Camped out in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) graduate student Yalei Song announced the W6CMU amateur radio call sign into a microphone. Next to her, ECE Ph.D. student Joao Diogo De Menezes Falcao searched through static for an answer to their call while another Wireless Innovator club mate sat ready to record any response that came through the speakers.
As part of an annual event called Field Day, the Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley (CMU-SV) students attempted to contact as many amateur radio operators across the country as possible within 24 hours. Organized by the American Radio Relay League, the event promotes emergency communications preparedness and has become the biggest amateur radio-operating event in North America, with more than 35,000 participants.
During the event, amateur radio operators, or “hams,” use emergency and alternative power sources to simulate a disaster emergency situation. This is where the CMU-SV club had a particular advantage. The group used the CROSSMobile van, a former ambulance converted into a mobile radio research laboratory. They took advantage of the van’s ability to operate on a standalone power supply.
Bob Iannucci, distinguished service professor of ECE and faculty advisor for the Wireless Innovators, says amateur radio has important real-world applications. “What many people don’t realize is that our society’s communications systems are fragile,” explains Iannucci. “Disasters of all sorts threaten our normal communications systems. Amateur radio works when all else fails.”
In preparation for Field Day, the group spent several weeks assembling and testing an impressive antenna—32 feet from front to back and weighing 100 pounds. The antenna was fitted atop the CROSSMobile van on a pneumatic mast, which uses pressurized air to raise and lower. With sponsorship from the Palo Alto Office of Emergency Services, the team was given the opportunity to operate from an advantageous vantage point overlooking Silicon Valley.
The antenna allowed the group to make connections from Hawaii to Puerto Rico and enabled them to reach more than 200 different contacts.
The CMU-SV Wireless Innovators want to promote understanding of the fundamentals of radio and wireless communications. “Designing a radio or antenna in the lab is one thing, but matching the performance of their system against the best of the best in a real-world setting is a whole new challenge,” says Iannucci. This was the first Field Day for the CMU-SV group.
Several alumni, including Software Management alum Nathan Martin, joined old friends at the event. “I really enjoyed the Field Day experience because I got to spend it with my fellow classmates. It was like a reunion,” says Martin.
The group is already looking forward to next year’s event, where they hope to reach even more operators across the country with the help of an even larger group of Wireless Innovators.