Ham Antenna Rises to the Occasion

There was a time when you could do what you wanted in your yard and hams could build giant antenna farms. These days, there are usually laws or deed restrictions that stop that from happening. Even if you can build an antenna, you might want to quickly put up something temporary in an emergency.

[Eric’s] solution? Suspend a wire from a weather balloon filled with helium from the local WalMart. The 8 foot balloon took two containers (18 cubic feet) of gas before it would rise sufficiently. Once you have a floating balloon, the rest of the concept is simple: connect a wire (100 feet of 26 gauge), use a tuner to match the load to the transmitter, and you have instant antenna.

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Get Set For SAQ On Alexanderson Day With These Active Antennas

If you need to generate a radio frequency electrical signal, you will make some form of electronic oscillator. We’ll probably all be used to oscillators using transistors, tubes, logic gates or a host of other electronic technologies. Similarly if you need to generate radio frequencies at high powers, you’ll couple your oscillator to an amplifier, a relatively simple task with today’s electronic parts bin.

If you needed to do the same thing with a high power radio signal in the early years of the 20th century, none of these options were open to you. There were no transistors or integrated circuits, and the tubes of the day could not produce high power outputs. Radio engineers back then had to employ other solutions to the problem, one of which was the Alexanderson alternator. It’s old news we’ve covered here before at Hackaday, a high frequency alternator capable of generating hundreds of kilowatts in the VLF radio frequency range.

There is one operational Alexanderson alternator remaining in the world at the Varberg radio station at Grimeton in Sweden. It is no longer in constant use, but as a World Heritage Site and museum it is put on air a few times a year including the Sunday closest to the 2nd of July, known as Alexanderson Day. We come now to the point of this article: this year’s 3rd of July Alexanderson Day transmission is fast approaching, and since last time we covered it we signed off with a plea for a good VLF antenna design we should post a solution in good time to allow our readers to receive this year’s signal.

G3XBM's e-field VLF antenna
G3XBM’s e-field VLF antenna

Fixing up a receiver is easy enough, we linked to the original SAQrx VLF Receiver and the extended version in our previous coverage. Both pieces of software use your computer’s sound card as the front end of a software defined radio to receive the 17.2kHz from Grimeton. The antenna though presents a problem. You might think that attaching a long piece of wire to the microphone input would be enough, but the problem is that due to the huge wavelength of the VLF signal any reasonable long wire you might be able to assemble simply wouldn’t be long enough to deliver a good result. Clearly a different antenna is required, and the solution comes courtesy of a high-impedance active e-field antenna. This uses a FET input and a surprisingly small patch antenna to deliver a low noise floor at VLF frequencies rather than to be the amplifier you might expect.

We’ve found a couple of designs for you to look at. The first is a two transistor version you will find in various different guises on many sites. This one uses an MPF102 FET, but you should be able to substitute a J310. The second design is a little more surprising, while it is the same idea of a FET input amplifier it uses a TL071 op-amp as its active device. This is in no way an IC you’d normally expect to find in an RF circuit, however the frequency in question is not that of your normal RF.

If you build either of these antennas we hope you’ll be able to hear the Alexanderson Day transmission. The point of a high power VLF transmitter is that it has a huge coverage area, so it should be possible to receive it across all of Europe and perhaps into the eastern United States. If you are out of range though, never fear. You can always try to pick it up through a handy webSDR receiver closer to the source.

Alexanderson alternator picture By Gunther Tschuch (Own work) [ CC BY 2.5 ], via Wikimedia Commons.


Effortlessly Send Antenna Wires Skywards With A Spud Gun

The heroes of action films always make it look so easy. Need to climb a tall building? Simply fire a grapnel hook from a handy harpoon gun, it’ll always land exactly where you want it and gain a perfect purchase so you can shin up the rope and arrive at the top barely having raised a sweat. If Hackaday ran Q Branch, we can tell you, we’d make ’em work a bit harder. If only because nobody likes a smartass.

If you’ve ever had to get a real line over something tall, you’ll know it’s a lot more difficult than that. You can only make it work with the lightest of lines that you can then use to pull up something more substantial, and you would be amazed how poor a thrower you are when you’re trying to throw upwards. Try attaching fishing line to a weight, try a bow and arrow, and nine times out of ten you won’t make it. There’s a serious amount of skill and luck involved in this line-throwing game.

[WB5CXC] has an interesting solution to this problem, at least as far as the application of throwing antenna wires over tall obstacles. He’s made a spud gun from PVC pipe, powered by compressed air. It takes the form of a U-shaped tube with one side of the U being a pressure vessel separated from the other by a ball valve.. Place a close-fitting puck with your wire attached in the open side with the valve closed, pump the pressure vessel full of air with a bicycle pump, and open the valve to send both puck and wire skywards. He says it will clear 100′ trees, counsels the user not to go higher than 100psi, and warns that the speeding puck can be dangerous. We like it already.

We’ve covered many spud guns here at Hackaday in the past, but it seems this is the first wire launching one. We’ve had a steam one for example, or this bolt-action spud gun, but pride of place has to go to the spud gun to end all spud guns.

Via DXZone.

Solving ISP problem with a Homebrew LTE Yagi

We’ve heard reports that internet connectivity in Australia can be an iffy proposition, and [deandob] seems to back that up. At the limit of a decent DSL connection and on the fringe of LTE, [deandob] decided to optimize the wireless connection with this homebrew Yagi antenna.

Officially known as the Yagi-Uda after its two Japanese inventors from the 1920s, but generally shortened to the name of its less involved but quicker to patent inventor, the Yagi is an antenna that provides high gain in one direction. That a homebrew antenna was even necessary at all is due to [deandob]’s ISP using the 2300MHz band rather than the more popular 2400MHz – plenty of cheap 2.4GHz antennas out there, but not so much with 2.3GHz. With multiple parallel and precisely sized and spaced parasitic elements, a Yagi can be a complicated design, but luckily for [deandob] the ham radio community has a good selection of Yagi design tools available. His final design uses an aluminum rod for a boom, 2mm steel wire for reflectors and directors, and a length of coax as the driven element. The result? Better connectivity that pushes his ISP throttling limit, and no more need to mount the modem high enough in his house to use the internal antenna.

People on the fringes of internet coverage go to great lengths to get connections, like this off-grid network bridge. Or if you’d rather use a homebrew Yagi to listen to meteors, that’s possible too.

A Field Guide to the North American Communications Tower

The need for clear and reliable communication has driven technology forward for centuries. The longer communication’s reach, the smaller the world becomes. When it comes to cell phones, seamless network coverage and low power draw are the ideals that continually spawn R&D and the eventual deployment of new equipment.

Almost all of us carry a cell phone these days. It takes a lot of infrastructure to support them, whether or not we use them as phones. The most recognizable part of that infrastructure is the communications tower. But what do you know about them?

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A Lucky Antenna

Antennas come in all shapes and sizes, and which one is best depends wholly on what you are doing with it. A very popular choice for sending video from drones is the cloverleaf antenna. It is circularly polarized which is an advantage when you have a moving vehicle. It also reduces multipath interference.

A cloverleaf contains three closed loops spaced at different angles. The antenna works well for transmitting but isn’t ideal for receiving. It is also difficult to tune after building it. However, for the right job, it is a good performer. [Vitalii Tereshchuk] shows how he made a cloverleaf antenna that fits a WiFi router.

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The New Heathkit Strikes Again

Alright, this is getting embarrassing.

The rebooted Heathkit has added another kit to its offerings. This time it’s an inexplicably simple and exorbitantly priced antenna for the 2-meter band. It joins their equally bizarre and pricey AM radio kit in the new product lineup, and frankly we’re just baffled by the whole affair.

About the most charitable thing you can say about their “Pipetenna” is that it’ll probably work really well. Heathkit throws some impedance and SWR charts on the website, and the numbers look pretty good. Although Heathkit doesn’t divulge the design within the “waterproof – yes, waterproof!” housing, at 6 dBi gain and only five feet long, we’re going to guess this is basically a Slim Jim antenna stuffed in a housing made of Schedule 40 PVC tubing. About the only “high-end” component we can see is the N-type coax connector, but that just means most hams will need and adapter for their more standard PL-259 terminated coax.

Regardless of design, it’s hard to imagine how Heathkit could stuff enough technology into this antenna to justify the $149 price. Hams have been building antennas like these forever from bits and pieces of wire lying around. Even if you bought all new components, including the PVC pipe and fittings, you’d be hard pressed to put $50 into a homebrew version that’ll likely perform just as well.

The icing on this questionable cake, though, is the sales copy on the web page. The “wall of text” formatting, the overuse of superlatives, and the cutesy asides and quips remind us of the old DAK Industries ads that hawked cheap import electronics as the latest and greatest must-have device. There’s just something unseemly going on here, and it doesn’t befit a brand with the reputation of Heathkit.

When we reviewed Heathkit’s AM radio kit launch back in December, we questioned where the company would go next. It looks like we might have an answer now, and it appears to be “nowhere good.”