Using a Motorola PageTrac and a VHF Antenna Tuner in an APRS iGate

My APRS iGate has been using the old Kenwood TR-2500 that you see in the picture for a few months. The radio was connected to an old commertial VHF antenna. This antenna is not resonant on 144.800MHz, but it is sturdy and high, and it receives very well. So I used it in receive-only mode; the iGate relays APRS messages from RF to the internet, but not the other way around. But when I got two old Motorola VHF radios, I decided to replace the TR-2500 by one of them, a Motorola PageTrac. This was supposed to bring two advantages. First, the Motorola radio would start up on 144.800 after a power loss, whereas the TR-2500 had to be programmed manually for 144.800 after a power loss because its memory battery has long died. Second, the PageTrac puts out 45W whereas the TR-2500 puts out only 2.5W, so if I start transmitting messages, the PageTrac would have a much better range.

The plan proved more difficult to execute than I had thought.

A Matching Network

The existing antenna is sturdy, high, and mounted on an old mast that I had no desire to climb. So I decided to keep using it. To transmit using this antenna, I needed a matching network: a single-purpose antenna tuner. I borrowed an MFJ-269 antenna analyzer from Nir Israeli and measured the impedance of the antenna and coax at the radio-side connector (at 144.800 MHz). I then designed an L match circuit using an online calculator.

I didn’t completely trust the analyzer and I was not sure that the air inductor I prepared had the correct inductance. So I used a variable capacitor in the L match, so that I could tune it. This worked out well. By adjusting the variable capacitor I was able to bring the SWR to a low value that is good enough for transmitting (I think it was 1.2:1 but I didn’t record it). The L match is narrow band and the SWR is reasonable only across about 0.5 MHz, but this is of no significance for APRS, which uses a single frequency.

The online calculator gave me not one appropriate L match but two. The other solution had a tiny series inductance and a capacitor across the transmission line. I tried it (with no inductance at all) and could not get the antenna to match. I am not sure why this matching network did not work.

Antenna tuners of this sort are almost never used at VHF, because it is pretty easy to build resonant antennas. But in my situation, with a good antenna that works well even though it is not resonant, this special-purpose antenna tuner is a good solution.

Power Supply Troubles

The two Motorola radios I got are a DeskTrac, which is a desktop version of the more common mobile MaxTrac, and a PageTrac. The DeskTrac is documented very well on the web. I didn’t find any useful documentation on the PageTrac, but it is a very simple radio, so I didn’t really need much documentation. Both radios worked when I got them, but I quickly discovered that the power supply of the PageTrac was failing. Two large electrolytic capacitors were burned, and they actually charred the PCB beneath them. They were buzzing and burning when the radio was turned on. I tried to replace them, but I didn’t find replacement 15,000μF capacitors. I decided to replace the entire power supply. It was rated at 13.8V and 10A, so I needed a power supply with similar specs.

The first candidate was a power supply from a dead computer. Its 12V output was rated at 16A, so I thought it would work. I spent a bit of effort trying to raise the output from 12V to 13.8V, but this caused buzzing in the PC power supply, so I left it alone. I assumed that running the radio at 12V rather than 13.8V would reduce output a bit, but this was acceptable to me.

The radio worked with the computer power supply, but whenever I tried to transmit, the power supply shut down. I am not sure why it shuts down, but my guess is that the roughly 10A that the radio draws from the supply on transmit causes the switching regulator in the supply to generate wider pulses. This maintains regulation on the 12V line, but it raises all the other outputs that have almost no load on them (5V, 3.3V, etc.; all are generated from the same switching waveform). The over-voltage protection circuit of one of these outputs might be what is shutting down the supply.

Next, I tried an old 12V/11A Lambda switching supply that I thought at a surplus store for about $5. I adjusted it to 13.8V. It works without a problem, and it is small enough to fit inside the PageTrac enclosure. It just sits in the enclosure without being bolted to it, but since the radio just sits on a shelf, this does not cause problems.

The Computer Interface

To use the radio as an APRS iGate, I needed to connect it to the soundcard of the computer running the iGate software. The interface that I used with the TR-2500 was not really an interface at all: just a cable connecting the TR-2500’s earphone output to the computer’s microphone input. But with the PageTrac, I needed some kind of interface, if only to activate the transmitter. I built a simple interface with (1) DC blocking and level adjustment on both the audio input and audio output directions, and (2) a PTT activation circuit. The PTT circuit is activated by the RTS signal of a serial port, and is isolated from the radio by an optocoupler. But the audio lines are not isolated, so the radio and computer are not really isolated. So far this did not cause any problems.

Initially, the interface did not work. When I would connect it, the radio would go into transmit mode, even if only audio cables were connected, not a serial cable. It took me a long time to debug, but eventually I discovered that I made a mistake in the wiring of the cable connecting the interface to the radio’s front speaker-mic connector. Once I fixed the mistake, the interface started working.

Limitations of the PageTrac

The PageTrac has some limitations. One is the fact that the only audio/PTT connector available is the RJ45 speaker-mic connector on the front. It has an RJ11 connector in the back, but it is undocumented. In contrast, the backThe DeskTrac has a DB-25 jack on the back designed for connecting it for to computers and other equipment. The second is that it has no “monitor” button to turn off the squelch. APRS works a bit better without a squelch, and the DeskTrac has a button that allows you to turn it off. I also think that unsquelched audio is available from the DeskTrac’s DB-25 connector. But even through the squelched speaker-mic connection, the PageTrac works fine. Another limitation of both radios is that the speaker is never completely muted (even at the lowest volume level). To prevent the radio from sounding the APRS packets, I simply disconnected one of the speaker’s wire.

Software Modem Issues

Soundmodem, the soundcard-modem that I have been using with the TR-2500, did not decode packets received by the PageTrac. I thought of adding a high-pass filter to the audio interface, to compensate for a possibly too-aggressive de-emphasis, but eventually wrote a new software modem that decodes packets from both radios without a problem. But this is a topic for another post.

After resolving all of these issues, the new iGate configuration is up and running. The iGate beacons on both the internet and on 144.800 MHz, and it relays text messages and other packets from the internet to mobile stations. In the screenshot below you can see me exchanging text messages with a mobile station (which uses a Kenwood D700). You can see both stations on the map, the text-message window of APRSIS32, and the actual packets that are received and transmitted by the iGate, some via RF and others via the internet.

A Lego Enclosure for an APRS Tracker with a Built-In Antenna

My APRS tracker seems to work quite well, but it was difficult to use with various pieces of equipment sloshing about on the dashboard. Initially, I’ve been using the short vertical antenna that came with the UV-3R radio. Both the radio/antenna and the GPS antenna were placed on the dashboard. This antenna did not work well inside the car, especially when it was lying horizontally with the radio on the dashboard. Then I switched to the small PCB magnetic loop antenna I built a while ago. This worked much better, especially when the antenna was standing up. But now I had three pieces of equipment (the radio, the loop antenna, and the GPS antenna) sloshing on the dashboard. This was only good enough for a bit of testing.

I was considering how to mount the antenna and the radio more securely on the dashboard. I didn’t feel like spending a lot of effort on building an enclosure. Then the idea of building the enclosure, or at least a prototype, from Lego. The box you see in the picture above is the result. It actually works very well. It’s a bit heavy, so it doesn’t move at all on the dashboard. It contains the antenna, the radio, and the GPS antenna. There are holes in the box for the audio cable to the microcontroller, for the GPS antenna cable, and for the display and buttons of the radio. Being able to turn the radio on and off is important, since it runs on its internal battery. The hole on the side is also large enough for the radio’s charging cable. The antenna and radio slide into specially-built compartments that hold them securely. It’s also easy to slide them out. Both antennas work well inside the plastic box on the dashboard (Lego bricks are usually made of ABS plastic). The box has enough space for a small microcontroller board and for a GPS module, but my current microcontroller board is a large development board, so for now it and the GPS module still lives in a cardboard box that I stick in the glove compartment.

As you can see in the snapshot from below, this Lego tracker actually works, even though it’s inside the car and even tough the UV-3R puts out only 2 Watts. Still, I plan to deploy a 1/4-wave vertical antenna on the car’s roof for even better coverage, and I’ll probably replace the Lego with some other box, mostly to avoid having the Lego bricks ruined by exposure to sunlight. But for now, I’m using the Lego tracker. It’s also very good to know that the 10cm magnetic loop antenna works well in APRS trackers; such antennas can be used in small trackers that are completely self contained.

Two more comments are in order. First, driving with a heavy tracker on the dashboard is possibly unsafe, since in an accident it might hit the driver or a passenger. I’m mostly using it around the neighborhood, but once I switch to the vertical antenna on the roof, I’ll move the whole thing off the dashboard. The other thing I wanted to mention is that I performed the two almost-necessary modifications of the UV-3R radio. One adds a capacitor to the VHF low-pass filter, to attenuate the second harmonic, and another adds a decoupling capacitor to the external transmit-receive control signal; without it, the radio often locks in transmit mode when used with a headset or an external modem.