APRS – Automatic Packet Reporting System

Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) is an amateur radio-based system for real time digital communications of information of immediate value in the local area. Data can include object Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates, weather station telemetry, text messages, announcements, queries, and other telemetry. APRS data can be displayed on a map, which can show stations, objects, tracks of moving objects, weather stations, search and rescue data, and direction finding data.

APRS data are typically transmitted on a single shared frequency (depending on country) to be repeated locally by area relay stations (digipeaters) for widespread local consumption. In addition, all such data are typically ingested into the APRS Internet System (APRS-IS) via an Internet-connected receiver (IGate) and distributed globally for ubiquitous and immediate access. Data shared via radio or Internet is collected by all users and can be combined with external map data to build a shared live view.

APRS has been developed since the late 1980s by Bob Bruninga, call sign WB4APR, currently a senior research engineer at the United States Naval Academy. He still maintains the main APRS Web site. The initialism “APRS” was derived from his call sign.

APRS was installed on the International Space Station in late 2003 and has been operational on the global APRS satellite channel on 145.825, since 2007.  For more information on APRS and the ISS, please click here.

Current VA3DBJ APRS configuration:
VA3DBJ     Home (Kenwood TM-D710)
VA3DBJ-5   Iphone
VA3DBJ-10  Laptop/Ipad
VA3DBJ-13  Weather Station (reporting every 15 minutes - weather.va3dbj.ca)

History

Bob Bruninga, a senior research engineer at the United States Naval Academy, implemented the earliest ancestor of APRS on an Apple II computer in 1982. This early version was used to map high frequency Navy position reports. The first use of APRS was in 1984, when Bruninga developed a more advanced version on a Commodore VIC-20 for reporting the position and status of horses in a 160 km endurance run.

During the next two years, Bruninga continued to develop the system, which he now called the Connectionless Emergency Traffic System (CETS). Following a series of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) exercises using CETS, the system was ported to the IBM Personal Computer. During the early 1990s, CETS (then known as the Automatic Position Reporting System) continued to evolve into its current form.

As GPS technology became more widely available, “Position” was replaced with “Packet” to better describe the more generic capabilities of the system and to emphasize its uses beyond mere position reporting.

Network overview

APRS (Automatic Packet Reporting System), is a digital communications protocol for exchanging information among a large number of stations covering a large (local) area, often referred to as “ey-pers”. As a multi-user data network, it is quite different from conventional packet radio. Rather than using connected data streams where stations connect to each other and packets are acknowledged and retransmitted if lost, APRS operates entirely in an unconnected broadcast fashion, using unnumbered AX.25 frames.

APRS schematic

APRS packets are transmitted for all other stations to hear and use. Packet repeaters, called digipeaters, form the backbone of the APRS system, and use store and forward technology to retransmit packets. All stations operate on the same radio channel, and packets move through the network from digipeater to digipeater, propagating outward from their point of origin. All stations within radio range of each digipeater receive the packet. At each digipeater, the packet path is changed. The packet will only be repeated through a certain number of digipeaters — or hops — depending upon the all-important “PATH” setting.

Digipeaters keep track of the packets they forward for a period of time, thus preventing duplicate packets from being retransmitted. This keeps packets from circulating in endless loops inside the ad-hoc network. Eventually, most packets are heard by an APRS Internet Gateway, called an IGate, and the packets are routed on to the Internet APRS backbone (where duplicate packets heard by other IGates are discarded) for display or analysis by other users connected to an APRS-IS server, or on a Web site designed for the purpose.

While it would seem that using unconnected and unnumbered packets without acknowledgment and retransmission on a shared and sometimes congested channel would result in poor reliability due to a packet being lost, this is not the case, because the packets are transmitted (broadcast) to everyone and multiplied many times over by each digipeater. This means that all digipeaters and stations in range get a copy, and then proceed to broadcast it to all other digipeaters and stations within their range. The end result is that packets are multiplied more than they are lost. Therefore, packets can sometimes be heard some distance from the originating station. Packets can be digipeated tens of kilometers or even hundreds of kilometers, depending on the height and range of the digipeaters in the area.

When a packet is transmitted, it is duplicated many times as it radiates out, taking all available paths simultaneously, until the number of “hops” allowed by the path setting is consumed.

Capabilities

In its simplest implementation, APRS is used to transmit real-time data, information and reports of the exact location of a person or object via a data signal sent over amateur radio frequencies. In addition to real-time position reporting capabilities using attached GPS receivers, APRS is also capable of transmitting a wide variety of data, including weather reports, short text messages, radio direction finding bearings, telemetry data, short e-mail messages (send only) and storm forecasts. Once transmitted, these reports can be combined with a computer and mapping software to show the transmitted data superimposed with great precision upon a map display.

While the map plotting is the most visible feature of APRS, the text messaging capabilities and local information distribution capabilities, combined with the robust network, should not be overlooked; the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management has an extensive network of APRS stations to allow text messaging between all of the county Emergency Operating Centers in the event of the failure of conventional communications.

Technical information

In its most widely used form, APRS is transported over the AX.25 protocol using 1200 bit/s Bell 202 AFSK on frequencies located within the 2 meter amateur band.

Sample APRS VHF frequencies
  • 144.390 MHz — Colombia, Chile, Indonesia, Malaysia, North America, Thailand
  • 144.575 MHz — New Zealand[5][6]
  • 144.660 MHz — Japan
  • 144.800 MHz — South Africa, Europe,[7] Russia
  • 144.930 MHz — Argentina, Uruguay
  • 145.175 MHz — Australia
  • 145.570 MHz — Brazil
  • 430.5125 MHz — Netherlands (UHF)
  • 433.800 MHz Primary ; 432.500 MHz Secondary — Europe (UHF)

An extensive digital repeater, or “digipeater,” network provides transport for APRS packets on these frequencies. Internet gateway stations (IGates) connect the on-air APRS network to the APRS Internet System (APRS-IS), which serves as a worldwide, high-bandwidth backbone for APRS data. Stations can tap into this stream directly, and a number of databases connected to the APRS-IS allow Web-based access to the data as well as more advanced data-mining capabilities. A number of low-Earth orbiting satellites, including the International Space Station, are capable of relaying APRS data.

Equipment settings

An APRS infrastructure comprises a variety of Terminal Node Controller (TNC) equipment put in place by individual amateur radio operators. This includes sound cards interfacing a radio to a computer, simple TNCs, and “smart” TNCs. The “smart” TNCs are capable of determining what has already happened with the packet and can prevent redundant packet repeating within the network.

Reporting stations use a method of routing called a “path” to broadcast the information through a network. In a typical packet network, a station would use a path of known stations such as “via n8xxx,n8ary.” This causes the packet to be repeated through the two stations before it stops. In APRS, generic call signs are assigned to repeater stations to allow a more automatic operation.

Recommended path

Throughout North America (and in many other regions) the recommended path for mobiles or portable stations is now WIDE1-1,WIDE2-1. Fixed Stations (homes, etc.) should not normally use a path routing if they don’t need to be digipeated outside of their local area (and most don’t). Otherwise a path of WIDE2-2 or less should be used as requirements dictate. This path actually reflects the routing of packets via the radio component of APRS, and fixed stations should carefully consider their choice of path routing. Any path selection for fixed stations and *aircraft/balloons* that is not needed has the effect of denying access to mobiles/portables who need ‘digi’ service. This is due to the likely collisions of the mobile/portable stations packets with the ‘extra’ packets that are most likely not needed by fixed/home/base stations. Aircraft and balloon APRS stations should not beacon with any path at altitude since digipeating is not necessary due to their antenna height and likelihood of reaching multiple wide ranging digipeaters and IGates! (see proportional pathing when ground recovery is a concern). Even mobile stations in congested areas should consider using only 1 hop (WIDE1-1), or in bigger cities there are usually enough Internet gateways around that no path (digi hop request) is needed. Each area is a bit different. An excellent solution to the path selection is proportional pathing ( http://www.aprs.org/newN/ProportionalPathing.txt ) if your equipment is capable.

Old path

Early on, the widely accepted method of configuring stations was to enable the short-range stations to repeat packets requesting a path of “RELAY” and long-range stations were configured to repeat both “RELAY” and “WIDE” packets. This was accomplished by setting the station’s MYALIAS setting to RELAY or WIDE as needed. This resulted in a path of RELAY,WIDE for reporting stations. However, there was no duplicate packet checking or alias substitution. This sometimes caused beacons to “ping pong” back and forth instead of propagating outwards from the source. This caused much interference. With no alias substitution, one couldn’t tell which digipeaters a beacon had used.

New path

With the advent of the new “smart” TNC’s, the stations that used to be “WIDE” became “WIDEn-N.” This means a packet with a path of WIDE2-2 would be repeated through the first station as WIDE2-2, but the path will be modified (decremented) to WIDE2-1 for the next station to repeat. The packet stops being repeated when the “-N” portion of the path reaches “-0.” This new protocol has caused the old RELAY and WIDE paths to become obsolete. Digi operators are being asked to re-configure fill-in “RELAY” stations to instead respond to WIDE1-1. This results in a new, more efficient path of WIDE1-1,WIDE2-1. While most of the world has adopted the “new WIDEn-N” settings, there is an ongoing debate in the UK about the subject.

Related systems

The APRS protocol has been adapted and extended to support projects not directly related to its original purpose. The most notable of these are the FireNet and PropNET projects.

APRS FireNet is an Internet-based system using the APRS protocol and much of the same client software to provide fire fighting, earthquake, and weather information in much higher volume and detail than the traditional APRS system is capable of carrying.

PropNET uses the APRS protocol over AX.25 and PSK31 to study radio frequency propagation. PropNET “probes” transmit position reports, along with information on transmitter power, elevation, and antenna gain, at various frequencies to allow monitoring stations to detect changes in propagation conditions.