Amateur radio empowers learners to choose sustainable careers

October 28th, 2016, Published in Articles: EngineerIT


To create a knowledge and manufacturing economy South Africa needs to concentrate on training engineers with the right qualifications. Over time the perception has taken hold of some young people that engineering is not cool. If this is the perception, what are we doing about it?  It is up to engineers to make engineering cool and that is what a group of radio amateurs – members of the Secunda Amateur Radio Club – have been doing over the past four years. They are all engineers from various disciplines in industry, with a common interest in radio and electronics.

 L-R Nathi Nzece, Teboho Xaba, and Nomfundo Hlatswayo in front at the BACAR Launch

Nathi Nzece and Teboho Xab with Nomfundo Hlatswayo (front) at the BACAR launch. Photo credit Elize Findt.

Each year, the World Space Week Association (WSWA) selects a theme for the upcoming World Space Week (WSW) to provide a focus for the activities and events that take place throughout the world, from 4 to 10 October. The theme for 2016 was “Remote Sensing: Enabling Our Future”, an inward looking theme which celebrates Earth observation from space for the betterment of the human race.

Christo Kriek identified space week as an ideal opportunity to involve learners at high schools in the Govan Mbeki municipal area to learn more about space. As part of the project the leaners built small CubeSats which were launched into near space on a weather balloon and later recovered.

Called the BACAR Space week, BACAR being the acronym for balloon carrying amateur radio, the Secunda Amateur Radio Club worked with SANSA, the Sasol Junior Engineers Forum and industry to present a full programme of lectures and hands on activities.

The BACAR Space week activities are split into three major comments. Learners are taught basic electronics, construction and solders and how to programme the flight computer. The week long programme included

  • Presentation by Afrox on use of gasses in Space
  • Talk by SANSA on Space weather
  • Sasol Junior Engineers forum talk on process control in Space
  • South African Radio League (SARL) on amateur satellite building in South Africa
  • Soldering skills by building the new enhanced WBT balloon satellite
  • Project management short course

Willie Taljaardt developed the “flight computer”. He said that they looked at a number of processors which would be easy for the learners, who are all beginners, to work on and program. The PICAXE was chosen, as the chips can be programmed easily in order to learn BASIC language or via graphical blocks or flowcharts. PICAXE BASIC is much easier to learn (and to “debug”) than traditional microcontroller languages such as assembler code or “C”.

Taljaardt also developed the Wizard block tower stack which allows various sensors to be included in the CubeSat. He said that they taught the learners how to construct, solder and ultimate programme the “flight computer”  which functions as a data logger recording the data from a light sensor and various temperature sensors. The temperature sensors are important as each group of learners design their own insulation for their CubeSat. Learners also decided which battery to deploy to power their CubeSat, voltages and currents were measured and logged throughout the flight and are compared with the predicted values.

Early in the morning of 15 October the CubeSats were lined up to be launched on a weather balloon. The launch site was the Trichardt Model Flying Club. The line-up included other payloads such as a parrot repeater, telemetry and beacons and equipment to assist with the recovery of the CubeSat and all the other equipment. Soon after launching the balloon, it is being tracked and teams follow the trajectory on the ground. Depending on the prevailing conditions, the balloon either bursts or the train of packages are released by an electronic command from the ground.

Once all the various CubeSats are tested and connected to the launch line, the balloon is released and one by one the CubeSats are going up as the slack is taken up by the ascending balloon

Once all the various CubeSats are tested and connected to the launch line, the balloon is released and one by one the CubeSats ascend as the slack is taken up by the ascending balloon. Photo credit one Cor Rademeyer.

Kriek said that they had been fortunate in that all the flights had been recoveerd, which is important as the learners examined their CubeSats to recover the recorded data and compare it with what was projected prior to the flight, and then they write a report.

The initiative by the Secunda Amateur Radio Club should be an inspiration to other amateur radio clubs to encourage learners and give them a taste that engineering is actually cool. This also goes for all Engineers. Get a project going at your local high school. Besides empowering a young person you will also derive great satisfaction.    For more on the BACAR project visit

Besides BACAR there are many opportunities to get young people involved in space activities. Get involved with a school science club to develop a science project to fly on AMSAT SA’s Kletskous CubeSat. More information is available on Time is running out as the development of the CubeSat reaches the stage where a final decision has to be made on the payloads to fly. Share you enthusiasm about engineering with the engineers of tomorrow.

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