Continuing in our series on communications, I want to get into a situational awareness tool known as ATAK. Now, depending on which version you have, ATAK either stands for Android Tactical Assault Kit or Android Team Awareness Kit. Since probably most people reading this are civilian, you’ve got the second version. ATAK is a pretty complex piece of gear if you take the time to really get into it, but the 30-second description is that ATAK is a tool that allows a user to integrate multiple functions into a single awareness picture. Without ATAK, you might have 4-5 different apps on your phone running mapping, texting, drones, or other functions. ATAK, through the use of plug-ins, allows all of that at once – providing you with a single app with a complete (ish) picture of your space.
Why do I care about this as a civilian? Because ATAK has a lot of applications outside the military realm, with the most obvious being disaster response. Most of us that are entering into preparedness are far more likely to encounter a disaster (most likely natural) than a war if we’re being honest. Think of Hurricane Harvey, Superstorm Sandy, the middle Tennessee floods, tornadoes in the Midwest – there’s no shortage of examples. ATAK can be an invaluable tool if we have it, train with it, and use it correctly.
With all that said, ATAK really isn’t useful if we can’t communicate with it. There are three main ways that ATAK can communicate in the civilian world – cellular/internet, radio, and mesh networks. Because we don’t have access to the nifty comms gear that the military (especially special ops) has, we’re forced to use commercially available gear. For the time being, I think we should disregard cellular/internet, because we need to train as if it won’t be there. That leaves us radios and mesh networks. I’m going to try to cover both of these in this series, starting with radios.
As you can tell from the title, I’ve focused my efforts thus far on integrating ATAK with Baofeng radios. Why is that? Because the Baofeng is the most popular radio out there in the preparedness world right now. I’m not going to say the Baofeng is the best radio, because it’s not. But it is probably the most popular. For that reason, I’d really love to say I’ve figured out how to make ATAK and Baofeng play nicely together.
But as you’ve probably guessed – I haven’t….
To explain why ATAK and Baofengs hate each other is a little complicated, but I’ll do my best given that I’m not a comms guy or an engineer. Baofengs are analog radios. ATAK is digital and runs on a computer (your phone). To make those two compatible, we have to go old school with a modem. The modem in this case is called HAMMER (Handheld Acoustic Modem for Mobile Exchanges with Radios). If you’re as old as I am, you remember the old dial-up modems and HAMMER makes sense. If you aren’t, HAMMER takes data and converts it to sound to be sent over a cable to your radio via the VOX (voice activation) setting, then over the airwaves, and then converts it back to data on the other end. The problem arises when the radio itself can’t process the sound/data fast enough to make it work. This is the issue we have with the Baofengs.
HAMMER has a lot of tools within it to customize the interface between the phone (or tablet) and the radio it’s hooked up to. You can add padding to the transmission to ensure the VOX is keyed up, you can calibrate your receiving volume to ensure adequate reception, and you can even set the sample rate for the data transfer over the radio. With a more quality radio, this would probably be more than adequate. However, the lowest sample rate that you can set HAMMER to without it crashing is 4000 Hz. At 3999 Hz, ATAK/HAMMER crashes, consistently. I’ve found this to be true with versions 4.3, 4.4, and 4.5. I can’t get versions 4.1 and 4.2 to run on my phone (a refurbed S10). Based on research on YouTube, GitHub, Reddit, and other sources, it looks like the sample rate needs to be in the 2400 Hz range for the Baofengs to adequately transfer the data. As of now, HAMMER is not capable of this and there isn’t a way to upgrade the Baofengs, which means this combination is currently out as an option.
I’m going to keep an eye out for an updated version of HAMMER that will allow the Baofengs to function. In the mean time, I’m going to try experimenting with other radios. I feel it’s important to have the option to run ATAK over commercially available radios in addition to cellular and mesh networks.
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