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APRS Is Awesome

Posted: September 29, 2007 0:51:19 • 552 words

Wee, radio nerd time! If you're completely out of the loop, I'm an amateur radio operator, and APRS is a digital radio system that you can read more about here.

Last February, I wanted to get a new handheld, with my focus being furry con usage (which, sadly, was where I used my radio gear the most). I'm a huge fan of Kenwood's HAM gear, so I picked up a TH-D7AG (I wrote a review of it here), their cutting-edge handheld with, among other things, built-in support for digital communications and APRS. I mostly got it for its dual-receive capabilities, but after reading the manual, APRS sounded kinda cool. I turned on the TNC (think radio-modem), and listened, and found that there was a very large amount of activity in this area. Without a GPS handy, I couldn't readily see where the other stations were, so I figured I'd wait until I got a GPS unit to play with it more.

Well, this week, after saving up for it for quite awhile, I purchased the companion to my radio, the AvMap Geosat 5 navigation system. It's extraordinarily hard to find in the US, but it's designed to be an out-of-the-box counterpart to Kenwood's APRS-ready radios, in addition to being a very high-quality GPS unit by itself. I've been practically drooling over this thing since before I bought my HT, and last month, I discovered that my HAM radio outlet of choice, AES, carries Avmap products!

When the GPS arrived, I was thrilled to see that it even included a serial cable pre-made to connect to my radio, and instructions detailing the specific settings for optimal operation. No guesswork involved, I had the APRS functionality up and running almost instantaneously (I mis-read a step, which delayed me a bit).

Not only does the GPS relay position data to the radio, but it receives the location of other stations and maps them as a special class of saved address. And, unlike the radio, which caps the memorized data at 40 stations, the GPS's memory is seemingly unlimited!

Today, I set up my APRS gear while driving around for work, and left it running pretty much all day. In the process, I found out that the digital repeater tower ("digipeater") in this area is connected to a massive APRS network spanning the entire mid-atlantic region! I recorded over 140 unique stations in 10 hours, from states including PA, VA, MD, DC, NJ, DE, WV, NC, and TN. I even had a few text-message conversations with users both near and far. And all of this was over a free, open-ended, completely user-built network.

This, my friends, is the essence of amateur radio, and I think this is the most excitement I've gotten from the hobby since I had my first conversation on a local repeater. I've heard old-school hams say that packet radio isn't "real" amateur radio, but after my experience today, I strongly disagree. I simply couldn't contain how much fun I had with this today, so I had to share :-)

For those who are attending the Western PA Furry Weekend, if you come to the Radiofurs panel, I'm one of the four panelists, and I'll be talking more about APRS and packet radio, with a live APRS demo.