Thoughts on Remote Station dependencies in Emergency Use

Whether Emcomm, Freecomm, or just for personal use, can a radio amateur depend on a remote station when the “chips are down?”

There are some compelling reasons that a remote station would be a useful tool in an emergency.  Whether it is to access a station unaffected by a localized emergency event, whether it is to gain a high performance remote station’s capabilities while being relatively mobile, through concepts like minimizing personal risk through DF (direction finding) & retaliation in a confrontational emergency – there are dozens of rationales making access to a remote station a consideration. Personally I find the idea a single operator might be able to access any one of several remote stations compelling.

By definition remoting a station requires the operator to establish a link from their location to the remote station.  While there are several types of connections available the contemporary remote station depends largely on internet connectivity to create the “bridge” between the operator and the remote station.

I’d like to talk about this ‘internet bridge’ in general reliability terms.

Robustness, Reliability and Latency are the keywords to define what works best.  Most Robust, Most Reliable and Lowest Stable Latency are the goals we need for an effective remote operation.

All current solutions depend on our operator to remote station bridge traversing multiple internet connections.

Often the most Robust, Reliable and Lowest Latency is technically complex and involved.

Largely solutions fall into a couple classes:

  • Direct Login – where the operator directly does a login to the remote station.  These are fairly simple, but often have data throughput issues and often require dedicated hardware at both ends.  The setups may be technically more challenging than any challenge in actual use.  (Geeky to configure, but easier to run later.)


  • VPN Tunnel – where an internet tunnel is created between the operator and the remote station.  These are more complex to setup, often requiring special software/hardware, but largely are workable.  A lot of folk find this solution more Geeky than they are ready to undertake.


  • Brokered Connections – basically allows the ease of an Direct Login brokering behind the scenes the advantages of a VPN Tunnel.  Basically the operator (and radios at the remote station) end up all connected to a server service that then gets the operator and remote station pushed off to their own VPN.  When they want to renegotiate a new connection the server service is called back in to handle those new negotiations.  Actual traffic doesn’t pass through the server service (that would be wasteful and add too much latency) but the service provides some levels of overwatch.  FlexRadio’s SmartLink is the widest known amateur radio Broker Connection product.

Some solutions require the remote station to have a computer interfacing towards the wider internet, others allow station components to interface directly to the internet.

The remote station interface computer can range from a separate PC class machine to a dedicated processor integral in perhaps a router (thinking VPN here folks) or even a board-type computer like a dedicated Raspberry-Pi acting as the interface.

If you visualize this remote station to operator ‘bridge’ from end to end, many components are single, dedicated, unique to that ‘bridge.’  These are often called “single points of failure,” meaning that if they fail the entire system will fail.  You can do a lot of research on “single points of failure” and suggest searching on it (you might want to use the “SPOF” shorthand and “single point of failure mitigation” to get a start on analysis/solutions.)

There is another consideration concerning the Robustness of parts of the ‘bridge.’  While we try to build our remote station ‘bridge’ using the most robust components we normally frame the expected reliability under the concept that whole system is only as good as it’s weakest link.

Actually the whole system – that ‘bridge’ – isn’t even as good as the weakest link.  Reliability Engineers multiply each uptime percentage with all the other SPOF reliability factors to get an overall system reliability prediction (see Lusser’s Law.)  This means we shouldn’t consider a ‘bridge’ 95% reliable that crosses say seven different 95% reliable SPOFs, rather we should consider that ‘bridge’ only roughly 70% reliable (the product of the seven 95% rounded off).

Actually this sort of math is fairly tedious and may only offer a reliability indicator in the end for our purposes, as we seldom have actual measured individual reliability factors.  One certainly wouldn’t want to build a reliability prediction based on marketing claims – that is why we intuitively put more stock into the real world experiences we can get information on.

A lot of Emcomm/Freecom station address the know SPOFs that face an emergency station – redundant gear, radios, power, manual paperwork/procedures to replace the automated ones, repair supplies & tools, and maybe even a cached complete redundant station in a different location in case the main station was damaged.

Things quickly get complicated when we remote though.  It is a lot harder to say swap in a good antenna switch when lightening damaged our usual switch when we are operating remote.  Like it isn’t likely to happen without feet on the ground at the station itself.

Then can we depend on traversing the WWW Internet to complete our ‘bridge?’

The impetuous to write this article has been a rare outage in Microsoft’s Azure, the backend product behind FlexRadio’s SmartLink.  SmartLink became unusable for part of day when lightening created a power surge that damaged the cooling in a major Microsoft Azure datacenter.  The loss of cooling led to the servers protecting themselves and going offline.  While established SmartLink ‘bridges’ appeared unaffected, there was a loss in SmartLink’s brokering new connections.  Establishing new remote connections via SmartLink wasn’t possible.

That brief outage led to a lot of thinking about whether a remote station is a good Emcomm/Freecom solution?

In my case I do keep a SoftEther VPN backup in the ready.

That is a Parallel alternative to the brokered SmartLink connection.

Parallel systems improve overall reliability with every completely separate parallel system available.

Mathematically say we have three 95% options we can calculate the overall reliability using the formula

Overall Reliability = 1-(first system’s failure rate x next system’s failure rate….)

That would give us in our example

Overall Reliability = 1-(5% x 5% x 5%) which equals 99.9875% calculated Overall Reliability

(If you think you’d like to get into more on this subject, including guidelines on how to calculate combined series/parallel system reliabilities I can suggest for a starting point.)

The math should guide us – if we have truly parallel redundancy we minimize the SPOFs we can control.

The remaining wildcard is how reliable we can consider the WWW Internet in an Emcomm/Freecom situation?

Whether the internet is interrupted by the emergency event or is disrupted separately, can we depend it to allow our proposed Emcomm/Freecom remote operations?

Recently in the amateur radio news the MARS folks have announced they want their people to both have the capabilities to operate and drill without internet connectivity.  As a great many MARS stations use a computer, they have asked that this computer be ‘air gapped’ – meaning physically disconnected from the internet.

I’m thinking it would be best practice that any Emcomm/Freecom remote station also have a parallel system to ‘bridge’ between operator and the remote station that is also fully ‘air gapped.’

Otherwise my take is we are just fooling ourselves as the greatest part of the ‘bridge’ is across systems & hardware we neither control or can access.  In most cases we may note be able to even figure out exactly what the ‘bridge’ topography actually is.

If that ‘bridge’ topography is altered to bypass damaged components (or for other reasons) it may pick up an unacceptable latency compromising our ability to operate remote.

In a future post I’ll cover ideas on possibilities for an “air gapped bridge.”




Feeling out Antennas for K9ZW Island QTH – Part 4

An update on installing the Custom Extra Heavy Duty Zero-Five Flagpole-Vertical HF Antenna.

Here is the flag flying once the pole/antenna was up:

Antenna flying our flag

After letting everything “settle” I’ve since I’ve releveled the pole by using the mounting nuts on the embedded L-bolts.

Bought the parts for the radial ring and will solder that together back at home.  The ground will need to be a lot more moist to put in the radials.

The underground conduit will be put in by a contractor as well.




Feeling out Antennas for K9ZW Island QTH – Part 3

Focus has been on installing the Custom Extra Heavy Duty Zero-Five Flagpole-Vertical HF Antenna.  First you have to dig a hole.  of course we hit bedrock just 24 inches down, and brushed against the telephone wire despite the hole not being on the original plot of land.  No idea why the telephone wire ran west onto what was at te time a neighbors parcel.  Some mysteries are lost to time.

down to rock at 24 inches

Since we hit rock we had to go for a modified base, where weight and physical dimensions substitute for the 24 inch 6 ft deep cylinder we’d expected to have poured. I was off island when it was formed and poured, so here is the result.  We made a form plate to put the L-bolts in the right spacing and pattern.


Final dimensions ended up 4 ft x 4 ft x 2 ft, with a 2 ft x 2 ft by 3/4 ft riser.  Because of the way the bedrock stripped the overall pour was just over 2 yards of high strength concrete – nearly three times the expected 7/10ths of a yard for the tubular design we couldn’t use.


Here is the result once the forms were removed:


Zero-Five Flagpole base

I didn’t want to take the spacer off at this stage, preferring it to keep everything in alignment until the base is actually installed (it is sitting on the bolts in the picture).

Feedline conduit will turn up along side the base, and I’m running power to the area for later use.  Power will be in a separate 3/4 inch conduit,

I’ll be making up a copper “halo” to go around the base for radials.

Glad to have the support of some engineering for “on rock foundations” as blasting a deeper hole seemed pointless.  I don’t think this flagpole is going to go anywhere before the weather bends/breaks it first.





Thirteen Colonies 2018 in Vintage Style

For no really good reason other than it seemed like a good idea, I decided to put a very modest effort into working the Thirteen Colonies special event stations using a Collins KWM-2A transceiver and paper logging.

Just for fun.

Collins Station on the Island yes 

And yes, I didn’t make a clean sweep. But perhaps starting the effort in the last hours and limited actual radio time made that hopeless? Checking spots some of the stations were already QRT or were doing digital, so such is life.

It was a blast to run a while on the Collins, and if you look at the picture I had the manuals out to remind me of procedures.

Picked up some FIFA station contacts and a couple other special stations.

The Transmit/Receive relays and switching are a leisurely compared to the Flex-6700 on the bench with the KWM-2A. But it works and was really fun.

In the end I grabbed 10 of the 13+2 stations in quick order. As I worked the 4th and had no radio time all week I didn’t deserve better results. A noble effort in style will have to be the reward!



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Feeling out Antennas for K9ZW Island QTH – Part 2

A lot has been happening at the Island QTH in addition to the ongoing Garage Building project.

For quite a while I’ve been using a CrankIR Vertical or a DX Engineering Hexbeam at the Island QTH.

As it will be a couple months until a tower is up, I moved the Hexbeam from its 55-gallon barrel “tower” to an old satellite dish stand on the “utility side” of the property:

DX Engineering Hexbeam at Washington Island QTH

DX Engineering Hexbeam at Washington Island QTH

Not best location at maybe 6 ft elevation and still dependent on an “Armstrong Rotor” (Manual rotation) for directional control, but is the very quick time I was on the air it works just fine.

Report received were excellent, and even at this low height the receive sensitivity is noteworthy.

I was only on the air about an hour and made under two dozen contacts, as the weather was far too fine to be on the radio.

Wonder how I could add a mobile HF setup to my recumbent bike without adding 30 pounds of weight?  Hmm… that way I could do radio while being outside and active!

Back to reality, I had many chores I wanted to knock out this weekend, and Alison KC9MPL joined friends for some boating while I did weed & ant duty chores, snapping this photo of the Islands Bluffs (these are in the North East part of the island, we live on the North West coast which is different):

Washington Island Bluffs

Washington Island Bluffs

The tower on the bluff is used by one of the broadband providers (they offer their flavor of Motorola’s Canopy System).



Feeling out Antennas for K9ZW Island QTH – Part 1

A lot has been happening at the Island QTH – the biggest is the ongoing Garage Building project.

Garage 16 June 2018

And just as importantly the first non-temporary antenna will be going in – a Zero-Five custom extra-heavy-duty Flagpole Multi-Band Vertical antenna.

The concrete base should go in at the same time the garage apron slab is poured.

Zero-Five made two extra-heavy-duty custom antennas to meet my wind/weather special needs. The have tilt-over-bases and a loading-balun for 80m.

Zero-Five Extra-Heavy-Duty Flagpole Multiband Antenna Tilt Base with Balun

One of the two Zero-Five made is reserved for my home QTH to be installed later this year or next spring. These antennas truly are also functioning flagpoles, though I wonder what might happen to a flag when running an amp?

The trenching contractor in the island is running a 4-inch buried conduit to the antenna, so I can both bury a feed-line, and run power to lights for the flag.  I may eventually experiment with a remote antenna tuner at the base of the antenna as well, and the conduit makes adding internet easier later.   Ideally it would be nice to separate the different cables, but as most trenching involved breaking out bedrock I will have to settle for a single conduit and go with the best shielded cables available.

To work well this model requires buried radials, and eventually lots of them.

Because of the bedrock the usual base has been redesigned to make best use of the “rock solid” situation.