Last month I gave some reasons why I became interested in operating remotely. This month, I’d like to share my operating environment – my gear, some software and network information, where the gear is located, and how I like to operate.
Gear located in my outside (detached) shed as follows:
- My main rig is an ICOM IC-9100; I use this rig for just about everything.
- 40m dipole (doublet), balanced line (ladder line) going into a balun with a short run of coax going into the AT2K http://www.hamuniverse.com/hfdoublet.html
- Palstar AT2K tuner (manual tuning required)
- 2m vertical, 70cm vertical, and 900MHz vertical antennas
- 6m loop, 2m loop, and 70cm loop antennas
- Generic laptop computer connected to the KJ4WLH wireless network and also connected to the IC-9100
- Kenwood TK-981 mobile (as a base station)
- Misc coax switches
To make a really, REALLY long story much shorter; here are some of my favorite computer software packages related to ham radio as well:
- Windows 7 Home, x64
- Ham Radio Deluxe (HRD) – primarily the Logbook and DM780
- Oracle’s Virtualbox (virtual machine operating environment)
- Logbook of the World
- Griffin Powermate (VFO knob)
- Icom RS-BA1 – Remote control software
I’m not trying to do pros vs. cons of each of these software packages/suites – just saying what I have chosen for my particular use. Your mileage may vary – in fact, you might not even get a single mile out of any of them
Starting with the hardware pieces, the IC-9100 is connected to the laptop with a USB cable. The IC-9100 has 2 different functions/devices which work over the USB cable: the first device emulates a serial port and the other device emulates a sound card. The serial port interface is the old, reliable CI-V workhorse of the Icom line – it allows rig control from the laptop.
I use DM780 as my preferred HF digital terminal emulator – the IC-9100 sound card operates much like an external TNC, Tigerlink, or other generic data mode terminal. For those who have used any (either internal or external) sound card to work HF digital modes – the IC-9100 sound card “emulation” works EXACTLY the same way. The laptop “thinks” that it has 2 sound cards when the IC-9100 is on – the “original” sound card that plays music and beeps when Windows misbehaves and the “OTHER” sound card, the one inside the IC-9100 that is used by DM780!
Dropbox is a neat utility that allows you to keep some Windows folders (directories) in sync across ANY other computer that also has Dropbox logged in with the same account. You can have multiple computers, located anywhere, all have a folder (directory) that stays up to date all the time! The way I use Dropbox with ham radio is like this: I keep my HRD Logbook database in a folder that is “monitored” by Dropbox That means that whenever I have updated my HRD Logbook, Dropbox AUTOMATICALLY makes all the other computers have the SAME copy as soon as they get connected to the internet! Yep, my logbook can be up to date on all the computers that I own without me having to manually copy it from place to place and try to remember which computer has the latest version.
Oh, by the way, Dropbox can be used to do that for pretty much ANY files that you need to keep in sync. Like my DM780 macros, or my rig manuals, or my (fill in your favorite files here). Yeah, it’s easy to use and you get a little bit of space for FREE! (There is plenty of space to do all Ham related stuff WITHOUT having to pay for a monthly subscription.) Final note about Dropbox, it also keeps your files backed up for you online – if your computer dies or your accidentally delete something – you can go online and get it back, yes – still for free!
Virtualbox is another free software program that allows you to create and operate a “Virtual Machine” (VM). A VM is like having a completely separate, dedicated laptop/desktop/server running whatever Operating System (OS) that you prefer. I’m kinda a fan of Windows XP for most ham radio programs – they’re not always kept up to date with all the fast pace of Windows Vista/7/8 releases. So, I have created a VM with a Windows XP OS that is dedicated solely to running my ham radio applications! Why in the world would I want to do this? Ahhh, great question!
“Why in the world would you ever think about running a VM with Windows XP for ham radio applications? (Are you insane? Why yes, I am – thank you! )”
- I never have to change the software that’s running. Are you tired of installing, re-installing, un-installing software on your computer – only to find out that something that used to run just fine stopped working? I get tired of that and now I don’t have that problem anymore
- Remember Dropbox? The VM has Dropbox on it too! That means that my VM is just as up to date as ANY other computer I have. My Logbook is up to date. My DM780 macros are up to date. My manuals are up to date. EVERYTHING data related stays automatically up to date
- I have access to a bunch of different computers: Work laptop, couple of home laptops, home server. I can run a VM wherever I wish WITHOUT messing up whatever is on those other computers! Get it? I can run my VM for ham radio applications on my work laptop WITHOUT work knowing about it… (Legal disclaimer – I’d never knowingly run non-authorized, work related programs on my work supplied laptop I know nobody else would either!
- Finally, this article is about remote operation! Once I have a good VM, I have a copy that I can use to make more copies and put them wherever I wish. I now have a good, stable, and reliable operating environment that I can “take with me.”
Finally, the software that allows my remote usage – Icom’s RS-BA1. Of all the wonderful software I’ve listed so far, this is the most critical and worst performing component. Clearly the worst part of the lot… Fortunately, the FCC doesn’t allow cursing and I’m pretty sure that RARC would look unfavorably upon any article with foul language. So, when I call the Icom RS-BA1 software “Really ******, Barely Adequate (version) 1,” that’s about as close as I can get to making the censors happy.
The upside is that yes, I’ve achieved success with RS-BA1, but not without much pain and losing 3 hair follicles – I count them now… “Every hair is sacred, every hair is great, if I waste just 1 hair…” – whoops, that’s my Monty Python humour slipping out – sorry…
Another minor point; consider how much I have spent on software so far – $0.00. Pretty nice, but now I get to the point; the ICOM RS-BA1 software costs about $100! Yeah, $100… The RS-BA1 software is the most important part of this whole setup and is just a pain in the rump. Not only is it the most critical and problematic part of the solution – it’s also the ONLY part that actually costs money, I call that ironic!
ICom’s RS-BA1 software is a 2-part package: The server component runs on the laptop out in the shack that is connected directly to the IC-9100. The client component runs anywhere else – for me, I have it running inside a VM (of course!) What happens is that the RS-BA1 server component takes the serial port (the old Icom CI-V) and the IC-9100 internal sound card and makes it available over the network to any authorized RS-BA1 client. The RS-BA1 client’s OS “sees” a new serial port and new sound card, just like they were actually attached to the OS! Pretty neat huh?
When you are using the RS-BA1 remote client, you can use ANY program that you like to use that would “normally” work with the rig sitting right next to it. Yes, I can do PSK31 on my VM! Yes, I can do SSB on 20m, or 2m or 70cm or 23 cm – or FM or CW. Ok, well, it’ll do CW even though I still can’t The point is, it’ll do whatever you like to do.
Next time we’ll talk about ways I use the pieces and parts to make remote operation fun and enjoyable!
73 de KJ4WLH