Amateur Radio and Satellite Communications Launch at Olin

December 9, 2019

On a dark night in November, a group of Olin students huddled together around a ham radio. Static hissed, and a voice crackled to life. “I can hear you. Can you hear me?” 

After a chance survivalist fiction read piqued junior Cali Wiezbanowski’s interest in amateur radio, a friend at Olin mentioned that Dr. Whitney Lohmeyer, an Assistant Professor of Engineering at Olin, who specializes in the field of satellite communications, is also a licensed "ham” -- meaning, someone who operates amateur radios. After an email exchange and some exploratory work over the summer, a new student group, Olin Collegiate Amateur Radio Club (OCARC), was conceived. 

Led by Cali and Sparsh Bansal ’22, and with Lohmeyer advising, the small but dedicated student club has spent the fall semester building their own amateur radio antennas and learning how to use them to contact other hams in the area.

Just before the Thanksgiving break, OCARC visited the Sci-Tech Amateur Radio Society (STARS) at New England Sci-Tech (NE SciTech) in Natick, MA to meet other hams and test their newly built eggbeater antennas. “I was excited that a lot of people from our club came—we're so new,” said Cali. She and Sparsh are looking forward to more Olin students joining the club, obtaining their ARRL licenses and expanding their amateur radio skills. As the newest ARRL-licensed member of the club, Sparsh made his way to OCARC through his interest in aerospace and Lohmeyer’s research.

In January, Lohmeyer will launch a new satellite communications course at Olin, supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This is a four-year, $4 million collaborative grant with the University of Colorado-Boulder, Stanford University, Georgia Tech, University of Southern Alabama and Western Michigan University. 

As a part of the NSF grant, SWARM-EX, Olin students will design, build, and operate a satellite communications ground station capable of transmitting commands and receiving satellite telemetry and scientific measurements of the ionosphere. The students will also work on end–to-end systems engineering, explains Lohmeyer.

In addition to the interesting educational and scientific opportunities funded through the NSF grant, students in the amateur radio club will be able to utilize the facility to communicate with astronauts on the ISS, says Lohmeyer.

Lohmeyer’s work involves both technical and regulatory aspects of satellite communication systems–including solid-state power amplification devices on the spacecraft, user antennas on the ground, overall link performance, and international spectrum strategy. Her ultimate goal in focusing on these technologies is to better connect underserved areas. “Half the world is not connected to the internet,” says Lohmeyer. It’s easy to forget that staggering statistic in a world where many of us feel constantly connected.

As for Cali, a member of a generation that grew up with the latest technology and social media at their fingertips, she says some of the appeal of amateur radio lies in its simplicity. “Your smartphone is like magic!” she says, explaining that all the parts are hidden, unlike a radio, where “we can figure out how it works, we can build one here,” she says. “We use radio technology for just about everything.”

Back in the cold, dark, NE SciTech parking lot, an answering voice crackled back over the airwaves. “Coming in loud and clear.”