Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Ham Radio at the South Pole!

As I think I have mentioned, I am involved in amateur or ham radio. My callsign is AI4LX for the those who are interested. It is a hobby I have been involved with for a little over a decade. So when I came to the South Pole for the first time in 2015, one thing I had to do was get on the ham radio down here and make a few contacts. It turns out, if you are operating from the North, it is hard to make contact with Antarctica in general as there are so few ham radio operators here.  So to be able to operate FROM Antarctica was an amazing experience.  While I was here the first time, I even organized a contact with the Georgia Tech Amateur Radio club, of which I was the president at the time. I literally made a radio contact directly from the South Pole to Atlanta, Georgia! A friend of mine back on campus, George KJ4JZY, facilitated the contact on their end. During the contact, I had some other scientists here on station at the South Pole jump on the radio, and I talked to some of the members of the GTARC back home. George was able to make an audio recording from his end, and I put together a small video you can find here.  All in all it was a ton of fun.

That being said, one thing that I really wanted to do if I ever came back to the South Pole was to organize a ham radio test on station. It is something that has been done a few times in the past, but as it turns out, it is not an easy thing to organize.  Nonetheless, when I found out I was going to be a winterover this year, I decided it would be something I have to figure out, and thankfully, I had around a year to work out the details.  After the station closed for winter, I started a ham radio class here for the other winterovers.  It is very similar to a class that I have taught back at Georgia Tech where we go through all the material for the technician license, and then offer the exam.  So that was my plan.  I decided to have the class on Sunday afternoons for a couple of months and then try to have the exam.  This sounds like a simple plan but there are a couple of problems.  First off, you are required to have at least 3 authorized VEs or volunteer examiners to administer the exam, and I was the only one on station authorized. Well, there turns out to be a work around! In the past, they have used something like Skype to do a video conference where the additional examiners are located in the North watching. I contacted Maria, AB1FM, from the ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) VEC (Volunteer Exam Coordinator) group and explained the situation, and sure enough she was excited and willing to work with me.  We started trying to organize things, but then near the end of the class we hit our next and biggest snag.  Our "fast" satellite connection which we needed for the video conference went down due to technical problems at the relay point in Christchurch, NZ.  So, you may think, "no problem", they should have all the resources to get it up and running before too long!"  Well, that is what we thought anyway. It turns out, not so much.  It took over two months before they were able to get the parts and get the satellite up.  This was two months with extra limited Internet here at the South Pole, not just for the ham radio exams, but for anything else we wanted to do on the Internet! That meant we had to postpone the exams.  After a couple months of waiting, they finally got our satellite connection working!  Now we were ready to go... except we had another small issue.  We had to deal with vacation schedules in the North. So there was another couple weeks of waiting, which actually wasn't that bad, as it gave a few members on station a little more time to prep for the exam.

Finally last week, everything came together, and with the help of the VEs at the ARRL, I was able to administer the ham radio exams at the South Pole! We had 11 people get their license.  Of those 11, 6 got their technician, 3 got their general, and 2 got their extra. One of the reasons I became an examiner was because I hoped that one day I would be able to administer the exam here at the South Pole, so this was a small dream come true. As I understand it, this was also the largest exam session ever given down here. Since we only have 46 people on station here for the winter and there are now 12 people licensed (including myself), over 1/4 of the station has their ham radio license!  Overall it was a great experience, though it did take a little bit of work and organization get everything to come together.  I can't thank Maria, AB1FM, and the others at the ARRL enough. Without their patience and help, this would definitely not have been possible.

I hope to do another ham radio post soon with more about the equipment here and some pics. So if you are interested in ham, stay tuned for more!

The South Pole Winter 2017 Ham Radio Class showing their callsigns! Photo Credit NSF/Martin Wolf


Kent said...

Such a very cool endeavor. Thank you for your persistence and thank you for sharing the story! Hope to hear you on the air one day!


Scott Mosher said...

Good stuff!

We held a few sessions here at McMurdo last summer season (2016-17). It was a little easier on us - we had three Extra VEs in one workcenter! The ARRL VEC was very accommodating to us as well. Glad this continues to be a thing!

- Scott, W2EMT