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The Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog

Archives for: 2008

Putting Some "Extra" Effort into Amateur Radio

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

It has been a very long time since I have posted an entry here to my Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog, and I very much apologize for that. However, please rest assured that I have not given up on eventually building an animatronic version of my beloved Foxee character, nor have I given up on my efforts of using this blog to detail my experiences of doing so. If any of you have been following what I have been up to on my main Project Destiny Studios™ website, you would know that I have been involved with selling my artwork in well over a dozen furry convention art shows and that I have gotten a lot of artwork published in print since the last time that I posted here. It takes a lot of time and money to get those kinds of things accomplished, and since I am not exactly made of either time nor money I had to spend a lot less of both with building my robot Foxee. With that said my Foxee Animatronic Robot Project is still very much alive and well, and I will be writing some entries detailing all of the progress that I have made with building her over the past couple years in future entries of this blog.

With that said, I also have some very happy news to report! Those of you who know me know that I have no formal electrical engineering training, and that all of my electrical engineering skills were picked up through my 13-years as a licensed U.S. amateur radio operator. The amateur radio hobby is a great way to pick up some serious hands-on experience with electronics, and many of the ham radio operators that I have met over the years have never ceased to amaze me with their incredible technical prowess and skill.

Back in September of 2005 on this blog I happily announced that I had upgraded my amateur radio license from a Technician Plus Class license to a General Class license. I am now extremely happy to report that after two months of hard studying I have passed the Element 4 written exam, and that means that I have now earned the highest class of license in the Amateur Service-- the Amateur Extra class! As a result, I am now been granted all of the privileges that a amateur radio operator in the United States can have, and for the next week or so when I talk on the air I get to identify myself as "KB9MFT/AE" (pronounced over the air as "KB9MFT Tempory AE") to indicate that I have earned my new license.

I have wanted to become an Amateur Extra ever since I earned my General Class license in 2005, and after several times of starting to study for the exam but losing interest and never taking it I have finally pushed myself to go all the way and take the exam. As far as what gave me the motivation to finally go and do it this time, in a way it was actually a financial one. To explain what I mean, the Volunteer Examiner Coordinator Question Pool Committee changes the question pools for all of the amateur radio license exams every few years to keep the questions up-to-date and relevant to the hobby. The current question pool for the Amateur Extra Class exam went into effect back in 2002 and was going to be replaced with a new question pool on July 31st of this year. I had already spent more than $50 buying both the Gordon West and ARRL preparation study books for the exam a couple years ago when I first tried my hand at studying for it, and I didn't want to have to go out and re-purchase those study books in two months when they updated the question pools with the brand new questions. So in order to save myself from spending $50 to re-buy the study books I finally put the axe to the grinder and forced myself to learn all of the equations and electrical engineering knowledge that I needed to finally take and pass the test! Isn't it amazing what the fear of having to shell out a few extra greenbacks can cause you to accomplish?

When I took the exam last Friday, I was actually very nervous that I would just barely not pass it. While I had studied much much harder for the Element 4 exam than I had for any other amateur radio exam that I had ever taken, some of the material was so difficult that I was still worried that I wouldn't pass it on my first shot. To give you an example of some of the questions that were on the exam, here are a few of the questions that I had to spend extra time studying:

  • E2E07: What is the typical bandwidth of a properly modulated MFSK16 signal?
  • E5C11: In polar coordinates, what is the impedance of a network comprised of a 100-picofarad capacitor in parallel with a 4,000-ohm resistor at 500kHz?
  • E7D01: What are three major oscillator circuits often used in Amateur Radio equipment?

For those of you who are interested, the answers to those questions are:

  • E2E07: 316 Hz
  • E5C11: 2490 ohms, /-51.5 degrees
  • E7D01: Colpitts, Hartley, and Pierce

Now I am sure that somewhere out there some Amateur Extra Class ham will read those questions that I listed above and say out loud to himself, "Those simple questions gave this guy trouble? Ha! I can do those kinds of questions in my sleep!" Well, good for you. I at least thought that questions like that were really tough when I had my first go at them in my study book, and I had to go through each of those questions more than once before I finally got them down cold. And I am sure that I am not the only ham radio operator who had to study a little bit harder for this exam than the previous exams-- as of currently there are only around 110,000 Amateur Extra class operators in the United States, which is less than 1 in every 5 U.S. Ham Radio Operators. If the test was easy I am sure that the ratio of Amateur Extras license holders would be much higher, especially since the Amateur Extra license exam no longer has a 20-wpm Morse Code test as part of it. So I am very proud that I finally passed this exam and earned the top license, and I am especially proud that I once again did it on my very first try taking the test, which has been the case for every amateur radio license examination I have ever taken since I got my original Tech-Plus license back in junior high school.

As much as I wish that I could say that you would be hearing me soon on the exclusive portions of the 80, 40, 20, and 15-meter bands that are reserved only for Amateur Extra Class operators, the unfortunate truth is that I don't currently own any radio equipment that can operate on anything below the 10-meter ham band. Hopefully that will one day change, and I will finally be able to use all of the additional radio privileges that have been awarded to me. While I do not operate on any of the ham bands very often these days, a few places where you may still actually find me on the air are on the 2-meter band talk-in frequencies of many local hamfests, on the local SKYWARN Severe Weather Net on the DuPage Amateur Radio Club W9DUP repeater at 145.430 MHz (I renewed my Advanced-Level SKYWARN Severe Weather Spotter Certification earlier this year), on the Ham Radio talk-in frequency at the Midwest Furfest furry convention each November, or once every blue moon or so on the Night Patrol Net on the Argonne Amateur Radio Club W9ANL repeater at 145.190 MHz. These days I am only on the air about a dozen or so times a year, mainly on the 2-meter band, but hopefully that will one day change if I am ever able to get better equipment and more free time.

Believe it or not, while I originally became a ham radio operator back in the mid-1990's to talk on the air, it's actually not the "talking" part of the hobby that drives my interest in it today. As I mentioned above I have received most of my self-taught electrical engineering skills through the amateur radio hobby, and it is my interest in continuing to improve those skills that led me to want to upgrade my license. The ham radio hobby is one of the few hobbies out there that actually encourages you to design, build, and experiment with your own equipment, and there is a large community of technically experienced hams that are more than willing to help you learn the skills needed to complete your projects. As a result, many great American innovators were involved at some point in their lives with amateur radio, including the the famous aviation pioneer and billionaire Howard R. Hughes, Jr., the current NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, co-founder of Apple Computer Steve Wozniac, former CEO of Apple Computer John Scully, founder of Atari Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Hewlitt-Packard David Packard, co-inventor of the Hayes Smartmodem and co-founder of Hayes Microcomputer Products Dale Heatherington, the famous phone phreaker John Draper, the famous computer hacker Kevin Mitnick, and even many Astronauts and Cosmonauts! As an aspiring animatronic robot designer and builder ham radio is a great hobby to be in, and it has been absolutely crucial in helping me understand how robots can be controlled through radio control at the circuit board level.

While I may now have the top radio license in the U.S. Amateur Service, that doesn't mean that my studying for radio license exams has come to an end. For the past couple years I have been holding onto a study book for a commercial FCC radio license known as the General Radiotelephone Operator License with Ship RADAR Endorsement (a.k.a. the "GROL"), and I plan to eventually earn that license as well. That license would officially certify me as being qualified to operate and repair certain marine and aviation radio equipment, repair and operate ship RADAR systems, and operate commercial international broadcast stations. While I don't necessarily feel driven to perform any of those job duties as a career, I would still like to really have the GROL license on my resume to show to employers that I have some proficiency in electrical engineering. The GROL license exam's written elements 1, 3, and 8 have a combined total of 150 questions in it as opposed the the Amateur Extra exam's 50, so it is a much harder exam, but I feel confident that I can eventually pass it.

I am always happy to meet with other hams at ham radio related events and discuss the wonderful hobby that we share. I plan to be at the Princeton Hamfest, Computer, and Hobby Show on June 1st, the Six Meter Club of Chicago Hamfest on June 8th, the DucKon Science Fiction Convention on June 13-15, possibly the Fox Radio Relay League Hamfest on July 13th, and possibly the Bolingbrook Amateur Radio Society Hamfest on August 3rd. We will see if I still have enough money left to buy yet more odd electronic equipment for my personal mad scientist menagerie by the time those last two hamfests come around this year-- as friends who know me already know (and to my parents' great dismay), I have the tendency to drag home some of the weirdest pieces of large electronic crap from those places! In any case, hopefully I will hit the ham bands again soon, and until then I wish you all a hearty "73!"


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