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.”

Finally, a Modern Theremin

Ever wanted to own your own Theremin but couldn’t justify dropping hundreds of dollars on one? Now you can build your own, or buy it for a quintuplet of Hamiltons. The Open.Theremin.UNO project has built up antenna-based oscillator control around the ubiquitous Arduino Uno board.

So what’s the Arduino in there for? This is a digital Theremin, but check out the video below and you’ll agree that it sounds amazing and has excellent response. The aluminum antennas used for volume and pitch are attached to the top portion of the shield but it sounds like they’re not included in the kit. Don’t fret, you can use a variety of materials for this purpose. On the bottom you need to connect a speaker cable, and also a ground wire if that cable’s not grounded.

As the name implies, this is Open Hardware and we’re quite happy with the documentation on their site and the BOM (found on the GitHub repo). This design was shown off back in 2013 hiding in a pack of cigarettes. If you don’t want to build your own they’re selling kits on their site for 48 Euro delivered, or on Tindie for $55.

Okay, we’ve screwed this up so many times that we’re going to try to get it right here: the Theremin was not heard in the opening of Star Trek the original series, or in the opening of Doctor Who. It wasn’t featured in “Good Vibrations” either. As far as we can tell, it’s not used for anything in pop culture at all… but recognizing the sound and knowing what one is remains core geek knowledge.

If you want a Theremin to play using your entire body you need the Theremin Terpsitone.

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Track Satellites with a 2-axis Antenna Positioner

Ham radio operators are curious beasts. They’ll go to great lengths to make that critical contact, and making sure their directional antennas are pointing the right way can be a big part of punching through. Of course there are commercial antenna rotators out there, but hams also like to build their own gear, like this Raspberry Pi-controlled 2-axis rotator.

[wilho]’s main motivation for this build seems to have been the sad state of the art in commercial 2-axis rotators, which seems firmly mired in the 90s. Eschewing the analog pot sensors on DC brushed motors that seem to dominate the COTS market, [wilho] went with steppers and stout gearboxes for the moving gear. Feedback on the axes comes from 10-bit absolute encoders, and an MPU9250 9-axis IMU makes sure he knows exactly where the antenna is pointing with respect to both compass heading and elevation. A mast-mounted Rasp Pi controls everything and talks through a REST API to custom software that can return the antenna to custom set-points or track the moon, satellites, or the ISS. It’s a very impressive bit of kit that’s sure to drive your home-owners association bonkers.

For another 2-axis antenna positioner, check out 2015 Hackaday Prize finalist SATNOGS.

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RPiTX Turns Rasberry Pi into Versatile Radio Transmitter

Since the discovery that some USB TV tuner dongles could be used to monitor radio waves across a huge amount of spectrum, the software-defined radio world has exploded with interest. The one limiting factor, though, has been that the dongles can only receive signals; they can’t transmit them. [Evariste Okcestbon, F5OEO] (if that is his real name! Ok c’est bon = Ok this is good) has written some software that will get you transmitting using SDR with only a Raspberry Pi and a wire.

There have been projects in the past that use a Pi to broadcast radio (PiFM), but this new software (RPiTX) takes it a couple steps further. Using just an appropriately-sized wire connected to one of the GPIO pins, the Raspberry Pi is capable of broadcasting using FM, AM, SSB, SSTV, or FSQ signals. This greatly increases the potential of this simple computer-turned-transmitter and anyone should be able to get a lot of use out of it. In the video demo below the break, [Evariste] records a wireless doorbell signal and then re-transmits it using just the Rasbperry Pi.

The RPiTX code is available on GitHub if you want to try it out. And it should go without saying that you will most likely need an amateur radio license of some sort to use most of these features, depending on your locale. If you don’t have a ham radio license yet, you don’t need one to listen if you want to get started in the world of SDR. But a ham license isn’t hard to get and at this point it shouldn’t take much convincing for you to get transmitting.

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Liquid Metal Changes Shape to Tune Antenna

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.

GoGo Starts Testing New In-Flight Internet Technology

GoGo, the largest provider of Internet above 30,000 feet, has announced they are now testing their next generation of in-flight Internet.

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.

The Antenna Pod
The Antenna Pod

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.

Decoding Satellite-based Text Messages with RTL-SDR and Hacked GPS Antenna

[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.

Hacked GPS antenna
Hacked GPS antenna

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.

If you can’t get enough RTL-SDR hacks, be sure to check out some of the others we’ve featured in the past. And don’t forget to send in links to your own hacking!