Hacklet 19 – Ham Radio


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!


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!

Extrinsic Motivation: Smart Antenna Tracker for R/C Aircraft


Long distance FPV (First Person View) flying can be a handful. Keeping a video feed alive generally requires a high gain directional antenna. Going directional creates the chore of keeping the antenna pointed at the aircraft. [Brandon's] smart antenna tracker is designed to do all that automatically. What witchcraft is this, you ask? The answer is actually quite simple: Telemetry! Many flight control systems have an optional telemetry transmitter. [Brandon] is using the 3DRobotics APM or PixHawk systems, which use 3DR’s 915 MHz radios.

The airborne radio sends telemetry data, including aircraft latitude and longitude down to a ground station. Equipped with a receiver for this data and a GPS of its own, the smart antenna tracker knows the exact position, heading and velocity of the aircraft. Using a pan and tilt mount, the smart antenna tracker can then point the antenna directly at the airborne system. Since the FPV antenna is co-located on the pan tilt mount, it will also point at the aircraft and maintain a good video link.

One of the gotchas with a system like this is dealing with an aircraft that is flying directly overhead. The plane or rotorcraft can fly by faster than the antenna system can move. There are a few commercial systems out there that handle this by switching to a lower gain omnidirectional whip antenna when the aircraft is close in. This would be a great addition to [Brandon's] design.

TDOA (Time Difference of Arrival) Directional Antenna


We have posted articles in the past on directional antennas such as Yagi antennas used for transmitter hunting otherwise known as fox hunting. Those types of antennas and reception suffer from one major drawback, which is as you get close to the transmitter the S meter will go full scale. At which time the transmitted signal appears to be coming from all directions. To correct for this problem you need to use clever signal attenuators or change to a poor receiving antenna as well as tuning off frequency effectively making your receiver hard of hearing so that only the direct path to the transmitter is loudest.

There is another popular type of antenna that you can build yourself called a TDOA which stands for Time Difference of Arrival. [Byon Garrabrant N6BG]  shared a short video tutorial on the functionality of his home built TDOA antenna. Effectively this is an active antenna that uses a 555 chip or, in [Byon’s] case, a PIC chip to quickly shift between two receiving dipole antennas at either end of a shortened yardstick. In his explanation you learn that as the antenna ends move closer or farther from the source a 640 Hz generated audio tone will go from loud to very soft as the antennas become equal distance from the source. This type of directional reception is not affected by signal strength. This means you can be very close to a powerful transmitter and it will still function as a good directional antenna.

The current circuit diagram, BOM and source code are all available on [Byon’s] TDOA page.

The reason [Byon] used a programmable PIC instead of the 555 for his design is because he wants to add a few more modifications such as feeding back the audio output to the PIC in order to programmatically turn on a left or right LED indicating the direction of the transmitter. Furthermore, he plans on adding a third antenna in a triangular configuration to programmatically control a circle of 6 LEDs indicating the exact direction of the signal. When he finishes the final modifications he can drive around with the antenna array on his vehicle and the circle of LEDs inside indicating the exact direction to navigate.

We look forward to seeing the rest of the development which might even become a kit someday. You can watch [Byon’s] TDOA video after the break.

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PCB Antenna Reference Designs

PCB Antenna

Have you ever built a wireless project and weren’t sure how to make one of those awesome (and cheap!) PCB antennas? “What low-cost solutions does our Antenna Board #referencedesign contain?” said Texas Instruments (TI) recently via Twitter.  This older reference design contains some comprehensive designs for sub-1 GHz and 2.4 GHz antennas.

While TI’s documentation can be difficult to navigate, there are many hidden gems, and this is one of them. While TI created these designs for use with their wireless products, they will work on any device which utilizes the same wireless base frequency. For example, you could use any of the 2.4 GHz antennas with any Bluetooth, WiFi (2.4 GHz), or Bluetooth Low Energy chips. Simply open up their Antenna Selection Quick Guide document and navigate to the specific design for whichever antenna you would like to build.

For a more detailed overview of what goes into designing and testing a PCB antenna, check out this hack which we featured back in 2010. With the internet of things coming into its own, wireless projects will become more and more prolific, making PCB antennas more important than ever.

Improve Your HT Ham Radio by Adding a Counterpoise Antenna Wire


We found an interesting tip that might just improve the performance of those small affordable handheld ham radios called a “Handy Talky” or HT for short in ham vernacular. [RadioHamGuy] posted an interesting video on adding a counterpoise antenna wire to an HT. He claims it will noticeably improve both transmit and receive by making a quarter-wave monopole into a makeshift dipole antenna system.

Per his instructions you basically add a short wire to the antenna’s outer ground connection or to an equivalent case screw that’s electrically connected to the antenna’s ground side. Apparently this can be referred to as a Tiger Tail and does make it look like your HT has a tail. You would construct a counterpoise antenna wire 11.5 inch for VHF, 6.5 for UHF and about 19.5 inches for an OK performing dual band VHF/UHF radio.

Normally with a handheld radio the counterpoise (ground) is your own body as you are holding the HT. This is because the capacitance of your body makes a good counterpoise under normal conditions. It would be interesting to hear what others find for performance when adding a counterpoise antenna wire.

You can watch [RadioHamGuy’s] full construction tutorial video for multiple radio types after the break.

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Tape Measure VHF Yagi Antenna

tap measure yagi vhf antenna

Radio direction finding and fox hunting can be great fun and is a popular activity with amateur radio (ham radio) enthusiasts. These antennas are great and are not only good for finding transmitters but also will greatly increase directional distance performance including communicating with satellites and the international space station (ISS).

[jcoman] had a nephew who was interested in learning about amateur radio so [jcoman] figured building and using a cheap and portable 2 meter band VHF Yagi style beam antenna would be the perfect activity to captivate the young lad’s interest in the hobby.

His design is based on [Joe Leggio’s] (WB2HOL) design with some of his own calculated alterations. We have seen DIY Yagi antenna designs before but what makes this construction so interesting is that the elements come together using bits of cut metal tape measure sections. These tape measure sections allow the Yagi antenna, which is normally a large and cumbersome device, to be easily stowed in a vehicle or backpack. When the antenna is needed, the tape measure sections naturally unfold and function extremely well with a 7 dB directional gain and can be adjusted to get a 1:1 SWR at any desired 2 m frequency.

The other unique feature is that the antenna can be constructed for under $20 if you actually purchase the materials. The cost would be even less if you salvage an old tape measure. You might even have the PVC pipes, hose clamps and wire lying around making the construction nearly free.

We were quite surprised to find that such a popular antenna construction method using tape measure elements had not yet been featured on Hackaday. For completeness this is not the only DIY tape measure Yagi on Instructables so also check out [FN64's] 2 m band “Radio Direction Finding Antenna for VHF” and [manuka’s] 70 cm band “433 MHz tape measure UHF antenna” postings. The other Yagi antenna designs featured on Hackaday were “Building a Yagi Uda Antenna” and “Turning an Easter Egg Hunt into a Fox Hunt” but these designs were not so simple to construct nor as cleverly portable.

Visually tune your HF antenna using an oscilloscope and signal generator

HF antenna tuning

Lots of readers are into toying around with RF and ham radios. One thing that is always of concern is tuning the antenna. New equipment is never cheap, so whenever another option comes along that uses existing test gear it gets our attention. [Alan Wolke] aka [w2aew] covers a process he uses to tune his HF antenna using a signal generator and oscilloscope.

The process is more of a teaching aid than a practical replacement for commercial equipment mostly because proper signal generators and oscilloscopes are large items and sometimes not available or affordable. That said, if you do have such test gear you only need build a simple breakout board containing a form of wheatstone bridge where the unknown Rx is the antenna. Two oscilloscope probes are connected across the bridge balance nodes. Some special care needs to be taken matching probe cable length and 50 ohm input impedance to the oscilloscope. A couple of 1K probe coupling resistors are also needed to prevent affecting the impendence at the hookup points. Once the selected signal is injected you can adjust an antenna tuner until the two voltage waveforms match on the oscilloscope indicating your antenna network is tuned to 50 ohm impedance with no reactance.

Being able to tune your antenna visually can really help you understand what is going on in the turning process; matching not only input impedance but also phase shift indicating inductive or capacitive reactance. Join us after the break to see the video and for information on what’s presented in the second part of [Alan's] presentation.

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