Tactical Tracking System
This page describes a Tactical Tracking System for high altitude balloons – or any other object – based on the Automatic Position Reporting System (APRS). The term Tactical Tracking here refers to real-time tracking and chasing, where the coordinates of the tracked object are received in real time and sent to a navigation unit that is able to dynamically update the target coordinates.
The tracking system is based on APRS and has many years of heritage. When used on standard amateur radio APRS frequencies it can take advantage of the existing global APRS network of digipeaters and IGates, but it can also be used in point-to-point links on any suitable frequency including unlicensed bands.
In addition to position reporting, the system can also transmit telemetry read via analog and/or digital inputs.
The page is intended to present a reliable tracking solution for those not already familiar with APRS. If you are already using APRS, you may find the information on this page trivial.
The tracking system consists of the following subsystems:
- The transmitter placed on-board the balloon. It transmits GPS coordinates and other telemetry at regular intervals.
- The global APRS network that receives the APRS packets from the balloon via digipeaters and IGates and publishes them on the Itnernet, see http://aprs.fi/ – this can be used to follow the balloon trajectory from anywhere over the Internet.
- A mobile APRS receiver station that is used for real time tactical navigation in the field where no Internet is available. This station receives the APRS packets directly from the balloon.
A functional diagram of the complete tracking system is shown below followed by a description of each functional block.
- GPS Receiver
- The GPS receiver tracks GPS satellites and calculates the position of the balloon in real time. It sends standard NMEA formatted data to the APRS packet encoder. Besides the obvious low mass and power requirements, it is very important that the GPS receiver works above the 18km limit.
- APRS Encoder (TNC)
- The APRS encoder takes the input digital data (position and telemetry) and converts it into 1200bps AFSK audio signal. In other words, this is where the conversion from digital data to analog signal takes place.
- FM Transmitter
- The FM transmitter converts the audio signal containing the 1200bps AFSK data to VHF or UHF radio signal.
- FM Receiver
- The FM Receiver receives the VHF/UHF radio signals and converts it into audio signal that contains the 1200bps AFSK data.
- APRS Decoder (TNC)
- The APRS decoder decodes the received AFSK data into APRS packets from where the balloon position and telemetry can be extracted. Technically, this is where the conversion from analog signal to digital data occurs.
- Tactical Navigator
- Car navigation unit that supports tactical navigation (chasing). It receives balloon position data from the TNC and plots it on the map. In tactical mode it updates the route from the current location to the target location (balloon position) in real time.
- Telemetry Logger
- This functional unit is used to log the received APRS packets from the balloon, both position report and telemetry packets. This can be a simple laptop or netbook connected to the TNC.
- Digipeaters and IGates
- These are automatically part of the system if using amateur radio APRS frequencies. This is an existing infrastructure and will not be described further here.
This section presents the physical components of the tracking system and provides a mapping for each component to the functions they provide.
|Component||Description||Functions (see above)|
|Garmin GPS 18x LVC||GPS receiver with built-in antenna||GPS Receiver|
|OpenTracker+ SMT||APRS Encoder (TNC)|
|SRB MX146LV||FM Transmitter|
|Kenwood TM-D710E||FM Receiver, APRS Decoder (TNC)|
|AvMap G5||Personal navigator with APRs support||Tactical Navigator|
Garmin GPS 18x LVC
The GPS 18x LVC is a small, highly accurate GPS sensor featuring a 12-parallel-channel, WAAS-enabled GPS receiver and an integrated magnetic base. The receiver is 2.4 inches in diameter and weighs just 115 grams (depending on cable length), and it can operate at extremely high altitudes.
The unit defaults to output data in the industry standard NMEA 0183 data format, but may also be user programmed to output data in the GARMIN proprietary format. It also provides a pulse-per-second logic level output whose rising edge is aligned to the UTC second within 1 microsecond.
|Accuracy||less than 15 m standard, less than 3 m WAAS|
|Supply voltage||4.0 to 5.5 VDC|
|Current consumption||60 mA at 5.0 V|
|Size||61 mm diameter, 19.5 mm height|
|Operating temperature||-30°C to +80°C|
|Data interface||NMEA or Garmin|
|Electrical interface||Wire (RS232)|
The OpenTracker+ is an open source APRS tracker that receives NMEA data from a GPS receiver, encodes it into APRS packets and generates AFSK signal suitable for audio input to an FM transmitter. It can also transmit telemetry data that is read from the built-in temperature sensor (non-SMT version) as well as the available ADC channels.
OpenTracker+ can be purchased assembled and tested or as a kit. Additionally, there is an SMT version, which is the one we are using. The SMT version does not include a built-in temperature sensor or LEDs.
|Specifications for SMT version|
|Supply voltage||DC 6.5 to 28V unregulated or 5V DC regulated|
|Current consumption||8 mA idle, 20 mA transmitting|
|Size||31x18x5 mm (24-pin DIP footprint)|
|GPS interface||NMEA in/out|
|Mechanical interfaces||Pin-header or wire|
|1||5VIN||Regulated 5-volt input|
|2||RXD||RS-232 data in (from GPS or computer)|
|3||1WIRE||Dallas 1-wire bus for external sensors|
|4||AOUT||Audio out to radio|
|8||RST||Reset (active low)|
|10||IRQ||Transmit-now, profile select, or counter|
|13||AIN||Audio input from radio|
|16||TXD||RS-232 data out|
|17||RED||Red LED output|
|18||GREEN||Green LED output|
|21||PTT||Push-to-talk signal to radio|
|22||REGOUT||Regulator output - 5 volts|
|24||REGIN||Regulator input - 6.5 to 28 volts|
The MX146 is an embeddable VHF transmitter module from SRB Electronics. It's programmable for any frequency from 144-148 MHz in 2.5 kHz steps, or it can be used on one of 16 pre-programmed frequencies.
The MX146 comes in two versions:
- +8VDC version that gives > 500mW RF out
- +5VDC version that gives > 350mW RF out
We chose the 5V version because its lower power consumption and to allow operation of all components from a single 5VDC supply. In addition to the lower power consumption, the 5V version is capable of higher duty cycle than the 8V version.
|Specifications (5V version)|
|Frequency range||144MHz to 148MHz|
|Modulation||Digital injection modulation|
|Modulation Sensitivity||23kHz/V (typ)|
|Spurious suppression||> 80dB (channel spacing > 10kHz, typ)|
|Frequency stability||+/5ppm (typ)|
|Turn On delay (after PTT)||25msec (typ)|
|Output power||min 350mW into 50Ω (400mW typ)|
|Supply voltage||+5VDC (4.7V to 6V)|
|Current consumption||1mA stdby, TBD mA TX|
|Operating temperature||-40°C to +85°C|
|Mechanical interfaces||Pin-header or wire|
The Kenwood TM-D710E is a VHF/UHF transceiver featuring a dual receiver (receive to frequencies at the same time), built in packet TNC and APRS support.
The APRS support is extremely well suited for tactical tracking when combined with the AvMap G5 navigation unit.
The TM-D710E can perform the following functions in balloon tracking (some are TBC):
- Direct reception of APRS packets from the balloon
- Send received balloon position to the AvMap G5 tactical navigator (or other unit that supports the Kenwood format)
- Digipeat received balloon packets
- Get own location from AvMap G5 GPS (or other compatible GPS receiver)
- Send own location via APRS network.
With the optional VGS-1 voice unit installed the TM-D710E can even read out loud the received APRS packets.
|Receiver||118-524 and 800-1300 MHz|
|Transmitter||2m and 70cm amateur bands|
|TX power||5 / 10 / 50W|
|Modes||F1D, F2D, F3E|
|Voltage||13.8 V DC ±15%|
|RX Current||< 1.2A at 2W audio out|
|TX Current||5.0 / 6.5 / 13.0A|
|Operating temperature||-20°C to +60°C|
|Weight||1.2 + 0.3 kg|
The AvMap G5 is a personal navigator with vuilt-in 20-channel GPS receiver. What distinguishes the AvMap G5 from other personal navigators is that it has special firmware that supports APRS and it can be interfaced to the Kenwood TM-D710E (or other APRS TNCs). Thus the G5 + TM-D710 provide the desired tactical navigation functions out of the box without any hacking!
The built in APRS functionality allows the AvMap G5 to receive APRS data from the TM-D710 and plot it on the map using the APRS symbols. In tactical mode, the AvMap G5 can navigate to the position of an APRS station even if the station is moving, see video below.
At the same time, the AvMap G5 can send GPS data to the TM-D710, which then can use this to report it's own location via APRS. In practice this means that those following the event via the web, e.g. http://aprs.fi/ can follow both the balloon and the chasing car at the same time. (TBC since I don't yet have the TM-D710 so I don't know if this is actually possible)
- Website: http://www.geosat.us/ or http://www.avmap.it/
- QST Review
- AvMap G5 videos on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/w6gps#p/u
Not yet decided... This will most likely be a lightweight laptop or netbook that can connect to the TM-D710 and record the received packets. Also TBC if this is at all necessary – maybe the AvMap G5 can perform this function.
Mass and Power Budget
Using a roof mounted car antenna as well as MGA