Sunday, February 19, 2017

N1MM Networking Plus an Outdoor WiFi Enclosure Build

So what does an outdoor WiFi enclosure have to do with amateur radio?  Well, if you contest portable and do so as a group in a large areas, you might want to connect all your contesting logging stations together via WiFi for score keeping and communications between stations.

We use N1MM contesting software which can be networked.  It keeps a running score and also has a dedicated chat server built in.  N1MM is free, works great and can really help boost your score if used in the correct way.

In a portable multi-station environment, you can set your stations up a couple of different ways.  The first is to have dedicated stations on each band and they never deviate from that band.  In this setup your logging computer doesn't really need to be aware of who you worked on other bands, so you don't have to worry about dupes, but your blind on what others stations are doing.  If you are on 20m and you just worked a station you might need on 40m, how would you know?  If you did need that station on 40m, what frequency would you point him to?  Is the operator in your group running on 40m, or searching and pouncing?  Running in "island mode", you don't know who's logging what on the other bands.

The second options is to have multiple operators spread out doing their own thing on different bands with some loose operating rules with networked computers.  In the N1MM networking window, I know exactly who's on what band, if they are running or S&P and what frequency they are on.  If I need to pass a call to someone on another band, I can put it up in the chat which then gets broadcast to all stations.  This makes it easy to get those multipliers on different bands.  In this environment, you are aware of who's on what bands and who those operators are.

All the portable operations I've been a part of have been the latter.  If 15m is hot and you have an antenna that can run 15m, start running on 15m!!  If 20m is dead, change to a different band based on what others are working.  There really isn't a lot of rules, and it's up to the operators to make sure they are not stepping on other bands but still making lots of contacts.  It's easy to keep track of who's operating where, so if someone steps away, we can communicate that and someone else can pick up the band where they left off.

Since we choose to network N1MM, that means building out a large WiFi network depending on how spread out we are in our portable setup.  Running an off the shelf WiFi router you get at Best Buy just doesn't cut it when trying to shoot long distances, so I Frankenstein-ed my own WiFi solution that is self contained and waterproof with options of extending the signal to another external WiFi antenna.

I did use an old router that I've had lying around, but flashed DD-WRT firmware on it, which basically turns it into a super router with much more configuration settings.  We can boost the WiFi power coming out of the router and turn off antenna diversity to push all the power to 1 antenna.  In order to make the most out of the space within the enclosure, I stripped the wireless router down to just the circuit board and installed on a mesh insert with double sided velcro.  It connects to an 8db gain omni-directional antenna attached to the side of the box.

The box and mesh insert can be purchased on Amazon.

The bottom is (will) be filled with waterproof cable glands.  Four of them to be exact.  Two that will connect the R and L antenna ports.  One for an Ethernet cable to connect another remote WiFi extender that we will connect with a 100ft cable and another cable gland to bring power into the box.

In the picture above, the power cable gland has yet to be drilled.  The power will come from a 50ft extension cable, where I will cut off the plug end, feed it through the gland and then re-attach the plug end for the WiFi transformer.  There is a torrid to help keep RF out of the board from the transformer.  The power will route along the side of the box, keeping it as far away from the transmitting antenna cable as possible.

The antenna is an 8db omni-directional antenna that has a holder bolted into the side of the box.  A little hot glue made the connections waterproof.  The antenna sticks up around 8 inches above the top of the box.

The whole box will be attached to a painters pole with some U brackets and mounted to the side of the RV or sign post in the middle of camp.  I'm hoping that we can get 300+ feet range out of the antenna, as that's about as far away operators will be with their laptops.  Even if we don't get a huge amount of bandwidth, that will be ok, as N1MM doesn't take that much data.  Plus if we sync our computers often, there shouldn't be any issue missing contacts.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Winter Field Day 2017

Winter Field day (WFD) is the last Saturday/Sunday in Jan every year.  It's a 24 hour contest like the FD in June.  It's not associated by the ARRL, but this year there were a lot of stations and clubs calling CQ.  It looks like WFD is getting bigger adn bigger every year.  The object of winter field day is to work on your disaster preparedness skills in harsh operating conditions.  Disasters don't care when the weather will be nice, so getting your gear out in the weather is always good practice no matter how cold it is.

Scott (ND9E) invited me over to operate at his house so we could operate 20 (oscar).  O equals outdoors, as there were three operating classes.  Outdoor, indoor and home.  All the info can be found at  I believe last year he ran solo 10 (oscar) and put on a good showing, so he wanted to add to his operation from the previous year.   

Head over to Scott's blog at to read his write up on the event as he has more technical info regarding the setup and equipment.

Scott put together the antenna plan based on what he did last year during Winter Field day and what he runs for his home shack.  Rules state you can't use the same antennas for WFD as your home antennas, so he had to create a new antenna plan than his original antennas.

I bought over my 135' Windom and we set that up running almost north/south.  The antenna wasn't totally horizontal, as we supported it on both ends with a few push up poles.  The center was around 30 to 35ft.  We also fed some coax to a 40m/80m NVIS antenna in the front yard and a vertical.  I think Scott used some of his portable verticals for is operations.  The antennas worked good for our operation, but I think Scott was getting RF into his rig when I would transmit on the Windom right above us.

Outside the tent, the temp ranged in the mid 30's to low 40's based on the time of day and angle of the sun.  Scott kept it warm in the tent to around the mid to high 50's with his portable heater.  I felt comfortable sitting in the tent with my jacket on, but I did have insulated socks, long underwear and a heavy fleece on.  The wind was a factor, as it would come up from the bottom of the tent and cool the tent down for a bit.  Other than the temp, the weather was good with no rain or snow.

We powered everything with my generator.  I did winterize the generator so it took a few than a more pulls on the pull rope to get it started.  Scott used his battery bank setup for his rig but I think he was charging off the generator.  When I got to his house on Sat early afternoon, he had most everything setup.  Our local hamfest is the same Saturday as the start of WFD so I had to work the hamfest during the morning.  I didn't get out to WFD until around noon.

I decided to bring my Flex radio to operate during the event.  I know it's a bigger footprint than my KX3 setup, but I really want to get good at operating with the Flex.  I only operate contests and don't get a lot of butt in chair time with the Flex.  I've really taken some time this winter to make my Flex contesting system portable by getting a smaller plastic case and removing the VHF radio within the system.  The Flex an awesome radio with a super sensitive receiver, so pulling stations out of the noise floor is one if it's specialties.  That's why I like working portable with low noise floors.  I can really hear those distant stations calling.  The Flex also pushes through with S&P.  The DX+ processor and the TX equalization really makes a difference.  Many S&P contacts with large pile ups came back to me the on the first call with "big signal".

The band conditions were not the greatest during the weekend.  10 through 15 were dead.  I heard one station on 15m the whole time from Central America.  20m was ok at best.  I would call CQ 20 times before making a contact on that band.  40m was the money and 80m was noisy as it always is.  I did a lot of running on 40m with the occasional S&P on 40 and 80.  40m is my favorite band by far during contests to run on.  I feel most comfortable running on 40m, as I feel like I know where the stations are calling from and how the band is going to behave during the day.

We operated from around 1pm on Sat to around 9pm that night.  I was tired from getting up early for the hamfest and setting up in the cold.  I came back out to Scott's around 8pm on Sunday and we operated until right at 1pm, the end of the contest.  We put in a good 10 solid hours with breaks. 

Scott really boosted our score with his multipliers, as he was running CW, digital, SSB, all bands all modes.  If one mode wasn't working for him, he'd switch to a different mode.  I think his setup and radio allows him to do that quickly.  I think we had 12 multipliers and a few of them came from 2m and 70cm!  We also contacted someone on 15m SSB right at the last mins of the contest for another multiplier.

Our final score was around 10,207 points as we gained multipliers for being outside, running generator power and not a home station.  There were a lot of stations running for WFD, so I think the competition is going to be tough, but I think we put on a good showing.  

Thanks to Scott for letting me come over and operate and his son Simon for taking the pictures of the event.  Can't wait until 2018 WFD.

I took some video of the event, so I'll post that soon.