CW Skimmer, Panadapters, and Flex

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  • Updated 3 years ago
How on earth did we ever get along without these amazing tools? To all the developers, testers, and visionaries that have changed communications - THANK YOU. 

Spent an afternoon with a conventional knob rig and came to appreciate all I take for granted with the amazing band-awareness possible today. It's like driving with blinders - sure you'll get there, and it works just fine, but wow...there's so much more.
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George Molnar, KF2T, Elmer

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  • pleasantly thrilled... again.

Posted 3 years ago

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W7NGA

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I set up my Flex 6300 with CW Skimmer, AutoLogger v4.2, and AutoQSO and worked all stations for WAS, WAC, and DXCC. Took 12 hours! What's great about it .. is that I went on vacation a week ago and am 7000 miles from the shack! Isn't automation grand? Whoa ... just got an email from my AutoQSO program informing me I have just worked another 20 countries. Awesome!

73's

dan W7NGA
San Juan Island, Wa.
(Edited)
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W7NGA

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Norm .. that is my point (jocularly). It trivializes the pursuit to the point of .. what possible meaning and value does it hold? Nada ... at least for me.
(Edited)
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N7AIG

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You guys are a hoot! Where do you draw the line? You have a Flex... hmmm...

A Rabbi once told me that everyone is being pulled into the future, just that some of us have our foot on the brake pedal a little harder than others...
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Walt - KZ1F

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@Norm-That is wicked astute, ditto n7aig.
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W7NGA

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> Where do you draw the line? You have a Flex... hmmm...
I own a Flex for the receiver and panadapter. Not kicking or screaming .. but I am concerned with the state and direction of the hobby.
(Edited)
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N7AIG

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... Bill C. never inhaled either...
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N7AIG

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sorta puts me in mind of driverless cars....
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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It's hard to use a BLIND radio after you can actually see the bands.
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Duane N9DG

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This is the same kind of comment some of us have been making for over 10 years now. But it still never ceases to amaze me how large of a percentage of operators that are out there who cannot, or will very deliberately choose not to understand what these kinds of band visuallizing, and random access tuning technologies have to offer.

It has always been fun to observe someone to all of a sunden "get it", it is as if a great big light bulb clicks on in thier head. And most of them will then eventually go on to make comments like some of those posted here.
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Walt - KZ1F

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Some people still prefer to drive a manual transmission, does that mean they still 'don't get it'?
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George Molnar, KF2T, Elmer

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Re: comments on the driverless cars and auto QSOs.... I know you're having a little laugh, but seriously that's not the point. The extra capability opens up ways to be a better operator through better band information, a clear picture of the pileup or competition, for DX, nets, rag chewers, or whatever. I don't want my rig making contacts for me. I DO want it to give me as much information as I can use about the band and mode I'm on so I can make better decisions on who to call and when. 

It's almost like someone used to driving with only the front windshield suddenly getting the other windows and mirrors, plus a full set of gauges! Hands are still on the wheel, and the pilot is still in charge, but the extra help really makes life a pleasure.

Enjoy your own "slice" of the hobby!
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Walt - KZ1F

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In one of my first conversations with Al, I put forth the notion that in the very near future, contesting will become a betting parlor sport. Software will do it, the speed of software is multiple orders of magnitude faster than the best professional contester. The software needs no bathroom breaks, no food, no sleep and can near simultaneously work stations on most all bands. For those thinking, Puh, that'll never happen. You only say that because you don't know how to make it happen. In fact, I mentioned it on here as well, as I recall asking the rhetorical, ever hear of "Deep Blue"? Perhaps that'll be next year's project.
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Walt - KZ1F

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And that is precisely where 8 slices will best 4 slices.
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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Automatic no human CW contesting was. Done a few years ago. Not that hard to program.

Winning a CW contest is another. Matter.
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Walt - KZ1F

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The first computerized chess game didn't win many matches. What was it, about 2 decades ago the world's best grand master lost to a program.
"Not that hard to do it", oh, you do that too?
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km9r.mike

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I love the situational awareness that flex provides with their high def panadapter however that is where it stops for me. I do not utilize cw skimmer nor spots while contesting. I am still passionate about mastering the art of cw testing vice mastering the technology. I do not think however that others must do the same.

At the same time however, I am all for separate contest categories that rely heavily on software for operating their stations. That will boil down to who has the cash for the best software and the cash for the best stations. Currently just because someone has the cash for the best station does not mean they will have the best ops utilizing that station. Software may solve that issue.

In a way a modern day John Henry but as we all know machines do not have heart, but some people do not either or have chosen to ignore theirs. Such is mankind.

(Edited)
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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On a bet about 3 years ago I ran a simple basic program with CW skimmer during a CW contest. It ran for about 4 hours before it crashed. Made 187 Q's untouched by human hands. The hardest part was writing code to parse the output of CWskimmer so it could determine valid calls. The dups algorithm was a bit screwy too. Response was easy. CALLSIGN 5NN TU

Pissed off my contest station partner N6KI no end. so it was really fun doing it. Needless to say I am waiting for him to put together a SSB contest robot to piss me off

BTW robot contesting was first done more than 10 years ago.

@Mike

As much as I love technology, currently a skilled human operator will easily beat a robot. In the longer term, robots will win. But to my way of thinking there is no fun in cheating to win glory.
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Walt - KZ1F

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Maybe it crashing had more to do with the skill of the author than the task attempted. As I said, the first chess programs would only beat a poor to mediocre chess player. Several decades ago it was beating Grand Masters. That same level of memory, speed, and price point for the hardware has only gotten better. If CW Skimmer can decode someone's callsign, it is already being done in software. If you have a program simultaneously on 4 or 8 bands the issue then becomes scheduling the TX slice. Is using CW Skimmer or DXCluster not also 'cheating'? So, cheating is in the eye of the beholder, huh? And it will cost far less than several hundred thousand dollars. My development dance card is pretty much full for the rest of the year but it is wide open for next year.  Except for a handful of people, dog racing, horse racing, car racing, is a spectator sport. How many people enter a contest (to win it) verses occupy their time over a w/e? So, given there is no problem in CS that can't be solved with adding another layer of indirection, rather than bet you'll win the contest, bet your designee will win it. Howard, I think it will be fun to watch.
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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The crash was due to my VERY rusty program
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N7AIG

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Nobody needs to try convincing me (or anyone else reading this list) about the virtues of SDR. I have been sold, many times over, since first seeing, then buying a Flex-3000.

What would be more interesting to hear would be comments from contesters about what and how. For example, the K3 has long been at the top of the heap for contesting. Why? And how would the Flex-6k series be better?

(i'm not a contester, so I'd really like to hear. I have my own long list of reasons for why I prefer SDR. )
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N7AIG

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.... let me help the conversation along...

The K3 with P3 pan adapter has many of the features of an SDR. Do contesters actually use the P3? Is the pan display the reason for preferring SDR for contesting? I like it a lot -- it speaks to the blind vs enlightened view of the RF space. But if that is a big reason, then what sets the Flex-6K apart from a K3 / P3 combo?
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Walt - KZ1F

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I think it is not clear if it will be better. However, it IS competition for the top spot and, at a bare minimum, that is what becomes the mother of invention. If this hobby were complacent we'd all be using HW-101's. Competition is good for everybody, it makes FRS better, makes Elecraft better, makes KYI better. Which all goes to giving us, the consumers, better choices.
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Mark Griffin

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Yes they do! I have had a K3/P3 combo for about 7 months. I use it not only for day to day operating but also contests. It makes it a whole lot easier to see what's out there instead of tuning blind with the dial.

Also, when operating split on cw it is nice to see where everybody else is sending. You can then find an open spot. I like my K3/P3. But also looking to add a Flex also.
Mark Griffin, KB3Z
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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Simply put. Contesting is about rate. The faster you work Q's the higher your rate.

Taking you hand off your logging keyboard to hit the mouse slows down ur rate.

Having to click mouse menus to change controls slows down you rate.

Having controls ergonomically situated so you can change things quickly improves your rate.

Frankly my rate. In Search and Punce is better on an SDR where I can see things But visibly slower in Run situations than a K3 where. You sometime need to make quick fine adjustments to catch a Q

However it looks like Maestro may just be that secret sauce that lets Flex beat K3 at rate.
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Duane N9DG

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I'm sure this is true for HF contesting. But for VHF contesting fast random access QSY, and S&P across multiple bands simultaneously is king while also mainting a CQ'ing presence on a favored frequency.

And there are big spans of frequencies across those bands where there is nobody there. So being able to see and get to things that do pop up quickly is every bit as important as trying to sustain a run, and is arguably more important, especially so on 2M, and on 6M when it isn't open.

Those who still haven't applied good panadapter / waterfalls and point and click tuning on these bands have no idea how much stuff pops up on the bands that they never even find out about, and therefore never work. It is not uncommon for a signal to pop up for just a few minutes duration, to only quickly disappear just as quickly to never be seen or heard from again for the rest of the contest. They are only available for these brief periods because of a mixture of very short “openings” and/or highly directional antennas being rotated.

But yet there a numerous VHF types who still haven't seen (pun mostly intended) the advantages of this technology, despite having it shown and described to them repeatedly. They still continue believe that a one band at a time DC-daylight radio with no scope is just fine for VHF weaksignal work or contesting.... Nope..
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Ken - NM9P, Elmer

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That is right on target, Duane,

I have experienced this on 6 meters.  I don't have anything good for 2 yet.
I would have loved to have my 6500 for the last great Meteor Scatter opening I worked.  The band would be dead, then instantly spring to life for 2 minutes, spreading out all the way to 50.300.  Then it would die instantly until the next big meteor trail opened it up with S9+10 signals that spread out all over again.  The cycle continued for several hours.  I would have had some great hunting had I owned a 6500 back then!  The visual indication on the Panafall, and the ability to monitor 4 frequencies at the same time would have been killer!

Ken - NM9P
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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Btw. I have used k3/P3 in contests. I definitely prefer my 6700 which has much better and easier to see resolution for Search and Pounce.
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km9r.mike

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Howard , can the p3 be used as an interactive display (ie point and click ?) or is it just a display ? The experience that I have w/ the p3 is it was just a display. In addition, unless it is set up with hdmi output, the p3's display is quite small so I have to increase the span (10 kc's normally) to get any kind of meaningful resolution but by doing so situational awareness decreases.


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N7AIG

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I own a K3/P3. The P3 knob allows for instant QSY with Undo on a single push.
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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No mouse conntrol
However there is a wonderful external program called NaP3 which populates spots directly onto the band map. Really speeds up. S&P.

I have asked for spots from Flex but so far no joy.
(Edited)
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N7AIG

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I have watched some documentaries about the last RadioSport competition, trying to see just how these top ops do things. I also watched some homebrew documentaries by one of them showing how he does SO2R.

I understand what you are saying about rate. One of the things I'm puzzled about with respect to S&P vs rate is that even with a good pan display, the current crop of SDR do not auto-lock onto the carrier point in any decent manner. You click the mouse to position the band pass, and then have to scroll up or down with the mouse wheel to get the right location. 

In a CW context, this may be less of a problem, but it is sure a problem for SSB. 
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N7AIG

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... seems like there could be a way to look at the RF envelope and do a better job of auto-setting the pass band when you point and click on a signal, regardless of whether it is CW, PWK, RTTY, or SSB. Toughest one would be SSB, but not all that tough.
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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The trick in SSB contests is to set your step to 500KHz but no smaller than 250Khz. Minimizes mouse wheel clicks.
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N7AIG

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From the 2014 RadioSport website:

12.4. Use of DX spotting (e.g., Packet, Web, etc.), skimmer or any other spotting and supplementary information network is not allowed. You are not allowed to receive any assistance to learn the callsign or exchange of any station other than by tuning the radio and listening by human ear.


Does this also imply that using a pan display would be disallowed? I don't recall seeing any operators in the documentary using a pan display, even though several had IC-7600, 7700 and 7800. I'll look again...

https://vimeo.com/119947598?utm_source=email&utm_medium=clip-transcode_complete-finished-2012010...


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Duane N9DG

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Sigh, - when will the HF contest rule writers finally get it that a skimmer or similar technology that is entirely contained within the station's location, and ONLY gets is band activity "information" from the antennas used in the competition is NOT the same thing as using a DX spotting network. They are completely different things... The Internet driven DX spotting activities are all non-amatuer, or even radio, but is instead a commercial infratsructure. Lots of it..

But yet the rule writers continue to insist that they are the same thing based on the silly notion that "the end efect is the same". So they vilify by rule making a technology that should in reality be applauded for at least partially obsoleteting the Internet driven DX spotting networks..
(Edited)
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N7AIG

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Commercial infrastructure?? Can you explain this?
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Duane N9DG

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Things like Internet ISPs, telco phone lines, smart phones, and whatever Internet they may offer are all "commercial" infrastructure. And in the context of DX spotting networks, they all represent a parallel, and non-amatuer radio path for "band information" to get into the station, or even be used as part of the communications (Q making process) itself.


A real simple test to apply is that if the station's ability to find signals to work on the bands changes when the Internet is unplugged, then it is an "assisted" station. If the entire Internet suddenly went away, and the station's ability to find and work stations doesn't change one bit, then it is not being assisted. That is true regardless of the technology that is applied within the station. They need to quit trying to draw rather arbitrary lines around specific technologies that are wholly contained with the station's location. To do so is entirely contrary to the notion of "advancement of the radio art".

To accommodate those who are focused entirely / exclusively on a person aural abilities, and related skills, then they should create categories for that specifically. And I think freezing the level of technology allowed to be used to somewhere around circa 1980 would pretty much achieve that.

The one provision I would allow for the use of the Internet is for remote control operations. But only as long as the connection is in essence just a long mic, speaker, and user panel control cable, AND that all RF used in the competition comes into and out of the station at the RF gear's location, and nowhere else.

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Ken - NM9P, Elmer

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The last CW contest I ran S&P with the Internet DX Spotting turned OFF and only used the spots generated by my own CW Skimmer.  It kept me from wasting time moving to frequencies that were either old spots or spots that I could not hear.  It also let me go to many stations that had not yet been spotted by others, giving me a slight edge.  I did much better than I have ever done, not just because of the Flex/Skimmer/N1MM+ advantage, but the combo was a good part of the improvement.  (Experience and continuing to improve my antennas also helped!)

Ken - NM9P
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Walt - KZ1F

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Cw skimmer is 'assisted' ditto for pan. I interpret these rules to be placing all operators in the same class. Cwskimmer is computer assisted as is the pan adapter as is the spotting via internet. I'd argue using a flex at all puts one in the assisted category, you are using two computer programs. If the contest measures operator skill, remove the software support.
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N7AIG

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okay, I just reviewed the RadioSport documentary again, the portion where they actually show the ops running the contest. There were a number of K3/P3, IC-7600,7700,7800. But my impression from watching them is that these pan displays were all showing such low-resolution information that it would have been used only as secondary feedback to the ops, showing gross regions where activity resided or not.

I did not see any of them actually tuning from the P3 at all, nor were any of them apparently guided for Q's with the display on the Icom rigs. Nearly every one of them had their eyes glued to the logging screen, and their tuning was very slowly incremental by main tuning knob.

So this would tend to discount the actual utility of a pan display to a highly experienced contester op.

Eh?

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N7AIG

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also did not see any of them running CWSkimmer. The rules may have disallowed that, but one of the features of CWSkimmer is that you can easily QSY from station to station with just an arrow key on the keyboard. Perfectly centered on the signal each time. Why couldn't an SDR have that feature?
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Ken - NM9P, Elmer

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Using CW Skimmer and N1MM+, you can set up Skimmer as a Spotting Server on the band you are using (or multiple bands if you wish) and then use the CTRL LT/RT keys to quickly QSY to the next unworked spot.  Or you can mouse click on the next unworked multiplier.  You can also fine tune by a user-defined step using the LT/RT key.  It worked really well the last couple of contests I ran.  I have not, however, dabbled with SO2R.  Perhaps the next time.  I am still trying to master simple single op!

Ken - NM9P
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N7AIG

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!!

16.2.2. Use of any sub receiver in radios that are so equipped, is not allowed. This includes diversity receiving. Radios are not allowed to receive on two frequencies simultaneously. For a two-channel (or multi-channel) radio (which has sub-receiver or parallel reception capabilities), which allows reception of signals on different frequencies simultaneously, the sub-receiver (or that parallel reception) must not be used.

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N7AIG

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Oops!! Sounds like Flex radios are explicitly disallowed in RadioSport...

16.2.5. Spectrum scopes (pan adapters) are allowed provided that they are used solely for instant spectrum visualization of the current amateur radio band of Radio A or Radio B. The spectrum scope may be built-in to the radio or be a separate device. It may be connected to the radio or PC-A/B with the following limitations:


 The only output from the spectrum scope can be video.


 Data transfer to the logging program or any other software is not allowed.


 Only the current band/frequency data of a single Radio (A or B) can be transferred to one spectrum scope for that radio.


 The spectrum curve may be displayed in any suitable device, including the PC-A/B monitor screen.


 No additional computers may be used for SDR signal processing; only PC-A/B computers may be used.


 The spectrum scope must not be used to control any other device (e.g., tune Radio A/B).


 No signal demodulation or any other secondary spectrum processing (e.g., station detection, peak holding, or waterfall display) is allowed.

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Ken - NM9P, Elmer

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Walt, I think it is both. Otherwise why not outlaw computer logging and make everyone use paper dupe sheets and manual logs like we did in the old days. (I still have some of those from about 1985's 73 magazine 40 meter contest, and the 160 meter contest. Why I kept them? I don't know.)

Technological advancement vs. human skill is always a matter of degree. What is or is not? VFO's? Narrow filters? Automatic antenna tuners? Multiple receivers? Electronic keyers? Memory keyers or voice keyers? Many of these were once denounced as taking the "real ham" human element out of operating. But once they became more popular in everyday operating, they were accepted in contests.

There is a limit, however. I would think that a totally automated station would be pointless. But on the other hand, many contests could just add another class called "automated" and let the others compete in their usual class....hmmm. I remember one of the forums at Dayton a few years ago when one of the contest organizers proposed an "extreme class" which was a " no holds barred" anything goes class that encouraged linked remote receivers, polarization and geographic diversity, automation, etc. in an attempt to set the innovators free to dream. I never heard much about it afterwards.

Ken - NM9P
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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It was (2012?) CQ WW SSB that had the Extreme Category. We entered that unlimited category and IIRC did well but not enough challengers to make it interesting.
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Walt - KZ1F

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Old days Ken? Old days? :-(
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Ken - NM9P, Elmer

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Walt, In 1985 I had already been licensed for 11 years. I realize that I am not a true "old timer" but starting in radio as a 7th grader in 1972 and finally getting my ham ticket in 1974 as a freshman in HS...Now at age 56 with 41 years as a ham under my belt (over 3/4 of my life) I kind of feel like an "old fart." That is until I start playing with the Flex rig. Then I feel young again...at least as far as radio goes! Ha ha!

The technology changes during my time as an amateur have been staggering. And I regularly rag-chew with guys who have been in for about ten or fifteen years longer than I have been.

The past few years have been especially amazing to watch. I wonder what the next ten years will bring? When I bought the 6500 I thought that it would be the last HF rig I would ever buy. But now I am thinking that ther will probably be one more "retirement rig" waiting for me in 6-10 years!

But back to the OP...I can foresee that technology may someday bring us the ability to look at the monitor and blink (or even just think) to select the next station, similar to the way some military avionics packages select targets, allowing for mouse and knob-free contest operation. Perhaps we will have hand gesture control without a mouse or even a touch pad being needed.

The possibilities are endless....

Ken - NM9P
(Edited)
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Walt - KZ1F

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Ken, I was up reading these at 3:30am. I saw the addition when I actually got up, shortly after you made that comment, I think. It made me feel old, now we know you are only 56 I am feeling yet a little bit older. I wish I could have mastered 5WPM in the mid 60's when I was trying so hard. I got that Heath catalogue and couldn't wait to take heat to solder. Sadly it took until 82. I had a Hallcrafters SWL rig and I'd beat freq to listen to the hams on sideband. I wanted it bad as a teen.
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Lee, Elmer

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This is what I had running in the contest this weekend quasi SO3R
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N7AIG

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very cool!

So it appears that you are also primarily concerned with a refined pan display - a la CWSkimmer - as contrasted with a high-resolution pan spectrum display...

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N7AIG

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I just found this rule...

16.3. All radios must be commercially manufactured transceivers, meeting all manufacturer specifications


This one totally blows me away!! I always had the impression that homebrew was the very essence of Ham Radio.

So now, it is beginning to appear that the RadioSport is really a commercially sponsored endeavor on the part of the big 3 + Elecraft.

Are manufacturers expected to contribute if they want their gear to be allowed in the competition? Is this a cartel? Has Flex been excluded because they didn't contribute?

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Lee, Elmer

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It is a cartel no question.  Ham radio is full of cartels.  The ARRL cooked up a receiver test half a century ago to allow some rational way to compare radios.  Ten Tec realized they could beat the test by introducing "roofing filters".  Every radio since (sans SDR) has been some variation of the Omni 5.  The ARRL doesn't change the test even though it is no longer relevant because winning the test assures QST add sales.  Elecraft "sponsors " every contest so they have bragging rights to claim they sponsor every contest.  Radio sport writes the rules to support the operators/stations that are current winners.  If you change the rules to allow something like assisted operation, then that $200K they spent on towers/radios no longer becomes the edge.  

In the above photo all of the stations in the band map are from my local reception.  The band maps are populated by the 3 skimmers.  Imagine writing an algorithm that looks at a hierarchy of need, is a station rare?   Is a station very workable or marginal?   Does the station have a high rate?  Is the station a well known contest station? etc and then have the algorithm rate things according to conclude say 5 best stations to work.  Once worked the next 5 best are shown.  Have the algorithm do a rate analysis on itself and tune things for best bands/best rate and/or best mults.  Completely changes the workflow and productivity. and suddenly a guy with a 6500 or 6700 and a steppir becomes a contender.   No way in hell the big shots are going to allow rules for that.

73 W9OY
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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Lee

The rules will change once a couple of big Contest stations win a major contest with a SDR. Then like lemmings., all the other. Big Guys will change too. The Big Guy world is like Formula One Racing. Everyone copies everyone else's edge.

At our Nx6T contest Station, once Maestro Arrives, we are planning to use it in a JIDX or All Asia Contest where our west coast geography gives us an edge to win...over other contest stations. As it has done a few times in the past.
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George Molnar, KF2T, Elmer

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Filed for your consideration under "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished." I posted praise to thank those who worked very hard on making some cool features available to us, not to debate the relative merits of different rules, contests, etc. WRTC rules are for a very specific contest and reason - they do not mean to apply to ALL. Please, gang, let's live and let live. The object of any radio contest (remember this is a hobby) is to have a good time and earn some personal satisfaction. Let's leave it at that, okay? Plenty of time over cold 807's to discuss the relative merits of SkyNet or RoboHam.
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N7AIG

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Well, sorry... I didn't mean to sidetrack the discussion to the negative. I was looking for what makes a good contest rig. Why is a K3 preferred so much, and what is really needed in a Flex? I think I found a few answers.

Not about K3's per se... but at least I have identified that a high-resolution spectrum display is not necessarily the edge maker. Rather, a cooked spectrum analysis with insight and inference as mentioned by Lee, could make a difference.

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N7AIG

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Heh! Guys!! Some of us design radios, some of us use them, and some of us automate them. It's a rich hobby. I'm mostly in the listen and automate camp. Must be from my Radio Astronomy beginnings -- nobody to QSO with, so you just listen.

For automation, I cut my teeth on this (my Baby!) back when it had 6 mirrors

http://www.mmto.org/node/6
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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Nice big toy!
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Walt - KZ1F

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That'll be a little bit like when FRS implements geographical diversity, not polarization diversity, an east coast radio married to a west coast radio, would make one incredibly large 'antenna'
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KY6LA - Howard, Elmer

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Bring on true large scale diversity sooner