Mike, KJ4Z, here. This is the first of a series of guest blog entries I’ll be doing about the future of technology in ham radio in general, and DXing in particular. I’d like to thank Rich for all the interesting conversations we’ve had over the years and for this opportunity to share my thoughts with his readers.
As long-time readers of Rich’s blog may know, over two years ago he jokingly predicted a future DX operation consisting of a box that could be dropped off on some deserted rock and controlled entirely by satellite. I believe the time is now right to bring that vision to life. The technology is all here and readily available, and all it needs is someone to put it together and bring the project to fruition.
What would this contraption be called? I thought about “DXpedition in a Box,” “Suitcase Remote,” and others. But in the end, I think I’m going to call it a “DX Pod.” I think the “pod” concept underscores the idea that the device must be a self-contained, self-sufficient unit. And having named it the “DX Pod,” it seems only logical to refer to its deployment as a “DX-Podition.” Because, whatever this will be, it isn’t a DXpedition; it’s something new. I recognize that some people will not like the concept, but part of our remit is to “advance the radio art.” There’s a lot of tradition, nostalgia and swashbuckling romance tied up in DXpeditions. But the reality is that we now live in a world where technology is cheap and physical access is expensive — ludicrously so, in some cases. And sometimes, physical access isn’t possible at all. I think a DX Pod could serve as a pragmatic intermediate solution where the alternative is a quarter century between activations.
So, what are the characteristics of a DX Pod? Here are at least a few to start with:
- Ruggedized. Completely self-contained, and able to run for an extended (indefinite) period without human intervention. May be much harder to achieve in some climates than others
- Self-powered. Almost certainly this will mean solar panels, but I suppose wind power could be a possibility in some cases — but the moving parts are a source of concern. Or RTGs if you can find a de-orbited Soviet satellite!
- Mono-band. For simplicity, cost, antenna efficiency, only one band will be supported, probably 30 meters, or maybe 20
- QRP. The problems with running QRO, or even 100 watts, are probably insurmountable in a practical and economical installation. 100 watts would require large solar panels, especially if the pod will be deployed in polar regions. QRP has the added advantage of reducing the number of stations that can hear the pod at any one time, which is important because operations will be…
- Digital. Operations will almost certainly have to be a weak-signal digital mode such as JT-9, JT-65, or possibly PSK-31. I lean towards JT-65, because the exchanges are so robotic, and that is also important because operations will be…
- Totally automated. This is the point I think some people will find most objectionable, but there will be no human on the other end of the line. Why not? Because satellite airtime is expensive, latency is high, and keeping the transmit link up is just one more thing to power. The pod will have an onboard computer, probably a Raspberry Pi or similar, that is capable of making and logging QSOs. And let’s be frank, the JT-65 QSOs made by the computer and those made by a human operator will be indistinguishable from the other end.
- Satellite connected, but not in real time. Because of difficulties aiming antennas and maintaining links with geostationary satellites at high latitudes, and the fact that some skill is required in pointing the satellite antennas in any case, the satellite link will almost certainly be an LEO-based service, which realistically means Iridium. Iridium has reasonably priced services for small amounts of data, but it would not be cost appropriate for a full-time link. The pod will poll periodically for control signals, to make sure the control operator can maintain positive control over the station as required. A few times a day, the compressed log file (a very small amount of data) can be inexpensively transmitted over the satellite link. Automatic LoTW would naturally follow.
- Easy to deploy. Even a non-ham should be able to deploy the pod with little difficulty. Clear instructions, simplicity of form, and a few “idiot lights” should help. The idea is that friendly non-hams can bring the pod along for the ride and deploy it as part of a separate trip.
I could continue, but that’s enough to be going on with. I plan to try to assemble such a pod and send it away with someone else (TBD) for deployment. I expect it will take me a little while, so who knows, maybe another enterprising DX-poditioner will beat me to it! I’ll be blogging about my progress here. Hope the pod will see you down the log.