EMF Camp is a biannual camping festival for those with an enquiring mind or an interest in designing, inventing and making things; this includes hackers, artists, geeks, crafters, scientists, and engineers. Amateur Radio operators fall in to this group of amazingly inventive folk.
This year, in August 2016, over fifteen hundred turned up for three fabulously packed days of presentations, demonstrations and practical workshops ranging from such diverse topics as black-smithing to bio-metrics, chip-tunes to computer security, high altitude ballooning to lock-picking, origami to democracy, and online privacy to knitting. Then there was Amateur Radio an amazing technical hobby in its own right.
Rebecca and I travelled down to Guildford on Thursday (4th Aug.) to attend the 2016 EMF Camp. We’d never been to anything like this before; 2,000 like minded makers, crafters, inventors, hackers and experimenters in a field for three days solid. What were we expecting? To be honest, I hadn’t the foggiest idea.
Upon arrival at the EMF camp site, at around six-thirty, we were greeted with a very large exhibition field similar in size to many a country show I have been to; this was going to be a big event. Even though EMF camp didn’t officially start until 09:00 the following day there was a significant number of campers and exhibitions (installations), of which we were one, already in place.
The infrastructure in place was significant; okay there was the expected toilets and showers, but there were solid roads laid over the grass to protect it, diesel generators connected to numerous 16A distribution boxes around the site and many tardises; Port-a-Loo look-alikes that actually contained ethernet switches and wi-fi access points topped with LED flames that gave you their status. There were three main stages for talks and films, a good sized catering area where you weren’t ripped off for decent quality food, the Robot Arms which was serving really decent ales and other liquid refreshments.
Our accommodation and exhibition tents were soon up and we were connected to the power and Internet grids before going off to explore the mini town that was growing up before our eyes. We met with the London Hackerspace Amateur Radio Club and introduced ourselves and had a good mooch around before fulfilling our dietary needs and heading off for a good nights sleep despite being less than twenty feet from the 95db generator.
The following morning we were treated to an amazing display; blue skies and sunshine – thank goodness for that, this could have easily been a disaster had the weather been bad. Fortunately we were treated to excellent weather throughout the weekend, only interrupted on the Sunday afternoon by about a minute and a half of spitting that would have sent Peter Kay’s dinner ladies in to a flurry of activity – not our hardy campers though.
The radio equipment had been kept locked in the car overnight for security and was assembled in the exhibition tent so that by around 11:00 we were operating PSK on the HF bands. Propagation conditions weren’t as bad as they had been in the previous days but there was hardly hundreds of stations to choose from across all of the bands. But that didn’t matter, whilst we had a special event callsign our primary reason for being there was to talk to people about our hobby, explain what we do and demonstrate that one can communicate around the world without using the Internet. There were certainly plenty of interested people on the site and many of them started to visit us for a chat pretty much as soon as we were up and running.
Visitors ranged from licensed and practicing amateur radio operators, through lapsed amateur radio operators to folk that didn’t even know the hobby existed. A rough straw poll of folk walking down our ‘lane’ showed that around 25% of those questioned were either licensed or lapsed. But what surprised me even more were the number of people who were amateur radio enthusiasts without even knowing it. The number of makers and hackers attending that were experimenting with balloons and radio telemetry, hacking DVB dongles to receive different signals and those that were playing with wireless network communications to achieve ever better transmission rates and ranges was amazing. This is what amateur radio is all about; experimentation and self-training in wireless communications. So the real number of amateur radio enthusiasts must have actually been pushing 40-50% of attendance, even if not everyone was aware that they fell within the hobby.
We had taken three radio stations down to the camp; two Icom IC-706MKIIGs for HF work and an Icom IC-746 for 100w SSB VHF. We ended up with just my IC-706MKIIG shack-in-a-box, such was the interest from visitors that we couldn’t both talk and operate at the same time.
The shack-in-the-box was the cause of interest from licensed amateur radio operators; it consists of a portable 19″ rack fixed with the radio transceiver, MAAS switch-mode power supply, dedicated Icom LDG automatic antenna matcher and the Tigertronics data interface. This is all pre-wired so that the only external connections that need to be made when the lids were removed from the rack are the antenna, mains or battery power and two USB connections to the laptop computer.
Another product that we took down raised a bit of interest with the licensed amateur radio operators; PZTlog Pro. I’ve been looking for a long time for a light-weight piece of software that would integrate logging and PSK operation within a single package, I’m fed up trying to get multiple applications talking to each other, or importing contact details from the PSK software into the log book. Ham Radio Deluxe has been working well for many years at home, but it’s really not that easy to set up a new installation and I’m getting fed up paying nearly £50 a year for keeping the software up-to-date.
I’ve been playing around with Charlie’s free software for a while so thought it was time to bite the bullet and go for the £10 ‘Pro’ version. They say you shouldn’t try anything new in front of other people; well Charlie didn’t let me down at all, his software was easy to set up and get working and it performed faultlessly all weekend. Thanks Charlie (M0PZT).
Despite the fact that people were still arriving and setting up the tents, and in some instances installations, on the Friday we were kept very busy and had little time to wander around. However, we decided to shut-up-shop after tea time and have a wander around spending a couple of hours with the guys from London Hackspace. There we were treated to a wonderfully choreographed pass right over the top of the EMF camp by the International Space Station; what a wonderful end to a great first day.On the Saturday we awoke to more clear skies and sunshine but instead of getting out the shack-in-a-box from the car and re-establishing the station we headed over to Stage B for 10:00 were Rebecca and I were to deliver a talk entitled; “Communicating around the world without using the Internet“. We used the example of the Cumbrian floods in 2009 that took out bridges, together with the telecommunications and Internet infrastructure that was buried beneath their surfaces, disrupting essential emergency service communications, to show why wireless communications is still so important today in the ‘modern world’ of the Internet. The talk generated quite a bit of interest in our installation throughout the weekend.
There were lots of other talks constantly scheduled from around 10:00 right through in to the evening and I managed to catch a few of them. There was a couple of excellent maths based talks; did you know that the Simpsons episodes are packed full of amazingly detailed maths and that Homer Simpson predicted the mass of the Higgs Bouson 14 years before it was discovered? Then there was the guy that makes a living out of breaking in to organisations to steal their most highly prized and guarded valuables right from beneath the owners noses; even twice in some cases.
The organisers of the EMF camp are great, they know that everyone attending is a geek of one sort or another, so every year they give all attendees a badge, but it’s no ordinary badge. No, this is a badge you can take away and contin ue using for as long as electrons flow through the complex electronic circuitry that is the DNA of this badge. It’s based around an ARM M4 chip, has a colour LCD screen, wifi, sensors, memory and storage – it’s a self contained computer that can run many different applications developed for it. When the badge was issued on the Saturday afternoon we had that Nokia classic; Snake. By the end of the weekend there were over forty apps; all developed by campers in a matter of hours since receiving it.
EMF camp is an amazing collection of people who do amazing things – there’s a competition running through to the end of October for the best app developed for it; these organisers know how to keep EMF camp at the forefront of peoples minds until the next event.
We continued throughout the rest of the EMF camp weekend to enjoy the weather, talking to lots of people about our hobby and seeing what other people were up to. Whilst we only made forty-seven contacts on PSK the weekend was about more than pure operating; we introduced the hobby of amateur radio to many new people who had not been aware of it before and hopefully convinced a few lapsed amateur radio licence holders to reactive their interest.
The cost of the camp was £120 per person which, when I first heard about the event, I thought was a bit steep for three days. However, since attending I believe that this was worth every penny – there was so much to be gained from attending and some great people to mix with.
We would like to thank everybody who organised the 2016 EMF camp for a great weekend and an amazing opportunity to share with others what we do and how they can get involved. Thanks guys and we look forward to seeing you all again in two years time.
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