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SA needs more citizen science – amateur radio can show the way

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Citizen science is scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by people interested in science but who are not professionally engaged or qualified as scientists. Citizen science is sometimes described as “public participation in scientific research”, and whose outcomes are often advancements in scientific research, as well as an increase in the public’s understanding of science.

While the concept is relatively new and not very well known, it is finding traction in maker space and amateur radio groups. No doubt there are other citizen organisations with science-based activities.

Since the beginning of 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 must be continued 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, specifically in the field of radio science. 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 enable radio amateurs to make and contribute legitimate scientific observations, these developments will expose amateur radio to a wider community of people around the world interested in science.

US amateurs coined the phrase HamSCI, the Ham Radio Science Citizen Investigation. It is a platform for the publicity and promotion of projects that are consistent with the following objectives:

  • Advance scientific research and understanding through amateur radio activities.
  • Encourage the development of new technologies to support this research.
  • Provide educational opportunities for the amateur community and the general public.

HamSCI serves as a means for fostering collaborations between professional researchers and radio amateurs. It assists in developing and maintaining standards and agreements between all people and organisations involved. HamSCI is not an operations or funding programme, nor is it a supervisory organisation. HamSCI does not perform research on its own, rather, it supports other research programmes.

HamSCI was started by ham-scientists who study upper atmospheric and space physics. These scientists recognised that projects such as the Reverse Beacon Network, WSPRNet, PSKReporter, DX Cluster, ClubLog, and more are generating big data sets that could provide useful observations of the earth’s ionosphere and related systems. Because of this, HamSCI’s initial focus is on these fields of research. In the future, other researchers may join HamSCI and broaden its scope.

Fig. 1: Typical screen shot of data collected by a few monitoring stations.

On a global scale, there are several on-the-air contests where thousands of radio amateurs make contacts around the world over a 24- or even 48-hour period. Logs of each participant are sent to a central server where various categories are judged, and winners decided upon. These thousands of entries form an enormous amount of data which when analysed could show interesting, even unknown, propagation trends. These could be compared and analysed against propagation predictions at the time of the event. This is big data in the true sense of the word. However, it requires data scientists to develop algorithms to extract information. This is where the HamSCI partnership between radio amateurs and data scientists is important.

Monitoring the RF noise floor

Currently the South African Radio League is collecting data about the radio frequency noise floor. This data is stored on a central server and is available for analyses. RF noise monitoring is part of an international campaign to quantify the increases in the RF noise floor as a result of wide spread use of devices that generate noise as an unintended consequence. The EMC committee of the International Amateur Radio Union (Region1) has formed a noise monitoring subcommittee which is currently working on standardising the data format and developing a method of automatically applying correction factors to compensate for different antennas.

The South African developed monitoring system uses a dongle and is powered by a Raspberry Pi. There are currently too few monitoring points hence the SARL is reaching out to universities and technical high schools to join the project and set up a monitoring receiver on their campus. It requires a stable internet connection and only a minimum outlay for the equipment. Another project is the establishment a VHF beacon network to study various VHF and UHF propagation modes.

The SARL and its partner organisation AMSAT SA is would like to follow the US HamSCI initiative by working with universities, their scientists and students to promote citizen science. To start the discussion, email admin@amsatsa.org.za or visit http://www.amsatsa.org.za/HAMSCISA.htm

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