The IP Revolution
You can’t read any technology journal, website or blog these days without reading about the revolution taking place around internet connected devices, the so called Internet of Things (IoT). I always chuckle when I read about the use of wireless devices in amateur radio. Most of our shacks seems to be the complete opposite and packed full of cables, so when I started looking at the Flex 6000 series of SDR’s I had one eye on the requirement to build a new shack and a possibility to reduce the cable mess we all seem to end up with.
My new QTH offers some great advantages as a greenfield site but also some new challenges. Getting Internet connected for example has been an interesting exercise. Spark NZ were only able to offer a 1 Mb/s or so over copper due to the distance from the exchange. So I decided to investigate the use of radio for my connection. Lucky for me the rollout of the new Rural Broadband Initiative in New Zealand is well underway and I was in range of a 4G site that had been converted and provides me a high speed connection of around 30 Mb/s.
As we have built a new house I decided to hard wire my shack into a media box in the garage. CAT5 now connects 2 data points in my shack and some additional network points around the house for WiFi Access Points (APs), office etc. The 4G router seems to handle the traffic ok and I don’t see any losses on the WiFi connections or wired ports.
So I have the infrastructure in place to support an IP enabled shack. So what’s next?
The Flex 6500’s are every different from previous SDR’s in that the heavy lifting is done ‘in box’ and the network simply passes audio and control data to the front end software which is used to control the radio. SmartSDR (SSDR) uses about 1 Mb/s for a single receiver and about 2-3 Mb/s depending on how many more slices you have open and how many audio streams you have running. This means little load on the network, even for 2 radios. I guess if you have 4 panadapters running and 8 slices all streaming audio it would get busy, but I can’t watch that much screen real estate at one time! The other great selling point is that to pass audio and control data from the Flex you actually don’t need the radio physically located in the same place. So it’s quite possible to rack the Flex’s and run them remote and, indeed, they even sell rack mount ears for this purpose. The other great component of the Flex SSDR suite is the DAX control panel. This digital audio exchange can pick up audio streams from the Flex, even if run on a remote PC. So this means that you can interface digital software like WSJT, FLDigi etc without interfaces and without cables. No more remote audio boxes! Same for the CAT control, SmartSDR CAT is another small app that collected CAT data streamed from the radio and allows you to interface software that uses CAT inputs.
The latest piece in the puzzle is Maestro. You can read about that here – but basically this is a remote control panel that is WiFi / LAN enabled. So again this is reducing the cabling and gives the operator a control panel away from a PC to act as a front end.
So with these new IP enabled devices you can almost build a shack that has few, if any, cables. So what about the rest of the shack?
Well, Flex have also partnered with Ranko 4O3A to introduce a number of IP enabled Flex supported devices. The first device off the rank is Antenna Genius, an IP enabled antenna switch, this is now available in a variety of flavours, 8X2, 6X2, 8X1, 4X1, all IP enabled and controllable from within SSDR. While not a wireless device, it does reduce the number of control cables running round the shack, it can also be remote mounted, so the days might be here of running a CAT5 cable out to the tower! This is not as daft as it sounds as the next device available is also from 4O3A, called Rotator Genius, it is an IP connected rotator controller. Again this is controlled from SSDR, but also has Windows and Android apps available. This is quite a smart idea and IP based devices are starting to creep into the area that Microham’s RS485 would have dominated until now.
So what’s next? Well Ranko is busy with an IP enabled HF amplifier that will be sold by Flex. This 1.5KW Solid State Amplifier will be IP connected in the same way and controlled by SSDR. This really is the icing on the cake and really leading the way to a truly IP connected shack. I am defintely watching this space carefully!
While all this Flex goodie bag is great. What about other devices?
I haven’t seen any IP connected power meters yet. But … my Wavenode does have USB connections to allow the display of metering data on a PC. I was recently looking how I might convert the USB connection to IP. This isn’t as easy and while there are commercial boxes available, they do tend to be pricey. I have found a couple projects that use Raspberry Pi’s as converters and these could connect power meter data to the network and be picked up on the SSDR PC. So that’s something I need to look into.
There are also a variety of IP controlled switches available, even some you can control over the Internet. So more possibilities.
It’s been very interesting designing the new shack and is showing a clear revolution in the shack. IP is here, it’s going to change the way we build our shacks and the way in which we control devices around it, including antenna and rotator control.
This might sound daunting, but having sat in front of the log burner using the Flex 6500 in the shack remotely using Maestro, I think I can grow to like it! Yes it’s definately going to have some advantages on cold winters evenings.
I’ll keep posting more on this subject as soon as I start the real shack build.
73 Simon ZL4PLM