Saturday, 2 May 2015

CHIRP, connection cables with FTDI chips, and Ubuntu Linux...!

OK. As many of you know, I'm a licenced Radio Amateur, and have been since 1985. Thirty years. Ye Gods, time flies! Anyhow, one of the core values and purposes of the hobby of Amateur Radio is defined - and this is straight of the OFCOM website - as: "Amateur radio, sometimes known as ham radio, is both a hobby and a service that uses various types of radio equipment allowing communication with other radio amateurs for the purpose of self-training, recreation and public service."

It's a hobby, so recreation and self-training is a major aspect; the service side comes in in times of emergency and similar; think of the various natural disasters that have happened around the world - most recently in Nepal - and there will undoubtedly be Radio Hams passing emergency communications from the disaster area to the unaffected world, to enable supplies, relief personnel, and so on, to be arranged and transported into the area.

Not all communications between Hams is emergency related, of course; indeed, not every radio ham will ever be involved in such traffic; most of us get into the hobby due to an interest in the radios, the operating methods, and the friendships - often life-long - that can be generated through the hobby; it's even been known for people to met their life partners (husbands, wives, etc.) through the hobby!

However, to be able to do even a fraction of the above, we have to have working and effective radios. And that's what this Blant article's about.

The following is a somewhat verbose and specialised set of notes relating to both Amateur Radio, and Ubuntu Linux usage. If you aren't a Radio Amateur, and possibly if you aren't a Linux User as well as a Radio Amateur, it'll probably be as useful and as meaningful as the static noise floor you can hear between stations on your FM car stereo! Consider yourself forewarned ;-)

So. I have, currently, three radios. A pair of Yaesu rigs - a VX-5R VHF/UHF tri-band FM-only hand held, and an FT-817 multi-band all-mode 'portable', and my latest hand held, an Icom ID-51A digital and analogue hand held, that utilises the proprietary D-STAR Digital Voice system.

A few years ago, a car of mine was stolen, and in the boot (because I hadn't unloaded it that evening, being dog-tired after an event) was a laptop, ALL my connecting cables, the software that I used to program the radios I had at the time, and the dual-band mobile rig I used at the time, an FT-7800R, which was a bloody good radio. The car was stolen, and the kit was never recovered, even though the car was (later judged to be an insurance write-off). So. Hard lesson learned.

I hadn't got around to replacing a lot of the kit until recently, and since I'd converted from Windows on my PC to Ubuntu Linux, a lot of the software was now useless.

So, I went looking, and found CHIRP. CHIRP is an open-source Ham radio programming aid. It allows Radio Amateurs to program a wide variety of different males and models of radios from one computer program, with remarkable ease.

Or at least, it should, if your machine is set up correctly.

You guessed it. Mine wasn't.

So. The first problem was connecting cables for the VX-5R. It's an 'obsolete' radio (hell, it's so obsolete that Yaesu have released 3 subsequent models of the darn thing - see for more info) but, while mine still works nicely (I look after my rigs), the memory was well cluttered, and was in a truly desperate need of a clean-out.

The easy way to do this would be to connect the radio to the computer, upload the memory files, amend and update them, and then download them back to the radio. But, to do this, one needs a connecting cable. And that's where the first problem came along.

Now, like many modern (-ish) computers these days, my notebook doesn't have any serial (RS232) ports: It has two USB2 and one USB3 ports; the USB3 port runs off to my USB3 hub (an Easy-Acc C72 Smart hub, running a number of different things from my printer, to some external hard drives, and so on), one of the USB2 ports houses the wireless dongle for my external keyboard and mouse (much easier to use than the Toshiba-supplied mess on the notebook itself), and the third is free for other uses, so that's what I'd be plugging any cable into.

So, time get a USB to 4-pole VX-5-compatible cable. Evilbay time. Or NOT. Here's where the second problem cropped up. Most of the cables out there are using Prolific chips. Or at least, that's what they say they use. The problem is that there are so many fake chips and cables out there, that do NOT work, that it's hard to figure out which ones are legit or not. Dan Smith, who designed and wrote CHIRP recognised this, and (somewhat clipped from the original) has the following to say:

  • Avoid USB programming cables that appear to be based on the Prolific PL-2303 USB chip.
  • Cables based on the FTDI USB chip are recommended.
  • RT Systems cables are not recommended for use with CHIRP.

I'll add that since version 10.04, Linux has recognised and had the drivers for FTDI chips, so no drivers should be needed to be downloaded for any FTDI-capable cable to work on my machine.

So, an FTDI cable. I decided to look over Ebay again, and found a supplier in the USA (bluemax49ers) with a good reputation. I ordered a cable from him (, which cost me a shade over £16, and waited. It arrived within a week, which given that it came via USPS regular postage was nothing short of amazing!

So, time to plug it in and see what happened.

Ah. Yeah. Problem. It told me that the port I was trying to use, "/dev/ttyUSB0" was generating an "Access denied" error. At least it wasn't throwing up a cable error, so that cable was working, just not the port: That WAS something I should be able to rectify, with a leeeeettle help from the various information sources out there on the internet...

Now, this is Linux we're talking about here, and there's a veritable WEALTH of information out there to help fix the problems one tends to encounter.

I found, eventually, a good reference, and solution, for this problem here (; Seems that the Ubuntu Linux Operating System limits what the USB ports can do - this is good, it means that the inherent security in the OS works properly, but for my purposes, I needed to drill a small hole in it, to allow my radio to talk with the computer, and vice verse. So, the instruction was to open a terminal window, and enter the following:

sudo groupadd dialout
sudo gpasswd -a username dialout
where username is the name of the user.

This did the trick, and I was in business; I fired up CHIRP, connected the cable to the radio, and cut a long story short, I'd managed to tidy up the memory channels on my old radio.

This took the better part of an evening's work, say about three hours including the time to tidy the memory files, so all told, I'm reasonably satisfied.

The other two radios shouldn't be that much of a problem; the ID-51E uses a MicroSD card for its files, and that's easy to deal with, and while I've yet to try it, for my the FT-817ND, I've laid my hands on the BlueCAT bluetooth adaptor, and a copy of FT-817 Commander which will run under WINE on my notebook, so hopefully, no worries. I'll add another chapter in this topic should I encounter problems with the 817.

I hope the above helps someone in a similar situation!

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