The Android HT

I’ve been watching all of the innovative work going on in the smartphone and tablet arena and wondering how we could get more of that going in ham radio. To be sure, there are always radio amateurs developing creative technology. Some examples are adaptations of D-STAR, IRLP, improvements on APRS and sound card modulation modes. However, amateur radio is missing a standardized platform for handheld communications. Such a radio platform could open up lots of software innovation in this space.

What I have in mind is a dualband (2M/70cm) handheld transceiver that is built on top of the Android operating system. (Sorry Apple Fan Boys, iOS is a non-starter based on Apple’s walled garden philosophy.) This radio would have some of the hardware features we now take for granted in smartphones: GPS, WiFi, USB, maybe even a camera. I’d also include APRS hardware built-in, similar to the Yaesu VX-8GR or the Kenwood TH-D72A. I’ve hacked together a concept photo shown on the left of this post (click to enlarge). We would probably want to maintain some of the most important direct hardware controls such as PTT, volume and channel select. The rest of the user interface would be done via a touchscreen display, where the power of the Android OS comes into play.

While this hardware configuration is exciting, the real power comes from having a software developers kit (SDK) with a stable Application Programming Interface (API). This would unleash the creativity of all those software-oriented hams out there and a plethora of apps would emerge. There are plenty of ham radio apps available on the Apple and Android platforms…it’s just they are missing the radio as part of the package. An obvious area for innovation would initially be in APRS or maybe D-STAR. We could actually have the equivalent of SMS text messaging on ham radio, backed up via the WiFi connection. (Yeah, this kind of exists already but it is really cumbersome to use due to the braindead menu-driven user interfaces of current radios.) Just think how easy programming the radio would be with a touchscreen approach.

This is the type of product development that requires significant investment, but the technology is readily available. I suppose a garage shop operation could get this done but one of the big radio manufacturers could easily pull this off. Maybe one of those upstarts from China might want to take this on. Whoever does it, just send me $5 per unit and I’ll be happy :-).

That’s my best idea for this morning. What do you think?

73, Bob K0NR

17 Replies to “The Android HT”

  1. Fascinating idea. And one that I do hope comes to fruition someday soon. I love the concept, and my mind is running wild with the possibilities and flexibility of such a piece of hardware. This would truly be a breakthrough for ham technology and would allow for a lot of hackability.

    Now- who will take up the challenge and put one together?It seems like the big manufacturers have a lock on the traditional HT/archaic UI architecture, and are probably not motivated to innovate this radically. As you say, perhaps one of the Chinese upstarts (e.g., Baofeng, Wouxun, etc) might be game.

  2. Lately I’ve been thinking of a HT along similar lines.

    I look at the low cost, but great potential of projects like the Raspberry Pi.

    But then I look at the expense of HT’s with basic TNC/GPS functionality.

    What would the big three charge for a touchscreen android HT – ballpark guess? No less than $750.

    In my dream HT, I’d forget the touchscreen, forget Android & go with vanilla linux. It would feature a user replaceable board like the Raspberry Pi, which would add the TNC/GPS/PSK/whatever layers.

    But more than anything? It would be cheap enough that young amateur radio ops could afford to buy one or two and create software.

    • It might be a trifle expensive at first, but the possibilities with the open OS that Android would provide would make for wonderful possibilities. The touch screen and additional hardware would be one expense, but it would make for simplified hardware in the radio itself. From there the possibilities would be limitless. The world of applications would be wonderful! UNIX as David mentioned could be great as well, but the Android OS is pretty open and inexpensive plus the Android developer pool is pretty large. The possibility of being able to run some other mainstream applications from your HT would make it very flexible.

  3. My amateur call sign is WB6NCO. I recommend an HT capable on 2 or 3 VHF/UHF bands with the following:
    4 to 5 watts output with a 2200 mAh battery
    narrow band FM (CTCSS/DCS)
    CDMA/TDMA (Mototrbo capable since it is an open protocol)
    DSTAR capable
    It seems to me that a software defined rig based upon the Android or Linux operating systems might be able to be created for this proposed next generation amateur radio.

  4. My thought was a tranciever with no controls/speaker/etc, that you hook up to your android phone/tablet via bluetooth. Give it a communications library to talk to the radio, build control apps on the phone.

  5. Send your suggestion to the Android Open Source project android-platform Google Group, or one of the other groups in the Android Community

    There’s lots of folks there working on Android based handsets with various capabilities.

  6. I don’t think we’re too far off from this technology. I don’t see any of the big ham radio manufacturer embracing someone else’s code like Android, so I think it will come from a garage shop, like you had mentioned.

  7. I’ve been thinking along the same lines – and the idea of using Bluetooth is a major part of it. Think about it: older Android devices are readily available as people upgrade their phones, and battery life when the cellular radio is shut down and only Bluetooth is in use is quite good.

    Look at this new device:

    It’s an SDR demonstrator board the size of a credit card that supports QAM, FSK and, importantly, GMSK modulation, along with a 1-watt amplifier. This unit operates from 452 to 467 MHz, unfortunately, but it’s just a demonstrator anyway and you shouldn’t build a product from it.

    The point is, a board like this, coupled with a CPU including a DSP (for running Codec2) and a Bluetooth chip and battery circuit, could be put in a nice rugged small box the size of an HT and it could be very rugged. A bigger amplifier could allow more than 1 watt out.

    Of course, all this talk exposes, IMHO, a very big limitation of DSTAR – it doesn’t support proper data-only operation except on 1200 MHz. What we really need is an on-air protocol that uses either GMSK or 4FSK and allows for both data and voice through the same repeater, ideally at the same time via two channels fitting into 12.5 KHz. We don’t need spectrum efficiency nearly as much as other radio services do, we need functionality. I wonder at the possibility of creating trunked systems using, say, three voice and one data channel in 25 KHz, and reconfigurable on-the-fly depending on need.

    Anyway, think how well something like this could work for disaster teams – choose your Android device of choice, from a small phone up to a big tablet. Take pictures and send them to an EOC, and also use the Web browser in the device to fill out damage estimate forms and request supplies much more efficiently than via voice. You can still talk digital voice as well, of course. A comm van with a mobile repeater and some embedded Linux-based Web servers could enable all this using very small power requirements, and optionally use a satellite uplink to provide Internet connectivity as needed as well.

    The possibilities are near limitless.

  8. Thanks for the excellent comments.

    I do think that the idea of a “black box with Bluetooth” has merit, since it decouples the radio technology from the user interface/compute device. That way, Android phones and tablets evolve and the radio comes along for the ride. On the other hand, integrating Android into the radio would probably result in a more usable package.

    Including SDR is a great idea and an nice extension of the open and flexible concept.

    Clearly, this concept can be extended to a mobile or base transceiver, too. I focused on the HT since that is the most portable configuration.

  9. Pingback: The Android HT – Part 2 | KØNR: Radio Enthusiast

  10. There is a full featured rugged, dual core, Android 4.0, UHF device out in the market. It is the Runbo X5.

  11. Pingback: The Android HT – Part 3 | KØNR: Radio Enthusiast