Monday, 5 April 2021

Amateur Radio Foundation Licence

Radio has always been an interest of mine from a young age and it's probably the main reason why so many radio related projects feature on this blog. As we all have time on our hands at the moment, I decided to put the time to good use and study for my amateur radio Foundation licence.

Not knowing where to start, I turned to Google and quickly found the Essex Ham group who offer a free training course. I signed up with them and even joined them on a couple of their live Q&A sessions. Now Essex Ham are a really interesting group, have you ever met someone who is just genuinely so nice and helpful? Well, that describes this group, they are simply marvellous and give up their free time to help promote the hobby and tutor people who want to learn. 

Due to the pandemic, the Foundation exam consists of only the theory exam as the practical element (that would normally take place at a group club meeting) can't be carried out but I still found that studying for the theory alone was difficult. I think my brain isn't used to learning like it used to. I booked my exam to help keep me focused, took it and got the result instantly. I passed, having achieved a score of 23/26 but you are allowed to get 7 wrong and still achieve a pass.

If you are looking to take up the hobby, do it whilst we have all this time on our hands. I've tried to put together a few points to help other out:

  1. Take the time to listen. Even if you don't own any equipment yet, you can still take advantage of WebSDR to listen in. My favourite is Hackgreen and through listening to how people conduct themselves, it will give you a good idea of what to expect.
  2. Sign up to the free Essex Ham Foundation course. These guys have been great, I couldn't have done it without them.
  3. Book your exam with the RSGB and book it early. Having a deadline to work towards will keep you focused. There is a cost involved, £27 but in the grand scheme of things, it's not that bad.
  4. Buy a book to help with your studies. I bought Foundation Radio: Revision Questions off Amazon and I found it helped a great deal.

So what happen next?

Within the space of a week I received my certificate from the Radio Society and from here I was able to log onto the Ofcom website and register my call sign. Having studied for the exam, it turned out that this was the hardest part of the whole process - choosing a suitable call sign. I could let Ofcom allocate me the next available call sign but you also have the opportunity to choose your own (if it's available). Foundation licence call signs currently start with M7 followed by three letters and it's these three letters that I could pick. I went through the usual ones that sprang to mind : TEA, JEZ, etc but they were all taken. In the end I went with the Marvel Cinematic Universe MCU and so M7MCU became the latest call sign to be registered. 

There was something that I didn't bank on and that was mic shyness. I understand that this is a common problem with people who have passed their exam. I thought the only way to overcome it was to listen some more to be sure of the correct way of doing things before taking that first step. I guess this is the issue with a lack of practical sessions but I made my first contact and it is so exciting.

In this short space of time, I'm beginning to only realise the different avenues the hobby can lead me down, it's incredibly really. I'm now trying to learn Morse code, use the local repeaters and thinking about antenna construction.

Saturday, 6 March 2021

Cloud Storage - Devlog #5

I've been working on the artwork for the game and looking at how best to do free up more screen space. The labels displaying the water tank and population variable values have been replaced with two simple meters that run alongside the board.

There are a great many positives coming out of this rewrite. As I mentioned previously I find it rather relaxing just to switch off and build with the random tiles that are present to me. As I now have an engine that when I pass in the assets it will produce a simple builder game. This will make it really easy for me to make little spin-off construction games in the future.

The rewriting of this game features on my latest podcast Finding Space. Put the kettle on, grab a biscuit and have a listen by clicking on the below.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Cloud Storage - Devlog #4

The great rewrite! The decision to rewrite the game has allowed me to plan the structure better as I'm able to cherry pick everything that was good in version 1 and better plan in this version. The rewrite has also resulted in a better project plan. For this update I am planning on concentrating on the following:

IKEA aesthetics

Tile delivery system

Wiping the board clean

Game save

I put together a random selection of shapes with the intention of evolving them into proper buildings later on. Once these were in place a basic tile delivery system was written that presents the player with a single item tile at a time and does this in a random way. I am dreading revisiting the logic I penned in the notebook for this system, it is what broke everything in version 1 and forced this rewrite as a result.

Despite it only being a basic prototype, it is strangely satisfying just placing the random shapes onto the board. I have been able to plan a better method of recording each piece placed on the board, with each piece's ID stored in a single array. This array is in constant use as the board is continually scanned, allowing the pieces to be better managed in real time. With everything managed as a single array, I plan on utilising this when building a method of saving and loading player-built maps. Loading in an array, the board scan function can then pick it up and rebuild the board. It is also the same function that handles the resetting of the board too. One function taking on three roles - probably the most efficient thing I've ever written.

The tiles are currently delivered on a random basis and so I've cautiously started to pen the algorithm that will deliver each tile based on certain criteria. It is this that is going to take the most time and one that will require constant tweaking, so the framework for this will need to allow for corrections to be made easily. Anyway, here's the first video devlog covering the project so far.

Friday, 5 February 2021

Cloud Storage - Devlog #3

There has been quite a lot of progress made on the game. I have invested time in developing the UI as well as bringing in the other buildings into the menu and applying the logic that allows certain buildings to only be placed if particular criteria has been met (see the notebook from previous updates). I have also been experimenting with the style of the game and would like to try and replicate an IKEA style when it comes to drawing out the pieces. It was actually playing a game called Sparvagn that sealed the deal when it came to the IKEA look. This simple train game looks so beautiful.

After playing Dorfromanik I wanted to explore the concept of making it turn-based, with the game presenting you with a single item at a time to place on the map. The problem is that the tile delivery has to be logic driven in order to allow the game to continue being played. There is no point in presenting the player with a tile that cannot be played, so to the notebook I went and tried to flesh out the logic for the tile delivery.

To cut a long story short, this did not work at all. In fact, it properly broke the game's code and although I religiously keep backups of everything, I'm now wanting to take the lessons I've learnt, along with the style and UI design concepts and start again. I read a number of devlogs and this would appear to be a more common occurrence than I initially thought, so I'm not alone. What I've achieved so far is by no means time wasted, it gives me a solid foundation in order to build the game again.

Sunday, 24 January 2021

Cloud Storage - Devlog #2

I have a rough concept of the game. Thoughts now turn to the environment and map the player will be playing in. I've played a great many settlement building games lately, for research purposes you understand ;) (Try out Dorfromanik by the way) and I think playing the game in an isometric view works really well and is a nice nod to the old world building games that I used to play. I've also been giving some consideration to how the player will journey through the map and have gone for a simple 2x2 grid system to start with, with players unlocking new areas of the map as they progress through the game.

I had an idea for the initial cloud harvester the player has access to at the start of the game. This will raise its cloud catcher up into the air before retracting it to decanter the collected moisture. From here on in I am going to use simple place holders as the game evolves to make sure the mechanics are working before investing any real time in building aesthetics. I have track building and cloud harvester placement (sort of) working with a few basic rules whereby buildings can only be placed alongside a dirt track. Idea - What if the dirt track was a railway track, collecting water from the harvesters and depositing it at a central water station?

The main aim of the game will be to keep alive and expand a population through careful management of settlements and water harvesting. I've been trying to work out the mechanics of the game and how each building depends on previous buildings being built. Different combinations of buildings in a settlement will affect the water harvesting rate, the survival rate of colony and how quickly settlement technology can be advanced. This is a really interesting insight into how similar building games are produced and I have a great appreciation for them as a result.

Taking inspiration from the other games I've been playing, I think it would be a good idea to add another layer of complexity by restricting the use of some of the building blocks. Presenting the player with a single card at a time but doing it in a calculated way to ensure the game can continue play (and not offer a building card that cannot be played) would be a great idea to consider later on.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Cloud Storage - Devlog #1

This is the start of a dev log of my game Cloud Storage. A settlement building simulation set in a dry, desert world where water is the last remaining natural resource. Harvest the moisture locked in the clouds to upgrade and trade with other players to advance your settlement and increase your chances of survival.

The initial idea

Inspiration for games come in many forms, I usually use the weekly game jams to help get the creative gears moving. This is great for short blasts of game making but for a longer build I needed to look elsewhere and it wasn't long before something of interest came my way. I'm not sure how I came across it and it took me a while to track it down again but this short video of an animation really got me thinking. I love the idea of some planes fighting for resources whilst others are trying to better the situation. Wouldn't it be great to include similar dilemmas and situations in a game of survival.

To the sketchbook! There is always a slight sense of embarrassment when I first start sketching out a game idea and I'm not sure why this is. Maybe I'm comparing my doodles to other developers who have shared some of their sketchbook pages and admired the quality of their art even in their early stages. One thing's for sure though, everybody has to start somewhere, including me. Below are some of the initial sketches I made for the game as I looked at putting together a game set in a world where water is the most valuable commodity with the player harvesting moisture from passing clouds in order to survive and support an expanding population.

The dynamics of how someone in dry, desert world interacts and survives in such a climate. Trading with NPCs or other online players is an idea that really appeals and one that is worth exploring later on.

I initially thought about generating an infinite map for the player to level up and explore. The sketching out of this idea has made me realise that this maybe a little ambitious. This way of generating a random, infinite world that was the same on every load took me down some interesting avenues, including sitting down with a couple of maths teachers in order to got through how to generate such a thing. I was going to try and use the same mechanic for the weather system.

Level progression will be done through upgrading the player's technology in order to farm moisture better. For the basic levels, technology is operated manually with incentives to spend valuable currency on upgrading to automation, freeing up time for the user to explore the desert world. Moisture can be traded for parts and goods. I really like the idea of a messaging system between players in the form of a mail carrying blimp.

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

My Podcast of Creativity

I've been wanting to put together a podcast for some time now, learning what it takes to plan, record and edit episode in order to learn a few new skills. As I'm on a game dev mission for 2021, it makes a great deal of sense to base my podcast's content on next year's adventures.

A few months ago I built a simple recording rig that I can carry around and unpack whenever I wanted to record, stream or even broadcast with the help of my modified FM transmitter. I wanted to explore the uses of everyday space and how people form their own spaces in which to create in.

A combination of game development topics and exploring other people's creative spaces would make interesting content for a podcast and seeing as though I intend to get people talking about their workspaces, it seemed only fair that I talk about mine that I recently built. You can hear the recording below.

It turns out that talking and playing on the arcade cabinet is really rather difficult. Listening back to the recording, it's rough, very rough but every project must start somewhere. I think so many people these days get put off experimenting with new things as they're always comparing themselves to others, myself included. So it's important for me to give things ago, step outside the comfort zone and talk through my first episode of my Finding Space podcast.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Building a Low Cost Retro Gaming Arcade Cabinet

There is something very special about an arcade cabinet and I've made a couple in the past with varying degrees of success as I try and recreate that strong nostalgic feeling I have for retro gaming. Now that I'm more familiar with the process of building cabinets I decided to see how cheaply I could build me next one and this is the process I followed. For those wishing to make one but don't have the space then maybe you would be interested in building one of my smaller miniature versions here.

This is the finished product, a Mario themed table top arcade machine running a Retropie set up and as most of the material was sourced from scrap, the whole project (not including the cost of the monitor) came it at just over £20.

The buttons were the first purchased I made as you can't have a cabinet without necessary joystick and buttons. if you hunt around on eBay and prepared to wait a while for them to be shipped from China, you can find a USB joystick and button set for around £10.

As with previous builds I don't follow any plans, all measurements are based on the size of the monitor that I'm using at the time and this is no exception. I started making the control panel as shown below, cutting out the holes needed for the buttons. The nice thing is that if your cutting is a little messy, you can hide it pretty well with the button overlaps, making it appear neater.

The materials you are seeing for both the control panel and the frame below is all wood salvaged from an old cupboard. Once you have the control panel cut to a suitable size to accommodate your monitor, it is this panel that will govern the dimensions of the rest of the build going forward.

Below you can see me starting to put together the frame. This needs to be as sturdy as possible as whilst you can cut corners at various stages of the build, I would recommend that you take the time to make the frame as robust as possible. It's amazing how often a cabinet gets knocked about, even when people are being super careful, so make it as strong as possible.

Give the software a test at this stage. There's nothing more frustrating that having everything installed and things not to work. I am using an old Raspberry Pi but have previously used the very cheap Pi Zero to run RetroPie without any issues at all.

Once the frame is in place, you can start building around it. I've learnt that you can hide a great deal of the scruffiness you see in the photograph below when it comes to painting and covering the cabinet, so there's no need to worry that it's going to result in a messy build, just make sure the panels are one and everything's contained.

I've used expensive car vinyl wrapping in the past and that has worked out really well in producing a great finish. This time I wanted to keep costs to a minimum and opted for spray paint instead. My son chose the theme of this build to be Mario and so we picked up some cheap spray paint that matched the Mario blue perfectly.

The edging is a great way to hide any scruffy joins from the previous building stages. The easiest and cheapest option I have found is to use insulation tape and I found the perfect Mario red colour to compliment the blue.

From here it's a case of wiring everything up and testing once again. I've put together a short video of the process detailed in this post as well as the finishing stages. The more observant readers will notice that I installed the control panel the wrong way round with the joystick located on the right. Always double check things before committing!

Sunday, 23 August 2020


Have you ever wanted to start your own radio station? For a number of years, I have. Even from an early age I've always been fascinated with radio and this is probably why so many of my projects are radio-based.

My most recent project is my pop-up pirate radio box that's designed to serve two purposes. The first will be to stream my broadcasts online using Anchor ( and there are really easy to follow tutorials on YouTube if you wish to give it a go yourself. Secondly it will broadcast over FM with the help of a series of modified in-car FM transmitters (my video tutorial can be found here) relaying the online stream of the broadcast at various locations.

I have put together a short video on how the pop-up pirate box was built and what plans I have for it.

Now let's rewind a little bit to understand how I got here. The pirate box uses a similar set up to a previous radio beacon project of mine. At the heart of the FM beacon lies the Microbit, whose job it it to manage and help conserve power to the transmitter. Having a means to activate your transmitter on a schedule is a really useful feature and the conservation of power is a problem that can be solved in a variety of creative ways. I hunted around the usual places for inspiration on how to solve this problem and found a nice video. I love how the rig featured in the video below solves this problem via analogue means and is able to keep to a broadcasting schedule too. Such an inventive idea. Spot the cat exercise wheel in the background at 5m 55s! This project served as inspiration for the Microbit FM beacons.

Together with the power management of the Microbit and my modified transmitter hack, I have the means to broadcast on a schedule for prolonged periods of time over a range of about 600m after further tweaks.

It's worth noting that I could not have managed this project without this clearly written Instructable on motor control using the TIP120 transistor. This tutorial has helped me so many times over the years and I've used it again with activating this project's transmitter. Thank you!

Below is my circuit diagram to show how the FM beacon was constructed along with the simple code blocks that control the servo motor and FM transmitter.

Built from cheap and salvaged materials, this was a challenging yet fun project to put together. Thoughts now turn to how best to use the radio rig. I rather like the idea of taking over unused public spaces such as telephone boxes and turning them into makeshift recording studios.

Friday, 3 July 2020


This was my very first contact card. It was printed off on paper as an afterthought as I need something quick before I left for an event in Southampton where I would be showcasing my android chatbot app. I handed a great many of these out but have deliberately kept a few back to remind of an important lesson that day.

I learnt something very important at that event, and that was you don't have to have everything completely polished and complete. If you have a good idea and you're enthusiastic and have the right intentions, people won't mind receiving your details on a slither of paper.

It was time to get some proper cards made up though in time for my next event. As I try and achieve things for as less money as possible with whatever I do, I found an offer online for free business card sample packs and took advantage of it. For years now I've been branded with rockets, rusty rockets and have done ever since I chose my first Hotmail email address back in the late 90s. So with these cards I quickly put together a rocket logo for the front design.

The reverse of the card comprised of stamps with the idea of it looking similar to a postcard. The idea was that I would hand write my details on the 'postcard' with a little sentence about what we've been talking about to help jog peoples' memories when the find the card weeks or months down the line. This worked really well and I think people appreciated how different it was but it did take a lot of time the write out each one.

My next card design is still my favourite out of all these. By now my website that I display all my builds on was starting to develop a retro feel and the cassette tape featured rather heavily in the design layout. Again, finding an online offer for free sample packs of business cards I took full advantage of the cassette tape template this company offered and I was able to get a large quantity printed in a variety of cassette tape designs at a very low cost.

I loved how the reverse of the card resembled the inlay card of the case. Sadly no contact details printed (I think this came at a huge additional cost) so it was back to hand writing details and I got rather good at writing them out for people in the form of a track listing, as if I had made them a mix tape.

I have been using the cassette tape cards for a number of years now and I've only stopped using them as this particular template is no longer offered anymore. Never fear though, the 3d printer revolution is here! I've been experimenting with new contact cards with a difference and on finding a nice rocket kit template on Thingiverse I modified it so it could be used as a contact card. The idea is the parts all pop out to make a small model of a rocket.

This is a great idea but the actual rocket assembly proved very tricky, so I looked at ways of refining the rocket card kit and the below is the result - A more compact model that's easier to build.

These were going to be used at events this Easter and Summer but have unfortunately been cancelled due to everything going on in the world at the moment. They won't go to waste though, they can be saved until I'm next able to get out. In the meantime I've bought myself a cheap little thermal printer and I'm looking at way this could be used as a way to print out little receipt-like contact details for people, along with images and other fun things that could be included on their.

Take a moment to watch this little video of me talking about my contact cards some more.

Thursday, 14 May 2020


I have previously built arcade cabinets from scratch and wanted to build another one now that I'm more familiar with the build process. However, after seeing the work of Small Change Arcade, I was inspired to build a miniature arcade machine instead and wondered how small could I go. This tabletop arcade with a Raspberry Pi Zero running Retropie was the result and I love it.

I also set myself an additional task of sourcing the materials from what I already had about the place in a bid to keep costs low and to prove that you can make good use of practically anything. As I was about to throw way some old IKEA CD drawers, I looked at one of them and could instantly see how this could be repurposed as a mini desktop arcade due to its shape.

Now I've never been very good at measuring things for projects accurately, nor am I very good at carpentry but that's never put me off before. I set about roughly cutting out the desired shape with a saw and was able to make good use of the leftovers by building the frame that would sit around the small screen.

The screen I used for this build was a cheap car reversing monitor that I purchased from Amazon a number of years ago and it's still going strong today. The resolution isn't brilliant but it's perfect for what I had in mind for the retro tabletop arcade. In order to get the screen working with the Pi Zero though I had to purchase a cheap AV to HDMI converter.

Due to my rather cavalier approach to accuracy, build components have a hard time of fitting togther nicely. However with this project the USB NES controller is the exact width of a CD case and so slotted into place perfectly. It was as if the two were made for each other, it fitted that well!

Once I had the frame built, the components safely housed inside and confirmed that everything was working as intended, it was time to 3d print the exterior. Again, I had no proper design in mind, I just started printing small parts out and built it up from there. One thing I did find useful about this process was the fact that the little mistakes I had made as a result of not measuring properly or poorly cutting the wood, I could hide really easily from view.

Still making it up as I go along and as a finishing touch to the build I managed to find some old broken Christmas lights that I'd clearly kept for a project like this to come along. Once I got a few of the LED lights working again I was able to drill a few holes in the wooden frame of the cabinet and have them illuminating parts of the 3d printed panels, including the miniature coin slots.


Whilst I am really pleased with the way this mini arcade turned out, there are a couple of things I would like to change in order to improve the build.

The first is to print a proper button and joystick panel to go over the USB NES controller. Whilst using the NES controller allows me to retain that retro feel of the project, it is a little awkward at times to use.

The Raspberry Pi Zero is at the heart of the build and this can be run off a battery pack. Unfortunately the screen I used cannot, it has to be plugged in and so it's not completely portable.

Finally, I would just love it if this could be made into a proper coin operated cabinet. I have the coin operator along with old 10 pence coins that we could use.

Amateur Radio Foundation Licence

Radio has always been an interest of mine from a young age and it's probably the main reason why so many radio related projects feature ...