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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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!

Mapping WiFi Signals in 3 Dimensions

[Charles] is on a quest to complete ever more jaw-dropping hacks with the popular low-cost ESP8266 WiFi modules. This week’s project is plotting WiFi received signal strength in 3D space. While the ESP8266 is capable of providing a Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI), [Charles] didn’t directly use it. He wrote a simple C program on his laptop to ping the ESP8266 at around 500Hz. The laptop would then translate the RSSI from the ping replies to a color value, which it would then send to the ESP8266. Since the ESP8266 was running [Charles’] custom firmware (as seen in his WiFi cup project), it could directly display the color on a WS2812 RGB LED.

The colors seemed random at first, but [Charles] noticed that there was a pattern. He just needed a way to visualize the LED over time. A single frame long exposure would work, but so would video. [Charles] went the video route, creating SuperLongExposure, an FFMPEG-based tool which extracts every video frame and composites them into a single frame. What he saw was pretty cool – there were definite stripes of good and bad signal.

wifiPOVThumbArmed with this information, [Charles] went for broke and mounted his ESP8266 on a large gantry style mill. He took several long exposure videos of a 360x360x180mm area. The videos were extracted into layers. The whole data set could then be visualized with Voxeltastic, [Charles’] own HTML5/WEBGL based render engine. The results were nothing short of amazing. The signal strength increases and decreases in nodes and anti-nodes which correspond to the 12.4 cm wavelength of a WiFi signal. The final render looks incredibly organic, which isn’t completely surprising. We’ve seen the same kind of image from commercial antenna simulation characterization systems.

Once again [Charles] has blown us away, we can’t wait to see what he does next!

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Wireless Water Level Sensor from PVC Pipe

[Bob] was having trouble keeping up with his water troughs. He had to constantly check them to make sure they weren’t empty, and he always found that the water level was lower than he thought. He decided it was time to build his own solution to this problem. What he ended up with was a water level sensor made from PVC pipe and a few other components.

The physical assembly is pretty simple. The whole structure is made from 1/2″ PVC pipe and fittings and is broken into four nearly identical sensor modules. The sensors have an electrode on either side. The electrodes are made from PVC end caps, sanded down flat at the tip. A hole is then drilled through the cap to accommodate a small machine screw. The screw threads are coated in joint compound before the screw is driven into the hole, creating its own threads. These caps are placed onto small sections of PVC pipe, which in turn connect to a four-way PVC cross connector. 

On the inside of the electrode cap, two washers are placed onto the screw. A stranded wire is placed between the washers and then clamped in place with a nut. All of the modules are connected together with a few inches of pipe. [Bob] measured this out so it would fit appropriately into his trough, but the measurements can easily be altered to fit just about any size container. The wires all route up through the pipe. The PVC pipe is cemented together to keep the water out. The joint compound prevents any leaks at the electrodes.

A piece of CAT 5 cable connects the electrodes to the electronics inside of the waterproof controller box. The electronics are simple. It’s just a simple piece of perfboard with an XBee and a few transistors. The XBee can detect the water level by testing for a closed circuit between the two electrodes of any sensor module. The water acts as a sort of switch that closes the circuit. When the water gets too low, the circuit opens and [Bob] knows that the water level has lowered. The XBee is connected to a directional 2.4GHz antenna to ensure the signal reaches the laptop several acres away. Continue reading “Wireless Water Level Sensor from PVC Pipe”

Simple Directional WiFi Antenna

Back in 2007, [Stathack] rented an apartment in Thailand. This particular apartment didn’t include any Internet access. It turned out that getting a good connection would cost upwards of $100 per month, and also required a Thai identification card. Not wanting to be locked into a 12-month contract, [Stathack] decided to build himself a directional WiFi antenna to get free WiFi from a shop down the street.

The three main components of this build are a USB WiFi dongle, a baby bottle, and a parabolic Asian mesh wire spoon. The spoon is used as a reflector. The parabolic shape means that it will reflect radio signals to a specific focal point. The goal is to get the USB dongle as close to the focal point as possible. [Stathack] did a little bit of math and used a Cartesian equation to figure out the optimal location.

Once the location was determined, [Stathack] cut a hole in the mesh just big enough for the nipple of the small baby bottle. The USB dongle is housed inside of the bottle for weatherproofing. A hole is cut in the nipple for a USB cable. Everything is held together with electrical tape as needed.

[Stathack] leaves this antenna on his balcony aiming down the street. He was glad to find that he is easily able to pick up the WiFi signal from the shop down the street. He was also surprised to see that he can pick up signals from a high-rise building over 1km away. Not bad for an antenna made from a spoon and a baby bottle; plus it looks less threatening than some of the cantenna builds we’ve seen.

Hackaday Prize Finalist: A Network of Satellite Ground Stations

There are astonishing things you can do with a network of sensors spread across the globe, all connected to the Internet. Thousands of people have already installed hardware to detect lightning and flightaware gives out subscriptions to their premium service to anyone who will listen in to airplane transponders and send data back to their servers. The folks behind SatNOGS, one of the five finalists for The Hackaday Prize are using this same crowdsourced data collection for something that is literally out of this world: listening to the ever-increasing number of amateur satellites orbiting the planet.

There are dozens of cubesats and other amateur satellites flying every year, and they have become an extremely popular way of experimenting in a space environment, giving some budding engineers an awesome project in school, and testing out some technologies that are just too weird for national space agencies. The problem with sending one of these birds up is getting the data back down; a satellite will pass above the horizon of a single location only a few times a day, and even then for only minutes at a time. The SatNOGS team hopes to change that by planting receivers all around the globe, connecting them to the Internet, and hopefully providing real-time telemetry from dozens of orbiting satellites.

[Pierros] from the SatNOGS team was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions for us about his entry to The Hackaday Prize. That’s below, right after their finalist video. Some of the SatNOGS team will also be at our Munich event where we announce the winner of the Prize.

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Fox Hunting with a Raspberry Pi

No, not a real fox! [KM4EFP] is a ham radio operator with a passion for fox hunting, which is an event where several radio operators attempt to find a broadcasting beacon (a “fox”) using radio direction finding techniques. [KM4EFP] has just built his own portable fox using a Raspberry Pi in a very well-built enclosure.

Since the fox could be outside for a while, the project was housed in a reasonably weatherproof ammunition case. A mount for an antenna was attached to the side, and it is hooked up to a GPIO pin on the Raspberry Pi. The entire device is powered by a 6000 mAh battery pack which allows the fox to broadcast long enough to be found.

The software running on the Raspberry Pi is very similar to the Pi FM transmitter program but it is specially made for ham radio broadcasting instead. Almost no extra hardware is needed to get the Pi broadcasting radio, as these software packages can drive the antenna directly from the GPIO pin. This is a great twist on the standard FM transmitter that ham radio enthusiasts everywhere can use to start finding those wily foxes!