Thursday, January 10, 2019

Remote Operating with CommCat

One thing that caught my interest some time ago was the ability to remote control your station, in earlier times this wasn't so easy, but was possible by interconnecting various different pieces of tech together.

This usually consisted of among other things, computer rig control - building the control and audio interface cables, software - HRD for control, Skype on auto answer for the audio, and something like LogMeIn to gain remote access to the PC in the shack that ties it all together, and a laptop with wifi or cellular connection. A friend of mine, ZL1TLJ [SK], was doing exactly that type of setup with a Yaesu FT-1000MP Mark-V Field around 15 years ago.

Much to my delight, things are a little easier now!

The Icom IC-7300 I have offers a USB port that presents to the computer a virtual RS-232 COM port for control, and USB audio devices for audio in and out. One cable does it all, modern rigs are finally in the 21st century!

I figured that by now someone would have written a remote control app for smart phones, turns out one person did with the generosity to make basic functionality free.

See CommCat and CommCat Live - for the applications, documentation - very well written - easy to read, follow and learn from.

Whats needed:
  • A Windows computer connected to the rig is still required to "interface" via.
  • The iOS app [the client] CommCat Mobile is free from the App Store.
  • The Windows application [the server] CommCat QSXer, is what CommCat Mobile talks to, is free to download, and simple to configure.
  • Audio - a small yearly subscription is required to enable it in the CommCat apps, or you can configure an alternate Skype account to auto answer [remember to lock down the settings so only YOU can call it!].
  • The TCP/IP communication via the iOS client app and the Windows server app [which controls the rig] is direct, there is no cloud service in the middle to broker the connection.
    • Ever wonder how your smart phone apps - from anywhere - can find and control smart home devices in your home for example? Yes magic in the middle makes it happen.
  • For this you need to either forward a port in your router [and be aware anyone on the internet can find this port and try and attempt to interact with it], or run a VPN service from your home internet - this is what I do as I run pfSense as my firewall with my cable modem in bridged mode.
With this setup, I can do basic remote control of my rig, which is all I wanted for now. With this I can tune around the bands, change modes, swap between VFO and memory, setup preset user-defined macros in CommCat Mobile to perform other supported functions.

Downsides? A few:
  • Even with CI-V transceive turned off in the Icom IC-7300, the iOS app will toggle split mode on and off several times after tuning frequencies - somewhat annoying, as you have to wait for this toggling to finish before you can do anything else.
  • 60m band not channelized - fixed by setting up macros - this involved learning the Icom CI-V commands [well documented], and trial and error to get them right.
  • No AM mode - fixed by setting a macro.
  • No 5 or 25 Kc steps.
  • No ability to switch the rig to memory mode and step through preset memories - I can likely work around this will more macros, but not figured them out yet!
  • Skype on iOS seems to eat batteries, even just receiving an audio stream with the screen off! I'll assume that getting the audio enabled in the CommCat apps is more efficient.
  • Mute the mic in Skype on iOS when just listening, otherwise the feedback cancelling will mute the incoming audio when local noise / bumping the mic happens. 

There you have it, this works, costs nothing for basic functions, and after getting the audio levels right, I have held conversations while remote on a local 6m FM repeater with good audio reports using the Apple supplied earbuds/mic that came with my iPhone 6.