The Internet of Things Chip Gets a New Spectrum

Last year we learned about Weightless, an Internet of Things chip that solves all the problems of current wireless solutions. It’s low power and has a 10-year battery life (one AA cell), the hardware should cost around $2 per module, and the range of the Weightless devices range from 5+km in urban environments to 20-30km in rural environments. There haven’t been many public announcements from the Weightless SIG since the specification was announced, but today they’re announcing Weightless will include an additional spectrum, the 868/915 MHz ISM spectrum.

weightless

The original plan for Weightless was to use the spectrum left behind by UHF TV – between 470 and 790MHz. Regulatory agencies haven’t been moving as fast as members of the Weightless SIG would have hoped, so now they’re working on a slightly different design that uses the already-allocated ISM bands. They’re not giving up on the TV whitespace spectrum; that’s still part of the plan to put radio modules in everything. The new Weightless-N will be available sooner, though, with the first publicly available base station, module, and SDK arriving sometime next spring.

Weightless has put up a video describing their new Weightless-N hardware; you can check that out below. If you want the TL;DR of how Weightless can claim such a long battery life and huge range from an Internet of Things radio module, here’s an overly simplified explanation: power, range, and bandwidth. Pick any two.

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Hacklet 19 – Ham Radio

19

Amateur, or ham radio operators have always been hackers. For much of the early 1900’s, buying a radio was expensive or impossible. Hams would build their own rigs, learning electronics and radio theory along the way. Time moves on, but hams keep hacking. Today we’re highlighting some of the best ham radio projects on Hackaday.io!

rtl

We start with [DainBramage1991] and his very practical RTL-SDR With Upconverter and Case. [DainBramage1991] fell in love with his low-cost RTL software defined radio dongle. He even added a Ham-It-Up upconverter to cover HF bands. The only problem was RF noise. the Realtek USB sticks tend to have little or no filtering, which means they are very susceptible to noise. [DainBramage1991] used the time-honored technique of insulating with copper clad board. Bits of PCB hold the RTL-SDR and upconverter in place. More PCB separates the two boards. Everything goes into a steel enclosure which keeps that unwanted RF at bay.

foxhunt-attenNext up is [Ryan Miller’s aka KG7HZQ]’s  ham radio fox hunt attenuator. Ham radio fox hunt’s don’t involve baying dogs or horses. In this case a fox hunt is a contest to find hidden low power transmitters. If you’ve never tried one, it’s a heck of a lot of fun. One of the challenges with a fox hunt is to find the direction to the transmitter when you’re very close. Even with directional antennas, reflections and swamped receivers make it hard to figure out just where the transmitter is. The solution is an attenuator, which simply reduces the signal to a more reasonable value. [Ryan] also used copper clad PCB for his circuit. Since the attenuator parts are soldered directly to the PCB, this is more of a Manhattan style design. Two ceramic 1k pots help him achieve his goal of near perfect linear attenuation. We’re betting this attenuator will help [Ryan] win some contests!

psdrWho says amateur radio won’t take you places? It may well be taking [Michael R Colton] to space! [Michael’s] project PortableSDR is one of the five finalists in The Hackaday Prize. We covered Michael earlier in the contest. PortableSDR started as a ham radio project: a radio system which would be easy for hams to take with them on backpacking trips. It’s grown into so much more now, with software defined radio reception and transmission, vector network analysis, antenna analysis, GPS, and a host of other features. We seriously love how [Michael] optimized a small LCD for waterfall display, tuning, and bandpass filter adjustment.

e2ra[W5VO] is working on an Ethernet to Radio Adapter. Every foot of coax in a radio system loses signal. Connections are even worse. It can all add up to several dB loss. [W5VO] wants to put an SDR at the antenna feed-point. With the signal path minimized, more watts make it out when transmitting, and more signal gets back to the receiver when listening. The interface between the SDR and host computer will be all digital; Ethernet to be precise. [W5VO] isn’t the first person to do something like this, microwave systems have had the transmitter and LNB at the antenna for years. That doesn’t take away from [W5VO’s] design at all  He’s been quiet for a while, but we’re hoping he continues on his design!

Where is everyone else? We’re a bit light on projects this week, but we have a good reason. There just aren’t enough ham radio projects on Hackaday.io! We’re hoping to change that though. Are you an amateur radio enthusiast? Document your project on the site. Get input from other hams and push the envelope! You might even find yourself on the Ham Radio List!

That’s all for this episode of The Hacklet. As always, QRX is next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io! 73’s!

Digital “Crystal” Breathes New Life into Old Radio

[Bill Meara] of the Soldersmoke Podcast has a nice old Drake 2B radio, and wanted to use it for the 12 meter amateur band. These old radios normally make switching tuning bands easy — you just swap out one frequency crystal for another and you’re set.

Only [Bill] didn’t have the 21 MHz crystal that he needed. No problem, because he had a junk crystal, a hacksaw, and a modern direct-digital synthesis (DDS) chip sitting around. So he takes the donor crystal, cuts it open, and solders the two wires directly from the DDS to the crystal’s pins. Now he’s got a plug-in replacement digital oscillator that doesn’t require modifying the nice old Drake receiver at all. A sweet little trick.

The video’s a little bit long, but the money shot comes in around 5:00.

Now, one might worry about simply plugging a powered circuit (the DDS) in place of a passive element (the crystal), but it seems to work and the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. We wonder how far this digitally-controlled-analog-receiver idea could be extended.

Build Your Own Stand Alone Web Radio

If you’re the type who enjoys passing idle time by keeping up with podcasts or listening to web stations but don’t always want to occupy your laptop or tablet, this Arduino based radio player will provide a base station for tunes.

The Web Radio project by [Vassilis Serasidis] outlines in a pleasing amount of detail exactly how to wire up a short list of four modules. These including an Ethernet shield, LCD screen, MP3 decoder, and USB serial converter, with an Arduino Mini in order to bookmark and play fourteen of your favorite channels. His hand-soldered board couples everything into one neatly stacked package. The instructional video shows this off and he even explains how to locate your favorite stations on internet-radio.com and copy their port and IP number directly into an example sketch which is provided for use. If you’ve been wanting to build a self contained radio node for your desk free of extra baggage, this is a no-sweat project for both the hardware savvy and those more oriented with code writing.

If you’re going to build your own radio, it’s always cool to disguise your high-tech creation as something more rustic. Check out this project by [Dominic Buchstaller] for a great example of a vintage radio given a second calling.

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A Mobile Radio Power Controller

[Pete], a.k.a. [KD8TBW] wanted to install his Yaesu radio in his car. From experience, he knew that having a radio in a car inevitable led to leaving it on once in a while, and this time, he wanted a device that would turn his rig on and off when the key was in the ignition. He ended up building a mobile radio power converter. It takes the 12V from the car when the alternator is running, and shuts everything off when the engine has stopped.

The Yaesu radio in question – an FT-8800 does have an automatic power off feature, but this is a terrible way of doing things. There is no way to turn the radio back on, and the radio must be left in a non-scanning mode.

In what he hopes to be his last design in EagleCAD, [Pete] whipped up a board featuring an ATtiny85 that measures the voltage in the car; when it’s ~14V, the alternator is working, and the radio can be switched on. When it drops to ~12V, it’s time to turn the radio off. It’s a great project, and with the 3D printed case, it can easily be shoved inside the console. Video below.

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Dusty Junk-bin Downconverter Receives FM on an AM Radio

This amateur radio hack is not for the faint of heart! With only three transistors (and a drawer-full of passive parts), [Peter Parker, vk3ye] is able to use a broken-looking AM car radio to receive FM radio signals (YouTube link) on 2 meters, an entirely different band.

There are two things going on here. First, a home-made frequency downconverter shifts the 147 MHz signal down to the 1 MHz neighborhood where the AM radio can deal with it. Then, the AM radio is tuned just slightly off the right frequency and the FM signal is slope detected.

The downconverter consists of a local tuned oscillator and a mixer. The local oscillator generates an approximate 146 MHz signal from an 18 MHz crystal, accounting for two of the three transistors. Then this 146 MHz signal and the approximately 147 MHz signal that he wants to listen to are multiplied together (mixed) using the third transistor.

If you’re not up on your radio theory, a frequency mixer takes in two signals at different frequencies and produces an output signal that has various sums and differences of the two input signals in it. It’s this 147 MHz – 146 MHz = 1 MHz FM signal, right in the middle of the AM radio band’s frequency range, that’s passed on to the AM radio.

Next, the AM radio slope detects the frequency-modulated (FM) signal as if it were amplitude modulated (AM). This works as follows: FM radio encodes audio as changes in frequency, while AM radios encode the audio signal in the amplitude, or volume, of the radio signal. Instead of tracking the changing frequency as an FM radio would, slope detectors stick on a single frequency that’s tuned just slightly off from the FM carrier frequency. As the FM signal gets closer to or farther away from this fixed frequency, the received signal gets louder or quieter, and FM is detected as AM.

At 5:23, [vk3ye] steps through the circuit diagram. As he mentions, these are old tricks from circa 50 years ago, but it’s very nice to see a junk-box hack working so well with so few parts and receiving (very) high frequency FM on an old AM car radio. A circuit like this could make a versatile front end for an SDR setup. It makes us want to warm up the soldering iron.

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Reverse Engineering a Wireless Studio Lighting Remote

If you want to take a photograph with a professional look, proper lighting is going to be critical. [Richard] has been using a commercial lighting solution in his studio. His Lencarta UltraPro 300 studio strobes provide adequate lighting and also have the ability to have various settings adjusted remotely. A single remote can control different lights setting each to its own parameters. [Richard] likes to automate as much as possible in his studio, so he thought that maybe he would be able to reverse engineer the remote control so he can more easily control his lighting.

[Richard] started by opening up the remote and taking a look at the radio circuitry. He discovered the circuit uses a nRF24L01+ chip. He had previously picked up a couple of these on eBay, so his first thought was to just promiscuously snoop on the communications over the air. Unfortunately the chips can only listen in on up to six addresses at a time, and with a 40-bit address, this approach may have taken a while.

Not one to give up easily, [Richard] chose a new method of attack. First, he knew that the radio chip communicates to a master microcontroller via SPI. Second, he knew that the radio chip had no built-in memory. Therefore, the microcontroller must save the address in its own memory and then send it to the radio chip via the SPI bus. [Richard] figured if he could snoop on the SPI bus, he could find the address of the remote. With that information, he would be able to build another radio circuit to listen in over the air.

Using an Open Logic Sniffer, [Richard] was able to capture some of the SPI communications. Then, using the datasheet as a reference, he was able to isolate the communications that stored information int the radio chip’s address register. This same technique was used to decipher the radio channel. There was a bit more trial and error involved, as [Richard] later discovered that there were a few other important registers. He also discovered that the remote changed the address when actually transmitting data, so he had to update his receiver code to reflect this.

The receiver was built using another nRF24L01+ chip and an Arduino. Once the address and other registers were configured properly, [Richard’s] custom radio was able to pick up the radio commands being sent from the lighting remote. All [Richard] had to do at this point was press each button and record the communications data which resulted. The Arduino code for the receiver is available on the project page.

[Richard] took it an extra step and wrote his own library to talk to the flashes. He has made his library available on github for anyone who is interested.