Wireless innovators come in loud and clear at national amateur radio event


August 19, 2015

"CQ Field Day, CQ Field Day, this is Whiskey 6 Charlie Mike Uniform."

Camped out in the foothills of the picturesque Santa Cruz Mountains, Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) graduate student Yalei Song quickly announced the W6CMU amateur radio call sign into a microphone. Next to her, ECE Ph.D. student Joao Diogo De Menezes Falcao adjusted the settings on the radio transceiver and searched through static for an answer to their call while another of their Wireless Innovator club mates sat at the ready to record any response that came through the speakers.

The Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley students took turns operating with their club mates, faculty advisors and visiting alumni for a full 24 hours as they attempted to contact as many other amateur radio operators across the country a s possible. The annual event, called Field Day, is designed to promote emergency communications preparedness. It is organized by the American Radio Relay League (AARL) and takes place each June. Field Day has become the biggest amateur radio operating event in North America, with more than 35,000 participants.

All amateur radio operators, or "hams" as they are called, are trained and licensed to operate in a personal capacity (think: separate from commercial broadcasting, public safety or professional two-way radio communication). Ham radio is a way to communicate nationally or even internationally without landlines or the internet. It's a growing hobby across the world and one that Bob Iannucci, distinguished service professor of ECE and faculty advisor for the CMU-SV Wireless Innovators, says has important real-world applications.

"What many people don't realize is that our society's communications systems are fragile," explains Iannucci. "Disasters of all sorts, including earthquakes, threaten our normal communications systems. Failures can and do happen, and we have to be prepared. Amateur radio works when all else fails."

Hams are encouraged to use emergency and alternative power sources to simulate this type of emergency situation during the Field Day event. This is where the CMU-SV Wireless Innovators had a particular advantage. The group used the CROSSMobile van, a former ambulance converted into a mobile radio research laboratory. They prepared the van for emergency communications, taking advantage of its ability to work on a standalone power supply.

In preparation for Field Day, the group spent several weeks assembling and testing an impressive antenna — 32 feet from front to back and weighing in at 100 pounds. The antenna was fitted atop the CROSSMobile van on a pneumatic mast which uses pressurized air to raise and lower. With sponsorship from the Palo Alto Office of Emergency Services, the team was given the opportunity to operate from an advantageous vantage point which overlooked Silicon Valley.

"My favorite moment of the whole weekend was when we finished setting the antenna up on top of the van," says Diogo De Menezes Falcao. "It was so amazing to see something in action that we had been working on getting ready for two weeks."

The antenna allowed the group to make connections from Hawaii to Puerto Rico. The technology also enabled the group to reach a significant number of operators, totaling more than 200 different contacts by the end of the event. "When you are operating amateur radio, it sometimes sounds like everyone is trying to shout at one person and you're just fighting to be the loudest. It is very much like a press conference. We call this a ‘pile up'," says Iannucci. "But our station was amazing! We busted through every pile up that we were in."

This was the first Field Day for the CMU-SV Wireless Innovators, and one of the first times that many of the club members were operating. This situation provided a unique learning opportunity for the group, says Patrick Tague, associate professor of ECE and the Information Networking Institute. "It was an opportunity for real-time engineering. It was a new event for our club members and our first time working with the antenna, so there was a lot of problem-solving involved," says Tague, who serves as a faculty advisor to the club with Iannucci.

One of the goals of the CMU-SV Wireless Innovators is to promote understanding of the fundamentals of radio and wireless communications. "This event really translates theory to practice. It reinforces what students have learned. Designing a radio or antenna in the lab is one thing, but matching the performance of their system against the best of the best in a real-world setting is a whole new challenge," says Iannucci.

For new ham radio operators like Song, the opportunity to put theory into practice was a very noticeable part of the experience. "I never had a chance to practice my ECE knowledge like this. You utilize what you learn in the classroom in a real-life situation," says Song. "Field Day was the highlight of my summer!"

Despite the around-the-clock operation of Field Day, the event was surely not all work and no play. The group enjoyed a night under the stars with a cook-out and music. They even brought along a projection screen to play some of their favorite amateur radio-related movies at the campsite. Several alumni, like Software Management alum Nathan Martin, drove in from surrounding areas to join old friends at the event. "I really enjoyed the Field Day experience because I got to spend it with my fellow classmates. It was like a reunion," says Martin.

The Wireless Innovators felt a rush of excitement each time they powered through a stubborn pile up or heard a faraway ham operator respond to their call. And, it's an excitement that is contagious. The group is already looking forward to next year's event, where they hope to reach even more operators across the country with the help of an even larger group of Wireless Innovators.

See photos from the event: 

CMU-SV Amateur Radio Field Day 2015