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Why Modern Makers Are Bringing Back Ham Radio


More than a hundred years ago, a few intrepid amateurs began experimenting with a new means of communications known then as “wireless.” These protohackers — soon to be known as hams — for etymologically obscure reasons — began building their own electronics gear, hoping to use it to communicate with others. By the early 1920s, amateur radio operators were talking with and even transmitting images to complete strangers on the other side of the world.

By the 1980s, ham radio was in decline. But the spirit of those early tinkerers survived: They were the first makers, who — like the makers of today — built technological gizmos for themselves that they just couldn’t buy.

And now, coincident with the rise of the modern maker movement, that decline has reversed. New ham licenses are on the increase, with 35,000 new ones issued just last year. According to FCC records, there are now roughly 800,000 ham radio operators in the United States — more than ever before. And this latest generation of enthusiasts is doing things with ham radio that their forebears could never have imagined.

DIY: Old and new

Some of today’s hams are in it for the original reason: to talk to people around the world via shortwave radio. But many get involved so they can incorporate wireless capabilities into their projects.

One reason is that an FCC license allows you to build and legally operate your own high-powered wireless equipment. Ham radio operators are allowed to design, build, test, and operate wireless projects across a vast range of frequencies. They are able to, among other things, hack together Wi-Fi routers that can operate over longer distances and use more power than standard, commercial Wi-Fi.

Adding amateur radio technology to their projects opens up whole new vistas for today’s DIYers. “It blows me away what can be done, and for cheap,” says maker-blogger Rich Holoch, who experiments with microcontrollers and projects based on Arduino and Raspberry Pi devices. “It opens up the whole matrix of what you can do.”

“It’s amazing all the things that are out there that you can do with ham radio,” concurs Christine Axsmith, president of HacDC Radio Club, part of HacDC, a Washington, D.C.-area maker group. “But with Raspberry Pi, it just blew the lid off.” HacDCers are working on projects that include microwave networking and remotely controlled 3D printing — all using wireless radio technology.

Dennis Kidder came to that ham-maker nexus from the other direction. A longtime ham radio operator, he was unprepared for what he found when he went to his first maker faire in San Mateo a few years ago.

“We were overwhelmed with the DIY electronics and the robotics,” he says. He was so energized by the experience that he helped write (with Jack Purdum) a book on the subject, Arduino Projects for Amateur Radio.

Putting ham radio to good use

One thing a lot of these maker-hams talk about is the potential use of their hobby for public service. “Our team is working on a project to turn any cellphone into a shortwave radio,” Axsmith says, explaining that once the work is done, it could be used to help provide communications in developing areas.

Other makers are contributing their skills to the American Radio Relay League’s (ARRL) National Parks on the Air event, in which ham radio operators try to raise awareness about national parks and the work done by the National Park Service. Others are developing new emergency communications networks as backups for when cell service disappears.

Some maker spaces now offer ham radio activities. A few, like HacDC, have their own radio shacks and experimental equipment and offer ham radio license classes.

Meanwhile, ARRL is ramping up its efforts to spread the word about ham radio in the maker community. “We support a lot of ham radio operators who go to maker faires,” says Bob Inderbitzen, ARRL’s sales and marketing manager.

The combination of ham radio and the maker movement could even help the former shed its amateur status. Inderbitzen says familiarity with both could be a real plus when it comes to getting hired as an engineer. Hands-on experience with radio frequency engineering is extremely valuable these days but also hard to find. He says he’s seeing “a significant boost in employment opportunities” for hams who know how to make stuff.

So, just as the hams of a hundred years ago eventually provided the foundations for the professional radio business, the maker-hams (ham-makers?) of today could find their personal passions paying off too.

Wayne Rash is senior columnist for eWEEK and can be reached at wayne@rash.org.