Monday, November 11, 2019

Report to Members 6 - AMSAT-NA Board of Directors 2019

Here's a summary of the efforts to date to increase and enable open source engineering policy at AMSAT-NA.

My credentials, positions, and goals with open source are clear. They were established in my candidate and campaign statement, and in writings to the board of directors after the beginning of the 2019 term.

In response, Tom Clark (Director of AMSAT-NA) requested some agenda items for discussion at the in-person board of directors meeting at Space Symposium 2019.

Tom wrote:

"One item I'd like to add to the agenda, as circulated by Joe, is addressed to Michelle. It is quite obvious the O.R.I. and the people on the [Ground-station] email list should be a significant part of AMSAT's GOLF-TEE, GEO and AREx (Amateur Radio Exploration) future activities. I'd like to have some discussion on how the groups can work together. This should include the hot-button topic of the GEO Echostar 9 commercial activity fits into the scheme of amateur radio especially since amateur frequencies are not a part of the picture."

I had requested to the board an agenda item for recognizing Open Research Institute as an AMSAT Member Society. Specifically, to provide a formal structure for safe, sane, and legal open source work for the North American amateur satellite community.

I explained at the Symposium in-person board meeting that Open Research Institute was working with an EFF-recommended law firm to create a written policy for open source communications satellite work for the amateur satellite service, and that we were proceeding with EAR certification based on this work.

None of these items were put on the agenda, which was a big disappointment. There was no call for new business.

However, there was another item on the agenda that will greatly affect open source engineering policy, and that was a set of legal memos from a consulting company that had been contracted to provide them to AMSAT-NA.

These memos are a summary of the ITAR/EAR landscape. They are intended to be a first step towards a written ITAR/EAR policy. That's the good news. The bad news is that both the policy and the company are not oriented towards the open source carve-outs. The summaries are written from the point of view of a consulting firm that focuses squarely on commercial, proprietary, and secret work.

We received the memos the day before the consulting firm was due to meet via telephone during the morning of the second day of the in-person board meeting.

These memos are not bad work products. They are simply the wrong direction. If followed down their logical path, they will lead to two serious and completely unnecessary negative consequences for the organization.

First, the regulatory burden placed on volunteers will be enormous. The cost of compliance with proprietary and secret ITAR/EAR is high. There's documentation that describes what is involved with implementing for-profit oriented ITAR/EAR policies. I brought it up before when recommending GitHub Enterprise as a minimal IT intervention to bring AMSAT-NA into compliance with proprietary ITAR.

Second, the memos appeared to be an answer to a set of instructions that limit the number of organizations that AMSAT-NA wants to work with. This did not appear to include Libre Space, Open Research Institute, and others. Using a written ITAR/EAR policy to exclude organizations that are showing up and contributing significant open source technology and regulatory work is not what many members want. It's the opposite and is incompatible.

Third, AMSAT-NA and ARISS are not for-profit companies. They are organizations with a very large educational component. There is a big risk that embracing proprietary ITAR/EAR policies will end up damaging the educational non-profit status that both organizations currently emphasize and enjoy. There is an obvious alternative that is designed for organizations like AMSAT, and it is not the sort of ITAR direction that this particular consulting firm produced in their summary memos.

Given that I had to make a lot of inferences about these summaries, I asked Joe Spier (and cc'd the board of directors) what instructions were given the consulting firm. This would let me see for sure where the discussion was expected to be going, and what assumptions were being made. I made it clear that was why I wanted the instructions, and that I wanted to work back to the assumptions in order to address any serious disagreements on the direction AMSAT-NA should take. This is part of my job as a director.

I asked for this on 4 November 2019. As of today I haven't gotten a copy of what was sent to the consulting firm. I'm optimistic that it will eventually arrive.

I started looking forward to the first AMSAT-NA teleconference, where I could ask about the memo instructions, ask about member society status for groups like Libre Space and ORI, bring up the Rent-a-GEO opportunity, talk about all the GEO progress made in the open source community and how it can help AMSAT-NA.

Specifically, there is an open source ADAC system with space heritage from Libre Space that would be an excellent place to start. I brought this system up in the in-person board meeting. No interest was expressed, but getting the point across is why I'm there. There's some very interesting open source thruster R&D going on, and several really good complete open source IHU systems. The open source communications systems work that I'm most involved in is just one part of a much larger and rapidly developing community.

So, about that next board meeting. The first Tuesday of the month of November came and went. There was some confusion about whether or not there would be a meeting. There was then some discussion about whether or not there were to be monthly or quarterly or "as needed" teleconferences going forward. Over the past few years, monthly teleconferences have been scheduled. These conferences can be called as a board meeting, and motions can be passed and business handled.

During the in-person board meeting at Symposium, it was asserted by some board members that the regular monthly teleconferences "were not productive" and that there were too many of them. I was surprised to hear this, and said so. The explanation was that nothing much happened and they were not needed. They should be less often or called "as necessary". To me, this means increased uncertainty and potential substantial delays between things getting done.

Given the financial challenges AMSAT-NA faces, and given the large amount of work discussed during the two-day in-person meeting, it didn't seem plausible to me that monthly meetings throughout the rest of the year were unnecessary or unproductive, and so I said so.

After the 4 November 2019 teleconference didn't happen, I asked when the next board meeting would be. I have not received an answer yet.

When the next board meeting does happen, I'll bring up all the things I have described here, again.

I am optimistic that the written policy work direction can be changed, and that open source alternatives to many, if not all, of the major subsystems of AMSAT-NA satellites can be adopted to huge positive effect.

Worst case, this may require leadership change in engineering. Jerry Buxton refused to answer a question about unused/misplaced hardware, refused to answer questions about missing firmware donation, and refused to answer questions about the status of the current ADAC system. These questions were all submitted in writing.

Multiple engineering volunteers spoke with me at length at Symposium 2019 about their experiences, what they needed, and what they wanted. A lot of them also volunteer on open source projects, including Phase 4 Ground. The lack of communication and cooperation from engineering leadership is not something that the rank and file of AMSAT-NA engineering exhibits.

I followed up with two or three others after I got home from Symposium. I'm here to help engineering wherever and however possible, regardless of any refusal at the board level to cooperate or collaborate. Life is way too short to give up on getting things done and having fun in the process.

Questions and comments welcome and encouraged.

You can write me directly at

Report to Members 5 - AMSAT-NA Board of Directors 2019

Thank you for your interest, feedback, questions, and support!

I was part of a slate of candidates for the 2019 board of directors election. We ran on a platform that included the adoption of open source engineering policies at AMSAT-NA. That's what I expected to be working on when results were announced and we started our term on 20 September 2019.

We've made some progress here, but have a long way to go. Here's a separate report about what we've done to bring positive change to AMSAT-NA engineering policies.

Unfortunately, what's taken up a majority of our attention is the refusal of the officers to answer questions or provide documentation. This includes ordinary records of corporate communications.

The AMSAT-NA buck stops with the board of directors. The officers are appointed by the board and report to the board. Since the board of directors are scattered across the country, the primary means of communication between directors is the board email list. Some other records are electronic. Many records appear not to be electronic. They are presumably in a filing cabinet at the AMSAT-NA office.

The first hurdle was signing an acknowledgement letter for various NDAs. Then the goalposts were moved.

The new reason for refusal was given in a phone conference between Patrick Stoddard and Joe Spier, with the assistance of a lawyer who appeared to be representing Joe Spier as President. The assertion was made that Patrick and I just can't see any records because we might sue and because we have "conflicts of interest".

The lawyer, from a Boston firm called Hurwit & Associates, turns out to not be licensed to practice in Washington DC. This is where AMSAT-NA is incorporated. DC corporate code applies to AMSAT-NA. It seemed a bit strange that the law firm allegedly hired to provide advice to the AMSAT-NA president, and previously to the secretary, would not be a DC firm. Corporate code is very similar everywhere. It doesn't make the law firm irrelevant, but it did raise some questions in my mind about why pay a firm that can't practice in the jurisdiction of the company.

The conversation was bizarre, to say the least. If we're so dangerous to AMSAT-NA that we cannot be allowed to see corporate records, then we should have been removed immediately. There are procedures in the law for that. But, we weren't removed. Instead, we were seated at the board meeting at Space Symposium in mid-October. We were allowed to vote and make motions. We were told the delay in being able to do our job of oversight and direction was simply due to NDAs. We did not appreciate losing part of our term this way, but we cooperated with the month-long delay and signed the document. Our cooperation was not rewarded.

So, let's talk about these new claims. "Conflicts of interest" are a particular thing. Usually it involves board of directors business that would personally or financially benefit a member. The general practice for members of a board of directors is that they recuse themselves when they have a conflict of interest. It is never decided for them by the people they appoint to execute board direction. Neither Patrick nor myself have any financial interest in any aspect of AMSAT-NA business. Neither one of us want to harm AMSAT-NA. We are here to improve the organization in the ways we've clearly set out in public communications since May 2019.

There were no specifics provided by Joe Spier or the lawyer. It's a total mystery what this "conflict of interest" might be.

Joe additionally claimed there were "personnel" discussions on the list that we might somehow find objectionable. This can't be relevant, since neither Patrick nor myself have ever been an employee of AMSAT-NA. I have both contract and management experience in several companies. There isn't anything about "personnel" discussions that should be off limits to either me, or Patrick.

When confronted by a lawyer in this way, which was a complete surprise and was in contradiction to the promise that access would be give after the NDA acknowledgement letter, Patrick and I decided to seek independent legal advice.

We put the word out and two law firms that specialize in corporate governance and practice in Washington DC were recommended. We contacted both. We got a 15 minute meeting with the first one right away. This initial consultation occurred on 4 November 2019. It ended up lasting more than an hour. By the end of the week we had a plan, a contract, and some very appreciated reassurance.

The firm we have hired does not do litigation. This was a deliberate choice. This should eliminate any inaccurate and hysterical claims that Patrick and I are out to sue AMSAT, have a history of suing AMSAT, and so on. These are silly smears from a very small number of people. They have an agenda of secrecy and control. They don't want to cooperate. Making up things about lawsuits is unfortunately part of that.

If the legal advice and legal communication with AMSAT-NA does not resolve the errors in corporate governance, and we have every expectation that it will, then the next step after that is unfortunately a court order. That will only be necessary if we're forced to do so because of a failure to comply with basic corporate governance.

We will explain what we're doing every step of the way. We have obtained independent legal counsel and we have authorized them to advocate on our behalf.

If you are unhappy about these developments, then the best place to address it is the next board of directors election in 2020. Patrick and I believe that transparency and the ability to inspect corporate records, as the law sets out, are a basic part of this job. Some of your AMSAT-NA officers and some of your board members disagree. If you want things to change, then research the 2020 candidates and vote.

Unlike other things that AMSAT-NA does, this isn't rocket science. It's wrong to do this to directors. Patrick and I will continue to work to fix this. We will continue to explain what we see and what is told to us. We believe that you deserve to know how your organization is being run.

Please check out our report on open source policy work to see how we work and what we're trying to accomplish.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Being in Arlington, VA and visiting the Rus Uz Restaurant and Market

The restaurant Rus Uz ( was a recommendation by Maitland Bottoms, possessor of one of the most amazing names in amateur radio circles. He lived just over the hill from the 2019 AMSAT Symposium in Arlington, Virginia, and took our small group to this wonderful place. Just across the street from the conference hotel, and flanked by a Russian grocery, having lunch here was truly like being on a different continent.

I tell my many GNU Radio friends that live in Eastern Time that I have a policy of never visiting their part of the US. It's not completely true. It's a long conversational trope designed to provide playful geographic banter. But, I am indeed much more likely to travel to the South, to the Great Plains, or to conferences and meetings up and down the West Coast. There's no real reason other than the type of work I do and enjoy doesn't have that many conferences in DC or New York or Boston. The annual information theory conference ITA is in my home town of San Diego. DEFCON is in Vegas. Burning Man is in Nevada. IEEE events and open source conferences tend to be on the left-hand side of the map for the types of things I do.

But Arlington and DC were fantastic! The wait was worth it. Real public transit, completely different architecture, actual weather, unfamiliar trees, and plenty of interesting conversations with people outside the conference.

I stayed in an AirBnB for the first time on this trip. I understand why it's become so popular, but before this journey, that understanding was only in the abstract.

As an event organizer, AirBnB has had a big effect on filling up room blocks. It does threaten the bottom line of conferences that have to guarantee a certain number of rooms in order to get the space to have a conference. If the contracted rooms are not filled, then the conference has to pay for them. This can be a significant liability for organizations without deep pockets that want to put on conferences.

The gig economy has some serious drawbacks, and deserves the criticism it gets, but staying in a peaceful lovely condominium a few minutes' walk from the conference was a completely different and superior experience to living out of a hotel room for a week.

Stepping into the restaurant, the five of us were rapidly settled into tables clustered with gorgeous china. The bilingual menu offered some long-forgotten pronunciation challenges. I last studied Russian a whopping 32 years ago!

The food and the service set us into a world apart and we spent the time slowing down and thoroughly enjoying the experience. The conversation ranged from ATSC-3 integration to Chicago political drama to Debian war stories and more. The company and the conversation and the food were a highlight of this travel.

We then visited the similarly-named grocery two doors down and I stocked up on all sorts of presents for my large family. Everything was appreciated because the items were so different and distinctive. Winning the "I brought you a gift from my business trip" challenge can be hard! Thank you Rus Uz Market :+)

Monday, October 28, 2019

Report to Members 4 - AMSAT-NA Board of Directors 2019

Greetings all!

This report covers the past two weeks. I didn't want to write one on the Friday during the middle of AMSAT Symposium. In retrospect, that was a good decision. It makes this report much easier to write.

Three weeks into the new term, Patrick Stoddard and I were told by Joe Spier (President of AMSAT-NA) that if we signed a letter acknowledging the many (much more than two!) NDAs that AMSAT has signed with various companies and organizations, that we'd get access to corporate communications and documents.

We can't read the board of director email list archive and we cannot see any repositories. We did get some financial documents, which were sobering. No orientation to the board of directors or assistance with the transition was provided.

On the first day of the two-day AMSAT board meeting, held immediately before 2019 Symposium, the acknowledgement letter was inadvertently forgotten. No problem. The next day it was provided. Patrick and I signed it.

We noticed that the entire rest of the board and all the senior officers signed it as well.

Why were they not signed on to these NDAs before?

The rest of Symposium happened. There were many productive meetings and great presentations. I got to see the ARISS power supply presented in the demo room. It was wonderful to see the final stage of a very long engineering process that has taken a lot of hard work from volunteers from my home town. I caught up with a lot of other people over the weekend and had a great time.

However, there was no change in access to documents. A week after we signed the NDA acknowledgement letter, Patrick inquired as to when we'd be able to see the things that we should be able to see.

The response? A phone conference with Joe Spier and a lawyer from Hurwit & Associates on 24 October 2019. Patrick was able to make this meeting, but I was not. The phone conference had been proposed the day before. I couldn't attend because of school drop offs and medical appointments. Patrick took the call.

The claim? Neither Patrick and I can see the email archives because AMSAT is afraid we would launch multiple lawsuits over the content. The content was described by Joe Spier as being about Patrick and myself.

The result? Patrick and I will meet with at least one DC law firm that specializes in non-profit corporate governance. The meetings will start on 4 November 2019. We will present the written and oral communication we've received and the timeline and what we learned this week and ask for an opinion on what to do next.

Why are we getting a lawyer? When people you expect to work with show up with lawyers and say you cannot have access to things you expect to have access to, that means you probably need a lawyer too. Patrick and I are very disappointed that the President of AMSAT paid a lawyer to deflect questions about access to ordinary corporate communications after we complied with the NDA acknowledgement letter demand.

I think this development is very bad news. I'm sorry to have to share it with you. I believe members deserve to know about it.

Before the board meeting, Tom Clark (Director) asked for an agenda item to talk about Open Research Institute volunteers being more involved with GOLF, AREx, and other activities. He wanted the board to discuss the Rent-a-GEO and GEOx4 proposals.

Open Research Institute is a 501c3 specifically formed to be a member society of AMSAT. All of Open Research Institute's work is open source. This would allow AMSAT to participate in the thriving open source scene while disrupting their current closed methodology as little as possible. It's a step in the right direction.

Here is the quote from Tom Clark's email to Joe Spier, who was going to chair the board meeting.

"One item I'd like to add to the agenda, as circulated by Joe, is addressed to Michelle. It is quite obvious the O.R.I. and the people on the [Ground-station] email list should be a significant part of AMSAT's GOLF-TEE, GEO and AREx (Amateur Radio Exploration) future activities. I'd like to have some discussion on how the groups can work together. This should include the hot-button topic of the GEO Echostar 9 commercial activity fits into the scheme of amateur radio especially since amateur frequencies are not a part of the picture."

This item was excluded by Joe Spier from the agenda. None of these subjects were allowed on the agenda. I thanked Tom for attempting to include it and told him about some of our recent engineering successes after the board meeting concluded.


Refusing to work with active volunteers, and refusing to work with entire organizations with diverse and successful teams, does not serve AMSAT's mission.

Bringing up litigation as the fear that justifies the refusal to cooperate or collaborate is very bad news. Neither Patrick or I know the real reasons for this. We speculate that any criticism of AMSAT in any way is perceived as some sort of existential threat.

Looking at the finances, the amount of money that AMSAT is spending on lawyers has sharply increased over the past two years. AMSAT is running a deficit. Unnecessary legal expenses add to that deficit.

There are two possibilities.

The previous board of directors did indeed write things that were wildly inappropriate. They schemed up stuff that actually does put the corporation at risk if the targets of the writing found out. People decided it was better to defy the DC corporate code than to let the targets see whatever it is they are so afraid of us seeing. I can't imagine what's in engineering repositories or the board of directors mailing list archive that would justify the risk and expense. Maybe people felt they could write these things because they never expected people outside their circle to ever win a seat.

Or, this is simply a delaying tactic. There really isn't any sensitive content on the mailing list, at all. It's just a ruse. The point is to delay involvement from new people because they like running the organization as they see fit and don't want to change.


Here's the good news.

Engineering meetings with people enthusiastic about open source solutions and proposals went extremely well. There is Rent-a-GEO and Phase 4 Space, but also work going on right now to move LDPC decoders into FPGA, put on an FPGA workshop that focuses on amateur satellite communications, create hardware and software for useful open source beacons, and a project to create open source affordable and reliable tracking rotators. The existing general purpose processor LDPC decoder work has been a very big success in the satellite community. A product using this open source work appeared in ARISS slides and presentations at Symposium.

Mikio Mouri of JAMSAT asked for help with a lunar receiving station that complies with the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway, or LOP-G. I agreed to help and started work immediately. Several people from Libre Space and Open Research Institute have volunteered to help. The team is looking to create a robust and easily-manufactured open source station design that uses a wide swath of open source satellite work. We aim to present the work in 2020 at the Tokyo Ham Fair. LOP-G relies heavily on LDPC. We have solutions here and people willing to do the mechanical design necessary for a tracking station.

On the Information Technology front, I have volunteers standing by with proven solutions for the AMSAT member database conversion from DBASE to the format used by Wild Apricot. This software is the vendor of choice for the member database conversion and was discussed at the 2019 AMSAT board meeting.

We look forward to being able to make this an easy transition from DBASE to Wild Apricot. After the volunteer offer was accepted at the board meeting, everyone touched base on 21 October 2019.

Please let me know your questions and comments! Thank you for your vote and support.

-Michelle W5NYV

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Report to Members 3 - AMSAT-NA Board of Directors 2019

Greetings all!

This is my report to members for the third week of my term on AMSAT-NA Board of Directors.

Here are the major developments and goals.

Non Disclosure Agreements

At day 12, the new members of the board got copies of the Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) that we, according to Joe Spier, President of AMSAT, must sign in order to have access to business communications for AMSAT-NA.

As of today, 21 days into the board term, no provision to sign an acknowledgement of the NDAs with either Spaceflight or Ragnarok Industries has been provided. An acknowledgement letter for existing agreements is an ordinary thing to do with new board members. Usually the agreements are given out ahead of the first day of work for review.

Waiting until the Board Meeting at Symposium to sort this out wastes about a month of time.

Independent legal review of the NDAs has been received.

The Spaceflight NDA appears to still be in effect. The end date is 5 years after any confidential information has been exchanged. For launches in the past, that information rapidly becomes irrelevant, but the agreement is still in force. More importantly for AMSAT-NA, if confidential information has been exchanged about payload failure analysis, then that information goes down a black hole for 5 years. This means publishing anything about lessons learned becomes very hard, unless Spaceflight allows the information or report to be published. Without an exemption, any analysis can only be shared internally among a very small group of people. Members may have to wait 5 more years from today, for example, to find out anything at all. That’s the downside of a secrecy mindset. The upside is obviously when things work out well, the organization gets a successful launch.

Approval for Ragnarak Industries NDA?

There is nothing in any published minutes from AMSAT-NA about the Ragnorak Industries NDA being voted on or approved by the Board of Directors. There is no record of any officer being directed to sign it on behalf of the organization. This needs to be cleared up. Keeping records of agreements is basic business practice.

Are NDAs “wrong”?

No, they are not. Is it fundamentally wrong to keep launch details secret? No. Does it mean that preventable failures and important lessons learned can be kept secret? Yes, it does.

However, for amateur radio and for AMSAT in particular, there are clearly superior alternatives to secret agreements with commercial entities for engineering research and development. Leave the NDAs for launches. In the US, the justification for being licensed amateur radio operators includes things like education and advancement of the radio arts.

Open Source Hardware and Software are a Better Way Forward

Open source hardware and software are a generally better approach than using proprietary solutions for education, advancement of the radio arts, and improvement in the quality of the satellites we build. If something is done in secret, it’s rarely done well. Being able to have the widest possible review for hardware and software designs increases the quality of the work substantially, for the type of work we do.

What is the type of work we do? Relatively small codebases and relatively simple hardware.

“The Coverity Scan Open Source Report, which measures the quality of OSS code, finds that the density of code defects (the number of bugs per 1,000 lines of code) is smaller for OSS than for proprietary software. Interestingly, while small OSS projects have significantly fewer issues than proprietary software projects of comparable size, the quality of large proprietary software projects is higher relative to large OSS projects. Proprietary software companies have well-defined processes and teams of experts to identify and fix bugs, including security vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, large open source projects sometimes lack standardized processes for quality control, sufficient qualified code reviewers, and good inter-team release coordination.”

Quality of Open Source Software: how many eyes are enough?
By Michael M Lokshin, Sardar A. Zari, and David Newsom
24 January 2019

This is just one study that shows measurable advantages for organizations like AMSAT-NA if they take an open source approach.

We have a very powerful part of regulatory law on our side to help us work on open source and public domain communications satellite technology. Proprietary-focused ITAR/EAR regulations are intended to protect commercial entities. They are difficult to comply with and incur real costs for volunteer or amateur organizations like AMSAT-NA.

What Have I Done in the Past to Effect Change?

There were a set of ITAR implementation guidelines, published in January 2018. After studying them, it did not appear that AMSAT-NA was in compliance with the proprietary-focused regulations.

A proposal to AMSAT Board of Directors was made in December 2017 by a group of members, including myself, that provided a path forward to compliance with the proprietary-focused regulations. This was done because the Board refused to discuss taking advantage of the much better path - the public domain carve-outs in ITAR.

Our thinking was “If you can’t make progress on the best solution, at least make sure the organization complies with the secrecy-centric rules.”

Being told to not talk to anyone about anything ever or else scary things will happen does not produce good work in volunteer settings, but if you’re going to go Full Secret, then you better do it right.

A copy of that proposal can be found here:

This was a very distant second choice to complying with the public domain carve-outs in ITAR/EAR, but was proposed because there was no, and is no published ITAR/EAR policy, no compliance officer, no training, and inconsistent guidance for engineering volunteers of AMSAT-NA.

Many months went by without any acknowledgement of this proposal. After asking about the status, Joe Spier told me on the phone that the board had voted it down. This vote does not appear in the published meeting minutes of AMSAT-NA. Why not?

I’m discussing this and showing previous work to prove that serious attempts to improve regulatory compliance at AMSAT-NA have been made by many active participants.

Based on the results of the election, the membership wants the Board of Directors to adopt open source policies for AMSAT.

We should adopt established policies that comply with open source carve-outs and have been looked at by lawyers.

What am I Doing Now to Effect Change?

Here’s the policies from Open Research Institute, Incorporated. ORI was specifically founded for open source amateur radio research and development. The first goal was to become Member Society of AMSAT-NA, providing a way to do a safe and legal open source ground and payload work that would minimally impact AMSAT-NA Incorporated, while strengthening international ties and collaboration. This organization was founded by myself, Ben Hilburn, and Bruce Perens. 501(c)(3) status was granted 6 March 2019.

Open Research Institute has renewed a request to be recognized in the published minutes of AMSAT-NA as a Member Society. Previous requests were either overlooked or ignored. Given the amount of work published by Open Research Institute, the strong regulatory stance, enforced code of conduct, and the amount of published technical work of merit and distinction, the inclusion of Open Research Institute as a Member Society greatly benefits AMSAT-NA. Open Research Institute does not financially benefit from being a Member Society. Being a Member Society increases the level of work required from Open Research Institute.

It is my belief that AMSAT-NA itself should convert to an open source (by default) policy as soon as possible. This would allow substantial and sustained increases in funding, participation, and engineering quality. Failing that, having Open Research Institute as a Member Society is a win for AMSAT-NA

There is no risk-free forward path through regulatory law. Risk reduction is much more achievable through clearly defined public domain carve-out policies than it is with no published policy at all regarding the much more difficult-to-comply-with proprietary-focused ITAR/EAR.

Are you Saying Never Use Companies? Are You Some Kind of Zealot?

No, not at all. I believe that for AMSAT-NA, the default should be open source. It’s a much better regulatory, financial, social, and cultural match for the organization. Open source work done by AMSAT-NA or others can then be licensed to companies to improve upon or productize, achieving even more quality and improvement. A rising tide lifts all boats. There’s proof all around us of the economic benefits and quality improvements of open source. Open source hardware and software has a way of supercharging commercial activity.

As to being a zealot, I am a paid employee of a telecommunications company. We use and support open source whenever possible, but I have zero problem using proprietary solutions when they give the best business results. I have worked for large engineering firms like Qualcomm that made all sorts of money building massive portfolios of intellectual property, and then ruthlessly exploiting it. My conscience is completely clear when it comes to working for proprietary companies.

On the other hand, I have volunteered for, lead, and produced a wide variety of open source projects and events. When I say AMSAT-NA is best served by adopting open source policies, then I speak from experience.

What’s a Specific Example?

The open source attitude determination and control system from Libre Space, used successfully on UPSat, is a clear and compelling example of what AMSAT-NA should be building upon. Libre Space has documented and published this system. It is free to use.

Libre Space engineers have ideas on how to improve it and what they’d like to do next.

This system was suggested to AMSAT-NA engineering. Outreach from Libre Space was attempted. My goal with elevating and highlighting this work is to make it very clear there are real alternatives.

This isn’t the only open source project that AMSAT-NA has been informed about. In January 2018, I represented AMSAT at IEEE Radio and Wireless Week in Anaheim, CA. I did a technology demonstration and spoke during the Small Satellite track.

A relevant excerpt: “So all of this was really exciting to me, because it means that the tasks of attitude control, power distribution, and communications are all successfully being done and we can do it too. If we become familiar with this University project, and others like it, and build on it, then we can be way further ahead on amateur spacecraft design than we thought we were at the GOLF meeting at Symposium.”

Some of the work referenced here was built and successfully launched on the UWE Sat program. They’re up to UWE-4. Here’s the status page.

I spoke with the professor presenting about UWE program for quite a while. There was great potential for collaboration and he gave me several papers to start with. I submitted the report and offered to help get some collaboration going so that GOLF could take full advantage of things that were way ahead of where we were, and would allow us to focus a lot more energy on the communications payload.

The response from AMSAT-NA engineering was silence. No interest in the new contacts. No interest in setting up a collaboration. I was disappointed, but did not stop working. I wanted to understand the options and who was doing what in current technology. I wanted AMSAT-NA to take advantage of it.

I’ve followed UWE through ResearchGate ever since.

The Phase 4 Space project proposal directly benefits from knowing about and being willing to use the work done by others in the open source community. GOLF should too.

More soon!

-Michelle W5NYV

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Report to Members 2 - AMSAT-NA Board of Directors 2019

Greetings all!
This is my report to members for the second week of my term on AMSAT-NA Board of Directors.
There were two major developments this week.

Non Disclosure Agreements

At day 12, the new members of the board got copies of the Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) that we, according to Joe Spier, President of AMSAT, must sign in order to have access to business communications for AMSAT-NA.
What are these NDAs about? It seemed like they were going to be some sort of agreement between individual new board members and the corporation of AMSAT-NA. But, no, that turned out to not be the case. These are NDAs that cover technology and negotiations with outside corporations!
Usually, this is handled with an acknowledgment letter. New board members and officers need to be fully informed of the obligations that the corporation has already established and already signed. Best practice is that any candidate has been given anything they need well ahead of the election. Providing it the first day of the term is not bad. Providing it only after it was asked for multiple times nearly two weeks into a term is not great.
Requiring individuals to sign on to the original NDA is somewhat unusual. Assuming that they are “no big deal” and can be signed a month into a term without review before any work starts is disappointing to me. AMSAT-NA has a financial deficit and substantial technical and policy challenges. Spending 4% of a term waiting around to get access to records can be greatly improved.
What should NDAs do? How should they be handled? What should they accomplish? What do these particular NDAs require? What are they about? I will tell you.
NDAs have functions.
First, they identify the parties involved. Most have two. But, if there are agents, partners, or other vendors, they need to be added. Everyone that is authorized to access sensitive information needs to be listed.
Second, the information involved has to be defined. What is confidential? What format are we talking about? Obviously there’s a negotiation involved. One side might want a very broad definition. The other side might need it to be as narrow as possible. To agree to something, the definition of what is truly confidential has to be written down.
Third, what’s the purpose? No purpose, no point. The confidential information definitely can’t be used to create a competitive product. That’s not fair.
Fourth, what’s excluded? This is crucial. What’s too hard to keep secret? What is something that really needs to be public or open source, to help the cause? Common sense isn’t common. Exclusions have to be written down.
Fifth, the length of the agreement. “Forever!” is not ok. Most technical information goes out of date and becomes worthless within a few years. Five years is a very common outer limit. One or two years is what should be asked for by organizations like AMSAT-NA. If the information is a trade secret, then it’s a bit different from things that are just proprietary as long as the special sauce is fresh. Five years is a lifetime in the technology fields we’re involved in.
Here’s the pertinent parts of the NDAs that continues to delay the new board members from being fully seated.
First, the one with Spaceflight. Spaceflight NDA is about launches in the past.
Second, an attachment from a larger agreement with Ragnarok Industries.
As you can see, there’s no provision to sign these. The Spaceflight NDA is getting long in the tooth. The Ragnarok NDA is an attachment. It is not the entire agreement.
The Ragnarok agreement covers the purchase of attitude control and determination system (ACDS). There is an open source ACDS with flight heritage that has been suggested several times to AMSAT-NA engineering leadership. It was flown by Libre Space on UPSat.
My position was and is that AMSAT-NA should work with Libre Space to continue the progress Libre Space has demonstrated with UPSat ACDS. This should be done instead of forcing engineering and leadership to sign NDAs for secret work with Ragnarok. Is there flight heritage? What are the test results? Is it a learning opportunity for members and volunteers? No, it’s not. It’s just secret work with a company that no one can talk about.
The obvious counter-argument is that ACDS isn’t a core competency for AMSAT-NA and we should “just buy it”. In other words, AMSAT-NA should only work on communications subsystems. Well, if that was truly the case, then why isn’t AMSAT-NA engineering laser-focused on communications subsystems? And publishing results? And educating members? And participating in the vibrant open source satellite scene? The culture of being mired in NDAs is not a good match for amateur radio, at all.
This is a critical juncture for AMSAT-NA. I believe AMSAT-NA should choose open source and adopt working open source systems, especially those with flight heritage, for its projects. Those projects should be default open source in order to take advantage of the diverse, vibrant, and growing international community, and to fulfill our educational obligations. Unlike other things AMSAT-NA does, this isn’t rocket science. It’s common sense.
So the question from last week remains. Why are new board members still denied access to normal business communications? Because we were given and have not signed these agreements? They’ve already been signed between the corporations. All we need is to be informed of them.
It’s clear from the content of the agreements that the confidential information involved is not supposed to be co-mingled with normal business communications. If we’re being denied access to the archives of normal business communications, and if the NDAs are cited as that reason, then it appears to be that the confidential information has been discussed on the board of directors email list. This is not the best business practice and needs to be changed.

Information Technology Progress

Work continues! We are focusing on member database upgrades and digital distribution of the AMSAT-NA Journal. Substantial progress has been made here.
I recruited a small team of volunteers that could advise and produce the work that we assumed needed to be done. When I brought this up to the board, a senior officer said it was already being done, that people were on it, and a proposal had already been brought to the board.
I asked who was working on it. I asked to see the proposal. Joining forces and bringing active and interested volunteers to the effort is an obvious win. Any work that’s already been done to evaluate, describe, plan, prototype, and address the things brought up to me during the campaign was more than welcome.
I haven’t seen the proposal yet. I don’t have any names yet. I look forward to finding out. We continued work in the meantime.
What do we know? What do we have?
We know we have a mechanism for putting the identification of the purchaser on a digital document sold by AMSAT-NA. We do this already for digital Symposium Proceedings. We know that a custom PHP script exists and is used by AMSAT-UK that does this same function for their digital products, most notably the AMSAT-UK Journal. We have a contact for this and will ask if they will share it.
We know we have a python script that converts the current DBASE style database to a working and useful .csv file that we know works with modern IT and printing companies.
We know we want to get the Journal and other publications into the hands of more people with less expense.
Joe Fitzgerald, who is a systems administrator for AMSAT-NA, has graciously provided feedback, expertise. He is supportive of setting up a test server for development of these upgrades. We are making a lot of progress here and owe him a big thanks. I’m optimistic that we can have test results by Symposium 2019 if we keep it up.
The hard part isn’t the technical part. The hard part is getting a grip on what “should be” members only and what “should be” freely accessible. I’m strongly in favor of opening up all the publications. The greater good is substantially increased relevance and public communications, along with increased academic indexing and regulatory compliance with the open source carve-outs in ITAR and EAR.
I would love to hear from you! Your feedback is vital. Please write me at
More soon!
-Michelle W5NYV

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Report to Members 1 - AMSAT-NA Board of Directors 2019

Greetings all!

Executive Summary: new board members became Directors upon announcement of the results. New board members have been denied communications, documents, and reports that are ordinary corporate communications. Two officers have flatly refused to communicate with or work with new board members unless election-related materials were removed from outside websites.

After nearly a week, Joe Spier (President of AMSAT) revealed that new board members would be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in order to have access to ordinary corporate communications. The text of the NDA has not yet been provided, does not exist in the bylaws, and is not anywhere in any published minutes. Attempts to coerce Directors to sign NDAs, obstruct Directors from working, and silence outside communications are wrong.

Despite this, progress is being made and I will do my very best to represent you! Thank you for trusting me with your vote.


This is my first report to the membership of AMSAT-NA of my work to represent you on the Board of Directors.

I campaigned hard, wrote about what I wanted to accomplish, explained my credentials, solicited your questions, and answered them to the best of my ability.

Those records can be found at:

It is somewhat unusual to have a contested election, but not unprecedented. I ran with a slate. We recommended one additional candidate, Brennan Price N4QX.

In all AMSAT-NA elections in recent memory, candidate statements from all the nominations were sent from the candidates directly to the printer that handled the ballots. They are not edited in any way. The statements weren’t seen or managed by AMSAT-NA. In most years, candidates were warned to make sure they didn’t have any grammar or spelling errors!

For 2019, there were changes. These changes were shared with the candidates with a few days notice before the deadline, over the 4 July holiday weekend.

No statements were included with the ballot, no URLs allowed with online hosted statements, there was a limit of 350 words, and there was a highly unusual subjective assertion of control over the content of the candidates’ statement. In other words, statements would be reviewed by AMSAT-NA leadership and would be published on the AMSAT-NA website. Many of these leaders were running in the election.

Most candidate statements had already been submitted to Martha, AMSAT-NA Manager, or the corporate Secretary Clayton Coleman, W5PFG, in lieu of any other direction. The required word length was shorter than any challenger’s submitted statement, except for Brennan Price’s. Everyone scrambled and made the edits and got them in.

Nothing like this had happened before, in anyone’s memory. The slate questioned Clayton as it was unusual. We were told attorneys from AMSAT approved everything that was going on, and that the Secretary, Clayton could do whatever he wanted. We asked who the attorney was and how much they cost. Clayton and Joe Spier, President of AMSAT-NA, flatly refused to disclose any information about who the attorney was, what firm they were with, or how much they cost.

While it is true that the Secretary has a lot of control over the election, elections bylaws did not appear to be followed in 2019.

Section 3: Voting shall be conducted by secret ballot in a fair and democratic manner. The Secretary shall prepare written ballots listing all candidates found to be duly nominated and eligible for election. Such ballots shall be mailed to all Members or, at the Secretary’s discretion, included in a publication of the corporation mailed to all Members, in either event such mailing to take on or before July 15 of each year. Duly nominated and eligible candidates shall be afforded equal opportunity to circulate statements of their qualifications and positions to the Members through the corporation’s publications and shall have use of the corporation’s mailing lists for election-related purposes at no cost to the corporation.

We were denied use of AMSAT’s publications to circulate statements of qualifications and positions. We were not allowed the use of any electronic mailing list. We were given a difficult-to-use DBASE export of the physical mailing list of the members. We were not allowed to use email addresses, which are obviously easier and less expensive.

So, we cleaned up the database, fixed the 50 addresses that were invalid, and produced a modern membership list that we could use for a direct mailing. The direct mailing was at our own expense, which is in accordance with the bylaws. We should not have had to do this, but we did it anyway. Members deserve to have information about the people that they are asked to vote on. This information should not be controlled or edited by people that run the organization. That is not fair or democratic.

Thank you to everyone that contacted us and voted based on this mailing. We deeply appreciate this.

On 20 September 2019, the results were announced. Turnout was up over 50%!




Michelle Thompson



Patrick Stoddard



Jerry Buxton



Drew Glasbrenner



Brennan Price



Howard (Howie) Defelice



Paul Stoetzer



Jeff Johns



Thank you so much for your support. I have never run for any office, ever before. It takes a serious situation to motivate me to do something that is such a huge departure from my career and preferences.

We do indeed have a serious situation with AMSAT-NA. The club lacks a coherent focus on modern technology and there is no financial or technical transparency. How can you trust an organization with your time, talent, and treasure if you can’t tell what’s going on?

I am a vocational engineer, deeply involved in systems engineering, digital signal processing, information theory, and very high-risk projects and companies. I have many years of experience in telecommunications, satellite networks, algorithmic development, and protocol analysis.

I’ve served on many engineering teams for AMSAT, ranging from SuitSat SDX to FOX DUV to power supplies to advanced digital payload and ground station design teams for HEO and GEO projects. My track record with Globalstar, Qualcomm, AMSAT, Kyocera Wireless, GNU Radio, DEFCON, and many other organizations and groups is clear. My credentials and performance are documented. I know what I’m doing and I am an asset. In addition to technical service, I’ve been a successful fundraiser, events organizer, and manager.

Traditionally, AMSAT-NA board of directors transition work has started right after results are announced. That’s what has happened on other boards that I’ve served on, and that’s what’s happened during previous transitions in AMSAT-NA. After this election, I expected to be contacted and on-boarded right away. The bylaws are clear. Directors assume their position upon announcement. If you announce results, then the directors need any information they require to get started.

After the announcement of the results, we heard nothing.

Retiring Directors in AMSAT-NA are legally responsible for assuring the orderly and effective transfer of records and responsibilities to the incoming Directors.

After three days, Patrick Stoddard obtained the emails of all the current and outgoing board members and wrote them an email of introduction, asking for the basics. We needed to get on the board of directors mailing list at the very least. We had other questions about financial documents and whether or not the minutes we had were a complete record. Normal stuff.

The response was remarkable. Clayton, the corporate Secretary and outgoing board member, immediately responded and said that he would refuse to communicate or work with Patrick unless Patrick took down his election webpage.

I was deleted from the thread by Jerry Buxton, Vice President of Engineering, who wrote two personal attacks directed at Patrick. A remark that Patrick fellate some male genitalia was just one of the highlights.

Well we were off to a great start.

Clayton then resigned. Joe Spier seemed to accept this as if the resignation was effective immediately, but the bylaws say otherwise. 30 days notice is required, and outgoing directors, like Clayton, have corporate responsibilities to incoming directors.

Day 5, we were told by Joe Spier that NDAs are required to be signed before we have access to corporate communications and documents. We immediately asked for a copy of these NDAs.

Since I’m a vice president of a commercial telecommunications company, I have to review any NDA or agreement very carefully and weigh it against my responsibilities to that company. It’s a heavily regulated industry and reviewing NDAs in advance is a standard industry practice.

As of today (30 September 2019), no NDAs have been produced. We were not given a description of these NDAs or a timeline for signing them. They appear on the agenda for the Symposium Board in late October 2019. Spending 5% of our terms somewhat sidelined, waiting for mystery NDA text, seems like a very odd thing for an organization with significant financial pressure to do to motivated Directors. Our job started on 20 September 2019 and we were ready to start work that day.

There are no requirements in the AMSAT-NA bylaws for NDAs to be signed by board members before they have access to corporate communications and documents.

There is no evidence in any of the published minutes from AMSAT-NA of an NDA being adopted for incoming board members to sign.

Retired board members assert that as late as 2017 there were no NDAs required of board members. Everyone we’ve talked to has been really surprised that incoming directors have not been helped, that they have not really been seated, and that the incumbent directors have decided breaking bylaws and corporate code is acceptable.

Since the NDAs have not been produced, and are not in the corporate record, they are, I would assert, obviously invalid.

It's very odd that outgoing (or continuing) directors haven't stepped up and shared their copies of the NDAs that they must have signed. As stated in the bylaws, Retiring Directors are legally responsible for assuring the orderly and effective transfer of records and responsibilities to the incoming Directors. Seems like an NDA requirement is a record and a responsibility. At the very least, Clayton is a retiring director. For our first week, the transfer of records and responsibilities has been anything but orderly.

Patrick made a request for social media process changes that had been announced by Robert Bankston, KE4AL, Vice President of User Services. The changes had not been detailed and there’d been a lot of confusion and questions about them. The response was a refusal to communicate or work with Patrick or myself, and an assertion that seemed to add up to “you’re not really board members”. There was some emotional language, but the pertinent part is a refusal to cooperate in any way.

Well, we are board members. Officers report to the board. We’re asking for ordinary things in ordinary language and we’re not getting anywhere terribly fast.

Patrick and I, and Howie and Brennan, have extensive real-world experience in getting and keeping organizations back in the black, making business processes work better, and we have a lot of collective experience in management and finance.

When we get lawyers, they are real ones. Do we need lawyers to sort this out? I hope not.

If you have an opinion about the way we’ve been treated by the incumbent board and the senior officers, then please let them hear it.

Contacting board members isn’t easy through the AMSAT-NA website, but the list of members is here:

Now for some good news. You didn’t think shenanigans with NDAs and mailing list access and whatever changes have been made to AMSAT-NA social media procedures would stop me, did you? :+)

No, it didn’t! While I have made some progress this week, and I’m going to share it, success does happen faster with your involvement. Please be prepared to speak up and tell the board that you want things to happen that they seem to be preventing. They need to change, or be changed.

So, on to the good news. IT progress has been made. Moving a copy of the membership database to a modern format has happened. Fully specifying a modern member record format, and moving test records to the recommended WordPress plugin, is being prototyped right now. Testing and refinement will follow and I’m going to report on it to you.

I know that many of you have complaints about the online store. This effort includes work that will address problems with the store. I am doing my very best to escalate this so you have the website that you deserve. It’s still unclear to me who is in charge of this.

A professional developer with extensive internet and web experience, who is also a ham, is working on this with me. Want to join? Let me know at

A good number of financial documents have been produced, and there’s plenty to look at there.

There are three people that reached out to me, Patrick, Howie, and Brennan this past week. They were friendly, supportive, and informative.

Thank you very much to Frank Bauer, Vice President of Human Spaceflight, who is a personal hero of mine, and Frank Karnauskas, Vice President of Development. Most of you know Frank Bauer, but if you do not know Frank Karnauskas, then you soon will!

I asked Frank Bauer how I could help with ARISS. I had questions for and shared my story with Frank Karnauskas. I look forward to working with both of these men. Keith Baker, KB1SF/VA3KSF, Treasurer provided every document we asked for, greeted us, and made us feel welcome.

Keith Baker has announced his plans for retirement as treasurer. He has been a very positive influence to me and everyone I work with, and he’s very appreciated by me and all the members of my team that have met him and visited with him at Hamvention and Symposium over the years.

AMSAT-NA has significant financial, technical, and cultural challenges. The reaction to the election by some members of the current board of directors and senior officers has been unprofessional and sloppy. I have no interest in extracting apologies for trashy speech or personal attacks. That is not what this report is about.

However, I do not have any patience at all for illegal or unethical obstruction.

AMSAT-NA is the members and the mission.

If you want things to improve, make sure that that your leadership hears you loud and clear. You got me and Patrick and our alternates Howie and Brennan this far! We might seem to be outnumbered, but we are not outgunned.

More next Week :+)

Please share.

-Michelle W5NYV

Sunday, July 21, 2019

GNU Radio Conference 2017 Wireless Capture the Flag Challenge report

In preparation for GNU Radio Conference 2019, I was asked to describe what we did for the 2017 Wireless Capture the Flag Challenge. Here's the report!

Jericho Report

Michelle Thompson
GNU Radio Conference 2017 CTF

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), The Battle of Jericho.

This is a summary of the challenges in the wireless Capture the Flag (CTF) competition at GNU Radio Conference 2017. The competition was codenamed Jericho. This report has been written to provide a background and baseline for the type and scope of challenges in a CTF using GNU Radio. The goal was to give a variety of challenges, from easy to hard, and to provide both collaborative and competitive opportunities. Challenges were available from a web server running CTFd ( Competitors logged in and selected challenges to solve. After entering in the correct key, points were awarded. More points were awarded for harder challenges. CTFd provides automated scoring and live statistics. Challenges can be unveiled over time manually or automatically. The event was a success, was highly rated in the participant survey, and resulted in contributions to GNU Radio codebase.

The CTF was the product of a small team of people working together for 9 months to construct, produce, and manage the hardware and software required for a set of themed wireless challenges. GNU Radio was a central part of each challenge. Challenges were intended to range from easy to hard, with multiple entry points and starting points, and no bottlenecks.
The essential requirement of this CTF was to provide a friendly and supportive environment to both learn and compete. If participants got stuck or wanted to learn how to solve the challenges, then the volunteers would explain. Participants were encouraged to work together. Teams or individuals could compete. Top 5 winners were awarded small California-themed gifts (journals, tote bags) at the end of the event on Friday.
The volunteers brought and gifted 25 customized RTL-SDRs for participants that did not have any hardware at the event.
Updates about the challenges, number of participants (over 50), and leaderboard summary were given several times during the week from the main stage. Live leaderboard and statistics through CTFd were available on an easily accessible website posted at the registration desk.

Here are the reconstructed list of challenges and some analysis. Lessons learned and some suggested improvements are given. Original CTFd files were lost due to a hard drive failure.

Hello Kitty
We set up what we believed to be several easy trivia questions about our favorite character, Hello Kitty. The goal was to get people familiar with entering keys to questions and getting scores in the web interface of the CTFd software.
However, the regulator expression calculator in CTFd didn’t work as well as expected. The question “What does Hello Kitty Bring?” had the answer “Peace and Love”. This was answered out loud multiple times during the first day of the conference and written out at the conference registration desk on a piece of paper. However, even a slight difference caused trouble.

Lesson learned: regular expressions are (still) hard.
Easy questions are a good idea! It does work out well to have something that does not require any hardware or software to get up and running and working, so that people have a score on the board. It reduces the barrier to entry and makes the event more accessible.

Pass the Salt
We obtained a set of reservation pagers. These are the objects that are often handed out in a restaurant so that when your table is ready, they flash and buzz. There is a base station that transmits signals to the customer pagers, a charging carrel, and the customer pagers.
The first challenge was to figure out which one was missing.
For this challenge, the missing pager was in the possession of one of the GNU Radio Conference volunteers. In order to figure out which pager was missing, one had to figure out how the base station called the pagers, call a pager, monitor the transmission, reverse engineer it, figure out the mapping from the buttons on the base station to the individual pagers, then recreate the missing pager transmission, and call it. The volunteer with the pager would come to the participant and then manually assign the points in the CTFd software.
The second challenge was to make them all go off at once.
This could be accomplished one of several ways. Sending a vector that maps to all at once, or sending all codes sequentially. This was the “clear the room” part of the challenge.

What made this hard?
Usually, a commercially available wireless device in the US has an FCC ID. A good reverse engineer will take this number, look it up in the FCC database, and get all sorts of technical information for essentially free. This is a big head start for anyone wanting to do hardware hacking or signal intelligence. However, this restaurant pager did not have an FCC ID. It was not printed on the system anywhere. It was not in the manual (paper manual provided, pdf easily found online). It was substantially harder to figure out the frequency and modulation of the controlling transmissions without the FCC ID. There was a tiny hint. The frequency was printed on a sticker in very tiny text on the bottom of the base station.

Lessons learned: exceeded our expectations. This challenge was popular enough that another hardware hacker bought the system at the end of the conference to use in workshops and demonstrations.
Potential improvements: Use features like the advertising faceplates to hold more puzzle content. Running this challenge was loud. It’s difficult to run it without disturbing people that are trying to enjoy a conference talk.

The Bins
This challenge involved two large bins turned over and placed down on a folding table. The challenge was to 1) control something inside, 2) identify a symbol inside, and 2) identify the color of the symbol. Each bin was a separate challenge. This was multipart and relatively difficult. Two controllers that appeared to be remote control toy controllers were on a table in the CTF headquarters behind the registration table. This was a hint. If participants needed more of a hint, then they were told they were remote controllers.
In order to get points for controlling something inside, the participant had to reverse engineer the 50MHz remote controller and then make the toy move around inside the bin. A volunteer confirmed movement. Usually it was obvious as the toy bonked around inside the bin. The two toys had different controllers with different radio aspects, as each bin was a separate parallel challenge.
In oder to get points for identifying a symbol inside (video game logos), the participant would have to figure out that there was an NTSC backup camera inside each bin, transmitting an NTSC signal from inside the bin. Now, the bins are dark. Running to each bin was a programmable LED light strip with a BlueTooth controller. The part of the cable with the FCC ID for the BlueTooth controller was deliberately left outside the box. If you found the right Android or iOS app to run the LED light strip and turn it on, illuminating the inside of the box, and if you intercepted and viewed the NTSC signal from the box, then you would see the printed out and taped up video game logo inside the box. Google or a video game fan could help identify the logos.
The color of the symbol, which was not the standard logo color, could only be revealed if the participant was viewing a color NTSC signal. The backup cameras transmitted in color, but commonly available GNU Radio flowgraphs for receiving NTSC were all Black and White. This took some effort, but color NTSC flowgraphs were developed by the participants, and color was observed.
Another way to figure out the color was to set the BlueTooth LED strips to various colors and note the response of the image. With care, this would reveal the color of the printout without developing a color NTSC receiver flowgraph. At least one team successfully solved the challenge with this approach.

What made this hard?
Reversing a remote control is a time-honored basic GNU Radio exercise. However, usually one has the device and can look up an ID or product and get a head start. With the controlled device in a bin, and only the remote, it took scanning the usual frequencies used by these controllers to find them, identify them, reproduce them with a transmitter, and make the device move.
Noticing the NTSC signal emanating from the bins, recognizing it as a video transmission, figuring out how to light the inside of the box, receiving the video signal, and then adding color were challenging. Showing how truly interesting and clever backwards compatibility in color NTSC television was a big motivation for putting together this challenge. We spend a lot of emphasis and time on new designs. Backwards compatibility is often overlooked, but there is many innovative and compelling aspects to designing something that works with existing standards and equipment. In the case of NTSC, it was backwards compatible for many decades of deployment.

Lesson learned: don’t have color as a keyword (or any other small alphabet) because it’s too easy to guess. Points had to be manually awarded after participants figured out it was easy to just guess the color, since standard colors are from a limited palette.

Pink Heart
Pink Heart was a BluetTooth LED neopixel ring headset. Find the recipe for constructing it here:
The headset was placed on a styrofoam head and connected to external power for the week. In order to answer the various questions about Pink Heart, one had to figure out how to connect to the Adafruit Bluefruit Feather. The easiest way to do this is to go get the Adafruit Bluefruit LE connect app for iOS or Android. The functions in the standard example program that comes from Adafruit were modified. On a regular basis, the headset LEDs would flash a morse code message about Pink Heart and the Mayan Warrior. These are theme camps at Burning Man. If the message was decoded then points were automatically awarded by the CTFd software.

This was scored as the most difficult challenge. A transmission in the 2m ham band would be made on request. The question was “What is revealed?”
The transmission was the image transmitted by using Yaesu System Fusion’s camera microphone feature. The .jpg image was sent in data mode. The image was the nameplate from one of the hotel’s suites on an upper floor. The name of the suite was the key.
Intercepting and decoding the Yaesu System Fusion picture transmission in GNU Radio was accomplished, and the System Fusion blocks in GNU Radio were updated as a result.
What made this hard?
Reconstructing the way Yaesu handles data took effort because it’s not fully documented. There were a variety of basic signal intelligence techniques employed by teams to decode the image. Recognizing headers, recognizing the modulation scheme, looking up details about Yaesu System Fusion, and error correction.

Radio WGNU
A flow graph transmitting very low power broadcast FM radio with Radio Data Systems (RDS) was set up. RDS adds digital data to conventional analog FM broadcast signals. The easier parts of this challenge were to answer questions from the 10-minute custom audio loop in the stereo FM broadcast that was recorded for the CTF. Trivia questions about the identity of speakers, details from the interview, factoids from the “advertisements” - these could all be obtained with nothing more than an RTL-SDR and an easily built or obtained FM receiver flow graph.
There were several answers built into the digital data in the sidebands. A swarm of locusts was in the weather alert, for example.
What made this hard?
FM RDS transmits the digital data in a 57kHz subcarrier. We simply moved the digital sidebands to another frequency. Since they were in a non-standard location, off-the-shelf RDS receive flowgraphs did not see this portion of the signal. One would have to look at the spectrum, notice the difference, modify a GNU Radio flow graph to properly receive the digital data, and then figure out if there was anything even more buried or obfuscated in the digital data.
Potential improvements: we ran out of time to include things like a slow variation in the carrier frequency to communicate a morse code message. Also, there’s other subcarriers included in the RDS ecosystem that we didn’t take advantage of. The first is DirectBand, and the second is Audos. Including those in the challenge would have increased the variety and difficulty. Any complex broadcast standard has a lot of potential. FM RDS provided a big dynamic range, from easy to hard, and made for a great challenge.

HD Radio
We invited donated challenges from the floor, and Clayton Smith @argilo submitted a challenge involving HD Radio. Specifically, NRSC-5 digital radio stations using an RTL-SDR dongle. An additional twist was the use of gr-paint to put a picture into the signal spectrum.

See for more details about this type of radio transmission.

Problems & solutions:

Found It (100 pts?)
Q: What is the center frequency of the signal (in MHz)?
A: 445.5

First (100 pts?)
Q: What is the first flag?
A: wrathful potato

Second (200 pts?)
Q: What is the second flag?
A: spurious mailbox

Third (400 pts?)
Q: What is the third flag?
A: steadfast pinch

Transmit (400 pts?)
Q: Transmit your own signal at 918 MHz, and include your team name in an ID3v2 Artist tag.

Lesson learned: Accepting challenges at the event required good technical and customer support. It paid off.

BlueTooth Fast and Slow
Keith Wheeler @FirmWarez donated several BlueTooth challenges. There was a variety of questions ranging from easy to difficult.

Lesson learned: Accepting challenges at the event required good technical and customer support. It paid off.

BlueTooth Wristbands
BlueTooth Wristbands, given out at concerts and promotional events, were displayed in the main conference room. If you could “convince” them to flash a certain color, then you won points. This was relatively simple bluetooth hacking, but did require some sort of development kit or board or environment to connect to them and command them.

Mistaken Challenges
Several amateur radio beacons on the microwave band were mistaken for challenges. Including them would have been a good idea for a themed challenge.

Notes for Next Time
GNU Radio attracts a lot of people that bring their SDRs. Advertising in advance did increase the number of SDRs at the event, but additional advertising and specific hardware suggestions would have made it even more easy to participate.
Providing RTL-SDRs was a good idea and was greatly appreciated, but does require an expenditure of funds that not every volunteer team should be expected to repeat.