One of the coolest things about amateur radio is the plethora of unique things an operator can do with it. For me, that often means working digital comms out in the field, emergency field comms, or building some cool new gadget for off-grid power. Still we must not forget why amateur radio is here. It’s a service, and sometimes we need to be able to use it as such.
Last week on the Atlantic coast of Canada there were some pretty hard core Communications outages. Those outages affected private citizens, businesses, the fire department, and other public services as well. Let’s go back in time to the Nepal earthquakes. Rural communication infrastructure was completely wiped out. Reliable communications were difficult at best. It’s easy to understand why a backup comms system should be a priority.
We’ve tried FSQ and I’m really sold on that platform. However, there is another system that’s been in use for much longer. It’s called ALE. ALE stands for Automatic Link Establishment. Designed by the military, then adopted by governments, NGOS, and Aid missions, ALE is the epitome of reliable, off-grid voice/data group communications.
My PCALE kit
So today I finally have a complete ALE installation. Here’s what it includes.
- Yaesu FT-817ND
- ZLP MiniProSC
- Asus EeePC running PCALE & ALE^STAT
- Chameleon CHA TD Terminated Dipole antenna
Here are the features which might be most interesting.
- Channel/Band hopping/scanning
- Initiating connections for phone QSO
- Call/Message alerting
- ADM messages
- Keyboard to keyboard chat
- Image & File transfer
- geo-position tracking
The images you can see above are visualizations of my station participating in what could basically be called “a network”, with stations in Scandinavia, Southern Europe and Taiwan. This could quite easily be a network of stations in the same county, in the same state, in the same region, country, …
One of the ways ALE is different from FSQ, is the constant band and channel scanning. You see, the stations are constantly scanning group channels. Of course it’s also possible for some stations to Simply stay on an individual Channel as with FSQ. However, one key benefit to band-hopping, is finding the best band for conditions in real-time, without operator intervention! Still for the most part, we’re scanning a large part of HF. Personally my station is scanning 40, 30, 20, 17, & 15M. Stations aren’t only scanning, they’re also sounding on those group channels. So we are listening for the soundings of individual stations on group channels, then logging the signal reports of stations heard while scanning. This way when we want to send a message to one of those stations, or initiate a voice conversation with one of those stations, PCALE/ALE can take the guesswork out of determining the right band and frequency to interact with the station we’re trying to reach.
On my system, scanning takes place at two channels or frequencies per second. If I’m trying to initiate a voice contact PCALE will look at its record for the station I’m trying to interact with, then choose the most likely frequency to reach that station. If that station doesn’t answer, it’ll start scanning/calling the station on each of the group channels until it gets a response. Since my configuration is set up for 40-15 meters, it means that my antenna system needs to be instantaneously ready on any group channel, without the need to tune-up. So in this situation, I’m using the Chameleon CHA TD. This is a Broadband terminated dipole which has good SWR from 160 through 10 meters, and requires no tuner. In fact, I think it’s the perfect antenna for this type of deployment.
Yaesu FT-817ND and PCALE
The ft-817nd works perfectly fine with PCALE. CAT control is done via USB and set for 38400 baud. This easily handles the two channels per second PCALE set up for. The relays do make a sound when switching between bands, but it’s not annoying, or very loud. I’m definitely considering a second radio for permanently running PCALE or FSQ in my shack.
I’m going to follow up this blog post with a page on getting started with PCALE/ALE, then a video about the band-hopping & antenna. Finally in the coming months, I’ll put out another video on getting started with PCALE.
I also think it’s important to differentiate between Hardware and software-based ALE. This has caused lots of confusion in my own kickoff and getting started.
Finally, although I find green radios with ALE integration pretty freaking magnificent, I believe most operators will want to integrate ALE system, into their existing gear. That’s what we’re going to do!