I’m a long-term radio geek, and I’ve realized that the technology interests me more than actually using it. Having worked with lots and lots of radios (I realized that I have three sitting on my desk, all of which I have used in the past 30 minutes), I’ve concluded that I’d like to start a radio company. Our motto would be, “Our radios don’t suck.”

One of my radios is a ham radio, which is front-panel programmable (FPP), meaning that you can punch in frequencies on the keypad. This is pretty common with ham radios. By contrast, land-mobile radios (things that, say, a police officer would carry) very rarely have FPP capability; in fact, the FCC frowns on certifying radios with that capability, except for certain federal agencies that need to be able to reprogram their radios in the field. However, it’s often offered as a software add-on. But even using the ham radio, it’s really hard to use. Part of the problem is that the radio’s probably a decade old, and the print on the keypad has worn off. So I’m guessing at what buttons do.

There are very few radios with a graphic LCD. Dot-matrix LCDs almost seem cutting-edge in the radio world. By contrast, try to find a cell phone that doesn’t have a big color LCD on it. I have an old Garmin GPS III, and still admire that screen. I think it’s four shades of gray, and fairly high resolution. It’s a nice graphic LCD. It’s so much easier to use, and introduces stuff like the ability to “arrow” around a screen, as opposed to trying to use obscure key combinations. I’d actually love to see something like a 2″ by 2″ e-ink display (which, in addition to looking amazing, would reduce power usage), but it’d be a pain since it’s slow to redraw.

Motorola’s MDC1200 technology is practically ubiquitious in the public safety industry, transmitting a 1200 bps data burst containing a four-digit identifier. This could be so easily improved. Put a little $20 GPS chip in it, and have it transmit GPS coordinates on each transmission. (You could also include stuff like battery level, if on a portable, and information on received signal strength. The latter would be useful to run in the background and plot a map of the radio system’s reach.)

Programming is always a pain. Some of Motorola’s radios are programmed in ways that are so obscure that they border on comical. (I think the goal there is security.) I want to write an XML file for my radio. Put a USB port on the side of the radio. Let me hook it up to a computer, or just plug a thumb drive in and reprogram from that. But consider bigger problems, though. Boston PD switched to an “improved” channel lineup last year. Apparently they worked for weeks to pull radios in at the end of a shift, load up the new set of data, but leave the radios set to old configuration, until all the radios had the new programming in them. And then, at a quiet time one day, they broadcast a message telling officers how to switch to the new configuration. Over-the-air programming is possible, but it’s generally used in some specific situations. (OTACS, Motorola’s Over The Air Channel Steering, to direct a radio to switch to a particular channel, and OTAR, Over the Air Rekeying, to send new encryption keys to the radios.) Why not let the system send out bursts of programming data when the radio system is idle, loading up new programming data in the background, until they’re ready? Obviously, all of these programming things need some security constraints, but that’s trivial to implement.

I’m pretty confident that software-defined radio is going to become ubiquitous in the next decade, but no one’s really making use of it yet, except for uber-geeks in labs. APCO’s Project 25 digital voice (IMBE) has emerged as a standard in digital voice, but it’s meant to be made obsolete in the future by a “Phase II” implementation. Various other technologies have come and gone, such as Motorola’s VSELP. And there exist myriad trunking protocols for larger networks. I want to embrace SDR and use it in everything, “future-proofing” radios. (Of course companies have an incentive to not future-proof their hardware, forcing people to upgrade… But you can still make your money on selling software upgrades!)

Oh, and put an SD slot on the darn thing. Record the audio it receives, letting people play back transmissions they miss. Or host applications. (Or, permit programming!)

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