Young, international radio amateurs gather in South Africa

August 21st, 2018, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EngineerIT

From around the world, 70 young and budding radio amateurs recently gathered in South Africa for a week-long Youngsters On The Air (YOTA) technology immersion event from 8 to 15 August 2018. While South Africa may be at the southern tip of the African continent, for that week it was viewed as the the centre of the world when it comes to technology.

YOTA brings together young radio amateurs and aspirant radio amateurs who have a passion for radio and technology and are keen to learn new skills, discuss and share ideas about amateur radio, and work on its future. The event was held in conjunction with region one (Africa, Europe and parts of the Middle East) of the International Amateur Radio Union and was hosted by the South African Radio League (SARL).

This was the first time that the event was hosted outside Europe, and it was attended by a large contingent from African countries where amateur radio is very much an emerging concept. Amateur radio has been recognised as an ideal motivator for young persons to consider careers in electronics and communication. It is significant that countries with the largest electronic industries also have the largest number of radio amateurs. Currently South Africa has more licensed radio amateurs than the rest of Africa combined.

Training opportunities presented

At the week-long event, the SARL went out of its way to also present a course to qualify aspirant radio amateurs and arranged an examination which, if passed, is rewarded with a Harmonised Amateur Radio Examination Certificate (HAREC). HAREC is recognised in many parts of the world and enables the holder to apply for an amateur radio license in his or her country. “We achieved over 80% pass rate,” said Nico van Rensburg, SARL president, when he presented the certificates during the farewell evening at which the young visitors were treated to a drumming event and a typical South African braai.

Another new concept incorporated in YOTA 2018 is a “Train the Trainer” programme aimed at equipping the delegates to start similar but smaller events in their own country. “The youth is the future of amateur radio so what better way then equipping young people to share their knowledge and experiences with their peers”, van Rensburg said.

Fig. 1: A bit of cellphone light helps when inserting a small component

Learning new skills

Day one of YOTA started with presentations about software-defined radio and how to fire up the software to receive and decode radio signals. Delegates also built a crossed Yagi antenna for 435 and 144 MHz. That night, with newly constructed antennas and dongles plugged into their laptops, they were scanning the skies to track amateur satellites contacting other radio amateurs.

Another big challenge was the near space experience which involved building 5 BACARSats, small CubeSats that included various sensors to monitor environmental conditions in near space. It was a touching time when the five teams had to perform a shake and drop test. After hitting the ground from about 3 m, would the pilot light still be on, indicating that the BACARSat is still operating?

At 4h00 on day four, delegates they set off to Secunda where the 5 BACARSats were sent up on a high-altitude balloon into near space. After two hours of flight under control of a ground station, the BACARSats were detached from the balloon and descended on a parachute. After recovery, the teams set off analysing the recorded data and prepared PowerPoint presentations to share their results with their peers and mentors.

Another technology challenge was the construction of a complex 7 MHz single side band (SSB) transceiver, a design that matches the specification of many commercial transceivers. The construction was a daunting task and required good reading skills, following detailed instructions and a good grasp of how to solder small electronic components. The kit was designed by Hans Summers of QRP Labs, and was released for the first time at YOTA in South Africa. For some of participants it was the first time that they held a soldering iron. “As the construction of this transceiver is complex and required some experience, we also arranged a number of easier to construct projects to give newcomers a hands-on experience which will allow them to progress to the next step”, van Rensburg said.

Fig. 2: Enkosi Madlingozi (ZU2LEN), a 16-year-old young radio amateur from the Eastern Cape, who obtained her novice amateur radio license earlier this year, wrote the Class A exam at YOTA 2018 and passed. She will now be able to upgrade to a full ZS2 licence.

A cultural experience

One of the other features of YOTA was an intercultural evening where participants shared interesting aspects of their culture. They also learned about the preservation of wildlife, were treated to a cheetah experience, and visited a game park where they met face-to-face with the big five. Delegates also visited a printed circuit board manufacturer (BOSCO) and a technology company (GEW).

“We gained a lot of experience during the week and are now working on arranging smaller three-day events for South Africans and youth from surrounding countries”, van Rensburg said. “We have three events in the planning stage. The seven South Africans who attended this year’s YOTA have gained much experience and will be a great asset in helping us to engage more young people. Unfortunately, events like this are expensive and require sponsorships which are difficult to secure. I would like to thank all our sponsors who made YOTA 2018 possible”.

How did YOTA 2018 in South Africa compare with previous events? When asked the question, the chorus responded: “we are blown away!”

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