APRS Location Tracking On The Cheap!

2016-02-27 15.33.34  Probably about 6 – 7 years ago or so I was informed by the “EC” (Emergency Coordinator) for Outagamie County WI ARES / RACES that the National Weather Service was interested in the idea of using ham radio based trackers for severe storm spotting purposes.  Stan explained what it was, how it worked in general and encouraged our experimentation with the technology.

Back then there were no APRS apps for smart phones, at least none that I knew of at the time.  Even if there were (I don’t think I owned a cell phone at that time) the idea was to use a ham radio based tracker so it would function during storms if the cell networks were knocked out by a tornado or whatever.  Back then, as far as I knew, APRS functionality wasn’t yet converged with ham radio technology to the point that it was built-in to ham radios.  In those days one needed to buy and install a separate ham radio, a separate ham radio antenna and buy, program and install some sort of a tracker and GPS receiver.  That is what I did back then.  I installed a second ham radio in my car along with a separate, dedicated APRS antenna that could also be used for other purposes.

The tracker worked VERY well and, when listening to the radio was really quite amazing.  There was a problem however.  The radio I chose put out 50 watts.  I didn’t know the “rules” at that time for digital work.  I don’t believe that the transmissions broke FCC law at that amount of power because in the areas I travelled it was needed to get the signal to a receiving station in Canada from NW lower MI, for example.  Tweaking the installation was something that was on my to-do list and I eventually did get it done.  Not before some good amount of experience and listening to local experts and reading lots of material about it.

A few ideas passed by my mind as I thought about the tweaks.  One was to dial down the power out from the radio.  The radio I used did have a reduced power setting that I tried.  That, however, resulted in an unacceptable level of iGated packets.  So – I cranked the power back up.

Another idea was to use a HT as the radio.  The same EC that suggested we experiment with this mode tried this out.  During our ARES / RACES deployment for the Farm Technology Days – a gathering of thousands of people in a remote farm location – the EC had his HT set to beacon our location from his car.  It was a hot day and both of us eventually scrambled to our cars to intercept in-bound quickly developing severe storms.  During that deployment, and while we were in the Mobile Communications Center trailer used by us, smoke started pouring out of his car!  Turned out that the HT had overheated and eventually “totally lost it’s cool”.  I had never experienced anything like this.  We were all glad that the EC had no damage to his car and was able to get the HT out of the car safely.  We eventually had a good chuckle about it.  It was one of those ham radio experiences that makes for a rich operating experience and gives ammunition for good war stories down the road!

For reasons not related to APRS I decided to purchase a Baofeng HT ham radio – found here .  I realized that with the addition of a data cable to connect the radio to the Tiny Tracker 4 (see photo above showing the set-up) I could maybe use the HT at least as a back-up or additional portable tracker device or maybe even replace the mobile ham radio in the car and free that up for use in the ham shack.

I was surprised to find that the set-up – so far – has worked very well.  The one thing that I did have to modify was the menu setting for VOX.  This function apparently needed to be turned on so the HT would automatically transmit when the tracker sensed time had expired or when the car had turned a corner, etc..  While I am still testing, thus far I am quite pleased with the successful implementation. I have been testing it while in church and things like that – it was cool when I emerged.

Perhaps another time I will post more specific technical details on the set-up.  For now, suffice it to say that this one is a winner!  Why?  Because it ratcheted down the power settings of my transmissions from 50 watts to 4 watts. And THAT should make the ham radio community quite happy.  Time will tell if it will be sufficient to allow tracking in some of the more remote and hilly areas that my wife and I travel in.  Stay tuned!  Pun intended…  smile and as hams would say…  HI HI.

Let’s just pray this whole thing doesn’t burst into flames in the middle of some severe storm spotting event!  Risk…  This little now portable tracker will probably be used for things like marathons, fishing in NW lower MI (eventually), hiking, kayaking, etc..

If you want to track me just use this link.  If I have been active in the recent past my little car icon should show-up in very near real-time:

http://aprs.fi/#!call=a%2FAB9NN-9&timerange=86400&tail=3600

Until next time – stay radio active!

73,

Jon E. Kreski – AB9NN

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