The First Radio Sets: a Spark Gap and a Coherer

[Ashish] let us know about his experiments in recreating the earliest type of radio set: a spark-gap transmitter and iron-filings coherer. He goes through the historical development of the kit in great detail, so we’re just going to skip that part. Go read it yourself!

Instead, we’re going to tease you with the coolest part of the rig: the coherer. In [Ashish]’s build, it’s a piece of tubing with some iron filings between two bolts. When a sufficiently strong EM wave hits the filings, they stick together and bridge the gap between the bolts, allowing electricity to flow and light up an LED, for instance. You can see this in [Ashish]’s video below the break, along with kmore discussion of that coherer.

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TV Going the Distance: Propagation

It has to be hard to be a kid interested in radio these days. When I was a kid, there was a lot of interesting things on shortwave. There wasn’t any cable TV (at least, not where I lived) so it was easy to hack antennas and try to pull in weak TV and broadcast stations. The TV stations were especially interesting.

It was one thing for me to build a dish antenna to pick up Star Trek from a station just barely out of range. But sometimes you’d get some really distant TV station. The world’s record is the reception of a BBC TV station in Australia (a distance of 10,800 miles). That’s extreme, but even from my childhood home near New Orleans, I’ve personally picked up TV stations from as far away as New Mexico. Have you ever wondered how that’s possible?

Radio signals behave differently depending on their frequency. The TV frequencies used in the old analog signals were VHF signals (well, the channels between 2 and 13 in the United States, anyway). In general, those signals usually travel through the air, but don’t bounce off any part of the atmosphere. So if you aren’t in a line of sight with the transmitter, you can’t see the broadcast. The other problem is that local stations tend to drown out weak distant stations. A TV DXer (ham lingo for someone trying to hear distant signals) has to wait for local stations to go silent or listen on frequencies where there are no local stations.

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Pea-Whistle Steganography

Do you see the patterns everywhere around you? No? Look closer. Still no? Look again. OK, maybe there’s nothing there.

[Oona Räisänen] hears signals and then takes them apart. And even when there’s nothing there, she’s thinking “what if they were?” Case in point: could one hypothetically transmit coded information in the trilling of a referee’s whistle at the start of a soccer match?

acme-spektriTo you, the rapid pitch changes made by the little ball that’s inside a ref’s whistle sounds like “trilling” or “warbling” or something. To [Oona], it sounds like frequency-shift key (FSK) modulation. Could you make a non-random trilling, then, that would sound like a normal whistle?

Her perl script says yes. It takes the data you want to send, encodes it up as 100 baud FSK, smoothes it out, adds some noise and additional harmonics, and wraps it up in an audio file. There’s even a couple of sync bytes at the front, and then a byte for packet size. Standard pea-whistle protocol (PWP), naturally. If you listen really closely to the samples, you can tell which contains data, but it’s a really good match. Cool!

[Oona] has graced our pages before, naturally. From this beautiful infographic tracing out a dial-up modem handshake to her work reversing her local bus stop information signs or decoding this strange sound emitted by a news helicopter, She’s full of curiosity and good ideas — a hacker’s hacker. Her talk on the bus stop work is inspirational.. She’s one of our secret heroes!

Build an AM Radio Transmitter from a CPLD

[Alex Lao] has been playing around with the CPLD-like parts of a PSoC. Which is to say, he’s been implementing simple logic functions “in hardware” in software. And after getting started with the chip by getting accustomed to the different clock sources, he built a simple AM radio that transmits at 24 MHz.

The device that [Alex] is learning on is a Cypress PSoC 5LP, or more specifically their (cheap) prototyping kit for the part. The chip itself is an ARM microprocessor core with a CPLD and some analog tidbits onboard to make interfacing the micro with the outside world a lot easier. [Alex] doesn’t even mess around with the microprocessor, he’s interested in learning the CPLD side of things.

PRS-CircuitHe starts off with a 24 MHz carrier and a 1 kHz tone signal, and combines them with a logical AND function. When the tone is on, the carrier plays through; that’s AM radio at its most elemental. Everything is logic (square waves) so it’s a messy radio signal, but it’ll get the job done.

Adding a multiplexer up front allows [Alex] to play two tones over his “radio” station. Not bad for some simple logic, and a fantastic Hello World project for a CPLD. We can’t wait to see what [Alex] is up to next!

If you’re interested in getting your feet wet with either CPLDs in general or a CPLD + micro system like Cypress’s, the development kit that [Alex] is using looks like a cheap and painless way to start. (Relatively speaking — PSoCs are a step or two up a steep learning curve from the simpler 8-bit micros or an Arduino.) Hackaday’s own [Bil Herd] has a video on getting started with another member of the Cypres PSoC family, so you should also check that out.

Getting Started with GNU Radio

Software Defined Radio (SDR)–the ability to process radio signals using software instead of electronics–is undeniably fascinating. However, there is a big gap from being able to use off-the-shelf SDR software and writing your own. After all, SDRs require lots of digital signal processing (DSP) at high speeds.

Not many people could build a modern PC from scratch, but nearly anyone can get a motherboard, some I/O cards, a power supply, and a case and put together a custom system. That’s the idea behind GNU Radio and SDR. GNU Radio provides a wealth of Python functions that you can use to create sophisticated SDR application (or, indeed, any DSP application).

If Python is still not up your alley (or even if it is), there’s an even easier way to use GNU Radio: The GNU Radio Companion (GRC). This is a mostly graphical approach, allowing you to thread together modules graphically and build simple GUIs to control you new radio.

Even though you usually think of GRC as being about radios, it is actually a good framework for building any kind of DSP application, and that’s what I’ll show you in the video below. GRC has a signal generator block and interfaces to your sound card. It even has the ability to read and write data to the file system, so you can use it to do many DSP applications or simulations with no additional hardware.

UPDATE: Don’t miss the follow-up post that uses SDRPlay to build a GNU Radio based receiver.

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RPiTX Turns Rasberry Pi into Versatile Radio Transmitter

Since the discovery that some USB TV tuner dongles could be used to monitor radio waves across a huge amount of spectrum, the software-defined radio world has exploded with interest. The one limiting factor, though, has been that the dongles can only receive signals; they can’t transmit them. [Evariste Okcestbon, F5OEO] (if that is his real name! Ok c’est bon = Ok this is good) has written some software that will get you transmitting using SDR with only a Raspberry Pi and a wire.

There have been projects in the past that use a Pi to broadcast radio (PiFM), but this new software (RPiTX) takes it a couple steps further. Using just an appropriately-sized wire connected to one of the GPIO pins, the Raspberry Pi is capable of broadcasting using FM, AM, SSB, SSTV, or FSQ signals. This greatly increases the potential of this simple computer-turned-transmitter and anyone should be able to get a lot of use out of it. In the video demo below the break, [Evariste] records a wireless doorbell signal and then re-transmits it using just the Rasbperry Pi.

The RPiTX code is available on GitHub if you want to try it out. And it should go without saying that you will most likely need an amateur radio license of some sort to use most of these features, depending on your locale. If you don’t have a ham radio license yet, you don’t need one to listen if you want to get started in the world of SDR. But a ham license isn’t hard to get and at this point it shouldn’t take much convincing for you to get transmitting.

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Developed on Hackaday – HaDge is back to the drawing board

A couple of days back, we wrote about the HACK – a prototyping platform designed by [Michele Perla] based on the Atmel SAM R21 MCU. It’s one of the new breed of devices consisting of an ARM Cortex-M0 MCU + IEEE 802.15.4 Wireless radio bundled together. This was exciting since we could pack a lot of punch in the HaDge hardware. We planned to use the same design later to power the HaDge. Building HACK would have allowed us to get it in the hands of the software team, while the hardware folks worked on the real HaDge layout.

The HACK design was ready for review and we asked around to verify the antenna layout, which was the part we were not too sure about.  We asked Atmel for help with verifying the layout. That’s when we had the facepalm moment. They asked us – “What about FCC certification?” Since we plan to build the badges in quantities of a few hundred at the very least, it’s obvious we cannot escape from FCC certification. A design based around the R21 is ruled out – the cost of obtaining approval is pretty high. This means we need to punt the R21 and instead use an off-the-shelf radio module which is already FCC certified. Sigh.

Now the good news. This is a setback in terms of time, and effort put in by [Michele]. But beyond that, we’re good to go back to the drawing board and start afresh. First off, we decided to revert back to the Atmel D21 as the main controller. It’s a fairly decent MCU, and there’s a fairly robust tool chain available that a lot of people are familiar with. For the Radio, we are looking at some of these available options :

The last one from Microchip looks quite promising. But we’re open for better and cheaper suggestions, so please chime in with your comments.