In conversation with Hans van de Groenendaal, amateur radio enthusiast: A lifelong passion

October 5th, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers



Hans chasing satellites.

Following his International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) Diamond Award in August 2016 (see EngineerIT August 2016, page 6) , I chatted to Hans about his life-long interest in amateur radio – where it started, and where it is today.

Radio amateurs in the early days were in the frontier of communication and broadcasting development, and today’s radio amateurs still experiment with new technology –  youngsters today are still interested in radio because it can be integrated with modern computer technology. Hans describes the hobby as “a bug that bites and doesn’t let go until you die” – with many putting it on the back-burner for years, and most of them coming back to it eventually.

Hans is currently involved in the design and building of the CubeSat Kletskous 1 satellite; he was instrumental in the creation of a novice amateur radio licence to attract the youth to the hobby; he spent many years anchoring a programme on shortwave listening on Radio SA (shortwave service of the SABC); and since the early 1960s, Hans has produced a weekly programme on amateur radio broadcast on shortwave by Sentech and on amateur radio frequencies. A few years ago he was joined by a fellow amateur, Dawie Conradie,  and they produced the programme alternately.

Most of the listeners are amateur radio enthusiasts and topics covered in his bi-monthly programme include surveys and meetings, talks on current issues and topics, talks surrounding new technology, talks about satellites, propagation, and various international activities as well as competitions on the go.

Hans says that amateur radio is shifting into digital- and software-defined radio. But, in the beginning, it was more analogue- and hardware-defined. Hans’ interest in amateur radio became apparent when he found himself peering at a crystal radio in the shop window of a radiogram dealer at the age of ten; he then saved his pocket money and bought the set, which had a cat whisker acting as the diode, with a variable condenser to tune into the stations. Next on the list, he built a foxhole radio that consisted of a wire wound on the core of a toilet roll, an old fashioned shaving blade, a safety pin and earphones. Radio stations were received by scratching the pin on the shaving blade. Interestingly, soldiers in World War 2 used foxhole radios to tune into the BBC. Following that, Hans built a one valve radio from a kit, and soon the backyard was full of antenna wires leading to his bedroom.

Hans discovered a shortwave broadcast station on the radiogram when he was 13 and soon became a shortwave listener and sent reception reports to overseas radio stations.  These reports were used by stations to monitor how well their station was being picked up in certain countries, and Hans became an official monitor for Radio Netherlands, reporting on reception of their English, Dutch and Afrikaans programmes that were being beamed to South Africa.

Then Russia launched Sputnik 1 in October 1957. The satellite transmitted on 20 MHz, which was “just” on the edge of the 21 MHz commercial shortwave band. Though he couldn’t decode the beacon signals he picked up, Sputnik 1 prompted Hans to become an avid space follower too.

While tuning around the shortwaves, Hans picked up on radio amateurs talking, and investigated how he could become involved in amateur radio. After completing a Morse code course he became the proud owner of a call sign, ZS6AKV, in December 1958, which was the same year in which he joined the South African Radio League (SARL).

At SARL, Hans served as a councillor, president and editor of the Radio ZS magazine. He was also elected to serve two three-year terms to the IARU Region 1 as president. Hans later became the satellite adviser, coordinating frequencies for satellites, using the amateur radio frequencies for 22 years.

The space bug bit Hans again when OSCAR 1, the first amateur radio satellite, was launched on 12 December 1961. This satellite led him to be part of the team that started the amateur radio satellite association called SA AMSAT (now AMSAT SA).

Shortwave radio gave access to the world. In those days many people would tune into foreign stations to get in touch with world views and perspectives – an interest in what happened elsewhere. Many countries broadcasted in English and the reports that stations received assisted in planning their frequencies. Shortwave frequencies have to be changed seasonally as propagation is different in summer and winter, and interference has to be minimised.

Hans recently retired from his post as IARU satellite adviser, which is what prompted the IARU to award him and show appreciation for 22 years of service. Over the years the amateur satellite scene expanded considerably and the satellite adviser of the IARU appointed an advisory committee representative for each of the three IARU regions. Now that Hans is no longer an IARU region satellite adviser, he plans to devote more time to AMSAT SA and the satellite projects, and is still very passionate about writing for EngineerIT.


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