Students Start Ham Radio Club

By Deepti Boddapati (CLAS ’14)

Could you survive a zombie apocalypse? What would you do? Where would you go? How would you know which way the nearest pocket of human civilization is and which way are zombie hunting grounds? Well, if you joined the newly formed ham radio club at UConn, you might have a chance.

This year, three students are creating a ham radio club for those who want to be ready for anything, even a zombie apocalypse, while having fun. Veronica Clark, a pre-kinesiology major, Mike Nigrelli, a biology major, and Dominick Spina, an agricultural and resource economics major, are creating a new club for amateur radio enthusiasts. A ham radio can be used by amateurs to transmit radio signals and communicate without the use of existing infrastructure like phone lines or cell phone towers. A radio that is powerful enough can communicate with anyone on the planet. Hams, or amateur radio operators, have even talked to astronauts on the International Space Station. (It is the oft-forgotten item on zombie survival lists, but probably the most important.)

Ham radio has always been of interest to hobbyists and amateurs. It was first developed in the 1880’s by several inventors, one of whom was Nikola Tesla. After discovery it was widely pursued by many hobbyists challenging themselves to extend the reach of their signals farther and farther. Although the practice was suspended during both world wars, the hams were not without practice since most of them were valued in the armed forces.

Ham radios have been critical in aiding with relief efforts during every emergency. According to Clark, hams were a vital communication link in hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. “During hurricane Katrina, hams from all over the world flew there to help people who lost their homes and had no way to contact their families across the country. Hams set up stations that allowed people to talk with their friends and relatives and tell them they were okay. The thing about amateur radio is that, yes, you have to be licensed to go on the air by yourself, but if there is another ham with you, then you can talk on the bands,” said Clark.

They’ve helped close to home too. “During hurricane Irene most of the state was without power, so all the communication infrastructure was down too, like phones, Internet and cell phone towers. Even the Red Cross had no way to coordinate relief efforts. So the Red Cross trucks would use the help of hams who could still communicate since many of the repeaters around here have backup emergency power. This way the information got relayed so that the Red Cross knew what needed to go where.” said Nigrelli.

Dr. Rajeev Bansal, Department Head of the Electrical & Computer Engineering Department and the advisor of the ham radio club, thinks that the club can bring back an aspect of engineering which has been lost. “Most of the people who got into ham radio in the past wanted to do hands-on engineering. They would set up relatively large antenna structures in their back yards and their radios in their attics or basements. So I think that aspect of it still remains for people who like to tinker. This is one aspect of engineering which is rapidly disappearing because if you look at your iPad or your smart phone, everything is so compact. And if you open it up there is not much you can change about it.”

“The components are so small, and they have been assembled in a way that makes it hard to change them. This is very different from previous generations of engineers where people were able to take things apart and modify them. They could replace a certain part, order a different one from Radio Shack®, and build something on their own. So ham radio retains that excitement, and allows you to do it yourself, and discover what engineering is,” he remarked.

But besides being indispensable during emergencies, ham radio is fun as well. “The ARRL, which is the Amateur Radio Relay League, sets up an event every year called Field Day, where the focus is to operate without the grid. People pack their big 60 foot antennas into their trailers and go out into the field. They set up in five minutes, get some solar panels and batteries, and just sit under a tent in the middle of a field and start talking to people, just because it’s a great way to practice. But with barbeques it’s also a lot of fun. It’s like tailgating ham radio style,” said Nigrelli.

The ham radio club can be found online at http://uconntact.uconn.edu/organization/ucarc and on Facebook as Uconn Ham Radio Club.