Experiment: FT8 remotely on Chromebook

Screenshot from Lenovo Chromebook showing FT8 running on a remote controlled W10 PC.

Screenshot from Lenovo Chromebook showing FT8 running on a remote controlled W10 PC.

I have a station that I use pretty much “locally” – by actually sitting at the operating position in the ham shack.  It’s a deceptively simple-looking setup; just the control head of an ICOM IC-706M2G mounted to the edge of the side desk at a convenient angle.  There is an automatic antenna tuner, an LDG IT-100,on the desk.  The rest of the radio(s), all the cabling, the rig control computers, and other supporting hardware are behind the wall in my server room, leaving the shack looking pretty clean and clear.  The antenna fed by the IC-706M2G is out in what we call “the outback”, the back part of our big backyard.  It’s an “enhanced” Butternut HF9V vertical antenna, ground-mounted with lots of radials and underground hard line coaxial cable. It is “enhanced” by the addition of quarter wave wires fed in parallel from the vertical’s base – for 160 & 80 meter resonance.

Recently I acquired a new rig control cable and set the station up to run digital modes, PSK with the HRD Digital Master program and FT8 with WSJT-X on my shack computer, a Windows 10 gaming PC.  The logical next step was to see if I could run that PC (and thus the ham radio programs) remotely with a Chromebook.  I chose “Splashtop” as the remote desktop app, but could have also used the free Chrome Remote Desktop feature already available on my Lenovo Chromebook.  There is no need to port audio remotely, so that feature should be disabled.

It works!  You can operate digital modes, even FT8, remotely.  Operating modes that require precise timing – FT8, I’m talking about you – is simply not possible if you separate the radio and the software from each other and then try to connect them via the internet.  This is because latency in even the most solid internet connections over the most favorable paths introduces unacceptable delays in communication between the software and the radio.

The way around this is to keep the radio and the rig control PC together in one place, making the connection between the two by local hardware only.  With the timing problem thus solved, you then operate the rig control PC remotely with some kind of remote desktop software.  Yes, there is latency between the remote station’s control PC and your Chromebook (or other device), but that kind of latency doesn’t really matter as it does not affect what is actually happening between the radio and the rig control computer back in the ham shack.

The down side?  Well, this kind of remote HF operation is necessarily for your private use of your own station rather than for a public station.  Think about it – You set up software like WSJT with your callsign, grid square, and so on.  You wouldn’t want to have other users operating with your call!  And even worse, think about the hassle of allowing other users to control your shack PC.  They might wander out of the ham radio software and go through your documents and email, or see what they can find on your network.  No thanks to that; it’s a huge security risk.

A possible way around the security issue might be to set up a station and single-purpose digital modes rig control computer with a club callsign, sandboxed from the rest of the network and with club members getting logon credentials with no admin privileges.

Whatever you do, try to stay on the air – remoting your station can help you do just that!

HF9V vertical antenna in the winter

HF9V vertical antenna in the winter

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