The Things are coming…

Recently, I attended #offcamp – a barcamp style discussion around open data which was organised by @bcs_isleofman and free to attend.

The morning sessions were OK and it was good to see that some thought is being given to making data open and available, especially data that has been collected by governments and already paid for by the public.

However, what really caught my attention was the crowd sourcing of data using sensors and the Internet of Things. I hadn’t realised that the problem of expensive telecoms links for remote IoT devices is beginning to be solved by new RF chipsets based on spread spectrum techniques similar to those used in QRP amateur radio experiments.

Sadly most of these RF technologies are proprietary, but that doesn’t mean that the infrastructure built with them has to be. A group of people from Amsterdam have built The Things Network which is an open movement with the aim of providing free and open communications for IoT devices around the world.

Given my interest in radio and electronics, together with the open philosophy of building something free for community use, I knew that I wanted to get involved with this. So, I’ve established an Isle of Man community with the aim of getting our very own Things Network established here.

Digital Voice in Amateur Radio

Analogue signals are great in that they are simple enough to generate and demodulate, but they suffer in that the signal quality degrades when sent over a noisy radio link. With radio voice systems, this is heard as pops, crackle, hiss etc. and the problem gradually gets worse as signals get weaker. Human ears do a remarkably good job of dealing with noise but it can get tiring when listening for long periods.

Way back in 1948, Claude Shannon proposed that digital coding systems can be designed in such a way that error-free transmission can occur even through a very noisy channel. My first encounter with amateur radio using error-correction was operating AMTOR in forward error correction mode on the HF bands, from the station of G3IUB at the University of Birmingham in the early 1990s. The station consisted of a Trio TS-520S transceiver (yes, valves!) coupled to an AEA PK-232 terminal node controller, with an amber screen serial terminal made by Wyse. It was actually quite impressive to watch the text on the serial terminal edit itself, so that rogue characters got corrected as more data came in over the air.

Although I’ve been a radio amateur for decades all of my voice transmissions have always been carried by analogue radio signals, modulated by various combinations of phase, frequency and amplitude. However, the increase in computing power and falling costs over time have now put digital voice modulation schemes within reach of the radio amateur.

Recently, several competing amateur radio digital voice systems have come into existence. Sadly, they are largely proprietary and do not interoperate. After all, there is just one radio manufacturer behind each closed protocol. This goes against the spirit of amateur radio (which in my mind is the original open-hardware movement) and it shouldn’t be necessary to buy a specific type of transceiver from one specific manufacturer just to operate in a specific mode.

In 2005, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) ratified a specification for a digital voice modulation scheme. This has been adopted by PMR radio manufacturers and is growing in popularity throughout the world as a new PMR radio standard. Although the voice codec used is proprietary, the specification itself is open and so it lends itself to easy investigation by radio amateurs.

So, I have decided to jump on this particular band wagon. As well as the usual PMR manufacturers, there are now a range of Chinese manufacturers producing DMR compatible equipment very cheaply. I managed to source an MD-380 hand-held radio from TYT, with a drop-in charger, two antennas and a hands-free microphone all for less than £100, including delivery to the Isle of Man.

First impressions are that the codec is somewhat brutal. Everyone sounds somewhat robotic, but once you’ve got used to that the audio is very intelligible. Unlike analogue FM, there is no hiss. No background crackle. None of the multi-path ‘flutter’ you get on stations in moving vehicles. A very strong FM signal probably sounds better than DMR but for hand-portable radios strong signals are rare. Listening to perfect audio from DMR in weak fringe areas is much better than struggling to pull a voice out from the noise you’d hear on FM.

You also get other value-added features with the DMR protocol that you don’t get with analogue FM. Each radio has an unique identity, so you can match that up to a user’s call sign and have your radio display the call sign of the person you’re listening to. That’s great if your memory is as bad as mine, and it takes some of the stress out of mobile operating. Also, DMR was designed with repeater infrastructure in mind which means that roaming between coverage areas is seamless, with no need to fiddle with your radio while driving. DMR is also a time-division multiplex system which means that two separate conversations can occur simultaneously in one 12.5 kHz wide radio channel. You can also see the received signal strength from the repeater at the same time as you’re transmitting into it!

Of course being digital, sending data between repeaters via the internet is easy and so a worldwide network of linked repeaters has sprung up. This means that noise-free global communication is now possible from one hand-held transceiver to another. Thanks to the hard work (and deep pockets) of two local amateurs, we have two linked DMR repeaters on the Isle of Man.

 

 

Food Security

The Isle of Man has arable land. It has farmers. It has crops. It has livestock. It has a slaughterhouse. It has a dairy. It has the potential to feed itself.

However, because of the crazy world we find ourselves in, economies of scale mean that Isle of Man milk and cheese can cost more than imported products. The same is true of meat. This means that many people choose to buy the cheapest food products, which don’t help to sustain our farming industry.

A few weeks ago, I had cause to visit that well known large (UK owned) supermarket in Douglas. At the time, the weather had been very stormy and several boat sailings had been cancelled. So what was the result?

Empty shelves. Scarcity of food.

This got me thinking. If people continue to buy the cheapest possible food rather than locally sourced food, we could be in a situation where we are entirely dependent on imported food for our survival.

What if the boats and planes were cancelled for a week or two? What would happen? This could be due to a freak weather event, but it could equally be caused by the global economy faltering to such an extent that the companies that run the transport links collapse. International disputes could cut off the supply of fuel for the boats and planes. The IT infrastructure of the air-traffic control system could fail. Godzilla could rise from the Irish Sea… (OK, maybe that *is* a bit far fetched!)

You get the picture though. We either live on an island that could cope without imported food, or we starve. Which would you prefer?

The simple answer is to maintain our farming industry. If you are able, please consider always buying local produce. A few pence more at the checkout is a small price to pay for an insurance policy that maintains our supply of food in a crisis.

A Hackspace for the Isle of Man?

I’ve discussed the need for a hackspace on the island over the years with members of the Isle of Man Linux User group, work colleagues in education, people in the pub, family and friends and they’ve all said what a great idea it would be.

Today while out walking the dogs, I noticed this building is up for sale:

Screenshot-from-2014-01-11-150441-300x168

This building was originally a small church, but has since been used as a workshop recently. It has loads of potential as a community hackspace to benefit the people of the Isle of Man.

 Wouldn’t it be great if the community could come together to secure this as resource for everyone?

‘Isle of Man PLC’ is always spinning stories in the media about how hi-tech it is, and how space and engineering are growing sectors for the island. There’s always talk of investing in education too, and providing opportunities for people to better themselves and learn new skills. Couple that with the island’s strong sense of community, and it’s hard to see why we don’t have a hackspace already!

 Wouldn’t it be great if the community could come together to secure this as resource for everyone?

You may be wondering why, and just what is a hackspace anyway? Well, firstly let’s make sure that we don’t mix up that term ‘hacker’ with the negative way that it gets used in the media. RFC 1392 defines a hacker as:

“A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.”

Hacking has nothing to do with breaking things, or gaining unauthorised access to computer systems. (The correct term for that is ‘cracking’ – media please note!!)

A hackspace then, is a place where like-minded individuals can meet up to share and swap ideas, build things, test things, improve things and share in a learning culture. Having a basic set of tools, soldering irons, test gear and computers is almost a prerequisite for a useful and productive hackspace. If you’ve the time, this video will give you a good idea of the benefits of hackspaces.

Wouldn’t it be great if the community could come together to secure this as resource for everyone?

This is the point where I’m stuck.

How can we make this happen? How can we rally the troops? How can we find the money needed to secure this hackspace? Who can support us? Who knows about grants and pots of money? Who knows about crowdfunding like Kickstarter or Indiegogo? Can our MHKs assist us?

Help!!