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Beginners Guide to Ham Radio, Make Your Own

Sam Sattel

what-is-ham-radio

Hamtastic: A Beginners Guide to Ham Radio, and How to Make Your Own In Autodesk EAGLE

Ever watch the Stranger Things series on Netflix? It’s not just a great show with Stephen King-like paranormal activity wrapped up in an idealistic 80s town. It also features some excellent electronics technology that was at its prime back in the 80s and is still kicking today. In one scene, three boys are sitting around their very first ham radio with their science teacher in tow. For these kids, ham radio was the equivalent of today’s smartphones or wireless internet, and allowed them to communicate with others around the world with no wires in between! For Dustin, Mike, and Lucas, ham radio was like a gateway into an invisible dimension, and an alien one, allowing them to connect wirelessly with some simple electronic components. What will it be about for you? Perhaps a great opportunity to learn about basic electronics? Let’s find out.

The Basics of Ham Radio

For those interested in wireless technology and tinkering, ham radio provides a solid introduction to basic electronics theory and radio communications knowledge. And once you’re fully equipped with the needed equipment, the world is yours to communicate and connect.

You likely know about ham radio for one of its most vital uses, serving as a reliable communication system when disaster strikes. During times of crisis, when our fragile cellular networks and power grids limp along, ham radio keeps on running. This wireless technology is relied on as the sole method of communications during emergency situations, and you’ll find volunteer-based emergency groups that offer their ham radio expertise to coordinate aid and relief assistance for those in their community.

ham-radio-crisis

Ham radio is doing what it does best in times of crisis. (Image source)

The uses for ham radio extend far beyond emergency situations though. Take for example the International Space Station (ISS). An astronaut traveling on board will typically bring a 1-5 watt handheld ham radio with them. And by holding the radio to the window, which positions its antenna in the line of sight with other radios down on earth, a lone man flying through space can chat with those of us on the ground with this amazing simple technology. Outside of space adventures and emergency situations, you’ll also find ham radio being used for:

  • Moon bouncing. As if bouncing radio waves off of our ionosphere to lengthen the distance of our communications isn’t enough. Some ham radio operators get their kicks by bouncing radio waves off of the moon communicate with others around the world.
  • Distance dialing. Other ham operators will take part in contests to see how many hams they can connect with in distant locations. Don’t be surprised to get a postcard back when you make a contact, this can make for a great collection throughout the years.
  • Digital data. Ham radios aren’t just for voice communications. With some newer transmission technologies you can also send digital signal around the world to share things like pictures, without ever needing wireless internet.
radio-signal-off-the-moon

Bounce a radio signal up and off the moon for even greater distance. (Image source)

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive and the uses for ham radio are only limited by your imagination. At its core though, ham radio enthusiasts are all known for their nature of being tinkerers and inventors. So whether you want to dive deep into wireless communications, build up your electronics theory, or experiment with digital signaling, there’s something for every maker in a ham radio hobby.

The Ham Radio Spectrum

Like other wireless technologies, ham radio uses the power of electromagnetic radiation to send voices, Morse code, and digital data around the world with the help of transmitters, receivers, and antennas. This electromagnetic radiation travels in the form of a sinusoidal wave, and the particular wavelength and frequency of the wave will determine what kind of electromagnetic signal you’re working with. You can break electromagnetic radiation down into a spectrum as shown below, which is categorized in order of decreasing wavelength and increasing frequency to include radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays.

electromagnetic-spectrum

The electromagnetic spectrum comes in many flavors. (Image source)

Of these categories, ham radio operates solely in the radio wave spectrum, which is known for its long wavelengths that can range anywhere from 0.04 inches to more than 62 miles! The details get even deeper though. Radio frequencies then get broken down once again into yet another spectrum, called the radio frequency spectrum.

radio-frequency-spectrum

There’s a lot of devices that all have to share space in the radio frequency spectrum. (Image source)

This spectrum has been sliced up by the FCC to reserve specific bands of frequencies for specific radio technologies. For example, you’ll find maritime radio communications operating in the Very Low Frequency (VLF) band while satellite communications operate in the Extremely High Frequency (EHF) band.

As for ham radio, the FCC has allocated a specific set of frequencies that start at the AM radio band at 1.6 MHz and end at 1240 MHz. This range includes two radio frequency bands, Very High Frequency (VHF), and Ultra HIgh Frequency (UHF), each of which has its pros and cons.

Very High Frequency (VHF)

You’ll find VHF residing on the radio frequency spectrum between 30 to 300MHz, with the particular ham radio band reserved for 144-148MHz. VHF provides a simplex communications system, which allows for line of sight communications between two ham radios. This band is known for being highly reliable and also less susceptible to noise from nearby electrical equipment, making it the band of choice for many ham radio operators.

repeater-antenna

A great example of a repeater antenna moving a radio signal around. (Image source)

When communicating in the VHF band, ham radio operators will typically take advantage of repeaters set up all around the country by local radio clubs. These large, antenna-like structures can receive and re-broadcast signals sent from a ham radio, which significantly extends its reach. Even better, many of these repeaters are powered by solar or have built-in power backup, making them perfect to keep communications going in times of emergencies.

Ultra High Frequency (UHF)

Moving up the radio frequency spectrum we have Ultra High Frequencies which ranges from 300MHz to 3GHz. For ham radio operators, you’ll use the frequency range from 420 – 450MHz. Unlike the reliability of VHF radio waves, UHF has a much shorter wavelength and is prone to interference from basically any solid object, whether that’s a building blocking your signal or even your body. On the plus side, UHF does have a higher bandwidth occupation, and you’ll find a wider frequency range and audio signal quality when communicating on this band.

Hamming Over the Cash For Equipment

If you’re interested in getting started with a hobby in ham radio, then you have several options for equipment. If you want to go all about and build yourself an entire ham radio shack, then expect to invest hundreds or thousands of dollars to get started.

These days there are some cheaper options out there that allow a maker to get started with a ham radio hobby for as little as $25. A simple BaoFeng transceiver on Amazon will allow you to tune in and talk around the world without breaking your wallet. This can be a great avenue to explore this new hobby, get your ham radio license, and see if you want to invest further. If you do decide to go down the route of eventually building your own ham radio shack, then expect to invest in the following parts:

Receiver

A scanning receiver will allow you to listen in on various radio bands and this box will come in either a desktop or hand-held version. Many receivers these days will also have a memory module that allows you to save your favorite frequencies.

Transceiver

There’s also the option of investing in a transceiver, which combines both a receiver and transmitter in one box. You’ll typically find these as two-meter, single band models for basic ham operators. However, if you plan to upgrade your ham license in the future, then you can pick yourself up a dual or tri-band transceiver to give yourself more communications power.

modern-radio-transceiver

A modern transceiver with both analog and digital controls. (Image source)

Antenna

If you’ve got yourself a home or outdoor space, then you might want to consider investing in an antenna. These will come as either omnidirectional, which sends out a signal in all directions, or directional, which sends a signal to a direct path. There are also mobile antennas you can install on your car that will give your signal a boost while on the road.

home-antennas

Antennas can come in all shapes and sizes, here’s one that works great if you’ve got a nice sized back yard. (Image source)

These are just a few of the pieces that you’ll need when putting together your own ham radio shack. There’s still a lot more to the project though, with things like a power supply, microphone, and all necessary cabling. Be sure to check out this article from Makezine on how to set up a ham radio shack for more details.

Getting Your Ham Radio License

Ready to get started with your ham radio hobby? Not so fast! You’ll need to get licensed first to be able to operate a ham radio legally. The test you take will cover knowledge in electronics theory, amateur radio rules, and regulations. There are three types of licenses available, including:

  • Technician. This license is perfect for those just getting started with their ham radio hobby. The technician test includes 35 questions and will cover basic ham radio regulations, safety, and basic electronics theory. Once complete, you’ll be licensed for communicating in the VHF, UHF, and microwave frequency bands.
  • General. With a General license, you’ll unlock all of the privileges of the Technician license plus the ability to communicate on frequencies in the High Frequency (HF) band.
  • Extra. The Extra license has over 700 questions and is going to take some serious studying. If you pass this test, you’ll get all of the privileges of both the Technician and General License plus access to exclusive sub-bands.

To get started with your ham radio license process, you’ll likely want to find a class or book to dig into and then take your test. HamRadio 360 has a great list of study materials for you to start with. Once you know your stuff, you’ll want to look for a local club in your area for a testing session. The National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL) is a great resources to find a location in your town.

When You Want to Build, Not Buy

Communicating with a ham radio is a great hobby all on its own, but if you’re reading this blog as a seasoned electronics designer, then chances are you’ll want more, so here are two paths to take.

If you’re interested in seeing what kind of electronic components are being packed inside of today’s ham radios, then check out the Teardown Tuesday: Baofeng Amateur Radio Transceiver from All About Circuits to see all of the good stuff inside.

hughes-baofeng-teardown

The Baofeng Amateur Radio Transceiver is packing in some serious technologies. (Image source)

Now if you want to dive into the deep end and design your very own ham radio circuit, then we’ve got you covered with a free on-demand webinar. Here’s what you can expect:

  • You’ll learn how to design a complete DC power management system with a built-in charge meter, low voltage disconnect, and failover switch for a portable radio.
  • You’ll learn how to leverage everyday through-hole components to design and build your very own portable and affordable radio equipment.
  • You’ll learn what kind of considerations you need to make in your radio circuit design process to select the right transistor, heat sink, package types, and copper width/thickness.

This webinar was presented by George Zafiropoulos, an avid ham radio operator and co-host of the HamRadio 360 Workbench Podcast.

Watch the webinar recording here:

And feel free to comment!

Start your first radio circuit design in Autodesk EAGLE today!

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