Antennas can range from a few squiggles on a PCB to a gigantic Yagi on a tower. The basic laws of physics must be obeyed, though, and whatever form the antenna takes it all boils down to a conductor whose length resonates at a specific frequency. What works at one frequency is suboptimal at another, so an adjustable antenna would be a key component of a multi-band device. And a shape-shifting liquid metal antenna is just plain cool.
The first thing that pops into our head when we think of liquid metal is a silvery blob of mercury skittering inside the glass vial salvaged out of an old thermostat. The second image is a stern talking-to by the local HazMat team, so it’s probably best that North Carolina State University researchers [Michael Dickey] and [Jacob Adams] opted for gallium alloys for their experiments. Liquid at room temperature, these alloys have the useful property of oxidizing on contact with air and forming a skin. This allows the researchers to essentially extrude a conductor of any shape. What’s more, they can electrically manipulate the oxidative state of the metal and thereby the surface tension, allowing the conductor to change length on command. Bingo – an adjustable length antenna.
Radio frequency circuits aren’t the only application for gallium alloys. We’ve already seen liquid metal 3D printing with them. But we need to be careful, since controlling the surface tension of liquid metals might also bring us one step closer to this.
Of special interest in the new 2Ku system is the antennas strapped to the top of a GoGo-equipped plane’s fuselage. These antennas form a mechanically-phased-array that are more efficient than previous antennas and can provide more bandwidth for frequent fliers demanding better and faster Internet.
Currently, GoGo in-flight wireless uses terrestrial radio to bring the Internet up to 35,000 feet. Anyone who has flown recently will tell you this is okay, but you won’t be binging on Nexflix for your next cross country flight. The new system promises speeds up to 70Mbps, more than enough for a cabin full of passengers to be pacified by electronic toys. The 2Ku band does this with a satellite connection – much faster, but it does have a few drawbacks.
Because the 2Ku system provides Internet over a satellite connection, ping times will significantly increase. The satellites GoGo is using orbit at 22,000 miles above Earth, or about 0.1 light seconds away from the plane. Double that, and your ping times will increase by at least 200ms compared to a terrestrial radio connection.
While this is just fine for email and streaming, it does highlight the weaknesses and strengths of mobile Internet.
[Carl] just found a yet another use for the RTL-SDR. He’s been decoding Inmarsat STD-C EGC messages with it. Inmarsat is a British satellite telecommunications company. They provide communications all over the world to places that do not have a reliable terrestrial communications network. STD-C is a text message communications channel used mostly by maritime operators. This channel contains Enhanced Group Call (EGC) messages which include information such as search and rescue, coast guard, weather, and more.
Not much equipment is required for this, just the RTL-SDR dongle, an antenna, a computer, and the cables to hook them all up together. Once all of the gear was collected, [Carl] used an Android app called Satellite AR to locate his nearest Inmarsat satellite. Since these satellites are geostationary, he won’t have to move his antenna once it’s pointed in the right direction.
As far as antennas go, [Carl] recommends a dish or helix antenna. If you don’t want to fork over the money for something that fancy, he also explains how you can modify a $10 GPS antenna to work for this purpose. He admits that it’s not the best antenna for this, but it will get the job done. A typical GPS antenna will be tuned for 1575 MHz and will contain a band pass filter that prevents the antenna from picking up signals 1-2MHz away from that frequency.
To remove the filter, the plastic case must first be removed. Then a metal reflector needs to be removed from the bottom of the antenna using a soldering iron. The actual antenna circuit is hiding under the reflector. The filter is typically the largest component on the board. After desoldering, the IN and OUT pads are bridged together. The whole thing can then be put back together for use with this project.
Once everything was hooked up and the antenna was pointed in the right place, the audio output from the dongle was piped into the SDR# tuner software. After tuning to the correct frequency and setting all of the audio parameters, the audio was then decoded with another program called tdma-demo.exe. If everything is tuned just right, the software will be able to decode the audio signal and it will start to display messages. [Carl] posted some interesting examples including a couple of pirate warnings.
[RonM9] wasn’t happy with his 50 foot range on his NRF24L01 project. The RF had to cut through four walls, but with the stock modules, the signal was petering out after two or three walls. A reasonably simple external dipole antenna managed to increase the range enough to do the job.
[RonM9’s] instructions show where to cut away the existing PCB antenna and empirically tune the 24 gauge wire for best performance. He even includes an Arduino-based test rig so you can perform your own testing if you want.
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).
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.
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!
[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.
Armed 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!