Correction: In a previous version of this story, K5UTD was wrongly denoted. The Mercury regrets this error.
Elation filled Michael Aldridge as he methodically fumbled with the amateur device. Using only spare parts from other devices and old radios, Aldridge and his club had done it: They made contact with a Russian radio station in Moscow.
Aldridge is the vice president of K5UTD. The club is an amateur radio organization that specializes in using electrical and telecommunications engineering knowledge to build contraptions. These devices can be used to communicate with other areas from far-away countries to various counties in Texas. The group also uses the technologies to measure climate data from high altitudes and compete in contests.
K5UTD is not only a club at the university, but also an organization recognized by the Federal Communications Commission as of 1995.
“As a UTD organization, we participate in bringing freshmen on board, helping students get their license to go on air and promoting the cool engineer knowledge that can be gained working on (amateur radio),” Aldridge said. “An example would be like trying to contact every county in Texas in under 24 hours.”
Aldridge, a software engineering senior said the members of the club are always eager to communicate with new places.
“We are at the right point latitude wise to be able to bounce a signal to Japan,” Aldridge said. “Because of where both places are on Earth, we are able to reflect a signal around a layer in the atmosphere.”
Part of the appeal for Aldridge is contacting different cultures and people using similar technology.
“You stay up all night trying to talk to faraway places, and then when you are talking to someone, it’s someone who shares your interests,” Aldridge said.
Aside from communicating to other areas, Aldridge said that launching weather balloons is a major component of the club. He was able to experience this aspect when he attended a summer camp hosted through UTD that led to his involvement in the club.
“We got to send a weather balloon up to 70,000 feet,” Aldridge said. “There are not a lot of affordable radio technologies that can work over that distance, so we chose to use amateur radio technology which would allow us to send weather, altitude and battery life information back to the ground.”
Andrew Koenig, a telecommunications engineering senior and the president of K5UTD, said the club doesn’t have any projects set in stone just yet but weather balloons continue to be a major focus.
“We’re always working on the next weather balloon payload,” Koenig said. “The big talk right now is to figure out how to capture the huge solar eclipse next summer from a high altitude.”
Since weather balloons are an ongoing project for the club, Koenig and Aldridge continue to test new ideas and software to ensure the best results.
“More recently, we have been working on a platform which uses a small Linux computer,” Aldridge said. “(Koenig) has written a software that will allow it to take a picture and dynamically switch from transmitting the position over to transmitting the picture, getting a picture taken from 70,000 feet. It is a very humbling moment to be able to see the curvature of the Earth taken from a device you built.”
Another function of K5UTD includes weather tracking for the weather service in Texas.
“The weather service trains us to go out and spot weather events.” Koenig said. “Say there is a huge hail storm. With (amateur radio) operation, we have direct channels to talk to the radio service, so we will position ourselves in the storm and report back to them. We can give them a clue as to what is going on in the real world.”
Aldridge said his desire to join the club spurred from an interest he has had in radio broadcasting since he was a child.
“I lived in a small town where we had a very high power AM radio station, and we got to take a tour of it,” Aldridge said. “They had a huge vacuum tube inside a metal cage and I realized that’s what’s transmitting the music. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’ and it became a question of how was the music going from the CD player into this thing that’s glowing like a lightbulb and then coming out of the radio?’”
Electrical engineering sophomore Joseph White-Swift said the knowledge he gains from being in the club has both helped him excel in his major as well as network.
“As a radio ham in general, I have been offered a number of opportunities that I would not have otherwise had, and have met a lot of mentors and engineers who have mentored me and continue to aid in my learning,” White-Swift said.
He said it’s enjoyable and reassuring knowing there are other people who share his hobby both in the club as well as in the places they are able to reach with the devices.
“From our ham shack here at UTD, we talk to people across the street, across town, and across the world,” White-Swift said. “We are able to do all of this in real time, not through a network or links like a phone system, but the voice you are hearing come out of your radio is the voice that is going into someone else’s.”