Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Radio cybersport (or is that cyber radiosport?)

Most anyone who follows ham radio has at least heard of radiosport, also known as contesting.  For those of you who aren't familiar with contesting, the basic idea is for the competing operator to make contact with as many other stations as possible during a specific time interval.  Each contest has its own distinctive set of rules and conditions, and I'm not going to go into much detail on that here; if you are interested in doing this sort of thing there's lots of resources on it on the Internet and elsewhere.

The thing is, contest contacts are pretty much entirely devoid of content; typically the only information exchanged is callsign, location, signal strength, and (in some contests) a sequence number or validation code.  The exchanges are so formulaic and predictable that many hams actually use autokeyers or macro tools (for digital modes) or audio recorders (for voice modes) to send them instead of manually keying or saying them for each exchange.  It is a pretty short step from this to realizing that it would be possible to program a computer to do the bulk of the work of a contest exchange, especially in most digital modes.  It represents no real innovation to combine existing tools with some simple scripting that would automate everything except for the decision of what frequency to use, when to send CQ, and when to respond to CQ, and reducing the role of the control operator in contesting to little more than a "whack-a-mole" player, clicking at spots when they appear on the waterfall.  I've heard rumors that there are already hams who have done this.  This would be harder to do in voice modes because of the difficulty of doing voice recognition, especially in single-sideband with lots of noise and interfering signals.  It would also be harder in CW because so many hams have such idiosyncratic "fists" that automated Morse code readers are going to have trouble reading them.

But let's take this one step farther.  Instead of making it a game of "whack-a-mole", with the control operator watching for spots on the waterfall and firing off an automated QSO sequence when they spot a promising one, let's instead make the contest one of writing a computer program that controls the entire process: selecting operating frequencies and modes (within the limits of the contest), choosing when to call CQ, choosing what incoming calls to respond to, and making the QSOs.  The program that scores the most points during the contest window wins.  The only role of the control operator in the contest is to monitor the program, and, should it malfunction, hit the "kill" switch, and perhaps tweak the program.  The operator is not permitted to do anything to the program while it is running other than to kill it.

This is, fundamentally, a technology and programming contest, not an operating contest.  It could be argued that this doesn't serve the primary purpose of contests, which is to maintain "the existing reservoir" of "trained operators" in the amateur radio service.  However, it does serve the purpose of advancing the radio art.  The control programs that would be developed in order to win a contest could also be readily adapted for passage of actual messages.  There are also opportunities to advance signal processing techniques.  I would expect that software-defined radios with whole-band receive capabilities would be quite useful in such a contest, as well as defined-on-the-fly filters (to notch out automatically-identified interference, for example). 

I think a contest like this could attract a lot of computer technologists to amateur radio.  It's a wonderful hacking opportunity. 

Just a thought.  And one that isn't entirely mine, so don't blame me if it's totally stupid.