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Issue #40: When is a Ham Radio NOT a Ham Radio?

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Answer: When it is a Meshtastic device. 

Maybe you've tried one of these tiny gadgets . . . they operate Stateside on our ham band 915MHz (and on other frequencies depending upon country) but are so low-powered that they do not require a license.

Remember that first little Radio Shack Walkie-Talkie that your parents bought you when you were ten years old? Those had the same power (100mW) and could barely reach from your bedroom to the mailbox. But they were neat! (No wonder the FCC said "who cares" to those at the time.)

Imagine what would have developed if every kid with a Walkie-Talkie had been a repeater? If you wanted to message that buddy of yours across town (or 50-100 miles away) you could still connect with him or her because those cheap HT's between the two of you had become a "mesh" of connected radios.

That's an analogy for the way that Meshtastic works (short for Mesh and Fantastic). It's an open source development project utilizing some very unique concepts, along with LoRa ("Long Range") technology that is based on spread-spectrum technology that dates back to Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil around the time of WWII.

When I first read about these tiny text-only radios a couple of years ago, it was kind of a quiet niche to have an interest in . . . I declined even though the cost (in ham radio terms) was ridiculously low. Not many of those little experimental boards had been sold back then -- the technology of a "mesh" requires others in your region with similar interests (and it still does). But it resonated with many gadget oriented hams, and there are now dozens of small companies selling either the radios or accessories like antennas and cases to go with these often home-built gadgets. The two shown in my hand in the photo above are two of the smallest, fully loaded Heltec devices with all firmware, including a stubby antenna which (just like your HT) should really be replaced. These are from Muzi Works.

But using RF alone is not going to connect you to the far side of the world. What that tiny device will do for you is to keep you in touch with your local world, however, no matter what happens. Whether it's political upheaval, wars, an alien attack or a zombie apocolypse, these things have you covered. They are particularly useful in situations where you are going off-grid for pleasure or in emergencies. It's fun to own a few of them, and when headed into the woods for off-roading or to the sand dunes for a four-wheeler experience, share them with your family and friends. What the Meshtastic experience does for you is to allow you to use your smart phone as a keyboard, requiring no connection to the Internet - just bluetooth to that tiny device in your pocket and you can send text messages device-to-device using only RF with no infrastructure at all (which is why it's popular with the prepper community). 

Kevin Hester (KI6GII) - Meshtastic Developer

During my research on this topic I had a chance to interview the fellow who invested a great deal of time and sweat equity into the idea of Meshtastic. He's an interesting ham, and I am proud to include him in Trials and Errors as he's done so many cool things with radios over the years.

The first thing I asked him about was why he got his ham license in the first place.

"Hey, I was a geek. At the time, I was building an airplane and I wanted to use APRS in it, which worked great by the way," Kevin said. Clearly, I was talking to a fellow who spent as much time as possible outside of an office environment. Exactly the opposite kind of ham from yours truly, as I'm now shaped a bit like my desk chair. Plus, Kevin is also a paraglider pilot! In short, everything I have always wanted to do, this fellow has already done. 

"Many of us paragliders were hams so that we could stay in touch when we are out in the back country. I was thinking primarily of hikers and paragliders when I sat down to imagine how Meshtastic might work," Kevin said. I was relieved when he mentioned that he does sit down now and again. He's actually worked in IT for years. After his graduation in Computer Science from UT Austin, he garnered career achievements from companies like Apple Computer and a few young silicon valley startups, including PacBio -- a company that makes a unique genome sequencer used in the study of Covid and Cancer.

I wondered aloud about why he never moved up from his Technician class ham license, and his response may shed some light on that question for at least one segment of our many Tech class hams. That is, they may find their needs being fulfillled by that license. 

"I found that APRS was really perfect for my little aerobatic plane, an RV7. After using that for awhile, I became quite an advocate for RV7 builders to become ham radio operators and to add in the same radios. Later, using 2m handhelds in paragliding . . . that was also a blast. While I hear what you are saying about Amateur Radio needing hams to move up to higher classes, I think my needs have always been met by my allowed spectrum. I've got to say, however, that ham to ISS or satellites is mighty appealing," Kevin admitted. Maybe AR will snag his interest in a General or Extra Class license somewhere down the line, but this is a man with many hobbies and it's got to appeal in just the right way.

Early Meshtastic

"I worked backwards on the Meshtastic project, starting with a basic desire to incorporate LoRa. I went to Aliexpress to see what boards were out there and what I might do with them. I also wanted to experiment with mesh networking, as I had done a project for Apple Computer that got me interested in that topic. I found a few boards that were almost right, that I might adapt, and went to work on the software," Kevin told me. And it was in true Open Source spirit that he proposed his idea to others on the net and found himself with an interested group of developers, or "hardcore geeks" as Kevin referred to them. I'm still not comfortable using "geek" in this way. . . it has always sounded negative to me, but innovators like Kevin wear it as a badge of honor.

I asked Kevin about the value of open source development and why he prefers to have this interesting technology remain in an "experimental" mode instead of producing proprietary products in FCC-approved devices. 

"I'm a huge fan of open source. There are ways to properly structure the project to ensure that it is a happy place, as so many unstructured projects have drifted and become competitive and toxic. We had three goals for Meshtastic. For one, it had to ultimately produce something useful. Secondly, it should be fun for the developers to work on. Finally, users of the technology should follow the GPL (the license agreement and trademark). Commercial producers would be welcomed, as long as they'd adhere to those principals as in the model of Linux."

Reaching Out to the Other Side of the World

While the beauty for most readers is that the Meshtastic device connects you to others via RF and without any infrastructure whatsoever, Kevin and the development team brought another concept into the picture for longer range communication. That is, a protocol called MQTT which allows you to access any Meshtastic device anywhere that is similarly connected via this "Internet of Things" communication protocol. MQTT opens up the Meshtastic device in your pocket to the Internet.

Also, as a radio amateur Kevin brought a "Ham Mode" to the software. This brings Ham standards to Meshtastic communications, such as "no encryption" and the use of an identifier (your Call Sign). Both MQTT and Ham Mode are a part of what you will find in either the Android or iOS apps that convert your phone into a keyboard for the device.

As we closed our conversation, I asked KI6GII what he thought about the future of tiny RF, and what the future might hold. "New boards are being developed all the time, and some of these will have dramatically lower current draw and longer battery life," Kevin told me. "And the mesh itself is growing dramatically. I turned on my device the other day and there were 75 nodes visible at my home location. The larger the Mestastic community gets, the more interesting this will become."

He's sure right about that. With these little devices, we share that spectrum with those who have no licenses at all. It's a whole 'nother world of tech. Interesting for sure, but perhaps quite controversial for many old school amateur radio operators. If you have some comments on this subject, please join us in the attached forum discussion.

73 for now,

Dave, W7DGJ

PS - Added later . . . One thing that came out of my discussion with Kevin was the fact that we're close to having Meshtastic nodes up in trees, completely unattended. These new, lower-current draw boards that Kevin mentioned above could be combined with a small solar panel for a repeater that benefits everyone. Even more interesting, further development of the firmware could result in a system whereby the software has the radio completely in the "off" mode except for 100 milliseconds every minute, where the node comes on to check for traffic, distributes it and then goes silent again. Really cool stuff coming! Ham radio can either jump into this with both feet or stand back and watch as something new and interesting gets developed by non-licensees. Meshtastic could have the same draw to a license as those old Walkie Talkies did, way back in the 50's and 60's. -- DGJ

 

 

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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.


Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated June 17, 2024 18:55