Evaluation of the HamPod SteppIR Reader
By Kelvin Marsh M0AID
I have been using a 3 element SteppIR antenna since Autumn 2010. It is a large antenna, and requires a rotator and a substantial mast. In other words, it represents a significant investment, both financially and in execution. The advantage of the SteppIR antenna is its ability to automatically adjust the element lengths, giving a perfectly matched aerial system on the majority of HF frequencies. As the antenna itself is outside, the operator will be controlling it by interacting with the SteppIR control box. This will sit on the bench, and in General mode will automatically adjust the antenna as needed. You can read the accessibility evaluation of the SteppIR controller elsewhere on this site.
If the transceiver interface board is fitted, the antenna is automatically adjusted by the radio, and Apart from the Power button, the only button in very regular use is the Direction button. On the original controller, this button cycles through Forward, 180, and Bi-directional modes. As my normal method of working DX Is to Search and Pounce, the ability to have the rotator pointing West, but within seconds have the beam electrically rotate to the East, is a terrific feature of the SteppIR. Within seconds you can check both the Long and Short paths, Whereas it might take you minutes to swing a traditional beam through 180 degrees and back.
The downside to using the Direction button, for a blind operator, is the constant need to check its status! Because the Direction button cycles through 3 positions on the original controller, I found I very easily lost track of my button presses, and constantly needed to remind myself of the direction.
I did this using an audible light probe. This is a pen shaped device that emits a tone when pointed at a light source. My SteppIR controller uses LEDs to show the direction of the Yagi, and I found I was feeling for the slight indentation of the LEDs, and then checking their status, on almost every long distance QSO. As a DX operator I’m listening for signals on the absolute limit, often 10 thousand miles away. If I found a weak signal in the Pacific, it was natural to also check the Long path, and to press the Direction button to rotate the antenna by 180 degrees. The result of all this was that I was using my light probe literally hundreds if not thousands of times over the course of a year!
OK, it’s taken me a page of meanderings to get here, but you can understand why the SteppIReader, http://www.hampod.com, caught my attention. It seemed I could send my SteppIR control box to Rob K6DQ, and he would make it talk!
If you have read my accessibility evaluation of the SteppIR controller, you will know the Setup menu is not accessible. The need to Calibrate, and create or modify the element lengths requires sighted help. Whilst you can live without this access, the SteppIReader gives you spoken feedback, and complete independence.
My SteppIR control box took less than three weeks to travel to Rob K6DQ and back. I don’t think I have been so excited to receive a parcel
for a long time!
The control box functions in exactly the same way as it did before the modification, but is now fully accessible. I think I would have purchased the mod just to
have the directional modes spoken, but of course there is so much more to it.
The SteppIReader comes with a 4 button keypad and speaker unit that plugs into
the rear of the controller. The only visible modification to the SteppIR control box itself is the addition of the port for the new keypad.
The LCD display on the SteppIR control box has two lines of 16 characters. The first button on the SteppIReader keypad reads both lines of the display, plus the antenna direction which is taken by new internal connections to the LED’s.
Button one therefore reads the control box mode, the frequency, and the direction.
Typically, it might say:
‘General Mode, 18.050mHz, 180.’
Button 2 reads the top line of the display, and button 3 reads the bottom line. Button 4 toggles automatic speech on and off.
I have the original SteppIR control box, and in Ham mode the antenna can be adjusted manually. As the band buttons are pressed, the controller’s frequency is now spoken by the SteppIReader. ** I understand the terminology for General and Ham modes has changed in the new SDA 100 controller.
In general mode, the antenna is adjusted automatically if the interface board is fitted. In this scenario, the frequency is now spoken as new bands are selected using the radio, and is again spoken as the antenna adjusts every 50kHz, as you tune through a band. I really like this feature, as it is wonderful to have the SteppIReader unobtrusively telling me what the antenna is doing.
There is a potential to damage the antenna if high power is used while it is adjusting, and it can be very easy to miss the visual indicator, even for sighted users. The SteppIReader handles this by beeping when the antenna elements are moving.
With the introduction of the SDA 100 controller, the little used Options menu has moved to the main Setup menu. This means the Option menu is now displayed on the LCD display, and is spoken by the SteppIReader. The options menu is still accessible using a light probe on the original controller, and I would imagine the inclusion of spoken prompts would have required a lot of complex internal connections for very little benefit.
Undoubtedly, the major achievement of the SteppIReader is the complete access it gives to the Setup menu. The real excitement for a blind operator is to now be able to use the Create/Modify menu. This allows the operator to independently adjust any of the elements, and save the setting. I won’t write pages on the Setup menu, but its use is much more easily explained in the audio demonstration on this page. Also, if you own the original SteppIR controller, the SteppIReader gives you full control over the Calibration and Retraction functions.
Finally, I need to mention the SteppIReader’s own Configurability. The volume of the voice can be raised or lowered by holding buttons 1 and 2, and the configuration menu is entered by holding button 3. Hear you can tailor the voice to your requirements with Volume, Rate, and Tone adjustments, and change a host of parameters. the configuration even allows you to enable or disable speech for various constant indicators on the display, such as the letter M that is shown when the antenna lengths have been modified, or the letter P that is shown when the 6m passive element has been added. Just in this respect, the understanding that there might be a need to suppress unnecessary repetitions on the display is outstanding.
In my experience, it is unusual to find a third party accessibility solution for a piece of amateur radio equipment, and almost unheard of to fine one with this level of technical integration. This is a 10 out of 10 product, and is truly breathtaking in its concept and application.