OpenEMS Makes Electromagnetic Field Solving… Merely Difficult

To ordinary people electronics is electronics. However, we know that the guy you want wiring your industrial furnace isn’t the guy you want designing a CPU. Neither of those guys are likely to be the ones you want building an instrumentation amplifier. However, one of the darkest arts of the electronic sects is dealing with electromagnetic fields. Not only is it a rare specialty, but it requires a lot of high-powered math. Enter OpenEMS, a free and open electromagnetic field solver.

We would like to tell you that OpenEMS makes doing things like antenna analysis easy. But that’s like saying Microsoft Word makes it easy to write a novel. In one sense, yes, but you still need to know what you are doing. In fairness, though, the project does provide a good set of tutorials, ranging from a simple wave guide to a sophisticated phased array of patch antennas. Our advice? Start with the waveguide and work your way up from there.

The software uses Octave or MATLAB for scripting, plotting, and support. You can download it for Windows or Linux.

If you want to start with something more intuitive for electromagnetic field visualization, this might help. If you prefer your models more concrete and less abstract, perhaps you should work at Lincoln Lab.

Long Range Wireless Internet

While most of you reading this have broadband in your home, there are still vast areas with little access to the Internet. Ham radio operator [emmynet] found himself in just such a situation recently, and needed to get a wireless connection over 1 km from his home. WiFi wouldn’t get the job done, so he turned to a 433 MHz serial link instead. (Alternate link)

[emmynet] used an inexpensive telemetry kit that operates in a frequency that travels long distances much more easily than WiFi can travel. The key here isn’t in the hardware, however, but in the software. He went old-school, implemending peer-to-peer TCP/IP connection using SLIP — serial line Internet protocol. All of the commands to set up the link are available on his project page. With higher gain antennas than came with the telemetry kit, a range much greater than 1 km could be achieved as well.

[Editor’s note: This is how we all got Internet, over phone lines, back in the early Nineties. Also, you kids get off my lawn! But also, seriously, SLIP is a good tool to have in your toolbox, especially for low-power devices where WiFi would burn up your batteries.]

While it didn’t suit [emmynet]’s needs, it is possible to achieve extremely long range with WiFi itself. However this generally requires directional antennas with very high gain and might not be as reliable as a lower-frequency connection. On the other hand, a WiFi link will (in theory) get a greater throughput, so it all depends on what your needs are. Also, be aware that using these frequencies outside of their intended use might require an amateur radio license.

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An Antenna that Really Cooks–Really

[9A4OV] set up a receiver using the HackRF board and an LNA that can receive the NOAA 19 satellite. Of course, a receiver needs an antenna, and he made one using a cooking pot. The antenna isn’t ideal – at least indoors – but it does work. He’s hoping to tweak it to get better reception. You can see videos of the antenna and the resulting reception, below.

The satellite is sending High-Resolution Picture Transmission (HRPT) data which provides a higher image quality than Automatic Picture Transmission (APT). APT is at 137 MHz, but HRPT is at 1698 MHz and typically requires a better receiver and antenna system.

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3D Printed Radiation Patterns

Radiation patterns for antennas can be utterly confusing, especially when presented in two dimensions, as they usually are. Fear not, [Hunter] has your back with 3D printed and color-coded radiation patterns.

In the field of antenna design, radiation patterns denote the relationship between the relative strength of radio waves emitted from antennas and the position of a receiver/transmitter in 3D space. In practice, probes can be used to transmit/receive from documented locations around an antenna while recording signal intensity, allowing researchers and engineers to determine the characteristics of arcane antennas. These measurements are normally expressed as two-dimensional slices of three-dimensional planes. Naturally, this sometimes (often) complex geometry is difficult for all but the most spatially inclined to mentally conceptualize with only the assistance of a 2D drawing. With computers came 3D models, but [Hunter] wasn’t satisfied with a model on a screen: they wanted something they could hold in their hands.

To that end, [Hunter] simulated several different antenna structures, cleaned up the models for 3D printing, and 3D printed them in color sandstone, and the end result is beautiful. By printing in colored sandstone through Shapeways, [Hunter] now has roughly walnut-sized color-coded radiation patterns they can hold in their hand. To save others the work, [Hunter] has posted his designs on Shapeways at Ye Olde Engineering Shoppe. So far, he has a horn antenna, dipole, inset fed patch antenna and a higher order mode of a patch antenna, all of which are under 15.00USD. Don’t see the antenna radiation pattern of your dreams? Fret not, [Hunter] is looking for requests, so post your ideas down in the comments!

Further, beyond the immediate cool factor, we can see many legitimate uses for [Hunter’s] models, especially in education. With more and more research promoting structural rather than procedural learning, [Hunter’s] designs could easily become a pedagogical mainstay of antenna theory classes in the future. [Hunter] is not the only one making the invisible visible, [Charles] is mapping WiFi signals in three dimensions.

Video after the break.

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On Point: The Yagi Antenna

If you happened to look up during a drive down a suburban street in the US anytime during the 60s or 70s, you’ll no doubt have noticed a forest of TV antennas. When over-the-air TV was the only option, people went to great lengths to haul in signals, with antennas of sometimes massive proportions flying over rooftops.

Outdoor antennas all but disappeared over the last third of the 20th century as cable providers became dominant, cast to the curb as unsightly relics of a sad and bygone era of limited choices and poor reception. But now cheapskates cable-cutters like yours truly are starting to regrow that once-thick forest, this time lofting antennas to receive digital programming over the air. Many of the new antennas make outrageous claims about performance or tout that they’re designed specifically for HDTV. It’s all marketing nonsense, of course, because then as now, almost every TV antenna is just some form of the classic Yagi design. The physics of this antenna are fascinating, as is the story of how the antenna was invented.

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A Remotely Tuned Magnetic Loop Antenna

If you are a radio amateur, you may be familiar with the magnetic loop antenna. It’s different from most conventional wire antennas, taking the form of a tuned circuit with a very large single-turn coil and a tuning capacitor. Magnetic loops have the advantage of extreme selectivity and good directionality, but the danger of a high voltage induced across that tuning capacitor and the annoyance of needing to retune every time there is a frequency change.

[Oleg Borisov, RL5D] has a magnetic loop, and soon tired of the constant retuning. His solution is an elegant one, he’s made a remote retuning setup using a stepper motor, an Arduino, and a Bluetooth module (translated here). The stepper is connected to the capacitor via a short flexible coupling, and tuning is performed with the help of a custom Android app. We’d be interested to know what the effect of a high RF field is on these components, but he doesn’t report any problems so it must be working.

He’s posted a video of the unit in operation which we’ve posted below the break, if you’ve ever had to constantly retune a magnetic loop you will appreciate the convenience.

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ESP32 WiFi Hits 10km with a Little Help

[Jeija] was playing with some ESP32s and in true hacker fashion, he wondered how far he could pull them apart and still get data flowing. His video answer to that question covers the Friis equation and has a lot of good examples of using the equation, decibels, and even a practical example that covers about 10km. You can see the video below.

Of course, to get that kind of range you need a directional antenna. To avoid violating regulations that control transmit power, he’s using the antenna on the receiving end. That also means he had to hack the ESP32 WiFi stack to make the device listen only on one side. The hack involves putting the device in promiscuous mode and only monitoring the signals being sent. You can find the code involved on GitHub (complete with a rickrolling application).

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