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Monday, December 03, 2018

Review Update: New PicoAPRS Model(s) & Firmware Update

Lately it seems the only attention APRS has been getting is if and how it is implemented on new DMR radios.

This is not fair, so let us look at some dedicated APRS only devices compared to some radios that offer location and message sharing capability.

PicoAPRS product is the smallest
APRS transceiver on the market

Location Finding: Different devices for different people

Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) is a technology 20+ years in the making that lets amateur radio operators use low speed data over narrow channels to share location and basic text status updates in a few formats.
Cool Thing:  It is also possible to use APRS for telemetry data, such as weather information or malfunctioning equipment status updates. APRS can also be used to track things, like a rocket or a balloon. This is the Amateur Radio version of "Internet of Things" before that was even a term.
Ham equipment vendors Yaesu (Fusion), Kenwood and Icom (D-Star) all offer different digital voice mode radios and none are DMR products which is the most popular digital voice mode today.

Pictured Left to Right  - Kenwood TH-D74, Xiaomi Mijia,  TYT MD-UV380, Alinco MD-5TGP, Mobilinkd TNC2 and PicoAPRSv2
Pictured Left to Right - Kenwood TH-D74, Xiaomi Mijia,
TYT MD-UV380, Alinco MD-5TGP, Mobilinkd TNC2, PicoAPRS

Vendors such as Anytone, TYT, Retevis and Alinco support the ability to send GPS data that can appear on the website, but this is not really APRS in the traditional sense, but some call it D-APRS.
Hot Stuff: A good comparison of APRS to another form of location sharing was done from a hot air balloon this summer.

Location Battleground:  Get ready!!

Beyond amateur radio which is a licensed radio service globally, there are now unlicensed radios such as the GoTenna, Xiaomi Mijia and Motorola T800 that allows users to share location data with one another, but are far from as robust as what is possible via amateur radio at any level thanks to APRS but come close and are slightly easier to use as discovered a recent hamfest.

Non-Voice Capable APRS Devices

Two of the smallest and full featured APRS devices that are not voice transmission capable are the PicoAPRS v2 and MobileLinkd TNC2 which have been reviewed in the past on HVDN Review Lens.

The Mobilinkd device is more of an accessory gadget that physically plugs into most any two way radio with appropriate cable.

THe Mobilink TNC2 also requires a smartphone paired over bluetooth that runs an application to send, receive and view location of users or send messages based on the GPS built in to the smartphone. This is sort of messy but is an elegant solution....

APRSdroid application found on Google Play store

The PicoAPRS however is a totally self contained device that is a GPS, data radio and user interface in one even smaller package.

Taner, DB1NTO has made many improvements in his PicoAPRS product since its introduction and that is what we will explore. No smartphone needed or other radio needed!

What is the difference between the PicoAPRS v2 and v3?

For something already really small, Taner made it even smaller in the latest version while retaining every feature and even adding a few things such as a modular battery and even better precision GPS/GLONASS reception.

Can I connect the PicoAPRS to a computer?

Everything can be configured with the two buttons on the PicoAPRS.

If you want to customize a beacon comment, such as "Please call me on 146.520MHz or DMR TG 31630", that takes many button presses.

It is possible to do this instead via a terminal program such as TeraTerm. The otherwise very good PicoAPRS manual is somewhat lite on detail about this, so here are some simple steps for those that are not computer experts.


Connect PicoAPRS to computer:  On the PicoAPRS, navigate to the menu called  "USB Mode" and change it to "Config". Then connect the PicoAPRS to your PC and it should install USB drivers automatically in many cases. If not, this is what you need from Silicon Labs.  

Configure a few things on your computer:  In "Control Panel" and "Device Manager" in Microsoft Windows, you can now see which COM port your PicoAPRS will use.

Now you need to configure TeraTerm by selecting the serial port connection that matches your PicoAPRS.

Next, open up the menu titled "Setup" and go to "Terminal" and configure to be CR+LF and check mark the "Echo" box.  This lets you see what commands you send to the PicoAPRS.

Finally, open up "Setup" again and go to "Serial Port..."  You need to select the same COM port your PicoAPRS is using and set the speed to 115200.  No other setting will work.  It needs to be 115200!!

Now, you are ready.  Press any key or the ? and you should get the below message returned to you which shows what you can configure from the computer with your PicoAPRS

To change the beacon message, just type *C* with your own text after it and press enter

Sidenote on other computer things:  On the PicoAPRS, you can also change the USB settings to give you GPS NMEA data. Go ahead and try it while still connected to TeraTerm. Changing to that mode will let you see something like this:

There are also many other applications that will let you use the KISS-TNC mode for even more advanced things. Some of these include PinPoint APRS and WinLink plus of course the old standby of APRSISCE32 but is not part of this review.

There is also a new "Serial USB" data mode too which has a lot of interesting potential if you want a total stealth data radio to go with you anywhere with your laptop.

Get to the point!!!  All I am trying to say is that the PicoAPRS does a lot more than look like a cute little ham radio toy.

New Feature In PicoAPRS Firmware v10 

While v9 software is the most current as of December 3rd 2018, v10 is not far away and will add a status message function in addition to beacon messaging.  This gives you two different types of status updates sent at different intervals from the PicoAPRS.

The new firmware will be available around Christmas time 2018 along with a new and even smaller product from Tanner called PicoAPRS Lite which is designed for use with airborne payloads.

Please keep an eye on his website for more detail at for the new firmware, details on the v3 and the upcoming new PicoAPRS Lite product.

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