TV Broadcasts from Outer Space

According to ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station), the ISS will be sending us images using slow-scan TV on April 11th in honor of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s birthday. Tune in and you’ll get to see 12 different commemorative images from space, and of course bragging rights that you directly received them with your radio setup.

For those who aren’t Ham radio types, slow-scan TV (SSTV) is a radio mode where the pixels in an image are sent by encoding the brightness and/or color as a tone, a lot like a modem, fax machine, or the data cassette tapes of yore.

The ISS uses PD-180 which is a color mode where each pixel’s red, green, and blue values are encoded in a pitch between 1500 and 2300 Hz. Each image takes just over three minutes to transmit, meaning you’ll have to track the ISS pretty well as it travels across the sky. But don’t fret, they send each message for around an hour, so you have a good chance to receive it. (We’ll be the first to admit that a frame rate of one frame in 187 seconds isn’t really “TV”, but that’s what they call it.)

SSTV’s use in the space program goes back even before the moon landing, but with modern software-defined radio setups, it all becomes a lot more convenient to receive. The ISS folks do this periodically as a service to the amateur radio community, so it’s a good time to try out your chops.

We’ve covered ARISS before, but Yuri’s birthday is always a good reason to celebrate the folks out there. And if you need a reminder of when to look up, this hack right here has you covered.

If you do receive some images, you can upload them to the ARISS Gallery.  Or you can just hit refresh to see them as others post them up.

Build a Phased-Array Radar in Your Garage that Sees Through Walls

Until recently phased array radar has been very expensive, used only for military applications where the cost of survival weighs in the balance. With the advent of low-cost microwave devices and unconventional architecture phased array radar is now within the reach of the hobbyist and consumer electronics developer. In this post we will review the basics of phased-array radar and show examples of how to make low-cost short-range phased array radar systems — I built the one seen here in my garage! Sense more with more elements by making phase array your next radar project.

Phased array radar

In a previous post the basics of radar were described where a typical radar system is made up of a large parabolic antenna that rotates. The microwave beam projected by this antenna is swept over the horizon as it rotates. Scattered pulses from targets are displayed on a polar display known as a Plan Position Indicator (PPI).

Block diagram of a conventional radar system using a parabolic dish.
Block diagram of a conventional radar system using a parabolic dish.

In a phased array radar (PDF) system an array of antenna elements are used instead of the dish. These elements are phase-coherent, meaning they are all phase-referenced to the same transmitter and receiver. Each element is wired in series with a phase shifter that can be adjusted arbitrarily by the radar’s control system. A beam of microwave energy is focused by applying a phase rotation to each phase shifter. This beam can be directed anywhere within the array’s field of view. To scan the beam rotate the phases of the phase shifters accordingly. Like the rotating parabolic dish, a phased array can scan the horizon but without the use of moving parts.

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Transmitting HD Video From A Raspberry Pi

It’s been a few years since the RTL-SDR TV Tuner dongle blew up the world of amateur radio; it’s a simple device that listens in on digital television frequencies, but it’s one of those tools that’s just capable enough to have a lot of fun. Now, we have a transmitting dongle. It’s only being used to transmit live HDTV from a Pi, but that in itself is very interesting and opens up a lot of possible builds.

The key piece of hardware for this build is a UT-100C DVB-T modulator. It’s a $169 USB dongle capable of transmitting between 1200-1350 MHz, and with a special edition of OpenCaster it’s possible to transmit over-the-air TV. There’s no amplifier, so you won’t be sending TV very far, but it does work.

On the Raspberry Pi side of the build, the standard camera captures H.264 video with raspivid, which is converted to a DVB compliant stream using ffmpeg. These are well-worn bits of software in the Raspberry Pi world, and OpenCaster takes care of the rest.

While this seems like the perfect solution to completely overbuilt quadcopters, keep in mind transmitting on the 23cm band does require a license. Transmitting in the UHF TV bands is a bad idea.

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.