Want to bone up on wireless tech? Try ham radio

Abundant spectrum resources and an engaged research community are drawing wireless experimenters back into a hobby that many had forgotten.

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Two higher-level licenses -- General and Amateur Extra -- require applicants to demonstrate progressively greater knowledge and understanding of technical and regulatory issues in exchange for access to more frequencies.

The downside to using ham frequencies for wireless experimentation include an FCC rule prohibiting encryption that hides the meaning of a transmission, bandwidth limits on some modes and frequencies, and the hobby's strictly noncommercial nature. "No pecuniary benefit can arise out of communication you are engaged [in] on the air," says Hays, who believes that the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks.

Skill building

Experimenters are using ham radio as a way to pioneer an array of new technologies as well as to refine many existing products and services. One popular activity, Pitts says, is testing Wi-Fi's distance boundaries. "A number of consumer-grade wireless network routers share frequencies with amateur radio," he says. "With an amateur radio license, you can legally couple amplifiers to these routers and, with gain antennas, extend their range to cover several miles or more." Pitts notes that hams have used these techniques to create experimental high-speed wireless networks that encompass entire cities.

Meanwhile, at the U.S. Naval Academy, midshipmen hams are in the process of sending a series of small communications satellites into orbit with the help of NASA. The project's goal is to develop a low-cost orbital platform for flying various types of scientific instruments into space.

Richard Campbell, an associate professor of computer and electrical engineering at Portland State University in Oregon, says ham radio helps him turn theoretical concepts into reality. Campbell, licensed as KK7B, is currently working on projects that are designed to add digital communications capabilities to the national power grid and to create remote sensors for use with ocean wave power generators. "Amateur radio serves as the testbed for new ideas I like to play around with before looking for commercial applications," he says. "Much of what I am experimenting with at the moment will likely end up in low-power wireless networks, such as the smart grid."

Over the years, many hams have parlayed their radio experimentation into lucrative and even distinguished professional careers. Joe Taylor, licensed as K1JT, says the years he spent tinkering with radios led him into his current post as a Princeton University physics professor. "My practical knowledge of RF techniques, built up over years of enthusiastic pursuit of many amateur radio goals, turned out to be very useful when choosing and designing specialized equipment for unique studies of pulsars and other astrophysical objects," he says. In 1993, Taylor was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the co-discovery of a new type of pulsar.

Homebrew ham gear
A homebrew cooling system on the back of a (former) FARA repeater, devised by ham Peter Simpson. Courtesy: Peter Simpson
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