#HamRadio: When all else fails! National MakerFaire 2016 After Action Report

Post date: Jun 23, 2016 1:21:46 AM

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The MakerFaire team was enthusiastic and welcoming toward the ham radio emergency communications concept—we need to be tightly coupled with them going forward (MOU?)
  • MakerFaires are all about interaction, so the straight key and code practice oscillator (with the visual code graphic) were a great hit with kids and parents a like
  • Hams need to coordinate with MakerFaire team about location of ham gear and requirements


  • Jesse Alexander, WB2IFS/3
  • Jim Wallace, N3ADF
  • Caryl Henry Alexander (My Bride)
  • Kayla Wallace (Jim Wallace's grand daughter)


I received a call for makers announcement about a month ago through facebook.com and thought it would be cool to repackage the demonstration that I normally do for National Night Out at the 5th District Police station so I pitched “#Hamradio: When All Else Fails” and the MakerFaire team accepted. (I used the hashtag #Hamradio to indicate the marriage of an “old” hobby with new concepts that the Maker movement embodies.)

After my application was accepted I took to social and “ham” media to get the word out about about our exhibit and to provide updates to attendees and supporters:

    • I used the Prince George's County ARES/RACES email reflector to call for assistance, and I got positive responses from hams members of CERT as well as the ARES/RACES people.
  • I used Facebook and twitter via @scipoet (personal) with @wb2ifs and @pgcares retweeting to connect with hams, makers, and other interested people. The hashtags I used were: #MakerFaire, #NationalMakerFaire, #hamradio, #emcomm.
  • I reached out to hams on the #amateurradio channel at work via slack and decided to select an Echolink.org capable repeater K3GMR because some of my workmates expressed an interest connecting via the Internet. (I wanted to also use the NIH machine K3YGG but didn't get permission.)
  • I decided to request a special event station call sign because so that there was one call for the station. I was able to get “Whiskey Three Makey” from the Laurel Amateur Radio Society's registration system via the ARRL website. (By the way, “Makey” is the name of the big red robot mascot.)
  • At the end of the fair, I followed up with everyone that signed our guest book and I sent the hams an “eyeball QSL” card via email and twitter

Station setup and gear

I used the following equipment to address the capabilities I listed in my application:

  • My HSMM-MESH demonstration included the following:
    • 2 nodes (one integrated with the Raspberry PI)
    • Raspberry PI server and GPS receiver
    • power supplies and PoE adapter
    • 2 laptops (running xubuntu Linux, one for mesh operations and the other for CW practice [I didn't use it after all. The kids liked the straight key and code practice oscillator combo best.])
    • a computer monitor to display mesh status on a larger screen
  • Jim “Bowie” N3ADF provided the following:
    • 4 battery-operated mesh nodes
    • laptop computer
    • 2.5 GHz Ubiquiti Networks Bullet attached to a 15 dBi omni Wi-Fi antenna
    • A Windows 10 phone to serve as a wireless camera
  • ARES/RACES shelter kit #1:
    • Kenwood TM-D710 VHF/UHF Mobile
    • IC7000 HF/VHF/UHF transceiver
    • LDG IT-100 Automatch
    • Power supply

  • Additional equipment I supplied:
    • 75 Watt Solar panel
      • Deep cycle 35AH Battery with SunSaver SS-10-12VDC charge controller
    • MFJ-1621 Portable HF Antenna


  • I was told by members of the MakerFaire team that we won “best in show” and editors choice awards because:
    • We treated the support staff with respect
      • The staff is aware of ham radio emergency use and we benefited from the good work that other amateur clubs and teams have done at other MakerFaires. One editor mentioned that hams at the San Francisco Bay Area MakerFaire (the first and largest fair) did an antenna project to support radio amateurs providing emergency communications during recovery from the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal (see Amateur Radio Buffs’ Quest to Connect Quake-Ravaged Nepal).
      • We were the first ham related exhibit at the National MakerFaire! (This was the second annual event.)
      • Our exhibit was practical and relevant to visitor's lives

  • Many hams and children of hams stopped by our table at the National MakerFaire. We had a chance to meet and ragchew with:
    • Engineering students from UDC and colleges from around the country
    • The management team of Adafruit Industries—the company that provides DIY components for the maker movement
    • K-12 educators, librarians, and professors at Universities from around the country
    • OMs with military radio experience
    • Two ham couples and families
    • An 11 year old general class ham working on his extra license!
  • Operating under the overhang of the Engineering building was challenging
    • Jim noticed considerable QRM that overloaded the IC7000's receiver on the 40 and 20 meter HF bands
    • The vertical MFJ whip was not well suited for the location and it would have been better to choose a wire HF antenna that would provide better performance and be out of the reach of attendees. I would have been good to have done a “site survey” with HF gear before the event.
    • I did a VHF/UHF “site survey” of the UDC location the previous weekend and determined that I could reach both K3GMR and K3YGG (from Starbucks near the Metrostation) with a 5-watt HT. Once at our assigned position, it was difficult to hit either machine under the overhang; however, placing the DBJ-1 J-pole on the bridge between buildings and getting it up about 10' worked well.
  • Setup/tear down was challenging because the campus is open and we did not have secure containers for our equipment. It was challenging to have to setup and tear down both days because of our concern about securing the equipment.
  • The HSMM-MESH worked well; we had of 6 nodes up and running.
    • Jim's battery-operated remote nodes worked well during the entire fair!
    • The Raspberry PI server did well but it took a few minutes for the Adafruit GPS receiver to synchronize because of possible QRM from the engineering building and the overhang blocking LOS to the "birds"
  • In line with the Faire's “zero waste” policy, I created QRcodes for most of the websites of served agencies thinking that attendees would scan them instead of creating waste with paper brochures.
    • I only noticed a few people scanning the codes and many people grabbed brochures! The handouts from FEMA and the ARRL were particularly popular. (One attendee asked why FEMA was not at the Faire given that other government agencies were present [NIST, DoD, NASA, etc.])
    • I created codes that would “automagically” generate tweets with custom hashtags so that I could track the responses later and follow up via twitter and facebook.
    • I asked people to sign our guest book but some of the handwriting was difficult to “copy”. Fortunately, Jim brought some of his PGARES/RACES business cards.
  • Because of the noise of the crowd it was hard to operate the radios! We made one or two contacts via K3GMR (including one possible station via Echolink.org) and none on HF because of the QRM.


Here are some of my recommendations for deepening our relationship with MakerFaires that occur in this area and nationwide:

  • Hams must be involved in each MakerFaire.
  • Every MakerFaire should have a talk-in frequency like hamfests do
  • ARES/RACES should be integrated into the MakerFaires' health and welfare system
  • Given the overwhelmingly positive response, served agencies should make a effort to participate in MakerFaire.
    • NWS should give SKYWARN certification classes at the Fairs, Red Cross and FEMA should consider “drop and roll” classes for toddlers and Teen CERT trainings.
    • The Red Cross could be at the medical tent for example.
    • ARES could be giving emergency communications seminars to families.
  • To ease set up and tear down:
      • Bring your own 4-wheeled cart for easy, single-step on- and off-loading
    • Do reconnaissance of the site for the booth before off-loading.
    • Although there were security guards, UDC's campus is open so it's best to pack like you may have to set up and tear down each day
      • It's probably best to request an open area in a field if possible so that the antennas can be placed up and away from patrons and so that solar operation is possible.
  • While we're on the subject of operations—you will need at least 3 people to run the booth:
    • Someone to answer questions/interact with kids and parents
    • Someone (with headphones) to work the radios
    • A third person as backup for so that the other people can take breaks and possibly meet other makers at the fair
  • Bring business cards (in addition to a notepad that can serve as a guest book) so that visitors can follow up.
  • Include a Morse code interactive part of the show. Kids really like practicing their names in CW using a key and Code Practice Oscillator (CPO), and you don't need to be a former Army signal corp operator—10 WPM is fine. The learn Morse Code graphical aid worked well!
  • MakerFaire's time frame should be organized so that Makers can walk around and network before the event is open to the public.


I would like to thank the following people who made #Hamradio: When all else fails possible:

  • Jim “Bowie” Wallace, N3ADF for volunteering to help!
  • EC Jim Montgomery, WB3KAS and RO Ken Greenhouse, KB3IIE for scrounging brochures and equipment for the shelter kit!
  • The Green Mountain Repeater Association board for permission to use K3GMR!
  • The Laurel Amateur Radio Club Special Event Call Registry for the use of W3M
  • And of course the The MakerFaire Team who welcomed us with open arms and lots of logistical support. We REALLY must do this again sometimes!
  • My Bride Caryl for her support and love!