Marine Radio Month?

Given that we hadn’t seen a marine radio in nearly a year, it was odd to see three in the same month.  Two Uniden’s, a Solara and an Oceanus VHF Marine Radios, and an Icom IC-M700.  The Solara had a defective microphone cable while the Oceanus suffered from a broken n-connector.  (Note to self, don’t try to force a standard UHF connector to mate with an n-connector.  They really aren’t intended to work together!)

The Icom was more interesting.  A visit to the vessel was required so the setup could be tested properly.  An SSB radio, the unit wouldn’t talk nicely to its auto-tuner, or the antenna.  Separating the setup and isolating the radio localized the problem to the radio itself.  Turned out the radio had bad connections on the RF output that flexed at the most in-opportune times.  Returning the radio to the shop was required, followed by re-installation and testing.  Perfection.

Decommission of a Radio Repeater Site

Complete tear-down and decommission of a mountain-top repeater and radio site in Raymond, on top of Holy Cross. Removal of all equipment, and deconstruct a 70′ tower, removing all antennas, tower, and radio-related equipment from the site.  It’s a shame, the view from the location is amazing.

1989 Corvette Bose Car Stereo

On a scale of 1-to-fun, this unit scores a giant…  ugh.

For those unaware, this system is composed of a head unit with CD and tape player, AM/FM tuner, and amplified speakers.  The tuner is a separate box from the head unit, and the amplifiers are incorporated into EACH speaker.  They’re well known for the failure of the amplifiers in the four separate speaker cabinets.

In this case, however, the tape unit was ‘stuck’ with a tape in it, refusing to eject.  The client had one simple request:  Just make the tuner work.  Easier said than done.  To work on the unit on the bench required all three pieces be pulled.  Of course, the wiring harness then became an issue, since numerous connections are required between the pieces just to test.  A reasonable person would expect that pulling the tape from the unit would solve the problem, but such was not to be the case.  Compounding the problem, the tape drive’s belt was broken, as well as one of the tape spindles.  Replacing them did not solve the problem, and required further investigation.  Luckily, we actually had the service manual for the unit, which allowed us to dive into it much deeper than most service shops.

In the end, it turned out that there were more points of failure in the setup – and the switch that signaled the rest of the unit to indicate a tape in the drive was also a point of failure.  We did manage to get the unit working to the customer’s satisfaction – at a fair and reasonable price.

Network Rewire

One of the local businesses in Aberdeen was dealing with network connectivity and telephone issues, in part caused by a system that had been kluged together over many years.  A review of their existing system revealed poor connectivity on multiple fronts, followed by a telephone KSU that had melted due to overheating issues.  Moving the network switch, modems for network access, and installing a new telephone system to a wiring closet (consolidating an otherwise complicated network) with properly installed and fresh wiring, resulted in a stable network and telephone system that satisfied the client.

Story of the Sewer Inspection Camera System

A local plumbing company came to us with a problem.  Their 250′ sewer inspection camera system had died.  They aren’t inexpensive to purchase and they really needed the unit to work to their satisfaction.  Pretty hard to see what’s going on inside a sewer pipe otherwise, right?

Our answer?  Of course.

This was an interesting piece of equipment consisting of a CRT monitor (old school, picture tube) with a VHS tape recording unit in a pretty solid metal housing.  From there you plug in a magic wand – let’s think a king-sized colonoscopy inspection wand with a light, camera, etc. – which plugs into the monitoring unit, allowing you to see (in real time) what’s going on in that pipe.  What I really liked was the microphone on the end of the probe so you could hear the water from 250′ away.

This was a fairly old unit and it had obviously seen better days, but the quality of the picture was surprisingly good.  For $8,000 one would expect this to be the case.  This unit showed it’s age by failing it’s vertical scan – a thin line across the screen was the result.  After replacing all the capacitors, which had aged and leaked, and cleaning up the circuit board, the unit generally worked – except that it wouldn’t properly lock the horizontal sync signal.  After spending a few hours looking for the source of the problem, it was determined that the simpler solution would be to put a reset button on the unit, forcing horizontal lock.  That worked great and the unit has a beautiful picture.

Not many people in Washington that could/would take on the project.  This is pretty typical for TechLab.

1987 Called…

Client brought in a problem:  Old data worth a lot of money on some old floppy disks.  Old.  Floppy.  Disks.  5.25″ floppy disks.  C’mon, people!  I know I’m old, but do you feel compelled to make me return to my middle years?!

So the customer needs the data back from the disks, but doesn’t have a computer to work with.  “I think it was DOS 3.3.”  No underlying application to open the files.  In a database.  Can it get any better?

Digging through the collection of odd saved items filed under 1980’s we found a high-end 486 DX-2/66 that made me feel even older than I did the day the disks walked in the door.  A little clean-up, replaced fans, checked the hard drive and found it fairly functional.  Replaced the operating system on the drive with an old copy of DOS 6.22, hoping it would run without too much drama.  Somewhere around here I know there’s an old set of dBase III floppys I’ve hoarded.  Ah!  Found ’em!  Amazingly I had a 5.25″ drive, gave it a cleaning and checked the dBase disks – woo hoo!  Installation successful!

Let’s take a look at those data discs and see what the story is.  Oh, damn…  I knew it couldn’t be that easy.  The data on the disks isn’t reading well – a problem that can occur because the magnetic media is old and losing its magnetism, or for a few other reasons.  Some say it’s scary that I remember those days, and the process for aligning the heads of a 5.25″ drive.  The nice thing was that you could slightly mis-align the heads to compensate for non-compliant drives and recordings, a headache in the ‘old days.’

It took some doing, but we were finally able to read the data reliably and import into dBase, giving us a method to work with the data.  After some research to find instructions related to dBase we were able to extract the data in a form that was usable – and slowly write the exports to floppy so we could migrate it to a modern SQL database.

I was happy with the outcome, as was the customer.  Customer felt the data would be the equivalent of $300k to reproduce.

Video Surveillance for Drive-by Vandals

The client complained that someone drove by his business and shot out his windows with a BB or pellet gun of some type, probably a fully automatic type, judging by the damage done to the building.

A careful review of the premises and consideration for traffic on the streets around the building allowed us to develop a layout for surveillance cameras that would provide optimal observation of the perimeter of the building and drivers around the building to be observed.

One of the points raised during the survey of the building went beyond the concept of recording and observation.  Frequently, it is in the client’s best interest to fully inform the world regarding the existence of cameras.  The clear knowledge that cameras are functional and recording has a significant impact on the behavior of those who know they’re being observed.

No further drive-by shooting craziness has been reported since the blatant installation of the surveillance system.

AIS and The Fishing Boat

This was fun, until Bob lost his lunch…  LOL

Customer needed to know what was going on around him while he was out on the water.  As a commercial fishing vessel, he needed a solution and AIS was the answer.  Automatic Identification System (AIS) provides automatic tracking of ships and identifies vessels by electronically exchanging data with other nearby ships, AIS base stations, and satellites.

In this case, the client wanted to take his laptop out on the boat and overlay his charts with the AIS data to provide him with electronic intelligence:  Who else is fishing in the area (assuming they have an AIS)?  What large vessels are likely to interfere with fishing operations?  What vessel is closest in the event of an emergency?  ASI can provide all this information in an easily digested format.

In this case, the client needed the system set up, installed and tested on-board the vessel.  A trip out with the boat into open waters during a crab-run seemed like a great time to do this.  We were able to set the unit up and do some preliminary testing, but wanted to see how the package would work under real conditions, so we headed out to pick up the pots.  Probably shouldn’t have stayed below-deck with the diesel fumes, probably should have eaten something before going out, a few different lessons learned in the process that resulted in an engineer hanging over the gunwale looking at the water as it flew by.

The test was productive and the outcome positive, at least for the AIS project.  A few hours of presence on semi-dry land restored the engineer’s stomach.  What a fun experience!

All Hands on Deck for the Winter Storm of 2013-14

Winter of 2013, in case you’ve forgotten, was pretty ugly.  A major storm came through the region with high winds and lightning to finish the event.

During the course of the storm Westside Paging, sister company to TechLab, took a huge hit at Cosmopolis Hill.  As a result of the storm, several antennas on the 200-foot tower were damaged, as was transmission cable, paging equipment, transmitters and receivers.  The damage was extensive, but we were able to swing into action immediately and start bringing services back to life within a short period of time.

The repairs took several months to complete, due to equipment that was difficult to obtain.  In the end, the system was restored to fully functional status.

–an interesting update–

A year later, almost to the day, another storm rolled into the area, producing significantly more lightning than the previous year.  Called to determine why the system wasn’t operating after the storm, we examined the system and determined that (a) someone had stolen the grounding system from the tower (copper thieves); (b) lightning had entered the facility and done extensive damage to several pieces of equipment.  Due to a continuing decline in the use of paging and analog radio communications, Westside Paging elected to close their operations.  This resulted in TechLab’s removal of all equipment from the facility, preparing the facility for a new owner.

Steak & Shrimp Theft Drives Business Owner Crazy

A local business owner became frustrated with repeated thefts of food from his hotel kitchen.  Steak, prawns and other expensive frozen food kept disappearing from the restaurant, frequently by the case.  Losses were mounting and TechLab was asked if we could come up with a solution.  The business owner wanted evidence he could use in court to prosecute the thief, but didn’t want to cast suspicion on every employee – some that had been working at the facility for several years.

After consulting with the business owner, we raised an additional point that hadn’t been considered:  Taking security action that would be seen by everyone could serve to drive the thief underground and was unlikely to bring closure.  It was decided that covert surveillance cameras would be installed near the freezers, and a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) would be installed in a hidden security enclosure that only the owner would have access to.  Further, the install would occur in the early morning hours when the restaurant was closed and staff were off-shift.  We customized a few smoke detectors to appear somewhat aged, blending in with the surroundings of the facility, and incorporated small HD cameras that provided great images, even in low-light situations.  The DVR recorded 24/7.  During the course of the install a discussion about till shortages came up and it was decided that installing a separate camera to observe the till would be implemented in another visit.

Within 3 days the facility owner called to let us know that he had successfully identified the thief, but was unsure how he wanted to proceed.  He decided to re-schedule the employee with several days off in succession, buying the owner with time to sort out his solution.  However, two days later the owner noticed that a case of expensive steaks was missing and he returned to the video and determined that someone else – a manager – had come into the facility after-hours and taken the steaks.

A meeting was had with the owner and we suggested that he contact the local police department, asking for a private meeting at a location unrelated to the business to discuss the matter with law enforcement.  We suggested that the video be shown to the police, and we facilitated the transfer of video data to DVD for law-enforcement use.  It was suggested that a short period of time be given to see if till shortage issues could also be addressed before word of the camera footage was make public knowledge.

After a week without a till shortage and both suspected employees on temporary leave, law enforcement decided to make their move and arrested both employees for theft.  The owner conducted a meeting with his remaining employees and explained the steps he had taken, as well as his reasons for taking them.  Following the meeting another employee came forward and admitted several thefts from the cash register.  That employee resigned her position and law enforcement was notified, but no further action was taken.

The surveillance system is still operational and has required no service or maintenance since install.  I’d call that a win.