An updated AIS system

Back in March I blogged about my AIS system, in particular about the LNA4ALL and how it coped with the low signal reception of my homemade antenna.

Things went really well until one day the reception dropped out completely.

A quick test of the system showed that something had gone wrong with one of the pieces of equipment though at the time I was unsure whether it was the antenna, the LNA or the NASA Engine AIS decoder.

As I was due to go away for a short while I decided to tell all the relevant websites that I feed (IHS AISLive, MarineTraffic and VesselFinder) that my system would be offline until further notice due to a technical fault, and that as soon as I’d worked out the issue that I’d get it fixed and back online.

The guys at MarineTraffic were very quick in getting in contact with me and offered to help with a new decoder as long as I didn’t mind being a beta tester for the equipment and some of their new software. I was very happy to agree to their offer.

The decoder they organised for me was a new Comar Systems SLR350ni Intelligent AIS Decoder and it arrived with me about ten days after I agreed to their offer.

The main thing that really appealed to me about this decoder was the fact that it links directly to your home network either by WiFi or hardwired using RJ45 Ethernet cable. This meant that I could install the decoder remotely, nearer to the antenna and out of my radio shack, but have full control of it from my main PC. The decoder itself is interfaced to a Raspberry Pi™ 3 computer, comes with aforementioned WiFi and Ethernet connectivity, 4 USB ports and an HDMI connector for a monitor display. It can be used in any AIS setup and is a dual channelled parallel receiver.

Installation was simple. Within 15 minutes the decoder was connected to my home-made antenna and we were receiving data – and at a much faster rate than the NASA due to the dual channel capability.

The MarineTraffic part of the agreement included some new software that they are testing, which includes the capability of sending received raw AIS data to five feeds such as AISLive. Any of these decoders obtained using MarineTraffic come with their host settings hardwired in so any data received through it is automatically sent to them – you don’t have to do anything to send data to MarineTraffic, just attach an antenna, connect it to your network and switch it on – that’s it.

In the new software there is a page where you can add other host iP addresses and port details. Doing this means a couple of things:

1 – You no longer need to use other software such as ShipPlotter or Neal Arundale’s NmeaRouter/AisDecoder software to forward on the data.
2 – You don’t actually need a PC connected directly to the Comar decoder.

The second point is interesting as it means you no longer need to have a PC running 24/7 to feed any of the AIS data to whichever sites you want. This is a bonus if you currently switch off your computers when you go on holiday or are away from home for a while. It still means you can provide the data whilst you are away.

Personally I have the following set up:
MarineTraffic (hardwired)
AISLive (iP host)
VesselFinder (iP host)
ShipPlotter (internal network address)
AIS Decoder (internal network address)

Using the ShipPlotter software still means I can get a better picture of what I am receiving, range of reception etc.; whilst using the AIS Decoder software means I can look at any of the messages sent in greater detail.

I have to say that I am very impressed so far, and highly recommend the Comar decoder. It is available from numerous online shops, but if you are going to feed MarineTraffic you may as well get it from their site, currently priced at €379.00. Doing this means it already comes pre-programmed to send to MarineTraffic.

A new antenna too

I had gotten round to testing all the equipment to see what the cause of the original loss of reception was and it turned out to be the LNA4ALL. This was a shame as I had new objectives for the LNA with regards to the reception of weather satellites so it means I’ll have to get a new one. Luckily I don’t need to replace the whole thing, just the circuit board, so it will be much cheaper – but a pain none the less, especially if I have the same issues with UK Customs that I had previously. The likely cause of the failure was an Electrostatic Discharge of some sort or other. There had been some Lightning storms nearby over the previous days and it could well have been this that had done it – strange though as my equipment is very well protected from this happening. The area I live in is prone to power surges and power cuts – the joys of living in a remote area in Scotland, still backwards in many things the rest of the UK take for granted.

With the loss of the LNA, this drastically reduced the range of my home-made antenna and so I decided it was time to buy a new one. I’d toyed with building a better one but in the end I just couldn’t be bothered and so I went for a Metz AIS antenna, bought from the Salty John website. Great service from them meant it arrived within 48 hours and so when it came to installing the Comar decoder I also rigged up the antenna in the loft space next to my home-made one at the same time.

If I have one complaint about the Metz, it’s that it doesn’t come with any form of protection for the co-ax connection area. This is especially strange as it is designed specifically for boats and would therefore be exposed to wet/salty conditions all the time. Add to that that the threaded area is over an inch long, much longer than what you would get with a UHF connector, this makes it a weak area for the lifetime of the antenna. If you were to install it outside (which is the general recommendation for AIS reception) then you would need to cover it in self-amalgamating tape and check it regularly to ensure it is still working. Not perfect if you need to climb up on the roof of your property.

One other option would be to use the tightening nuts supplied to fix some plastic or aluminium tubing around the connection, but again this is some extra hassle which could have been remedied by Metz themselves.

As it is, I seem to be getting great coverage from the Metz from it’s position in the loft, though I may still add a LNA4ALL to boost it even more.

With the antennas side by side I was able to run some quick comparisons between the two. The images below show the Spectrum analysis using my Rigol gear.

From the images you can see that with my messing around of the home-made antenna I had over trimmed it to be tuned to 180MHz rather than the required 162MHz. At 162MHz it measured in at 9.3dB which wasn’t even worth calculating the VSWR, whilst at 180MHz its VSWR was 1.23:1

In comparison the Metz antenna, which is a half-wave whip antenna, came in nicely at 83.6MHz with a measurement of 30.15dB/VSWR 1.07:1. Metz communications specify less than 1.2:1 VSWR so this is spot on.

With the new set up things have definitely improved. I also ran a quick test using AISDecoder to see how many messages the two antennas fed to the Comar, be it in a very basic manner of waiting till there was some ships being picked up, running the software with one antenna for a minute, noting how many messages were received and then swapping to the other antenna for the same length of time. In theory it is a reasonable test as the ships won’t have travelled far in that time, but not 100% perfect. Regardless, the Metz was able to pick up 19 messages in its minute test, whilst my home-made antenna only managed three! The test was carried out in less than five minutes.

In conclusion, whilst it has been a pain to lose the LNA4ALL, it has turned out better in the end for my AIS station. Statistically my data feed has improved no end for AISLive and MarineTraffic; and having gone away twice now since installation I have still been able to provide 24/7 coverage where I would normally have switched the whole system off.

Area coverage provided to MarineTraffic since the new installation. Fitting a LNA4ALL in the future should make this even better.

ShipPlotter example with the new installation. The bold plots are being received by my station and show 4673 messages received by 1032z. The image below shows the same but at 1753z and a message number of 28135. This averages out at about 52 messages a minute, though it was a busy time with lots of fishing boats in the area.

NOTES:

Following a couple of questions regarding the Comar decoder I’d like to add that it doesn’t have to be connected to the Internet or a Network to work. It can be used “locally” using the USB connections direct to a PC.

Also, you do not NEED to feed MarineTraffic if you don’t want to. If you don’t want to do this then buy a unit from another supplier which won’t have the files installed.

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Full analysis of the sinking of Liman

With it being a month this weekend since the Russian navy Moma-class AGI Liman was hit by another ship resulting in its sinking in the Black Sea, I thought I’d publish my full analysis on the incident.

Originally this work was created for Jane’s Intelligence Review, but due to space limitations in the magazine, it was condensed into a half page report. This blog includes all the imagery and extra text that was left out, but also some further analysis that I’ve been able to do in the mean-time. Because of this, I must state that the analysis published here has nothing to do with any IHS publication, and that any views (unless otherwise stated) are all my own.

Liman, taken in November 2015 by Yörük Işık

A brief account of what happened

On the morning of Thursday 27th April 2017, at approximately 0830z, reports on social network starting coming in that Moma-class Intelligence gathering ship Liman of the Russian navy had collided with a livestock ship in the Black Sea at a position approximately 30nm to the North of the entrance of the Bosporus Strait. There was thick fog in the area at the time of the incident.

Early information from the Russian Defence Ministry stated that Liman had collided with a ship named Ashot-7 but a search through ship registries quickly showed that this ship did not exist. From AIS analysis however, a ship identified as Youzar Sif.H had departed the port of Midia in Romania for Aqaba in Jordon at approximately 1645z on the 26th April heading for the entrance of the Bosporus Strait. The ship was carrying livestock, reportedly sheep. From the AIS data it was noted that Youzar Sif.H was cruising at a speed of 11 knots for most of the journey across the Black Sea until at 0845z on the 27th April the ship came to a sudden stop. It is here that the two ships collided.

Liman was operating without any form of AIS at the time, despite being in thick fog – it is likely not to have had the system installed. To this date, the Russian Defence Ministry, has not reported what tasks Liman was carrying out but it is known that it wasn’t due to pass through the Bosporus Strait.

The collision holed Liman below the waterline which led the ship to starting to sink. Though most of the [up to] 85 crew members evacuated, it is known that some remained on board to, in the words of the Russian Defence Ministry, [remove] all special equipment, documentation, weapons and ammunition. [The] ship’s crew were evacuated to life-saving appliances, and then safely transported to the base of the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea.

Almost immediately following the reports of the incident, new Project 22870 Ocean-going Rescue Tug SB-739 was sent to the scene from the Black sea navy base in Sevastopol. SB-739 does carry AIS equipment and analysis of this shows that the ship departed at approximately 1030z on the 27th, arriving 20 hours later. SB-739 carries the latest ROV to be deployed to the Russian navy, the Marlin-350 made by Tetis-Pro. This ROV can operate up to depths of 350 metres, with charts of the incident area showing depths of between 50 and 100 metres.

It was noted at the time of the incident that a Russian flagged Civilian Survey ship Хезер Си (Heather Sea) had commenced operations approximately 20nm to the NW of the collision site. The final position where Liman supposedly sank has been reported on social media at 41.50N 28.95E, the area where Heather Sea was operating, but this is a long way for the Liman to have drifted prior to sinking. A good friend of mine intercepted a navigational warning sent out by the Turkish authorities on Navigational Telex (NAVTEX) stating the final sinking position as 41.30 24 N 028.57E and it is here that SB-739 positioned itself on arrival.

Youzar Sif.H rescued some of the Liman crew members, and it is believed that another Russian flagged cargo ship, Ulus Star, also took part in rescuing crew as AIS analysis shows the ship deviating from its course to the incident area, before continuing on through the Bosporus later on in the day. At one stage it rendezvoused with both Youzar Sif.H and a Turkish government tug, Kutarma-3, which was one of the Turkish SAR ships sent to the area.

AIS data combined into one image
1 – Youzar Sif.H cruising at 11kts at 0813 UTC 27 Apr 2017
2 – Youzar Sif.H technical stop/malfunction at 1854z having started to return to Midia
3 – SB-123 arrives at the incident site at 0615 UTC 28 Apr 2017
4 – Heather Sea stays on task throughout incident

Youzar Sif.H returned to Midia, whilst SB-739 remained on site. Another Russian research vessel, Project 11982 AGOR Seliger, broadcasting as a “Law Enforcement” vessel on AIS, joined SB-739 at the area where Liman sank on the 1st of May . Seliger carries a submersible vehicle which was used to examine the wreck of Liman. Further reports of two other ships arriving around the 10/11th of May were given. These were KIL-158, a Kashtan-class buoy tender that has lifting equipment capable to take weights of up to 130 tonnes and Epron, a Prut-class rescue tug which is used for diver operations.

With the arrival of KIL-158 and Epron, it is highly likely that the Russian reports that all equipment was evacuated before the sinking were false and that these ships were here to recover those items still left on board. In particular, recent images of Liman show it with a large SATCOM dome towards the stern. This will almost certainly have contained a dish used for a SATCOM system given a NATO codename “Punch Bowl”. This communicates with store and dump type satellites such as Strela, Raduga and Rodnik. Information is collated and stored within the system and transmitted when a satellite passes within range. The satellite stores the information and “dumps” the data once in range of an appropriate ground-station. It would not have been possible to remove this system from the deck quickly and it is likely it went down with the ship.

With the final result of this incident being a lost ship, luckily with no loss of life , it highlights why the requirement of AIS on all shipping, even military, should be mandatory, especially in areas of high intensity traffic such as the Bosporus Strait.

What happened next….

There quickly followed a media frenzy of accusations and denials.

Russian media accused the Turkish government of sending divers to the wreck within an hour of Liman sinking and stealing all the equipment left on board – this is despite publishing on the same day how all the equipment had been recovered by the heroic crew of Liman. It is totally unlikely that the Turks had managed such a feat. Apart from the fact that it is dangerous to be diving on a wreck that soon after it has sunk, as shown by the ships needed by the Russians to do the actual task of recovery, the Turks sent nothing of the sort to the area. In fact, they did a great job of assisting a ship in distress.

Close-up of Youzar Sif.H’s track following the collision. The grey ship is Kutarma-3, which stayed to assist the sinking Liman.

The Russians then accused the crew of Youzar Sif.H of operating their ship dangerously in conditions that were unsuitable for a speed of 11 knots, including suggestions that the crew were drunk. Of course, they said nothing of the fact that their own ship was operating clandestinely (be it in open sea and legally) without the safety net of AIS equipment. The Russian navy is currently trying to sue the operating company of Youzar Sif.H for the loss of Liman.

Also of note was an interesting statement by Captain Vladimir Tryapichnikov, the head of naval shipbuilding, at the recent launch of the second Project 18280 AGI Ivan Khurs on May 16th. He alluded to the fact that Ivan Khurs would replace Liman in the Black Sea fleet, and that there would be a further two ships of the class built. His actual words were:
Let’s give the fleet the second ship, and then talk about the next two. Defence plans indicate that the Navy will receive them before 2025

This is almost likely to be false – on both counts. There has never been four ships planned and the replacement of Liman with Ivan Khurs would be a ridiculous waste of money. The Russian navy has a terrible funding problem, with not even enough projected funds available to build new Destroyers they have planned. They are also desperate for a new Aircraft carrier, but funding makes this highly unlikely; and they are seemingly already having problems funding the refit of Kuznetsov(orel)-class Aircraft Carrier Admiral Kuznetsov which is about to begin. With this in mind, and other on-going funding problems with frontline ships and submarines, it is very unlikely they will put aside any cash for two more AGI’s.

Further more, the Project 18280 AGI’s are not designed for operations in areas such as the Black Sea, but more for in areas further from Russian shores such as off the East coast of the USA – for example, those tasks carried out by Project 864 Vishnya-class AGI Viktor Leonov which is often operating near to Cape Canaveral and the USN Naval Submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia. If Liman were to be replaced by anything it is more likely to be by one of the remaining Project 861 Moma-class AGS Survey/Research ships that the AGI versions were converted from. This makes even more sense if equipment was rescued before the ship sank as it would be an easy fit. My analysis of Liman makes me think it wasn’t a fully converted AGI as it still retained the crane on the forward deck, which other AGI’s had removed and that the AGS’s retain. This to me shows that not much structural work would be needed to get a quick replacement available – and at not much cost.

Liman, taken again by Yörük Işık, but this time in October 2016. Now the ship has the “Punch Bowl” SATCOM dome at the stern.

The statement by Tryapichnikov was more than likely a face saving one following the sinking of Liman and I totally expect Ivan Khurs to eventually end up with the Pacific fleet as planned. It may, however, first make a trip to the Black sea/Mediterranean to prove some sort of point.

Ironically, exactly one month later, Youzar Sif.H anchored to North West of the Bosporus awaiting its turn to transit through, having left Midia on the 26th May. It did so on the 28th, it’s destination this time is Misrata.

Whilst then, the dust has settled on the actual incident itself, it did highlight some other points.

Social media and its self-professed experts

Now, we all kind of love Social media and the internet – we do, there’s no denying it. After all, I wouldn’t be here doing this, I wouldn’t have access to endless amounts of information, data and history at the click of a button. But, what I ALWAYS do is check, check and check my facts.

I know my stuff, but am I an expert? No, I would say I’m not. It would be a dishonour saying I am to those that are actually experts. For instance, despite being quoted as a Jane’s Fighting Ships correspondent in IHS publications, I still quite often ask for advice from the yearbooks editor. He is after all an ex Commander of Royal navy ships, NATO and the MOD – totalling over 30 years in the Royal navy. I’m, in reality, an Air Traffic Controller that has a high interest in the Russian navy because of my “hobby” of monitoring their ship HF frequencies. One thing, has effectively led to another.

What this incident has very much highlighted is just how quickly false information is put out to the World without any actual analysis before doing so.

Take the operations of Heather Sea. Many social media “experts” stated that Heather Sea was sent to the aid of Liman when in fact, from simple analysis of AIS information, it was obvious that the ship had departed Varna in Bulgaria at approximately 2030z on the 26th April – some 12 hours before the collision reportedly took place! Very clever of the Russians to know that the collision was going to happen and send a ship there, ready for it to take place! Moreover, Heather Sea remained on its task site for over a week, 20 to 30nm from the position of the collision – having arrived there at 1500z on 27th April, some 8 hours after the reports of the collision started to filter through. It is fitted with modern ROV’s and so would have been ideal to carry out rescue/recovery, but it didn’t. It had nothing to do with the rescue of the Liman and the “experts” had given out incorrect data and positions.

Other experts suggested, even betted, that the arrival of KIL-158 and Epron was so that Liman could be raised from the sea bed and taken back to base. This just shows sheer stupidity rather than any knowledge.

Epron taken by Yörük Işık

And then there are the “There is something highly suspicious about this incident” people of social media. They deny it, but they are similar to conspiracy theorists. And I say this because unless they carry out full analysis on what happened and look into every possibility, what they are stating as fact, is actually incomplete and cannot be relied upon. Their ignorance and stubbornness of just basic principles again shows them as being a theorist – and yet, they say they are an “expert” even when they are shown strong evidence that shows their thoughts as being wrong. Even worse is the fact that some get a social-media following that believes everything they say and that they are an expert – this leads them to believe even more so that what they are saying is correct, when it isn’t.

One ridiculous suggestion was that Liman was jamming the AIS frequencies with its operations. Firstly, why would it have only hampered Youzar Sif.H, as every other ship in the area at the time was perfectly ok; and secondly, it would be a very clever ship to be able to carry on its frequency jamming from the depths of the Black Sea as other ships, including Youzar Sif.H on its revisit this weekend, have been lost from AIS receivers – as shown later on.

Let’s get back to Liman then, and the events leading up to the collision.

There are people out there that have stated that Youzar Sif.H had drifted off-course or wasn’t on the standard route and had even switched off their AIS equipment to hide this. Firstly, there isn’t a set course for getting from Midia to the Bosporus – the ships can get there in whatever route they want to. The fact is though, that they are on a schedule and want to get there the quickest and cheapest way possible and so they will go direct.

The social media experts have concluded that Youzar Sif.H was off-course because they ran a quick look at the traffic density data available on MarineTraffic. Now this data is all well and good, but it has it’s faults. The main one is that the data is basic. It draws a line from one point to another, taken from position reports from AIS data – and if the there’s a gap of 100nm it will draw a line still between these points. In areas of no AIS receiver coverage these lines will still be drawn, but there’s no proof that the ship actually travelled this course. The same principle occurs with all other basic online AIS software providers, including AISLive provided by IHSMarkit.

Youzar Sif.H was tracked pretty well after departure and did deviate from the route shown on the traffic density maps, but only just. A few hours before the collision took place Youzar Sif.H was no longer tracked by any MarineTraffic or AISLive feed, until at 0813UTC when it appeared again. Not long after, the collision took place.

Because the ship was tracked fully after the collision it has been alluded to by some that the AIS system on Youzar Sif.H was switched off for a while, and was only put on again just before the collision. Now why would a ship carrying sheep do such a thing, especially in dangerous conditions such as fog? The ship had nothing to hide, and the likelihood of switching off the one thing that would help them from hitting another ship in such conditions is certainly unlikely. AIS is only useful if all ships carry it, and here Liman didn’t. No doubt there would have been a basic primary return on the radar of Youzar Sif.H but it may well have been too late by then. The cause was that Liman was operating in fog with no anti-collision system in place. To further add to the conspiracy theory, Youzar Sif.H was able to be tracked most of the way back to Midia.

Youzar Sif.H transiting the Bosporus on the 28th May 2017 taken by Alper Boler

I go back again to me saying that I’m not an expert, but I’ve listened to radio since I was around 13, especially Air Traffic Control. This led to my 28 year career in the RAF and Civil ATC. From this I’ve learnt about how radio waves travel. But am I an expert in this principle? No, I’m not. There are guys and girls out there that know a hell of a lot more about it than I do. Here’s the thing though. I know the basic principles.

A very basic and simple fact is that Very High Frequency (VHF) radio transmissions travel with a line of sight principle called the Radio Horizon. In other words, two antennas need to be “in sight” of each other to receive that which the other is sending. No, you don’t actually have to see the other one, but in theory you need to be able to – in most cases. There are other principles and phenomenon such as VHF Tropospheric Ducting which allows for radio waves to travel hundreds of miles, but even then they can skip the hundred miles in-between leaving a null zone.

Take ATC again. The higher an aircraft is, the more likely it is to receive a signal from the ground as the “line of sight” is better, though it does also rely on the power of the transmitter. The curvature of the Earth can stop this and does. As an example, at work we have difficulties sometimes with USAF C-130 Hercules aircraft that are operating at the furthest range of one of our transmitters when they are cruising at FL230/FL240 – the Earths curvature, along with where the antenna is placed on the airframe gets in the way. Two or three thousand feet higher and they would receive us. If flying towards the transmitter then this isn’t a problem as the aircraft will come over the horizon and within “sight” of the transmitter, but going away means that sometimes a relay is required from another aircraft.

The same goes for things such as Mode-S receivers widely available for tracking aircraft. They only have an optimal range before the amateur can no longer pick up traffic – actually, this applies to physical radars too hence why many countries have a large amount of them to cover the whole country, and further. Stick a mountain, or even just a small hill somewhere and the reception range will be reduced for aircraft “below the horizon”. There’s a reason why military aircraft fly at lowlevel.

A great page for showing the principle of VHF reception is on Neal Arundale’s AIS page where it has a graph showing the principle.

My Mode-S antenna is on the roof of the house and I get a range of about 250 miles for aircraft that are at a high altitude. Out to the east of me, less than a mile away, is a hill of around 300ft which means I tend to lose aircraft descending into Edinburgh for instance when they go through around 15000ft – yet 200 miles away I’m picking up traffic over the North Sea.

My AIS antenna is lower than this. And it is in the loft. I have great reception to the North/Northwest, yet to the Southwest it is dead for me. Why? Well, because the signal from any ships has to not only pass through three houses, it also has to get through the three foot thick, sandstone walls of the house. The signal is wiped out.

My AIS coverage taken from MarineTraffic. Very strong to the North, but poor to the SW

Add to that that I am only a few metres above sea level and it makes my Radio Horizon not very good. You see, taking into consideration Neals data, I quite often struggle to get a small fishing boat which is between me and a large oil tanker that is further away that I am receiving. This is because, more often than not, ships radio masts are at the tallest point on a ship and an oil tankers one will be near on 60 metres above the sea, whilst a fishing boat around 10m. An oil tanker is also likely to have a more powerful transmitter as the ships size means it can carry bigger equipment.

So, where am I going here with relation to the Liman incident?

As previously stated, it has been suggested that Youzar Sif.H had switched off its AIS system. But a simple look at coverage information available on MarineTraffic would show that the Black Sea has some patches that are not covered very well by AIS receivers. I always say this about things like AIS or Mode-S feeds – they are only as good as the information that is fed to them.

The image here shows the coverage from the two main receivers for the area approaching the Bosporus from the Black Sea from this afternoon – 29th May. The receiver to the NW is on a 90m high block of flats and the one at Istanbul is on a two storey building on a hill. They have a great range because of this height. But, nearly the entire area SE of Varna is blank. These receivers do not pick up anything. Now, these coverage maps, like the density ones, can be a little false because they only work because they’ve picked something up, so the darker areas that show a dense level of traffic here, could be lighter at another time due to a quieter day – and vice-versa. But I’ve been looking at these areas frequently since the incident to see if my conclusions are correct, and they have remained pretty much the same. Further north are a few more receivers, but except for one they rarely stretch far into the Black sea – in other words there is a reception black hole for the receivers that feed MarineTraffic and AISLive. It just so happens that Youzar Sif.H travelled through the black-hole on the day of the collision.

This image shows the coverage from the Elena Station in Bulgaria which has fantastic coverage of the Black Sea in this region, but even this has reception black holes, particularly on the Youzar Sif.H route.

The image below shows the reception plots of Youzar Sif.H on the 26/27th of April on AISLive

Whilst the image here shows the reception on the 26/27th of May. This one is in fact worse than the day of the collision! It went near 14 hours without being picked up by any AIS receiver that fed AISLive.

Not only does this happen to Youzar Sif.H, it happens to many other ships that travel the same route.

This is the reason why Youzar Sif.H was not picked up until just before the collision and not because of stupid reasons such as it had switched off its AIS or been jammed by the operations of Liman. In fact, it had its AIS on at all times and other ships within its Radio Horizon would have picked it up, just as it would have picked up the other ships.

Now, the conspiracy theorists will be saying ” Well, hang on, Youzar Sif.H was tracked very well following the incident”. Well yes it was, but there’s a couple of good reasons why. Firstly, the main antennas on Youzar Sif.H are at the back of the ship but it also appears that there is one at the front on the mast. Is this the AIS antenna? Whilst it is hard to see which one it would be, if it is the one at the front this would explain a lot. The average reception distances for the stations is interesting for the day of the incident. The Elena station showed an average of 112nm which actually nearly corresponds to the site of the collision, so this station was covering out to that area. The signal from Youzar Sif.H would fade as it travelled away from the receiver. But after the accident and it was heading back to Midia, the front of the ship would have been facing the receiver which could mean a better signal getting through. The fact that on its journey back to the area this weekend produced the same tracking results, if not worse, than the incident ones shows that Youzar Sif.H has problems with being tracked in certain areas.

The station on the flats at Burgas had an average range of 26nm and would have possibly covered the early part of the voyage too.

And the Istanbul receiver only had an average of 10nm – but again this is roughly where the collision took place, and of course, Youzar Sif.H was head on to the receiver.

At the end of the day, I doubt we’ll ever find out for sure what happened. But I can honestly say that I believe it was a pure accident, and the fact that no AIS data was received from Youzar Sif.H was down to the pure science of a lack of radio reception at the AIS receivers covering the area, rather than the switching off of the systems on the ship.

One thing is for sure though. Those people that insist on churning out information, data and theories need to be sure to get their facts right first; and they need to do some basic research on things that they are commenting on. Otherwise they just make themselves look like complete idiots.

Quick LNA4ALL test

Despite the best efforts of the Royal Mail service, I have been able to get my hands on a Low Noise Amplifier created by Adam at LNA4ALL. The Royal Mail showed just how useless it is, when the parcel arrived here in the UK in just 11 hours from Croatia on February the 14th, but then not getting delivered to me until March the 14th – yes, one month! There is no surprise that courier companies such as DPD and Hermes are getting more business than the Royal Mail – they are bloody useless.

Anyway, the reason for the purchase is for a later review on an AIS dongle that I will be testing, but which has unfortunately been possibly damaged before getting to me.

So, as I had some time to spare I thought I’d run a quick test on how the LNA performs against the claims that is shown on the LNA4ALL website. For the test I used a quickly built 12v to 5v PSU that was connected to a Maplin bench PSU and also a Rigol DP711 Linear DC PSU where I could ensure a precise power input. As it was, it was good that I used the DP711 because my quick PSU was only chucking out 1.2v at connection to the LNA4ALL, despite an unconnected output of 5v – some work needed there I think.

Despite this lower power the LNA4ALL still worked with just the 1.2v input, though the results where not as good.

Other equipment used were a Rigol DSG815 Signal Generator and a Rigol DSA1030 Spectrum Analyser (no longer available), along with various Mini-Circuits shielded test cables. The Rigol equipment I purchased from Telonic Instruments Ltd last year.

Below then is a table that contains all the relevant data. As you’ll see the Gain claim is pretty much spot on with some being over. Just a couple of frequencies are below that which is claimed, especially at 28 MHz.

LNA4ALL Frequency data

A couple of things to note.

Firstly, somehow I managed to miss testing 1296 MHz. I obviously didn’t put it in the table in Excel before I started 🙂 Also, the DSG815 only goes up to 1.5 GHz so I couldn’t test above that.

Secondly I ran a test for the AIS centre frequency of 162 MHz, for which there was no comparison to the LNA4ALL data. A gain of over 24dB though shows that the LNA would be perfect for those of you with AIS receivers that may want to get better reception. To prove the theory I compared the LNA reception against data without it connected to the NASA Engine AIS receiver that I currently use. In ShipPlotter I average a max range of around 15nm without the LNA, but with it connected this increased to around 22nm. The number of messages received also tripled as it was able to dig out the weaker signals.

The NASA Engine isn’t a bad receiver, but it is a frequency hopper rather than a dual monitor, and so it changes between the two AIS frequencies every 30 seconds (161.975 MHz and 162.025 MHz). I suspect a dual monitor would give better message numbers and range.

Below is a graph made using the excellent software by Neal Arundale – NMEA AIS Router. As you can see the message numbers (or sentences) for over an hour are pretty good – well, it is a vast improvement on what I used to get with my current “temporary” set-up, with 419 messages received in an hour. The software is available at his website, for free, along with various other programs that you can use with AIS. If you’d rather not use ShipPlotter he has created his own AIS Decoder which can be linked into Google Earth and such like. Visit his website for more information.

My antenna isn’t exactly top-notch. It is at a height of just 4 metres AGL in the extension loft, and it is made from galvanised steel angle bead used by plasterers to strengthen corners prior to skimming – this I cut down as a dipole for a target of 162 MHz. As usual with my trimming of antennas, I cut just too much off and ended up with it cut to 161.167 MHz. It gives a VSWR of 1.018 and Return loss of 40.82dB, with 162 MHz being approx. 30dB Return loss which equates to 1.075 VSWR – that will do.

Also, as I live right on the coast, about 50 metres from the sea, I’m practically at sea level, which doesn’t help much with range and signal reception either. Despite this the antenna produces great results, though it is just temporary until I can get a new homebuild up on the roof.

VSWR reading for the homebrew loft AIS Antenna

The LNA4ALL retails at various prices depending on what option you go for. I went for the aluminium box version so it was around £54 including the delivery. I had looked at a Mini-circuits equivalent, and when it looked like the LNA4ALL was lost I did actually order one. But this was nearly twice the price, and seeing as the LNA4ALL contains many components from Mini-Circuit I doubt it is any different really.

All in all the LNA4ALL is all you need to boost your weak signals – couldn’t get any more all’s in 🙂

Mini-Circuits and Stamps

mcl_top_banner

I recently received a global email from Mini-Circuits CEO, Harvey Kaylie, informing me of a Holiday Season discount. A copy of the email is below:

To our valued friends and customers,

To say thank you for making 2016 a successful year, we’re pleased to announce a special Holiday Season Discount:
All purchases of any quantity of Mini-Circuits catalog models ordered and shipped from our webstore on minicircuits.com from December 1st through December 31st will receive a 10% discount!

The discount will appear for items in your shopping cart on our webstore checkout page at the time of purchase. Please see our website for terms and conditions. This offer expires on December 31st, so don’t miss out!

From all the members of the Mini-Circuits family to all of you, our customers, we wish you a very happy, healthy holiday season!
Warm regards,

Harvey Kaylie
Founder and CEO
Mini-Circuits

I have checked with the UK supplier and I can confirm that the discount is available outside of the USA. Just order what you want as normal through the Mini-Circuits website.

Mini-Circuits components

Some of the components I have bought from Mini-Circuits this year

I bought some leads and components a few months ago and have been impressed with the quality of each item. The service from the UK supplier was excellent, especially as I had to change the order part way through the processing. All the components came from the USA, but the delay was minimal.

If you need some new components then get in there quick for the 10% discount.

 

Stamps of Radio Stations by Continents and Countries

At the end of November the SWLing blog had a post about collecting postage stamps with a connection to radio.

I’m by no means a proper stamp collector but the reason I found the blog of interest was because in August I had actually bought some First Day Covers and a Mint set of stamps commemorating 50 years of the BBC on Ascension Island. I had been stationed on Ascension in the 90’s whilst in the RAF and I spent quite a lot of my days off at English Bay beach which is right next to the transmitter site. Plenty of good memories.

The SWLing blog was about a Word document created by Lennart Weirell of Sweden. He has been able to collate a list of all the stamps that has a connection with Broadcast Radio and turn it into a twenty-four page document. It lists the 125 countries that have produced such stamps and the information includes date of issue, the Michael number, value (at issue) and name of the stamp. There are also tick boxes so that you can mark off whether you have these stamps in your collection. stamps

It doesn’t say this in the document but you can however go one step further than the tick boxes. If you have a scanner, just scan your stamps into a picture folder and then create a link to each relevant picture in the Word document. It’s as simple as highlighting the stamp name for example and then clicking on the Hyperlink button in the Insert tab group of Word (you can also use the Control-K shortcut). Just find the picture folder and the scanned image and link them up. As long as you don’t change the image location, each time you go to the Word document, clicking on the link will open it up.

The Word document is €4, but contact Lennart by email first so that he can send you a PayPal invoice. His email address and further information about the document is available on the image above.

The 50 years of the BBC stamps are available from the Ascension Island Post Office website.

First day cover

A scan of my First Day Cover “50 years of the BBC on Ascension Island” stamps

The Spectrum Monitor articles and the MilCom Forum

I’m pleased to say that I’ve had two articles published in the July edition of e-Mag The Spectrum Monitor

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The first article is about the Joint Warrior exercise that took place in March/April this year, and how and what to listen out for when these exercises take place twice a year in the UK. I wasn’t expecting this article to be published until September so this was an added bonus this month

The second article is about how I got into listening to Air Traffic Control and how this then took me down the road to becoming an Air Traffic Controller, an aviation/military photographer and writer, and into monitoring the radios in general – in particular HF

As well as the articles, there’s about 11 photos of mine included alongside. I also provided the cover image.tsmcover

The magazine is available either to buy individually at $3 each or by subscription for $24 for one year. Either way the magazine is well worth the money

MilCom Forum

About a month ago now, a new forum was created for the Military Monitoring enthusiast – MilCom

The main aim of the forum is bring together those of us that are interested in monitoring Military Communications, be it VHF/UHF, HF, CW, data, SATCOM etc. The posting of radio logs is actively encouraged. In just a month the membership has passed 110 with posts already at 850+; and this is without any real advertising of the forum. One thing you’ll notice if you head over, is that it isn’t just about Aviation. The forum covers all areas of Military Communications – Aviation, Maritime and Land (Space too if you really want to)

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As well as the forum area there is a database section which contains information on Military Callsigns, VHF/UHF frequencies, HF frequencies and other things such as common abbreviations and terms used by the Military. There’s also an interactive map. These databases are updated almost daily by a team of us, and can also have anything missing submitted to the team for addition once confirmed. The databases are continually growing, are more accurate than any printed publication (which is generally out of date the day of printing) and more importantly – FREE

The only proviso to this data being available is that members participate in the forum and do not just “lurk”. The membership is continually monitored by the team and trimmed if necessary. That being said, we are a friendly group so don’t let the rules put you off – instead join up and participate.

Antennas

With everything else that’s been going on, I totally forgot to do a blog on my new antenna set-up; and when I say new it’s now nearly 12 months old

My old set-up wasn’t too bad with a longwire stretching from the study and just tacked on to the top of the fence and wall around the garden, then from an old washing-line pole to the corner of my garage at the far end. This created a horizontal L shape with a slight incline. Reception was very good although as the antenna wasn’t earthed there was a bit of noise. Luckily I live fairly remote so there isn’t the usual interference from neighbours TV sets etc, but I wanted to improve the signal by creating a better set-up.

As a back up, I also had a Garex Compact Active antenna in the loft which I also wanted to move outside. This is a great active antenna, designed initially to be used on small boats and was perfect as I live on a harbour and have to cope with the same atmosphere and conditions that would be found at sea. Corrosion of metal is a big problem due to the conditions around here, and this was evident in the longwire.

With this in mind, I selected Military Spec. Kevlar Antenna Wire from Nevada Radio. Not only is this wire weather proof and light, it is green and will blend nicely into the background around here, just like camoflage (another reason why it’s used by the Military). It is also incredibly strong, and once tensioned will not stretch like standard wire

Mil. Spec. Kevlar Antenna Wire

I also ordered a few other things including 100m of Military specification RG58C/U coax cable, some Ceramic Insulators, plugs and sockets. Nevada have never let me down and I can recommend them totally

Prior to all this, in a general conversation with John who supplies me with my firewood I mentioned how it would be great to have an old telephone pole to use as the main mast for my antennas – “well, I have loads of them” he says. So when it was time to get it all together in the New Year, John delivered the pole, all 8 meters of it!

Telephone pole after delivery

Telephone pole after delivery

The design was simple really. It would be the longwire stretching from the house in an L, with the down side running down the wall, connecting to the Co-ax, which would then run into the house via an air brick. Grounding would run from the co-ax connection to a copper rod driven into the garden. There would be a splitter in the loft space which would then feed both my Icom IC-R8500 and SDR-IQ radios.

The Garex would be placed at the top of the pole and the co-ax would then run along the wall and fence to the house; and in through the same air brick. The co-ax would continue through to the Icom as my second antenna

With rough calculations I realised that with a pole of 8 metres in length, I was going to need a pretty deep hole to put it in. BT use a screw type thing to dig the hole to the correct depth for their installations, but I didn’t have that, just a spade. 8 metres was too much anyway so I decided to cut off about a metre and calculated that around a 3 foot deep hole would be ok, with 6 bags of quick drying cement to firmly secure it in.

Garex attached to the pole

First of all though, I needed to attach the Garex to the top of the pole as I didn’t fancy doing that once it was upright and in the ground. Far easier to connect it all up and then plant the post into the hole. There are the usual steps attached to the pole which would be ok to use for general maintenance but it was going to be hard work getting the screw bolts into the solid wood of the pole that were needed to secure the mast mount.

Longwire clamp and step

With the Garex mounted and the cable run complete, it was then time to turn to the longwire. Again, it was going to be much easier to attach first and then raise the pole into position. BT had left the wire clamp on the pole so after a bit of a fight to get the bolts out that connected this, I was able to service them by wire brushing off the rust and corrosion before reconnecting them with some copper grease added to stop any further rust. To help secure the wire a bit better I first threaded some garden wire through some yellow/green earth sleeving which was then fed into the clamp and I then put the wire through one end an insulator. Then I fed the longwire through the other end of the insulator and tied off the wire using a standard camping guyrope tensioner, as unlike conventional wires that you wrap around itself the Kevlar wire uncoils due to its great flexibility. The tensioner butts up against the the insulator stopping the wire from going through the hole

So with both antennas attached and the hole dug, it was time to get the pole up. This turned out to be very easy, and with some assistance to hold it steady and totally vertical, I poured in the 6 bags of quick drying cement. After about 10 minutes it was ok to leave the pole on its own, and I waited a further two days before stretching the longwire across to the house

Whilst I waited those two days, I carried out the remaining tasks of getting all the co-ax in place and fully connecting the Garex to the Icom. Already, with the Garex, I could tell the difference that the new location made. The noise floor was much better, and there was no interference at all from anything electrical. The co-ax and splitter were all connected and the run down to the study was also completed, although I had previously needed to rearrange my whole desk to get everything in a better position in anticipation of this project

Shack

Shack

Prior to the desk change I needed to stretch quite a way to the Icom, normally needing to stand up, but now I can just adjust from my seat as it is within half an arms length. I had also connected up an old NAD amplifier and two NAD speakers to the SDR-IQ via the second soundcard in my PC

When it came to the final connection of the longwire to the co-ax, I just used a standard chocbloc, placed inside a waterproof electical box available from most DIY stores. Getting the wire nice and tight wasn’t a problem using an insulator at the corner and end of the L, and I left a little slack to feed into the waterproof box. The earth rod was connected by some old wire to the outer shield of the co-ax and we were good to go

RG58 running into the house via an air brick. Even in this picture it's hard to see the Kevlar wire

RGU58 running into the house via an air brick. Even in this picture it’s hard to see the Kevlar wire

The results were excellent. Nice clear signals with hardly any outside interference. I get the occasional trouble with electricals, normally my own PCs, but in the modern world this is hardly surprising (or avoidable). The longwire runs almost exactly North-South, which is perfect for what I normally listen too – Russian Navy and Military transmissions, but it’s also perfect for getting the Ocean traffic and USA

Overall, I’m very pleased with it. With the use of an old telephone pole and green wire, the whole antenna has basically disappeared into the background. After some chats with neighbours most hadn’t even noticed it had gone up. In fact, one even said they thought it had been there for years

Finished longwire running down to the house

Finished longwire running down to the house

Looking back to the pole

Looking back to the pole

Another angle on a sunny day

Another angle on a sunny day