Ham radio operators circled closer and closer to a West Valley bank Saturday, some a bit uneasy with the question they had for the teller at the drive-up window: "Are you the bunny?"
The "bunny" was actually a cell-phone-size radio transmitter concealed inside a military-surplus ammunition box. The bank teller was recruited to baby-sit the device as part of a high-tech game of hide-and-seek known among amateur radio enthusiasts as foxhunting or direction finding.Radio-wielding "foxes" tracked radio bleeps emitted by the "bunny" until the radio signals had them circling the First Utah Bank at 4900 W. 3500 South. The rules of the hunt suggested hunters might have to ask somebody about the bunny when they reached or were very near the little transmitter since the device was not in plain view and bore no resemblance to a hare.
The teller was prepared for the question. West Valley City police were also warned - in case dispatchers got calls about a swarm of vehicles with complex antenna arrays on top or pedestrians scouring parking lots with exotic hand-held radios like the alien hunters in the movie "ET."
Foxhunting is popular among amateur radio operators with Saturday's hunt planned as part of the first-ever National Foxhunting Day, sponsored by ham radio magazine CQ VHF. The local sponsor is Salt Lake County Amateur Radio Emergency Services, a group of volunteers that lends its expertise in local law enforcement and disaster and emergency relief efforts.
"It's challenging and it's fun. It gets your adrenalin up," said Brent Thomas. Thomas says he enjoys a sport that uses the same direction-finding he also employs in his job as communications director for the Utah Public Safety Department's Division of Comprehensive Emergency Management.
Thomas has helped track down radio operators whose signals were jamming the frequencies of public-safety radio channels. He's also tracked down police officers whose two-way radios had microphones stuck in transmit mode.
Direction-finding techniques used in foxhunting are also used to track wild animals wearing transmitter collars and to home in on the beacon signals of downed aircraft.
Police tag goods with hidden transmitters and use the signals to find crooks. Some uses of the tracking technique are James Bond material. "We have situations where detectives have put bugs in some property and when it gets stolen they track it down," Thomas said.
In Saturday's hunt, the foxes assembled in the parking lot of West Valley City Hall. Foxhunts don't have a widely prescribed set of rules, so organizers gave hunters the details when they arrived: The bunny would transmit 15-second bursts of tones and a Morse code identifier every two minutes. The first foxhunter to find the bunny won the grand prize - bragging rights.
The bunny would not be in plain view from any distance - which is where the bank teller came in. Coaches would help anyone in the hunt who hadn't found the bunny by 10:45 a.m. Bunny stopped transmitting at 11 a.m.
Signal meters on hunters' radios and directional antennas told whether the foxes were getting closer to or farther from the bunny each time it called out.
"There are various methods they use to actually do this. There are hand-held units, mobile units, very sophisticated ones," Thomas said. "Some are homemade."
"Amateur radio encompasses an awful lot of different interests," said enthusiast Kirk Bowman, a Delta Airlines pilot. "I think most of us get involved in this thing because it's a real technical challenge."
The competitive nature of the hunt was quickly overridden by participants' enthusiasm for sharing ideas, techniques and technology. Participants who built their own equipment were anxious to showcase their work.
And, like most hobbies these days, beginners and the more intrepid hams alike have a variety of World Wide Web sites that discuss radio direction finding and techniques to help hunters sharpen their skills.