HF Email From The Mobile?

Last summer when we were camping in the national parks, there were many campsites where we had no cell phone service. I am not complaining about that, but our work around to communicate back home to the XYL often required a trip to the pay phone (sometimes hard to find). I thought about perhaps using APRS’s capability of relaying short pieces of text as emails. Part of the problem is that there are many areas of the parks that don’t have any APRS digipeater coverage (Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks for example). How to get a message through?

Then I remembered my MARS station (AEN5AC) in Iraq. I was using an ICOM IC-7000 and an SCS PTC-IIusb modem to pass MARSGRAMS from my location north of Baghdad to another station at the US embassy in Qatar. The pairing worked quite well and I was consistently able to connect and pass traffic using PACTOR 3 at the 1400 baud rate. Could I use a similar setup to provide an HF email option while camping this summer?

September 2007, Taji, Iraq - MARS Station AEN5AC
September 2007, Taji, Iraq – MARS Station AEN5AC

I dug out my SCS PTC-IIusb modem. I had not used it since shutting down the MARS station in June of 2008. Everything was still in the box. To include the cables necessary to interface the modem with an ICOM IC-706MKIIG… the same rig I use for HF mobile.

I pulled out my spare IC-706MKIIG. Coming back to Kansas from Field Day in California back in 2009, my IC-706MKIIG quit on me. I ended up buying a second at the HRO in Denver and sent the broke one to ICOM. ICOM fixed it and returned it. I kept it in the box and it went back on the shelf. I did order a 6 pin Molex connector with powerpoles to allow for an easy power connection (#9). I connected the two cables from the modem to the rig. Once cable is for the data and plugs into the 706’s 13 pin accessory connection (#4). The other cable connects to the 706’s CI-V interface (#6) to have the radio change frequencies based on what station is being contacted.

Rear of IC-706MKIIG
Rear of IC-706MKIIG

I had the basic hardware of a HF email station, except for a computer. I would need one that would function out of the vehicle. This would probably require a laptop. I also decided for the ease of simplicity that the computer should be Windows driven (instead of Linux). Gasp! The bottom line is that the software and drivers required to send email via HF and use the SCS PTC-IIusb modem is Windows based. The answer ended up being an Dell XPS 15.

Using a Windows based computer helped me with a number of summer travel tasks that could not be accomplished by my small Linux laptop:
(1) Run the software required for HF email (more on Winlink and Airmail later)
(2) Run ARRL’s TravelPlus for Repeaters
(3) Run RT Systems radio programming software for my TM-D710A
(4) Run RT Systems radio programming software for my VX-8RGs
(5) Read the SD card from my Canon digital camera

Interestingly enough, the new laptop does not have a CD/DVD drive nor an RJ-45 connection for a LAN cable. Neither of these have been a show stopper yet.

ARRL’s TravelPlus for Repeaters

travelplus_repeatersI had purchased TravelPlus for Repeaters with the intent of installing it on my existing Linux laptop and running it under a VirtualBox Windows session (similar to how I run iTunes on my Linux laptop). However the software failed to install. I tried troubleshooting and looking at suggested fixes found on the forum sites but still had no luck. I tried installing TravelPlus using WINE. It installed but would not run as well.

Dell XPS 15 to the rescue. As the laptop does not have a CD/DVD drive, I copied the drive onto network storage. I then was able to install TravelPlus over the network and it is working without issue.

RT Systems Programming Software
The RT Systems programming software works fine under a VirtualBox Windows session. As I was moving all my vehicle related radio/computer tasks to the new Windows laptop, I attempted to install the programming software for the TM-D710A (used for beaconing the location of my vehicle and talking on VHF/UHF). Following a similar procedure that worked for TravelPlus, I copied the programming software from the install disks to a network drive. The software installation for the TM-D710A worked without a hitch. The software for the VX-8RGs (HTs we use for around camp and hiking) failed to load. The error said that I must use the original disk to install. A big challenge when the laptop doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive. The work around is that you find another Windows computer with a CD drive, load the software CD, then back on the driveless laptop, map the CD drive (like you would map a network drive). That worked and I was able to install the programing software for the VX-8GR.

HF Email Software
There are two main choices for software to allow for HF email: RMS Express and Airmail. I installed both. Airmail was the same program I used in Iraq and it offered easy configuration with the IC-706MKIIG and the SCS PTC-IIusb.

I now had all my equipment for a test run setup in my basement hamshack: spare IC-706MKIIG, SCS PTC-IIusb, and the Dell XPS 15 with Airmail. I connected the IC-706MKIIG to my Elecraft tuner and used my existing G5RV antenna. Airmail configures easily. The software has a list of stations offering mailbox services that can be viewed on a propagation chart by frequency and distance. Based on time of day, I selected a station in Texas that offered a 40M PACTOR 3 connection. Airmail allows me to click on the frequency in the propagation chart which then changes the dial frequency of the radio. After listening to see if there were any ongoing connections, I initiated contact. The modem lights flashed and the rig clicked between transmit and receive. The connection was made and I was able to send a test email as well as a position report.

Propagation Prediction & Frequency Selection
Propagation Prediction & Frequency Selection

Success! The position reports that go into the Winlink system are copied over into APRS. Now, even if I am not able to reach a digipeater with my VHF APRS beacon, I can send a position report over HF to let the XYL know where we are.

APRS.fi showing Position Report  from WINLINK
APRS.fi showing Position Report from WINLINK

I then thought about the steps I would have to take of transitioning my IC-706MKIIG configured for HF mobile to be ready to work with the PTC-IIusb to send email. As the remote head is located up near the drivers seat, this would present problems with being able to observe the modem, laptop, and radio control head all at the same time.

Remote control heads for the IC-706MKIIG and TM-D710A to the right of the center console. APRS Avmap GPS to the left of steering wheel.
Remote control heads for the IC-706MKIIG and TM-D710A to the right of the center console. APRS Avmap GPS to the left of steering wheel.

What if I just dedicated the spare IC-706MKIIG rig to the task of HF email? It would save me time and bother in pulling and plugging cables. It would also give the camping option of being able to operate HF from outside the vehicle.

VHF/UHF antenna is forward, above driver's door. Tarheel antenna is mounted on a swing out jerry can holder.
VHF/UHF antenna is forward, above driver’s door. Tarheel antenna is mounted on a swing out jerry can holder.

Using an additional iPortable box, I rack mounted the spare IC-706MKIIG and the SCS PTC-IIusb. Now I will have a spare HF rig with me, so if one goes out I will still be operational. I also attached the Tarheel screwdriver antenna’s rocker switch to raise and lower the antenna on the side of the box. During normal HF mobile operations, the TurboTuner (connected to the other IC-706’s tuner connection and CI-V connection) manages achieving a correct match between the operating frequency and the screwdriver antenna.

I only have the one TurboTuner. The TurboTuner requires a connection to the CI-V. So does the SCS PTC-IIusb. My solution was to leave the TurboTuner alone. Instead, using the rocker switch, I can manually tune the antenna while visually observing the 706’s SWR meter.

HF Email Ready: SCS PTC-IIusb, IC-706MKIIG
HF Email Ready: SCS PTC-IIusb, IC-706MKIIG

To transition between using the 706 dedicated to HF mobile to the 706 now dedicated to HF email, I have to do the following:
(1) disconnect the antenna feedline from the TurboTuner
(2) disconnect the control line that goes from the TurboTuner to the Tarheel screwdriver antenna
(3) connect the antenna feedline directly to the HF email 706
(4) connect the control line to the rocker switch
(5) connect the laptop to the SCS PTC-IIusb via a USB cable
(6) connect the iPortable’s powerpole connection to the junction box in the back of the vehicle

… then I am ready to go. The iPortable box rests nicely on the vehicle’s tailgate, next to the laptop. All at about lawn chair height. Not only can I use this setup to send email via HF, but I can also use it for causal National Parks On The Air contacts as well.

What’s left to do:
(1) Constant cooling fan modification for both IC-706s (see AD5X’s article)
(2) An extended control cable for the Tarheel screwdriver antenna. This will allow me to further remote away from the vehicle, but still use the antenna.
(3) A length of antenna feedline for remoting.
(4) A length of powerpole-ready powerline to attach to either the travel trailer battery or directly to the spare vehicle battery… again for remoting away from the vehicle.
(5) I have a set of Heil headsets that worked with my IC-7000. I think if I get the AD-1ICM, I should be able to use them with the 706.
(6) A Heil HS-2 hand PTT switch to use with the headset.

Mobile Install

I have taken my HF mobile install through a number of different iterations (the constant being the rig: an Icom IC-706MKIIG). Today I hope that I have finally reached a lasting, workable setup. Here is a quick re-cap of my trials and tribulations:

First attempt (2007):
What this install lacked in experience, it made up in effort. The successes were routing the powerline and the feedline. The antenna system was a different story. My combination of Hustler and Hamstick antennas (along with the unfortunate choice of putting an Icom AT-180 autotuner in the mix) met with mixed success. I did make contacts and enjoyed the mobiling. The rig itself was placed under the passenger seat. Placed side by side with my TM-D710A left very little room and little clearance between the seat and the floor. I came to realize that my 2005 Toyota Tundra lacked any real great locations to stash a rig. The drivers seat (no way), behind the back seat (nope), under the back seat (not going to happen).

Tarheel Model 75A and the stake pocket mount (2008):
I have not regreted going with the Tarheel Model 75A. I finally figure out that using an autotuner was a non-starter and a screwdriver offered a great solution. The stake pocket mount was a mixed success. The way the pocket was always had the antenna sticking up at a funny angle. It also did not seem very secure. I still made lots of contacts and had lots of fun.

Switched to MT-1(S) mount (2009):
Switching to the MT-1(S) mount did a lot to improve my operations. By having the antenna mounted right to the side of the bed, my ground (… and other half of the antenna) was greatly improved.

February 2010

Using the iPortable (2009-2012):
I don’t usaully have a passenger in the front seat – just two kids in the back. But having a heavy weight passenger in the front seat was a no-go for IC-706 in the all too cramped location under the seat. The iPortable setup allowed me to consolidate the IC-706MKII and the TurboTuner in one spot. No more messy nest of wires. But the iPortable offered somewhat of an obstacle to the kids in the back seat.

Current (…and final?) install (2013):
I have had the TM-D710A installed for a while. The AVMAP makes a good pairing and you can find my location via APRS here.

Now the iPortable is in the large tool box mounted to the bed of the pickup.

The big task was to reroute all the cables: an extension to the powerline, pulling out the feedline, and moving the control cable for the Tarheel antenna. The IC-706 includes the AD5X fan modification.

I had to drill a hole on either side of tool box to route the cables in and out. So far, so good – everything works and I am getting a full 100 watts out on every band.

I did forget to run a line for a CW paddle… that is on the To Do List.
There are also a few additional improvements I would like to make.
– 12v booster to 13.8v
– Extra 12v battery
– amplifier? 🙂

On The Road Again

When I left for Korea, I had to pull out the HF installation on my truck… as the truck was staying in Kansas and I was not. Pulling out the rig and tuner was easy. The Tarheel antenna was also fairly simple. A disconnect at the base and then I coiled up the feedline and the cable that powers the screwdriver so they would be mostly out of the elements.

I returned back to Kansas last June but did not reinstall my HF setup in the truck. My only real modification was swapping out my VHF/UHF antenna with a fold-over. The new house afords me the opportunity to park in the garage(!) but rather than unscrewing the antenna every time I enter the garage, now I just have to pull it down. Works great.

My assignment here in Kansas has me traveling quite a bit and this week I am headed up to Wisconsin. I have only driven through Wisconsin once so instead of flying, I am going to make the 9 hour drive. This had me thinking that if I am on the road for 9 hours, I need my HF rig. So today I put the radio back in and reattached the Tarheel antenna.

Everything was set – I fired up the rig and heard the Turbo Tunner beep that it was on and ready. I hit the 706’s tuner button but the screwdriver failed to turn. Troubleshooting time. I took the base of the antenna down to the bench. Then I dug out the original rocker switch that came with the Tarheel. I hooked it up to the bench power supply and then hit the switch. Nothing. After a bit of jiggeling and wiggeling, the screwdriver engaged. I guess the almost two year siesta had taken a bit of a toll.

After a test drive today, it appears as if the mobile HF rig is working FB!… one QSO with North Carolina and another with Massachusetts. So look for me (AD7MI-9) as I make my way to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin and maybe I will catch you on 20M.

Cleaning up the mobile with iPORTABLE

I have been unhappy with the installation of my IC-706MKIIG and TM-D700A in my 2005 Toyota Tundra. Unlike some of the more recent models, my Tundra has little to no room to squeeze in radios. I have had both radios under the passenger seat, which was a very tight squeeze and also prevented me from easily moving the seat forwards or back. The Turbo Tuner would not fit under the seat and had to be placed on the floor behind it. This really made it difficult to seat anyone in the backseat behind the passenger seat.
Then I saw the field communication stands from iPORTABLE. My plan was to get their smaller stand (without the speaker) and mount the IC-706MKIIG along with the Turbo Tuner inside it.
The iPORTABLE box arrived Friday and this morning I took it down to the workbench.

The box came pre-wired with a PowerPole connection on the outside of the box, two 20 amp fused lines inside the box, a rack mountable shelf, and covers for the front and back.

I attached PowerPole connectors to the power lines inside the box and secured the IC-706MKIIG to the shelf.

Underneath the shelf, I secured the Turbo Tuner using two zip ties.

Then I mounted the shelf inside the box and connected the cables between the radio and Turbo Tuner. Here is a pic of the front and back:

From here I brought the box out to the truck, attached the remote cable to the front of the IC-706MKIIG and then screwed on the front cover. On the backside, I connected the antenna feedline to the Turbo Tuner, the remote speaker connection, and the control cable for the Turbo Tuner. I left the back cover off the box to allow these cables to run out the rear of the box. I then placed the box behind the passenger seat and connect the external PowerPole connector to the power distribution block under the seat.

After a test run, everything was working great.

I am pretty happy with my new setup. Now if someone needs to sit in the backseat, I can easily remove the iPORTABLE box. I can also now use this rig for portable operations without much fuss.

On The Road Again!

It was good to get back behind the wheel of my 2005 Toyota Tundra – although can’t say I am excited about paying to fuel it up. I’ve attempted to get a good HF install for mobile operations before experiencing limited success… with perhaps my biggest rookie mistake being an attempt to use the ICOM AT-180 autotuner along with my IC-706MKIIG.

I used Hamsticks and Hustler mono band resonators – it worked pretty well but I got tired of having to exit the vehicle every time I wanted to change bands.

My answer was to install a screwdriver antenna. I’d been planning this mobile install for some time, using lessons from my trials in the Spring of 2007 as well as a significant amount of reading and research (eHam, WorldRadio, CQ Magazine, websites). I decided on basing my mobile install around the Tarheel Model 75 “Stubby” providing continuous coverage from 3.7 to 34 MHz. The folks at Tarheel worked with me to get me going – responsive to my emails and questions.

The radio for this mobile install: my ICOM IC-706MKIIG. I’d originally purchased this radio when I arrived in Hampton back in the early Summer of 2005. The purchase was in part to motivate me to upgrade from Tech to General – which it did. That Summer I passed the written exam (Element 3) at a nearby hamfest for General. But I was not yet ready for the Morse (Element 1). It wasn’t until later that Fall that I was ready for the Morse… and barely passed too. I’ve been very pleased with the IC-706MKIIG; it is a great radio for a beginner, easy to operate, solid performance, flexible to use either in the radio shack, portable, or mobile.

To mount the antenna to my Toyota Tundra, I really did not want to permanently mar the exterior of the truck. I’d admired K4GUN’s install and thought his implementation of using the Geotool stake pocket on the bed of the truck was brilliant. I wrote Steve, K4GUN, concerning his install and he provided some great additional information concerning the challenges of the stake pocket mount. After working with Rick, WA6JKH, to ensure I was ordering the proper mount, I placed my order and Rick gave me a nice active duty military discount.

I decided to get N2VZ’s Turbo Tuner for ease of operation. Operating HF while driving is already complicated enough and I wanted to make tuning the antenna as easy as possible. Bill was very responsive and also provided a military discount.

I had ordered all the equipment while in Iraq, so everything was waiting for me when I arrived home.

The install took two days. Perhaps the hardest part was mounting the IC-706MKIIG under the passenger’s seat. Already installed under the seat was my ICOM IC-208H – my trusty VHF/UHF rig. I’d originally installed this rig during my circumnavigation of the continental US back in 2005. During that install, I only partially removed the passenger’s seat. This time I pulled the seat completely out of the truck which greatly helped me successfully position both the IC-208H and the IC-706MKIIG in the limited space.

Routing the feedline from the rig to the stake pocket mount was fairly easy, making use of the rubber grommet directly under the passenger’s seat and zip ties along the feedline’s path to the rear of the truck. Soldering the connections to the stake pocket mount was straight forward but it was a bit tricky feeding the line up through the bottom of the stake pocket.

Setup of the Turbo Tuner was a snap; I followed the provided instructions step-by-step, making sure I had the DIP switches positioned properly.

Mounting the antenna onto the Geotool stake pocket mount was made easier by using the HI-Q’s Giant Quick Disconnect. Payment was via PayPal and Charlie, W6HIQ, had it on my doorstep within the week. Thanks Charlie!

How does it work? So far, so good. More reports from the road are coming… and maybe a picture or two.