APRS Tracking System Flies Your Balloons

Looking for a way to track your high-altitude balloons but don’t want to mess with sending data over a cellular network? [Zack Clobes] and the others at Project Traveler may have just the thing for you: a position-reporting board that uses the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) network to report location data and easily fits on an Arduino in the form of a shield.

The project is based on an Atmel 328P and all it needs to report position data is a small antenna and a battery. For those unfamiliar with APRS, it uses amateur radio frequencies to send data packets instead of something like the GSM network. APRS is very robust, and devices that use it can send GPS information as well as text messages, emails, weather reports, radio telemetry data, and radio direction finding information in case GPS is not available.

If this location reporting ability isn’t enough for you, the project can function as a shield as well, which means that more data lines are available for other things like monitoring sensors and driving servos. All in a small, lightweight package that doesn’t rely on a cell network. All of the schematics and other information are available on the project site if you want to give this a shot, but if you DO need the cell network, this may be more your style. Be sure to check out the video after the break, too!

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Building a Horn Antenna for Radar

So you’ve built yourself an awesome radar system but it’s not performing as well as you had hoped. You assume this may have something to do with the tin cans you are using for antennas. The obvious next step is to design and build a horn antenna spec’d to work for your radar system. [Henrik] did exactly this as a way to improve upon his frequency modulated continuous wave radar system.

To start out, [Henrik] designed the antenna using CST software, an electromagnetic simulation program intended for this type of work. His final design consists of a horn shape with a 100mm x 85mm aperture and a length of 90mm. The software simulation showed an expected gain of 14.4dB and a beam width of 35 degrees. His old cantennas only had about 6dB with a width of around 100 degrees.

The two-dimensional components of the antenna were all cut from sheet metal. These pieces were then welded together. [Henrik] admits that his precision may be off by as much as 2mm in some cases, which will affect the performance of the antenna. A sheet of metal was also placed between the two horns in order to reduce coupling between the antennas.

[Henrik] tested his new antenna in a local football field. He found that his real life antenna did not perform quite as well as the simulation. He was able to achieve about 10dB gain with a field width of 44 degrees. It’s still a vast improvement over the cantenna design.

If you haven’t given Radar a whirl yet, check out [Greg Charvat’s] words of encouragement and then dive right in!

Measuring Filters and VSWR With RTL-SDR

Once again the ubiquitous USB TV tuner dongle has proved itself more than capable of doing far more than just receiving broadcast TV. Over on the RTL-SDR blog, there’s a tutorial covering the measurement of filter characteristics using a cheap eBay noise source and an RTL-SDR dongle.

For this tutorial, the key piece of equipment is a BG7TBL noise source, acquired from the usual online retailers. With a few connectors, a filter can be plugged in between this noise source and the RTL-SDR dongle. With the hardware out of the way, the only thing remaining is the software. That’s just rtl_power and this wonderful GUI. The tutorial is using a cheap FM filter, and the resulting plot shows a clear dip between 50 and 150 MHz. Of course this isn’t very accurate; there’s no comparison to the noise source and dongle without any attenuation. That’s just a simple matter of saving some scans as .csv files and plugging some numbers in Excel.

The same hardware can be used to determine the VSWR of an antenna, replacing the filter with a directional coupler; just put the coupler between the noise source and the dongle measure the attenuation through the range of the dongle. Repeat with the antenna connected, and jump back into Excel.

Simple Superheterodyne SW Receiver Harks Back Almost 100 years

Early radio receivers worked on a principle called Tuned Radio frequency (TRF), patented in 1916. They weren’t very easy to use, requiring each stage to be tuned to the same frequency (until ganged capacitors made that a bit easy). The Superheterodyne design, devised in 1918, was superior, but more expensive at that time. Cost considerations led adoption of the Superhet design to lag behind TRF until almost 1930. Since then, until quite recently, the Superhet design has been at the heart of a majority of commercial radio receivers. Direct Conversion Receivers were devised around 1930, but required elaborate phase locked loops which restricted their use in commercial receivers. The point of all this background is that the Superhet design has served very well for more than 90 years, but will soon be rendered redundant once Software defined Radio (SDR) becomes ubiquitous. Which is why this study of the simple Superheterodyne shortwave receiver deserves closer study.

[Dilshan] built this two transistor and two IF transformer based superheterodyne radio designed to receive 13m to 41m bands. The whole build is assembled on a breadboard, making it easy to teach others to experiment. [Dilshan] offers very useful insights into antenna, rod coil and IF transformer parameters. To dive in to Radio architecture, check this post on Amateur Radio. And if you would like to get a closer look at Antique Radios, check this post on Restoring Antique Radios.

Design & Build Part 2: Multi-Band, Phasing SSB, and SDR


Amateur radio is the ultimate hacker’s hobby. You can design, build, and put on the air your own high power transceivers. And with this homemade gear you are able to reach out directly, not relying on any infrastructure whatsoever, to connect with people all over the world. It is a thrilling experience to communicate with that long distance station using equipment you created, where you know at that instant what every single transistor is doing as you key down the mic.

In a previous post I described how SSB radio equipment worked and provided an example of a single-band 20m SSB transceiver. In this post I will discuss a multi-band SSB transceiver, an entire homemade amateur station including amplifiers, and conclude with software defined radio (SDR) that you can make in one weekend.

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Using The Red Pitaya As An SDR

The Red Pitaya is a credit-card sized board that runs Linux, has Ethernet, and a good bit of RAM. This sounds a lot like a Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black, but the similarities end there. The Red Pitaya also has two RF inputs, two RF outputs, and a load of digital IOs, all connected to an Xilinx SoC that includes an FPGA. [Pavel] realized the Pitaya had all the components of a software-defined radio, and built an implementation to prove it.

The input for the SDR taps directly into one of the high impedance inputs with a simple loop antenna made out of telephone cable. The actual software-defined part of this radio borrows heavily from an Xilinx application note, while everything is controlled by either SDR# or HDSDR.

[Pavel] included a pre-built SD card image with all his software, so cloning this project is simply a matter of copying an SD card and building an antenna. The full source is also available, interesting if you would like to muck about with FPGAs and SDRs.

Morse Code RF Transmitter from a Micro’s Clock Output

If you’re looking for a simple way to make an RF transmitter, check out [Tomasz]’s Morse code transmitter. His design uses nothing more than a microcontroller and a 16MHz crystal to transmit CW Morse code on 96MHz. We’ve seen some similar designs that work at lower frequencies, but transmitting up at 96MHz is pretty impressive.

[Tomasz] used an STM32L microcontroller for this project, which isn’t specced to run up at the high frequencies he wanted to transmit at. To get around this, [Tomasz] wired a 16Mhz oscillator up to microcontroller’s clock input. The clock input is run into the micro’s PLL which is capable of generating high frequencies. He mentions that you can use the internal oscillator instead of a crystal, but it has a ton of phase noise and splatters all over the spectrum.

[Tomasz] chose to start transmitting at 96MHz, which can be picked up by a standard FM radio. To generate this frequency, he set the PLL to multiply the 16MHz crystal up to 192MHz followed by a clock divide of 2 which brings it down to 96MHz. The microcontroller’s CPU runs on the 16MHz crystal input before it goes into the PLL. Next [Tomasz] enabled the MCO clock output pin which routes the 96MHz signal to the outside world.

Transmitting CW is pretty simple; it just involves turning a fixed-frequency transmitter on and off. [Tomasz] wrote a function that enables and disables the MCO output pin. This has the effect of keying any Morse code string you throw at it. Check out the video after the break to see the transmitter in action.

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