Amateur radio enthusiasts hunt for faulty remote car starters
The members of the Southwest Amateur Radio Club have added a new item to the list of club activities.
These amateur radio enthusiasts have recently been using their equipment a number of times to track down faulty remote car starters in Swift Current that were causing interference with other devices.
“We ran into the first one about a year and a half ago,” club member Ray Gowan said. “There were quite a few complaints from people in the area that couldn't start their cars with their command starters. Nobody understood why that would be. So we got looking into it and realized there was something transmitting right on the frequency that they used.”
They used their ham radio skills and got involved in a bit of a detective game for a couple of months before they were able to locate the remote car starter that caused the problem.
“We're getting better at it too,” he said. “The first one took a long time, but we've developed some equipment.”
They are using a specific brand of hand-held directional antenna, which they feel is best for their needs to track down the interfering transmissions from a faulty remote car starter.
This antenna has a receiving element as well as other elements to reflect and direct a signal back to the receiving element. The different antenna elements have a triangular effect to optimize the reception of signals.
“So it's similar to the way a dish works, not quite as effective, but it's good enough,” he said. “This seems to work quite well for what we need.”
The antenna is then simply connected to one of the club’s hand-held radio receivers, and so far they have been able to pick up signals from faulty remote car starters with this setup.
“What happens is there's a transmitter just locked on transmitting on a certain frequency,” he explained. “Once we find where that signal is, what frequency it is, then we can get a reading with this. Depending on where we point, you get stronger and weaker readings. So with triangulation and a couple of good directions, you can hone in on where it is.”
These triangulation and tracking methods are similar to the transmitter hunting exercises that club members will teach to local scouts during the annual Jamboree on the Air (JODA) in the fall.
“We practice radio direction finding at our JODA event,” Gowan said. “It's something that amateurs do, looking for hidden transmitters. It's an interesting part of the hobby and this falls right into the same type of thing.”
According to club member Lloyd Fehr these hunts have been good for team building, because they have to work together to locate a vehicle. At the same time the club sees it as a way to provide a public service to the community.
“I want people to be safe and I want our club to be known as guys who actually go and help people,” he said.
He felt this is an issue that can potentially become more significant, due to the growing number of devices that send out signals on various frequencies.
“More vehicles are using wireless technology,” he said. “We're always using our cellphones, we're using Wi-Fi, we're using Bluetooth. Those are three different frequencies right there that we're using and 15 years ago it wasn't nearly as much.… If something is broadcasting badly or not doing what it's supposed to, then that's when the problem starts.”
This issue received some significant media and public attention earlier this year in Carstairs, Alberta, when a remote car starter caused interference in a grocery store’s parking lot. The Southwest Amateur Radio Club actually contacted amateur radio operators in that area to tell them about their experiences in Swift Current.
It took a few weeks before the cause of the problem in Carstairs was identified by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED, formerly known as Industry Canada).
The Southwest Amateur Radio Club has spoken to the ISED office in Regina to make them aware of what the club has been doing in Swift Current.
“They do rely on amateur radio people,” Fehr said. “They want more information about it, so they can help if other people call in with complaints about that.”
After the initial case about 18 months ago, the Southwest Amateur Radio Club dealt with this issue at three other occasions. They were never able to pinpoint the source of the second complaint of interference, but they suspected it was a cable television signal leak.
“We think it was one of the transmission lines that was not properly terminated and was creating a little bit of a problem, but they fixed it and everything went away,” he said. “We think it was a box that was not properly shielded.”
The third case was dealt with by Fehr, who operates a vehicle electronics installation and repair business in Swift Current. He was contacted by someone from Manitoba who was visiting family in the city, and who suspected his vehicle had a faulty remote car starter.
“We unplugged it and we actually saw a broken wire on the antenna,” he recalled. “So we took the wire out, put a new wire in, charged him for the new wire, and they were happy, because they were driving around for months and there were people who couldn't unlock their doors and they finally realized it was them after we talked.”
The most recent case dealt with by the club was the most interesting one. The initial complaints were about interference in the parking lot at a local mall in Swift Current, but club members were never able to locate the vehicle. They eventually picked up the interfering signal near Fehr’s downtown business and tracked it to a vehicle that was parked on a nearby street.
“Actually, our whole group was listening on that frequency and couldn't hear it and then we heard it,” he said. “That was excellent. That felt good to be able to help other people with that one.”
Anyone who wants to contact the Southwest Amateur Radio Club about this kind of issue, can send an e-mail message to [email protected]
Top: Lloyd Fehr of the Southwest Amateur Radio Club uses a spectrum analyzer in his workshop to illustrate the effect of signal interference on a certain frequency.demonstrates the use of a directional antenna to find an interfering signal.