UHF 2-way radios for motorcycles or scooters
__—— November 2007: Convoy Communications
- UK-made Autocom and Starcom1 – both very similar in price and function. Around AU$350 for a rider-only setup, or AU$450 for a rider-&-pillion setup ( adding the cost of an extra helmet headset & cable ). There are Autocom and Starcom1 agents throughout Australia, so you can have them professionally installed, although it is a simple DIY job.
- US-made MotoComm RiderLink for around AU$240 that comes complete with pillion headset, but is available online only. You get a rider-and-pillion setup for a much lower price than the 2 UK-made rider-only units. There are no RiderLink agents in Australia, so self-installation is necessary, but online support is available.
In Australia, no license is required to use hand-held UHF radios up to 5-Watt power. Reception is rarely a problem, but transmission power certainly imposes distance limits. The ideal power for bike use is about 3 Watts, but anything from 1 Watt to 5 Watt power is acceptable. The choice of radio model is less important than the choice of transmission gear, but there are many minor issues that may influence your decision – for more information about different radios and their suitability for riding use, including a summary of the 2011 Australian 40-to-80-channel system change, see here.
- Wiring: Running a 2-way radio on a ‘battery eliminator’ is NOT recommended! Radios are extremely sensitive to static generated by the bike’s wiring, so leave it running on the battery to keep it isolated from that noise.Although carrying a spare radio battery is a good policy, a UHF radio will generally run for a whole day on a single charge. Running a comms units on battery power will typically last 4- to 5-times longer than the radio, so this is a lesser problem.Comms units do not have an ‘Off’ switch – they rely on ‘load-sensing’, which works okay, but requires a tiny trickle of power 24/7 to sense any increase in load. If running a comms unit on battery-power, adding an on/off switch will avoid running the batteries down when not using it.
- If you use a comms unit it will have a specific headset ( helmet speakers and mic ) designed to work with it. Nice and easy. Don’t try to use a headset not designed to work with your comms unit.
NB: Some headsets ( such as the Nolan N-Com ) are advertised to have noise-cancelling. This is very misleading. They have a shielded electret mic to reduce wind noise, which is a noise-reduction system. That’s a passive method – not the same as active noise-cancelling via a comms unit.
- If you use a comms unit it is possible to use VOX ( voice-operated transmission ) on your radio, because the unit’s noise-cancelling filters out ambient noises, so they don’t trigger transmission. But... most riders quickly tire of VOX, because ANY noise coming out of their mouths will trigger transmission – coughs, grunts, mumbles, exclamations, sneezes. Do you really want to share those with everyone, or never be able to talk to anyone without transmitting? VOX becomes even MORE tiresome when several radios are within range. Most riders add a PTT ( press-to-talk ) button for convenience, an added expense, usually about AU$100.
- You can buy cheaper PTT buttons from a Gold Coast company for about $25 including freight. These very small, weather-proof “Finger PTT” buttons perform the same function as the usual large motorcycle buttons, and are less conspicuous... but you will have to do some soldering.
- If you connect directly to a radio, you MUST use a PTT button, because VOX is absolutely hopeless on a bike without a comms unit, triggering transmissions from ambient noise. You probably won’t even be aware that you are transmitting nothing but engine and wind noise, and acting like a mobile radio jammer. Nobody else will be able to use their radios at all – the channel will be permanently busy with very annoying static and noise... and you won’t be popular!
- If you connect directly to a radio, you transmit more noise than voice, because the electret mic in the helmet is more sensitive to ambient noise ( mostly wind ) than to your voice! It is tempting to consider using a throat mic, which senses vibrations in your neck instead of in the air. Throat mics are a cheap alternative and seem a clever solution, since they can’t “hear” wind noise except as vibrations of neck and collar at higher speeds. They are ok up to about 60 km/h but hopeless at higher speeds – vowel sounds formed in the throat transmit perfectly, but consonent sounds formed by the lips, tongue, teeth do not. Your voice will always sound ‘muffled’, hard to understand. “Mary had a little lamb” sounds like “airy a uh i-oo am”.
- You DO NOT want to plug / unplug several cables every time you get on / off the bike or remove your helmet. You want ONE cable to plug into the helmet headset... that’s all! To achieve this the radio must be attached to the bike, along with the PTT button and the comms unit, if you use one. The helmet headset should be the only part of the setup that is separate.
- Traditionally, a 2-way radio is not a duplex connection like a phone, where you can talk and listen at the same time. It is a simplex connection. While you are transmitting, you can’t receive – neither can anyone else transmit on the same channel. Most modern UHF radios DO have a Duplex mode, receiving on one channel but broadcasting on another ( that was a major reason for changing from 40- to 80-channels )... almost as good as a telephone. But the setup for that mode varies widely between different brands, so it is very difficult to arrange for a group using different radio brands to use Duplex. It’s easiest to just stick with Simplex!
- Using a comms unit, the radio is usually mounted in a cradle on the bike, so the metal parts of the bike, plus the electrical and magnetic fields generated, can reduce transmission range. Locating the radio in a plastic top-box gets it up high and well away from electrical noise, the only down-side is that the PTT button cable has to be fairly long. Using an external antenna also gets around this interference limitation, and gives you the best of everything.