Remote Control Stations for Ham Radios

By H. Ward Silver

More and more hams are setting up ham radio stations and operating them by remote control. Why? There are several reasons: The most common is that they can’t put up effective antennas where they live. If you rent or lease, the property owner might not allow you to install antennas. (Asking nicely and promising not to cause interference, eyesores, or safety hazards sometimes gets you a temporary tryout and a possible waiver of the rule.) Without antennas, ham radio is a challenge!

Another reason is noise. Not the noise the station makes but the noise made by home electronics, appliances, computer equipment, power lines, and other electric-power devices. The old wisdom, “You can’t work ’em if you can’t hear ’em” is true. You can use special receiving antennas and noise-cancellers, but a lot of noise can be just as bad as having ineffective antennas.

And there is always the possibility of your transmitted signal causing interference at home and to the neighbors. Turning your transmit power down can solve the problem, but you might not make as many contacts, either. What’s a ham to do?

The answer is often to build or share a station somewhere that you can put up antennas and that is relatively free of noise. Then, use the Internet or some other kind of data connection to access the station. With the technology available today, this can work amazingly well! It’s pretty much like operating a regular station but with a really long microphone cord.

Remote control rules for ham radios

Before you start getting that gleam in your eye, imagining big towers holding antennas high in the air, remember there are a few rules you must follow:

  • License authority: You have to be licensed at the location of the transmitted signal. Some U.S. hams have set up stations in other countries or in other areas of the world, such as the Caribbean. This requires either a local license or a reciprocal operating permit. You can find out more about either of those at the ARRL’s web page for International Operating. Some types of operating permission require you to be physically present in the licensing country, so be sure to read the fine print!
  • Permission: Trite but true, you have to have permission to use a transmitter. Whether you have a license to operate at the site or not, you still have to have permission to use the equipment.
  • Identification: When you send your call sign, be sure it indicates the location from which you are transmitting. If you are a U.S. ham and the station is in the U.S., then no problem — just send your regular call sign. If you are connecting to the station across a national border, you’ll have to use a call sign from the station’s country. And some awards and operating events require hams to use call signs that indicate where they are operating from.
  • Control: Regardless of how well you design the station, you have to be able to turn off the transmitter no matter what. Some security controllers accessible by phone can turn a relay on and off to control AC power to the station. You can even buy power strips with a web interface. Having a method that uses a different method of access than the usual control link is a good idea.

Remote operation is a lot of fun and can make ham radio accessible to you wherever you may be. For example, one well-known contest operator frequently fires up his home station in Ohio while sitting in a hotel room in Tokyo, Japan! He loves that he can get on the air in his favorite events even when his business takes him out of the country. But follow the rules and don’t abuse the privilege — it wouldn’t take more than a few bad apples to spoil the remote operating barrel.

Accessing a remote control station for your ham radio

A good overview of the state of remote control at the time this edition was written (early 2018) is available in Remote Operating for Amateur Radio, by Steve Ford (WB8IMY). Even though some of the software options have changed, the basics are sound. The book is available from the ARRL and other ham radio booksellers. The ARRL Handbooks 2018 edition added an updated section on remote stations, including site evaluation and alternative power.

The most common setup is to use the Internet with a PC at each location running a station control program. (The additional DTMF controller connected to the phone line is needed in case the computer loses control of the radio and you need to shut everything down and start over.)

If you set up your station at home but operate it away from home, the controlling software can run on a laptop so you can fire up the rig from a hotel room or coffee shop. There’s no reason why you have to lug around a laptop, either. A smartphone or tablet computer can be quite enough. The remote-control software developed by Pignology runs on an iPhone and even includes logging software so that everything fits in the palm of your hand.

If you think you might like to try remote operating, start by checking out one of the many online remote receivers at webSDR. There are dozens of receivers available for you to use located all over the world. Try listening to the same station from different receivers to get an idea of how propagation varies!

Why go to the trouble of building the station yourself? “Time-share” remote stations are maintained by Remote Ham Radio. The stations are available for a per-minute fee (with a paid membership). Be careful though, because using these capable stations will spoil you!

Remote operating is becoming very popular. More radios support it, more software is available, and high-speed Internet is available in more places than ever. The technology to make it work is available, radios themselves are easier to control over the Internet, and commercial products are appearing that provide plug-and-play operation. You’ll have the option of building a traditional home station and be able to operate it from wherever you are. Some clubs and informal groups build and share a remote station. This is an exciting time!