Orlando, Florida’s annual HamCation trade show is the second largest hamfest in the US and it’s an indoor-outdoor 3-day event. People from all over the world come to this to marvel at new and old technology, which is why I also attend. This year, I took 45 pound of camera gear to capture some cool stuff and show everyone what it was like. There’s a few things that caught my attention and as always, it’s like a museum of radio electronics history.
HamCation 2023 Highlights
On February 10-12, 2023, HamCation took place at the Central Florida Fair Grounds. This is one of two massive amateur radio and electronics trade shows. It’s both an indoor and outdoor event that features new commercial vendor tables as well as used swap tables. You literally never know what you’re going to find at these events, from 1900s restored antique electronics, all the way to space station communications gear. The scientists and technology guy inside my loves this kind of stuff, which is why I took a bunch of camera gear to share this experience with everyone.
My background in amateur radio started in the 1990s because I was interested in disaster volunteer service and being a storm spotter. I ended up getting my Tech license in 1994 and then studied and passed my Advanced Class amateur radio license some years later, which required me learning and passing a morse code test (interesting). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses all ham radio operators, after they pass an official test. You learn how electronics, communications, regulations, and wireless safety works. It’s a great way to get inspired as a young person and just a fun hobby to keep busy and exploring as you grow older.
These “hamfests” are a chance for ham radio operators to see new and old gear, attend conferences, network, or just hang out with friends. They are also a cool place to see what kind of new tech is on the market or get your hands on older “boat anchor” gear.
I go because I find all kinds of antique radios, like WW2 systems and the old console radios. It’s pretty awesome to think that these old heavy things were once the latest and greatest tech of their time. There’s so much history at these events.
On the other hand, I also go because I get to see some cool new technology. USB dongles (software defined radio) is a great example of smaller, faster, and cheaper. Times are tough for everyone so finding cheap ways to enjoy the hobby is especially interesting.
I’ve previously written some USB hacking/modification articles about making a cheap RTL-SDR USB dongle non-encrypted UHF trunking receiver. It was kind of complicated but very cheap. If you were tech-savvy enough to follow the instructions and spend all the time setting it up, when it works, you’ll end up with a smile on your face as soon as you hear a dispatcher or call come in to your computer. That kind of exploring is pretty cool, for sure.
Most of my career fields and hobbies are centered around science and tech so I love anything related.
Since I’m also a pilot, aviation-related tech gets my attention. One of the vendors at HamCation 2023 included ADSBexhange.com, which is a resource for unfiltered flight data. In our interview video, you can see an example of many aircraft performing flights. The ability to track flights is very important, including identification, emergency use, search and rescue, investigations, and much more.
Brian Cook (ASBBexchange.com) spoke with us at his vendor table about the small USB dongles that are available for anyone interested. It’s a simple process where you just have a cheap receiver, antenna, and some software. Tracking is a fun way to tinker with tiny tech, like Raspberry Pi mini systems. You can setup something like this with the many free guides online and some very cheap parts. USB dongles have come down in price, especially the past 10 years.
Thousands of participants help with these tracking systems. You can setup a dongle and connect it to a network to report data, which only uses a tiny portion of bandwidth. This enables enthusiasts to capture flight data from all over the world in real-time. It’s an interesting concept that has gained attention among tech enthusiasts and aviation communities.
So what is ADS-B?
Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast, or ADS-B as it’s called, gives us pilots another way to maintain safe separation, see other aircraft, and report various facts about our flight to controllers in real-time, such as GPS position, speed, altitude, and heading. Hobbyists can also receive and track this data, which is actually kind of cool. Some people will get a high power telephoto lens and attempt to take a picture of a flight 35,000 feet and then verify it using flight data.
ARISS on STEM Promotion
We spoke with Randy Berger, Director of Engineering for the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS.org) program. It’s another pretty cool way technology can inspire students into the diverse field of science and engineering.
ARISS helps students learn about science and technology through a very cool hands-on opportunity with the International Space Station (ISS). Through amateur radio equipment, astronauts participate with a scheduled contact session where students on Earth can utilize wireless ham radio equipment to ask questions, learn what it’s like to live on the space station.
Hamfests are also a place where you see unusual things. People make home-built “shacks”, including mobile communications setups. This one car I took video of was insane. There’s probably only room for a driver, since the entire car was full of radio gear and the outside of the car had several massive antennas that probably were too big to fit under any bridge or certainly in any commercial garage. This car really got a lot of attention at the trade show.
Did I tell you, there was also a UFO on a trailer aka a flying saucer at HamCation?
But this is actually no UFO, I know this was part of Skycraft Parts & Surplus’s signage. It’s a unique electronics part store in Orlando, FL, which I once visited to buy some random switches for a project – something that couldn’t be found anywhere (it seemed).
It took me 8 hours to edit all of the video I got from HamCation. Besides being a busy professor with hundreds of students, a business partner for multiple Orlando restaurants, and running a tech company, I did the best I could at the time to attend for at least a few hours and get some interviews. Unfortunately, one of my main microphone systems failed and I had to utilize a backup audio recording (not happy about that), but at least we got some awesome video highlights.
Thanks to everyone that talked with us at HamCation. If you’re ever in town in Orlando in early February, and you like unique tech stuff, check out the hamfest. They have an official website with all of the information you need to attend — 2024 is already up now!