Giving old technology a new life in the modern world

BY Andrew Schmertz, Correspondent |

You may think ham radio is part of the same bygone era of telegraphs, fax machines, and scenes from the Netflix show, “Stranger Things,” but students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology are giving the century-old technology a new voice in this social media world.

“That is probably my favorite part of ham radio, is just the ability to talk to be able to talk to so many people from around the world, from so many different backgrounds and exchange some simple data. It’s a lot of fun,” said Josh Vega, a junior at NJIT.

Ham radio is making a comeback after it proved to be the last line of defense when communications systems failed. During and after the hurricane in Puerto Rico, ham radio was often the only way to communicate with emergency first responders. It doesn’t need internet access or cellphone towers to work, and the signal can travel around the world.

“When they had the major hurricane season that knocked out many of the communications systems and the power on the island, amateur radio was the primary form of communication back to the United States,” said Nathaniel Frissell.

Frissell is an assistant research professor and founder of HAMSCI, a group formed to join hams and scientists. NJIT is holding a conference this weekend to review data collected by ham radio operators during the solar eclipse. The purpose is to find out how part of the atmosphere that carries radio signals was affected.

“The conference joins ham radio operators and professional scientists, and we’re very interested in studying the electrically charged portion of the upper atmosphere known as the ionosphere,” said Frissell. “It’s key in radio communications, satellite communications and navigation systems. And also it gives us information about what’s happening in space around the earth, as well.”

There are about 14,000 ham radio operators in New Jersey. Students say the ham radio club is growing, thanks to efforts by Frissell in merging the hobby with science.

“Just getting into it you learn how far your radio signal can go. It depends on so many things in the atmosphere — how the sun is doing, how many sunspots there are. It doesn’t surprise me at all that people can do real important science with it,” said Kyle Watt, a senior at NJIT.

“There’s a generation gap. Everyone now has cellphones and the internet, and to learn you can do this all through radio waves, between AM and FM, it really encouraged a lot of them,” said Andrew Gerrard, professor of Physics at NJIT.

The scientists at NJIT say they are very pleased working with the ham radio operators; They have their own equipment, they’re all over the world and they’re very enthusiastic. They’re using an old technology for the modern day theory of crowd sourcing to help science.