About amateur radio linux, open source and open hardware.

Radios for (software) tinkerers

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An aspect of ham radio is experimenting and trying out new things. Most ready-to-use transceivers available on the market are appliances with a fixed feature set. They do not encourage nor do they support experimenting. At least not without attaching any external components to the radio. And even then, we are usually limited in that what we can do is manipulate the audio signals.

So to test out things beyond that limitation, we would need to build our own transceiver. While we are allowed to do so, one might lack the capability to do so, or one may not like dabbling in hardware but is only interested in the software side.

I dream of being able to buy radios with an easy way to plug in my own modulation. Think GNU Radio flowgraph, but loaded and executed on a radio. This would allow me to experiment with things like FreeDV, M17 directly on your radio without having to connect it to a computer or any other external devices that mess up your space with cables and use up your limited desk space.

And then, the real world is out there, and to test things, one sometimes needs to go out into the field. The outdoors have the nasty habit of being wet or dusty and just not playing nice with electronic devices. An environment where some good ingress protection is valuable. An environment where your DIY hardware might not last for long. An environment where connecting a computer to your radio and lugging it around is beyond enjoyable. So the real beauty would be some hand-held radios with that kind of customizability.

Today, at the HAM RADIO in Friedrichshafen, Germany, I had the chance to talk to several radio manufacturers. They all kindly listened to my idea. The reactions were mixed.

There seems to be an understanding that a manufacturer must ensure a device can only be used within certain limits. I am no lawyer, but here are my naive thoughts on that subject.

I do understand that, in general, a manufacturer must ensure a product can only be used within the limits of laws, regulations and standards. However, as a licensed amateur radio operator, I have proven that I know how to operate a radio within those boundaries. By doing so, I even gained the privilege to build my own transceivers. So here is what I do not understand: when I am building my own stuff, I can do whatever I want as long as I stay within legal limits. But as soon as I buy something off the shelf, the manufacturer is held responsible for what I do with that device. A device I can only purchase by proving I am a licensed radio amateur. Where is the logic in that?

Last year, I already pitched that idea, and I intend to do so next year again. I invite all of you to do the same whenever you have the chance to talk to radio vendors, both big and small. If we remain persistent with our request, they might start to listen.