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A Bit More on Remote Operating
Results of my exploration into remote operation of a VHF/UHF station
As I have wandered through the interwebs looking for examples of VHF/UHF amateur radio stations set up to be operated remotely, I’ve learned many things. Among the things I’ve learned: there are alternatives to the big names; at present, remote operation works with very few radios; some products are unavailable; and experimentation has been occurring.
Let’s start with some big names. The biggest name that comes to my mind when I think about remote operation of a radio is Flex Radio. Their products are nothing short of beautiful. However, the use case for me is operating a VHF/UHF station remotely and the Flex radios are HF + 50 MHz — 2 meter and 70 centimeter frequencies are not available.
RemoteRig is another big name. That solution would work with several radios that can send and receive on VHF and UHF. Unfortunately, I have not found any new RemoteRig units in stock in the United States. eHam.net says they are in production but the listed USA vendor (Ham Radio Outlet) shows none in stock.
MFJ also makes a Raspberry Pi-based unit called a RigPi: MFJ-1234. However, it’s hard to know how viable this solution is since several of the products based on the MFJ-1234 either aren’t found on the MFJ website or are not available. The closest I can come to a current MFJ solution is the MFJ-1234COS: RigPi Operation System v3.0. eHam has little on the MFJ-1234.
A premium solution that boasts Flex radios and big towers is Remote Ham Radio (RHR). You rent the use of the radio +/- an amplifier and the antennas on a tower, operating them remotely. But as noted above, Flex radios don’t do VHF/UHF; it is focused on serving those interested in DX. The cost of RHR doesn’t align well with frequent use of local repeaters, even if that service was available. RHR gets generally good reviews on eHam.net.
A subscription service
As I explored this topic, I ran across RemoteTx, a service that connects you to your radio remotely via a Raspberry Pi and their cloud-based backend solution. Unlike RHR where the subscription is based on an annual fee plus use charges, RemoteTx’s subscription is a simple six-month or 12-month charge.
In the RemoteTx scenario, you own your radio and the RPi needed to control it. You need power and internet to the remote station, plus an appropriate antenna.
The list of radios that will work with RemoteTx is not long but there are a couple that are HF/VHF/UHF rigs:
Icom 7100 (with vhf/uhf)
Yaesu FT-991/a (with vhf/uhf)
Elecraft KX2/KX3 (HF Only)
The Icom 7100 and the Yaesu FT-991a would both work for my use case, and if I set up an antenna system that would also work on some HF bands, I’d have a very usable remote station.
I wrote to RemoteTx about these two radios and how they worked on VHF/UHF. Their reply helps shape my possible choices:
Yes, the 7100 and 991a works with vhf/uhf.
The 991a is a bit more sophisticated than the 7100 at the moment in that it allows recall of the first 20 memories as well as manual control over the repeater offset settings. The 7100 automatically sets the repeater offset the same is if you are sitting at the radio, but if you need to override the auto repeater offset settings, that function is still to be developed. It also doesn't give access to memories. It is planned in the future.
There is a nice recent write up on eHam about how the Johnson Space Centers's club station is using a FT991a on both HF and VHF/UHF.
The one downside to the 991 is that CW does not work well. It has to do with the radio's lack of a proper programmable buffer. The Icom radios work great for this with the RemoteTx built in CW Text keyer interface.
Since I don’t plan to operate CW remotely, and given that most of my radios are Yaesu models, this information from RemoteTx pushes me toward the Yaesu FT-991a. The 991 looks like a great upgrade from my stalwart workhorse, the Yaesu FT-450D.
In summary, the RemoteTx solution looks to be the most viable for my use case. Moving forward will require:
purchasing a new radio;
purchasing a Raspberry Pi;
loading the RemoteTx software to the RPi;
connecting the radio and RPi;
running power and Ethernet to the radio/RPi;
installing an appropriate antenna at the remote location;
connecting the radio to the antenna; and
I’ll also need to set up a subscription to RemoteTx.
That’s a lot of steps to get a remote station on the air but it is also a currently supported solution. Depending on the cloud-based back end service presents a single point of failure but since this will not be my only operating station, I deem that to be an acceptable risk.