When Hams Fly

Recently, I’ve been wading back into flying model aircraft. After more than a decade hiatus, I’m a little shocked at how far the hobby has come and what new technologies are available. I guess this should come as no surprise, given the advances in microcontrollers and software-defined radio, but it’s still been a big learning curve.

One of the coolest aspects to me has been the advent of first-person video (FPV) flying. Using a camera and video transmitter mounted on the plane, you can wear goggles or use a screen to fly as if you were sitting in the pilot seat. After doing some research, it became clear that while the control signals for RC planes usually occupy unlicensed RF bands, the video downlink almost always is over a frequency that requires an amateur radio license from the FCC. Once you are licensed, you can also use UHF bands for higher power and longer distance control signals (still subject to the FAA line-of-sight requirements).

This circuitous path and an irrational fear of jail time led me to considering becoming a licensed Ham (again: I foolishly let my old license expire a decade ago). Rather than figure out for myself how to learn the material and study for the exam, I turned to twitter to do my homework for me. Here are the resources that were suggested to me:

  • hamexam.org is a free site that provides flash cards, practice exams, and has some intelligence to figure out which areas you need to work on and which you have mastered.

  • http://www.kb6nu.com/study-guides/ has a free PDF study guide that is a bit more prose than the “here are the questions” guides. It’s only 48 pages, but they are dense pages, as they really ONLY cover the material on the tests and nothing else.

  • http://www.vhfclub.org/education.html has a giant PDF of all the test questions and some comments about answers.

  • http://www.hamradiolicenseexam.com is $24.95 and has online course materials. Similar to hamexam.org, but with expanded material and background, this one comes highly recommended, and is probably worth the extra money.

  • I found this IOS app which generates practice tests for $4.95: Amateur Radio Exam Prep:  Technician by Patrick J Maloney LLC There are similar apps for Android on the Google Play store. An app is nice for reviewing a few test questions or taking a practice exam while waiting in line or during a break.

  • https://hamstudy.org provides practice exams and flash cards, along with stats on your performance.

  • http://www.amateurlogic.com/blog/ has a great series of YouTube videos for learning the material, if you are a video learner.

Since the entire pool of questions is known, it’s easy to get caught up in learning the test, not the material. I think it’s worth going a bit beyond the test prep to study the fundamentals and reasoning behind some of the policies.

I think I’m going to use a combination of the app and the kb6nu study guide.  The hamexam.org site has similar practice tests to the app if you don’t want to pay for it. I’m studying for the Technician license, which is the lowest level, but will meet my needs for the kinds of projects I’m interested in pursuing.

The overlap between makers/hackers and amateur radio is often overlooked and forgotten. In many ways, Hams were the *original* makers and hackers. You might find pursuing a license introduces you to a wealth of new possible projects and ideas (and people!)

Thanks to: @AureliusR, @zuph, @bxd, @chris_gammell, and @adamwwolf for all the suggestions.