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Amateur Radio today as relevant as 95 years ago

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Amateur Radio at HobbyX

Today 20 May 2020, Amateur Radio is still as relevant as 95 years ago when the South African Radio League (SARL) was formed, just a month after the world’s radio amateurs met in Paris to form the world body, the International Amateur Radio Union.

“Amateur Radio has withstood the test of time because it is based on three major guiding principles: Communication between people, continuous technology development and self-education and training”, van Nico van Rensburg, President of the SARL said as the SARL is celebrating its 95th anniversary this week.

Amateur Radio’s history dates to the days of Marconi and other early radio experimenters who in the last years of the 19th century stunned the world that one could communicate wirelessly. In South Africa, the early radio experiments were carried out by a telephone technician, Alfred Jennings, in Port Elizabeth who demonstrated wireless communication in as early as 1899. Radio amateurs in various parts of South Africa had established wireless associations which were amalgamated in 1925 into one national body, the SARL.

It was the experimenters in the amateur radio fraternity who, in the early days of radio, proved that shortwaves propagate around the world. In modern days they showed the world the worth of low earth orbiting satellites, today the backbone of GPS and soon the broadband satellite connectivity, once Elon Musk’s Starlink constellation is complete.

Since the beginning of the amateur radio service at the dawn of the previous century, radio amateurs have made significant contributions to radio technology and the understanding of radio science.  This work continues today, as the primary purpose of the amateur radio service is the “continuation and extension of the amateur’s proven ability to contribute to the advancement of the radio art.”

Recent advances in the fields of computing, software defined radio and signal processing provide unprecedented opportunities to meet this mandate. These opportunities are already beginning to be realised with the advent of systems such as the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN), the Weak Signal Propagation Reporting Network (WSPRNet), and PSKReporter.  In addition to enabling radio amateurs to make and contribute legitimate scientific observations, it will expose amateur radio to a wider community of people around the world interested in science.

On the science front of Amateur Radio, the SARL is collecting data about the radio frequency noise floor. RF noise monitoring is part of an international campaign to quantify the increases in the RF noise floor because of the widespread use of devices that generate noise as an unintended consequence. The rapid increase in the radio frequency noise floor is of great concern as the reliance on radio is increasing at an exponential rate. Just think of cell phones, wireless internet connection and the whole world of IoT.

The South African Radio League developed a monitoring system powered by a raspberry Pi and a RF dongle. There are currently too few monitoring points, hence the SARL is planning to reach out to universities and technical high schools to join the project and set up monitoring receivers on their campuses. Currently only a few radio amateurs are participating in the project but once the lockdown is something of the past, it is hoped that more radio amateurs, universities and high school science clubs will become involved.

Radio Amateurs pioneered low earth orbit satellite communication, and recently gained access to the first amateur radio geostationary satellite providing 24 hour communication across Africa, Europe and the Near East. A South African group, AMSAT SA, is currently constructing a Software Defined Radio (SDR) powered CubeSat as part of its ongoing amateur radio satellite technology development.

One of the pillars of Amateur Radio is communication.  It has withstood all the challenges of the internet and the mobile phone.  Amateur Radio was in fact the world’s first social network decades before Twitter and Facebook. Talking to and making friends all over South Africa and the world is unchallenged and will always remain the reason why many remain involved and the younger generation show increasing interest. “It is the magic of the ether waves that draws people. One of the astronauts speaking from in the international space station to a young person via an amateur radio link said, “the magic of radio surpasses everything, even here in space!”

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