't need as often), then they taught me basics of communication technology, and then I ended up doing a few hours a week in a lab that employed GNU Radio, with an advisor who was arms deep involved in GR at the time. I had plenty of (partly even paid) time to get to know GNU Radio, and I had all the theory to just make the puzzling pieces I encounter fall into place.

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.

Now, if an amateur radio enthusiast gets in touch with GNU Radio, I always hope we don't lose her/his interest in the first 15 minutes; we just throw so much at someone who hasn't had exactly the same education as we had. The point is that GNU Radio really must be tinkering-friendly, and that means that it should be possible for people to start with something working, if possible even with something that means something to them, and work as deep as they need, learning stuff along the way.
The guided tutorials we wrote are a step in that direction, but they are definitely not ham-friendly or -centric; they are very hands-on (if followed through actively), but they don't attempt to cooperative well with people that have a lot of radio comm knowledge, just not on the DSP side. Essentially, a computer science student with a few hours of digital modulation basics will probably have a better chance getting through them than someone who actually has sent digital symbols to the moon and back. That is not fair, let alone a good thing.

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.  

However, it's easier and somewhat necessary to tell people "there's a lot of math/signal theory involved, but we can't teach you that". Now, that is a very important problem, so my blind guess is that there is in fact literature and web sites out there that try to bring DSP closer to people that have an amateur license. In fact, license education is a very interesting problem here, and I had a very nice discussion with Markus about this at the HAMRADIO15; it's basically been time for the last decade at least to modernize the state's license curriculum to include more digital aspects of operation and theory, but someone has to come up with both the contents we want hams to understand and methods of teaching them, before anyone's going to make a move on that. I don't know of any courses that do – but probably, someone has already held such a course, and maybe we're going to be hearing about that!

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.





On Dec 26, 2015, at 3:14 PM, Markus Heller <address@hidden> wrote:

Hi Tom,

that's right, I don't operate that much myself. I do from time to time,
and sometimes I also take great pleasure in worldwide CW contests, out
in the German wilderness, in a tent :-) But just twice a year. The rest
of the time I rather focus software development, APRS & Raspberry, SDR
development and understanding how you compare traditional AC signal
processing with maths, as most people on this list.

Our hobby is so diverse and it has so many interesting sides, and it is
a real pitty that in the public perception many people reduce it to
sitting in front of a box chatting with others. That is one important
aspect, but it is not the core of amateur radio.

If you look at the laws that define amateur radio: It is a legal
framework for people who want to do private experiments with radio
devices whatsoever. It is not defined as a free alternative to


Am Samstag, den 26.12.2015, 15:34 -0500 schrieb Tom Rondeau:
On Thu, Dec 24, 2015 at 7:06 PM, Markus Heller <address@hidden>
       Hi there,

       I'm very sorry that I cannot join this FOSDEM. I'd love to,
       but I must
       travel to see an old friend of our family who is seriously ill
       - I
       promised to visit him end of January.

       I'd like to contradict to Martin's observation. Last year's
       clearly showed that around 80% of the GNURadio audience holds
       an Amateur
       Radio callsign.

       There are many more HAMs than it seems around here. Keep in
       mind that we
       had a guest list at the UBA / DARC booth and we got around 90

       I am also pretty sure that it will just be the same for the



First, really too bad you can't make it this year, and we appreciate
the hams that are building cool stuff with GNU Radio. However, I
wanted to point out that while many of us /have/ an amateur license
and call sign, there's a different question of how many really operate
at hams? I think that second number in our project is significantly

This isn't meant to discourage anyone here. I just thought that should
be more clear.


       Am Donnerstag, den 24.12.2015, 15:05 -0800 schrieb Martin
Hey Daniel,

thanks for this discussion. We don't get a whole lot of
       hardcore hams
here, despite the radio, and it'll be nice to make it easier
       for them to
join the community. I look forward to your wiki
On 12/24/2015 01:57 PM, Daniel Pocock wrote:
OK, I'll probably get into making some contributions like
       that as I
start playing around with it.  I'm still at a very early
       stage just
working out which hardware I need and how to get it.

Will you or anybody else with an interest in this for
       amateur purposes
be over at FOSDEM?  There is an SDR dev-room[1] again and
       there was also
talk on the main FOSDEM list about an amateur radio
       presence[2] of some
We weren't able to find someone to speak on behalf of the
       hams at next
year's FOSDEM, but there'll be a booth. I do hope to find
       some hams in
the audience, though.


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