Using SDR to Take Control of Your Home Security System

[Dan Englender] was working on implementing a home automation and security system, and while his house was teeming with sensors, they used a proprietary protocol which was not supported by the open source system he was trying to implement. The problem with home automation and security systems is the lack of standardization – or rather, the large number of (often incompatible) standards used to ensure consumers get tied in to one specific system. He has shared the result of his efforts at getting the two to talk to each other via his project decode345.

The result enabled him to receive signals from Honeywell’s 5800 series of wireless products and interface them with OpenHAB — a vendor and technology agnostic open source automation software. OpenHAB offers “bindings” that allow a wide variety of systems and hardware to be integrated. Unfortunately for [Dan], this exhaustive list does not yet include support for the (not very popular) 345MHz protocol used by the Honeywell 5800 system, hence his project. Continue reading “Using SDR to Take Control of Your Home Security System”

Books You Should Read: Making A Transistor Radio

When a Hackaday article proclaims that its subject is a book you should read, you might imagine that we would be talking of a seminal text known only by its authors’ names. Horowitz and Hill, perhaps, or maybe Kernigan and Ritchie. The kind of book from which you learn your craft, and to which you continuously return to as a work of reference. Those books that you don’t sell on at the end of your university career.

Ladybird books covered a huge range of topics.
Ladybird books covered a huge range of topics.

So you might find it a little unexpected then that our subject here is a children’s book. Making A Transistor Radio, by [George Dobbs, G3RJV] is one of the huge series of books published in the UK under the Ladybird imprint that were a staple of British childhoods for a large part of the twentieth century. These slim volumes in a distinctive 7″ by 4.5″ (180 x 115 mm) hard cover format were published on a huge range of subjects, and contained well written and informative text paired with illustrations that often came from the foremost artists of the day. This one was published at the start of the 1970s when Ladybird books were in their heyday, and has the simple objective of taking the reader through the construction of a simple three transistor radio. It’s a book you must read not because it is a seminal work in the vein of Horrowitz and Hill, but because it is the book that will have provided the first introduction to electronics for many people whose path took them from this humble start into taking the subject up as a career. Including me as it happens, I received my copy in about 1979, and never looked back. Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Making A Transistor Radio”

Everyone Should Build At Least One Regenerative Radio Receiver

When we build an electronic project in 2016, the chances are that the active components will be integrated circuits containing an extremely large amount of functionality in a small space. Where once we might have used an op-amp or two, a 555 timer, or a logic gate, it’s ever more common to use a microcontroller or even an IC that though it presents an analog face to the world does all its internal work in the digital domain.

Making A Transistor Radio, 2nd edition cover. Fair use, via Internet Archive.
Making A Transistor Radio, 2nd edition cover. Fair use, via Internet Archive.

There was a time when active components such as tubes or transistors were likely to be significantly expensive, and integrated circuits, if they even existed, were out of the reach of most constructors. In those days people still used electronics to do a lot of the same jobs we do today, but they relied on extremely clever circuitry rather than the brute force of a do-anything super-component. It was not uncommon to see circuits with only a few transistors or tubes that exploited all the capabilities of the devices to deliver something well beyond that which you might expect.

One of the first electronic projects I worked on was just such a circuit. It came courtesy of a children’s book, one of the Ladybird series that will be familiar to British people of a Certain Age: [George Dobbs, G3RJV]’s Making A Transistor Radio. This book built the reader up through a series of steps to a fully-functional 3-transistor Medium Wave (AM) radio with a small loudspeaker.

Two of the transistors formed the project’s audio amplifier, leaving the radio part to just one device. How on earth could a single transistor form the heart of a radio receiver with enough sensitivity and selectivity to be useful, you ask? The answer lies in an extremely clever circuit: the regenerative detector. A small amount of positive feedback is applied to an amplifier that has a tuned circuit in its path, and the effect is to both increase its gain and narrow its bandwidth. It’s still not the highest performance receiver in the world, but it’s astoundingly simple and in the early years of the 20th century it offered a huge improvement over the much simpler tuned radio frequency (TRF) receivers that were the order of the day.

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A Terahertz Modulator

We’re all used to the changes in the properties of radio frequency systems as the frequency increases and the wavelength becomes shorter. The difference between the way an FM radio and a WiFi adapter behave with respect to their environments, for instance. But these are relatively low frequencies in the scheme of electromagnetic radiation, as you will be aware with ever shorter wavelengths those properties change further until eventually we are not dealing with something we’d describe as radio, but infrared light.

Terahertz waves are the electromagnetic radiation that lies in that area between radio frequencies and infra-red light. You might expect that since science has delivered so many breakthroughs in both radio and IR, we’d have mastered them, but so far very few devices capable of working at these wavelengths have been developed.

A Nature paper from a group at Tufts University holds the promise of harnessing terahertz waves for applications such as data transfer, for they have developed the first terahertz modulator. It takes the form of a section of slot waveguide between two conductors on a substrate, interrupted by what they describe as a two-dimensional electron gas. This is a very thin layer of electron concentration in an InGaAs region of a semiconductor sandwich that can be created or dissipated by electrical stimulus. This creation and removal of the electron layer has the effect of interrupting the flow of terahertz waves in the waveguide, making a functional modulator.

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Raspberry Pi SDR

[Chris D] noticed that the excellent software defined radio (SDR) software gqrx will run on the Raspberry Pi now. So he married a Raspberry Pi 3, a touchscreen, an RTL-SDR dongle, and an upconverter to make a very nice receiver setup. You can see the receiver in action below.

The video is a little light on build details, but there is a shot of the setup with the pieces labeled, and you should be able to figure it out from there. Of course, gqrx works with lots of different SDR devices so you might have to make adjustments depending on what you use (for example, many of the supported dongles won’t need the upconverter that [Chris] uses).

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A Simple Yagi Antenna For Your Wi-Fi Router

When we take a new Wi-Fi router from its box, the stock antenna is a short plastic stub with a reverse SMA plug on one end. More recent and more fancy routers have more than one such antenna for clever tricks to extend their range or bandwidth, but even if the manufacturer has encased it in mean-looking plastic the antenna inside is the same. It’s a sleeve dipole, think of it as a vertical dipole antenna in which the lower radiator is hollow, and through which the feeder is routed.

These antennas do a reasonable job of covering a typical home, because a vertical sleeve dipole is omnidirectional. It radiates in all horizontal directions, or if you are a pessimist you might say it radiates equally badly in all horizontal directions. [Brian Beezley, K6STI] has an interesting modification which changes that, he’s made a simple Yagi beam antenna from copper wire and part of a plastic yoghurt container, and slotted it over the sleeve dipole to make it directional and improve its gain and throughput in that direction.

Though its construction may look rough and ready it has been carefully simulated, so it’s as good a design as it can be in the circumstances. The simulation predicts 8.6 dB of gain, though as any radio amateur will tell you, always take antenna gain figures with a pinch of salt. It does however provide a significant improvement in range, which for the investment put in you certainly can’t complain at. Give it a try, and bring connectivity back to far-flung corners of your home!

We’ve covered quite a few WiFi Yagis here over the years, such as this rather extreme wardriving tool. But few have been this cheap.

Thanks to London Hackspace Radio Club for the tip.

Ice, Ice, Radio Uses FPGA

Building a software defined radio (SDR) involves many trades offs. But one of the most fundamental is should you use an FPGA or a CPU to do the processing. Of course, if you are piping data to a PC, the answer is probably a CPU. But if you are doing the whole system, it is a vexing choice. The FPGA can handle lots of data all at one time but is somewhat more difficult to develop and modify. CPUs using software are flexible–especially for coding user interfaces, networking connections, and the like) but don’t always have enough horsepower to cope with signal processing tasks (and, yes, it depends on the CPU).

[Eric Brombaugh] sidestepped that trade off. He used a board with both an ARM processor and an ICE FPGA at the heart of his SDR design. He uses three custom boards: one is the CPU/FPGA board, another is a 10-bit converter that can sample at 40 MSPS (sufficient to decode to 20 MHz), and an I2S DAC to produce audio. Each board has its own page linked from the main project.

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