How geek charm turned a WWII maneuver into a competitive sport
Every two years, competitors from 25 different countries descend on a forest, armed with the orientation tools of a bygone era. They wave large pin-type radio receivers – the type you can find riding a retro TV – or small units coiled in the air, listening to hidden messages floating among the trees.
The game they play is called Amateur Radio Direction Finding (ARDF) – a radio-based Marco Polo where athletes often build their own radio receivers and track down five different transmitters hidden in nature. They are racing against time and against each other.
Direction finding has been around for almost as long as radio itself (at the end of the 19th century). The military use it for convenience, using it to “triangulate” or locate hidden military bases, transmitters, and submarines that would otherwise be a secret. (The basics technical, with different technological adaptations, was used both during World War I and WWII.) Now direction-finding has become a sport that combines the geeky charm of amateur radio with the outdoor skills of racing. orientation and endurance of cross-country.
Bob Frey is an ARDF athlete who has competed since 1999 and has competed in four world championships. “It’s a mental game of hide and seek,” says Frey. Reverse. “There are so many parts to it. [You’re thinking], Where am I? In which direction is the transmitter? I hope I don’t get lost.“
Even the best competitors will admit they get lost on occasion. But there is something about the sport that keeps competitors coming back year after year. It’s the rush of the race mixed with the pride that comes from knowing you can trust your brain under pressure.
Jerry Boyd has been an ARDF competitor since 1999 and has competed in three world championships. “If you want to compete, you have to go fast,” Boyd says Reverse. “It’s thinking on the fly.”
What makes amateur radio research a sport? – To really understand ARDF, you need to know the basics of how radios work.
Radio transmitters emit radio waves which are then picked up by radio receivers (the antenna used by ARDF athletes). These transmitters and receivers are typically designed to operate within a predefined set of frequencies, measured in hertz. Two of the main ARDF competitions require searching for transmitters tuned to one of two frequencies: 3.5 MHz (also referred to as the 80-meter competition) or 144 MHz (also referred to as the 2-meter competition).
Each frequency creates a different flavor from the competition, says Ole Garpestad. He is the vice-president of the International Union of Radio Amateurs (IARU), an international governing body for amateur radio operators. Garpestad has chaired the World Amateur Radio Leadership Championships since the first was held in the 1980s.
3.5 MHz competitions require receivers with large antennas. These are difficult to use (people get around this problem by building them from flexible materials that can move through brush, like tape measures), but they provide consistent, accurate signals that make it easier to navigate.
“It’s good for a starter,” says Garpestad Reverse. “It’s even better for a fast runner.”
The 144 megahertz waves do not pass through large objects and could instead be reflected around the forest. Each of these reflections has about 60-70% accuracy, but following a signal with too much confidence can lead a competitor down the wrong track. It can even happen to seasoned competitors like Joseph Huberman, an ARDF athlete from Raleigh, NC, who has competed in five world championships.
“It’s thinking on the fly. “
At a competition in Eastern Europe, Huberman was running along a ridge, certain he was on his way to a transmitter. Suddenly he received a signal that he was going in the wrong direction. He changed course, climbing 70 meters down a gorge to find nothing.
“The signal I was getting had just bounced off the other side of the gorge,” says Huberman. Reverse. The real transmitter was only 30 yards from the trail. He had passed him in pursuit of the reflection. “It’s about using a bunch of different techniques to finally figure out whether something is the right signal or not.”
Competitors do not always find their way back. Sometimes, but not often, a disoriented competitor can slip off in the wild (the courses are usually not large and most elite competitors usually end up doing around 10km of runs). In one particularly dramatic event, Garpestad had to send a search party for a competitor who was not found until the next morning.
In some cases, he attributes these errors to adrenaline and the intensity of ARDF’s defining characteristic: thinking on the fly.
“Once the adrenaline starts to rise, you feel hectic, like you’re in a rush,” he says.. “Then sometimes you make mistakes.”
The Michael Jordan of Amateur Radio Leadership Research – ARDF Champions come in so many varieties as there are so many types of events to be won. The World Championships include four different types of activities:
- The 3.5 MHz competition (80 meters)
- The competition 144 megahertz (2 meters)
- A “sprint” competition, usually organized in a small park, not in a forest
- Foxoring, a low power variant of the ARDF. Competitors are given a map with circles indicating the approximate locations of each transmitter, but must find it themselves once inside the circle.
A world champion is crowned in each of these events in a variety of age categories.
“Almost all of the participating countries had champions,” Garpestad says. But countries in Eastern Europe and Asia tend to dominate, he says, as the sport is more popular there than in Western Europe or the Americas. (At this point, he still says there is no competitor from South America competing at the Worlds yet.)
Frey says competitors from Russia, the Czech Republic and South Korea are often the ones to beat.
The spirit of amateur direction finding – These days, you don’t have to build a receiver from scratch to compete – although many purists still do. Making your own transmitter is often called a “homebrewing” in ARDF circles and forms the basis of DIY culture in the sport.
Garpestad and a stable of “old-timers” cling to the roots of amateur sports radio. “Many of us were proud to have also built [the receiver], “he says. At the start of the sport, fitness came second after the technical aspect.
These days, you need a bit of both. The kits have made antenna construction more accessible, and not all competitors even build their receivers, Garpestad laments. He fears that one day the fast runners will overtake the radio nerds.
“Once the adrenaline starts to build, you feel hectic. “
Fast runners often excel in “simpler” 3.5 MHz competitions – those where you are less likely to be taken off the track by dishonest thinking. But the best players, especially in the more delicate 144-megahertz competition, have yet to understand the intricacies of radio unless they want to end up making their way through the brush chasing a false trail.
Boyd remembers a competitor at the 2001 US Nationals who read signals so badly that he strayed from the map. The team had to send a search party and eventually located him wandering along a forest road. “We found it,” Boyd says. “You know, a few hours after the last person crossed the finish line.”
While runners are a force to be reckoned with, ARDF enthusiasts always love to build things. Boyd has 3D printed custom parts for his projects, and athletes are generally eager to show off their receivers and help others troubleshoot in the parking lot of each competition.
It’s not uncommon to see soldering irons and spare parts on the finish line – proof that the heart of ARDF is always on par with function and radio.
“You are a competitor on a course,” says Frey. “But before that, what if you need a spare receiver?” Hey, no problem. Everyone is ready to help everyone. “
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