Radio Communications in an Emergency
By: Eric Anderson
One of the issues for the prepper community is how to stay aware of happenings in your local area in the case of a major disaster that includes a grid failure. This is true for short-term events, such as a major ice storm, an earthquake, or an accident somewhere that cuts power. It is even more critical in the event of a terrorist attack, EMP attack, or solar EMP event, where the grid goes down for an extended period, or even worse, effectively the rest of your life.
Communications will be extremely critical in such cases. Warning of pending activity from gangs, warnings of disease spreading, invading troops, or other issues are of absolutely critical importance during a disaster. Also knowing about who has what items or skills to barter, and where help is available is also very important. Finally, having information passed along about national events or world events from those with high quality short wave radios would be of great value. Thus, having a good solution to this problem that is inexpensive and easy to use, and does not require more than a Technician Class amateur radio license is of high value.
The Typical Solution Offered
The typical solution offered for this is a $25 handheld radio from BaoFeng, the UV-5R. This dual band transceiver operates on the 2 meter amateur radio band, as well as the 70 centimeter band (440 MHz). Combined with a decent antenna, such as a J-Pole, you can get some distance from this unit. Otherwise, you must have access to a repeater on a mountaintop nearby. At these VHF and UHF (very high and ultra high frequencies), communications is essentially line of sight. Thus, these units operate typically only short range, unless a repeater is available on a nearby mountain. In that case, the repeater, being much higher power and being line-of-sight for a much large area, provides a mechanism for connecting to other radios at a much larger distance away.
Drawbacks to the BaoFeng Solution
There are a number of drawbacks to this approach, but the big advantage is, you only need a Technician’s Class amateur radio license to use these radios. The disadvantage is the line-of-sight limitations, the limited power output, the lousy built-in antenna, and dependence on repeaters, which will NOT be on the air in a grid-down situation. Finally, the tiny units with tiny buttons and tiny screen have one of the worst human interfaces invented by man… no doubt created by an engineer under management pressure to stuff as many functions into as few buttons as possible. The results are not pretty. But it is cheap.
I speak here as an advanced electronics engineer. I barely can deal with the interface without having the manual in front of me, and then I have to spend quite a bit of time figuring out what the manual is saying – with a magnifying glass. I can’t imagine a non-technical person dealing with the manual.
Most non-technical people who buy one of these units have to take a course to use it. It’s bad enough that most people that buy these units have to have someone program it for them. It is also very easy to accidentally mess up the controls, not knowing what you did and how to get out of it. This is especially bad if you are under stress – which you will be in a real crisis situation. It’s a bad enough problem when you are just “playing around” with it, and have time to look in the manual (assuming you can decode the manual!). One thing I can guarantee: you do NOT need an additional stress point if you are already stressed out because things are falling apart all around you!
Because of all the negatives, I cannot recommend this solution. If you want to go with 2 meters and 440 MHz, get a “real” radio. But you are talking much more money. And, while the interface is much better, a conventional amateur radio transceiver is still quite complex, and difficult or impossible for a non-technical person to handle.
Keep in mind, a technician class license can be had by essentially memorizing the answers to the questions. Actual understanding is a totally different thing. So don’t be fooled: a technician class operator typically is not technically oriented. If they were, they would have gone for a higher class license!
So what is the alternative? At this point in time, really, there is none that I am aware of. Unless you get your General Class amateur radio license – a lot harder than getting a Technician Class license – and purchase and install a fairly expensive transceiver and antenna system, and learn to use it, and provide the battery or other power system to drive it, and set up an EMP safe Faraday Cage to protect it when not in use, you are out of luck. This is not something most prepares are willing to do.
Not only does this cost you significant of money, but the antenna is not a slam-dunk for lower frequencies. They typically require some help to install and tune from other amateur operators. The modern transceiver has as many functions or more than the BaoFeng, but spread out over more knobs and dials and buttons, so while it is much easier to use, you still have to learn how. This remains a significant barrier. Cost, antenna, and technical complexity.
The ideal solution would require something like this:
- Low cost transceiver (low power)
- Easy to install but efficient and low cost antenna with small footprint
- 80 meter or 40 meter operation for local communications
- Battery powered
- Easy to use
- Technical class license only required
- Does not require operator to use Morse Code
- Low cost. I repeat this for a good reason!
- Easily fit into a small Faraday Cage to protect it from EMP
That is a big requirements list! The Bonner County Amateur Radio Club (BCARC) has been thinking about this problem for some time, as some of the club members are also members of the INWPrep group on GroupSpaces.com. We have come up with a possible solution!
A Possible Solution
The approach we have focused on, and are in the process of developing, is essentially an microprocessor based transceiver for communicating by text. In effect, think of it as a texting device, like your smart phone, but over amateur radio frequencies, not the internet.
To make this work reasonably well locally, we have tentatively selected 40 meters. This band allows a reduced antenna size as compared to 80 meters. 40 meters daytime is pretty good for local communications, but not so in the evenings, where more distant communications would be much more likely. This is due to the action of the sun on the atmosphere. The radio waves will bounce back down from the antenna to within a few hundred miles of your station during the day, but could go many hundreds or even thousands of miles at night. So local communications during the day, distant communications at night.
The transceiver is designed for primarily local use. Thus, it is not a super-sensitive receiver and a high-powered transmitter, but rather a sensitive-enough receiver and a QRP (low power) 5-10 watt transmitter. The design is extremely simple compared to the typical transceiver (and thus, much less expensive). Additionally, the frequency for operation will be “channelized” – i.e., similar to how CB Radio works. You select the “channel” (which is really selecting a specific frequency) and you see if anyone is transmitting. If not, you can transmit, to see if you can contact anyone.
Many of the functions of this transceiver will use a popular micro computer called the Arduino. For those that don’t know, Arduino is one of several very popular micro computer systems used by the “maker’ community. “Makers” are people that make things. In this case, electronic things. Arduino is widely supported and inexpensive. There are thousands of programs available that support hundreds of different sensors and circuits, which are also widely available. It’s a great foundation for any project that requires a micro computer or controller.
In order to meet the technician class license requirement on 40 or 80 meters, the transceiver must use CW or Morse Code. This in of itself is a major obstacle. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that grants the amateur radio licenses no longer requires learning Morse Code to pass the exams. So we need to somehow eliminate this problem. We do this by translating text input to computer-generated Morse Code, and decode the computer-generated Morse Code back into text using the Arduino.
By generating Morse code from your keyboard text input, you are essentially transmitting perfect Morse code. This makes it quite easy to decode at the other end. Both of these steps can easily be accomplished by the Arduino. The big deal is this: the user does not have to learn Morse code, so communications is like texting. Your input is via keyboard, where your text is displayed on an LCD screen built into the unit. When in receive mode, code transmitted from another station is then displayed on the same LCD screen. If storage is included, all text will be stored on the storage device.
Combining the texting concept with other support and easy to use features, such as channel numbers should dramatically simplify the human interface and make the unit inexpensive to build or buy. Other more advanced functions may be available from a menu in the future, as the Arduino can be programmed with additional code easily.
We have a small group of club members currently learning to build simple electronics by using a $35 Arduino kit that includes lots of parts and includes a course, where you build a whole set of circuits using LED’s, motors, LCD’s, buttons, knobs, and various sensors, such as distance sensors, motion sensors, temperature and humidity sensors, etc. For $35, it is a great way to learn how to put basic electronic circuits together, and how to download software programs (included in the kit) into your Arduino Uno microcomputer to operate the circuits. The entire goal of this exercise is to bring these club members into the “maker” world, with skills to build their own circuits. A view of this kit, the Elegoo UNO Project Super Starter Kit with Tutorial, is available on Amazon for $34.95, as well as on other sites.
Obviously, this experience will NOT teach them electronics, other than parts identification and how to connect them. Nor will it teach them how to program an Arduino, but rather how to import a program and download it to the Arduino. These are critical, basic skills that will enable them to build the transceiver, one section at a time, with instructions provided by the group leader.
Thus, the goal is to get each group member ready to build the transceiver circuit, using parts provided during the project. We may start with the receiver section. Once we have each section working, calibrated, and tested, and possibly revised, we can move on to the next section. The planning for sections, including how to test and calibrate, will be provided by the group leader. And, as each member gets into trouble, the group leader will work with the group in the lab to locate and fix the problem. This “troubleshooting” experience will also be valuable.
Other sections of the transceiver include the Arduino controller the transmitter section, the display section, the keyboard interface section, and perhaps a storage section. This will take place over a few months time. Meanwhile, one of the club members will be working on designing an antenna for the transceivers that is inexpensive to build. Each team member will work together as a group to build their own antenna. And of course, the group will also help install the antennas for each member of the group.
So you can see that there are a lot of pieces to the project. Trying to do all of them at once would be overwhelming. Doing one section at a time, testing it, getting everyone’s copy working properly, and making any necessary changes before adding another section will make it a much easier project.
When we are done, the real testing begins. What is the range of the unit? How effective is the 40 meter signal in our geographic area? Does it reduce some of the shadow area problems of higher frequency radio? Is it reliable? Is it easy to use?
Of course it will not be as easy to use as it would be if it were a completed product, because it will not be in a nice case with labeled switches and buttons. But each member will be extremely familiar with their unit, as they personally put it together, so this will not be a problem.
There are many additional features we are considering, such as storage, store and forward for messages, automatic log creation, and more. Time will tell if we are able to do fancy things like that with a single Arduino micro controller. Of course, since Arduino chips are less than $4 each, we could always decide to add another…
If the project is a great success, the next step would be to productize the design. This includes a PCB (printed circuit board) layout, a cabinet or box design, and perhaps short run manufacturing. Offering the unit for sale on Amazon and other places could result in a high demand… or not. As an example, a unit from India called the BITX – a $60 transceiver board (which requires adding a cabinet and some parts provided by the buyer) – has sold over 40,000 units worldwide.
You can never tell where smoothing like this might end up. But if it is successful, it will be very very popular with peppers!
If you would like more information, contact Eric Anderson, the project leader, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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*** editor’s note***
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