How Low Can You Go? The World of QRP Operation

Newly minted hams like me generally find themselves asking, “What now?” after getting their tickets. Amateur radio has a lot of different sub-disciplines, ranging from volunteering for public service gigs to contesting, the closest thing the hobby has to a full-contact sport. But as I explore my options in the world of ham radio, I keep coming back to the one discipline that seems like the purest technical expression of the art and science of radio communication – low-power operation, or what’s known to hams as QRP. With QRP you can literally talk with someone across the planet on less power than it takes to run a night-light using a radio you built in an Altoids tin. Now that’s a challenge I can sink my teeth into.

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Teensy 3.1 Controlled VFO

[Tom Hall], along with many hams around the world, have been hacking the Silicon Labs Si5351 to create VFOs (variable frequency oscillators) to control receivers and transmitters. You can see the results of his work in a video after the break.

vfo board[Tom] used a Teensy 3.1 Arduino compatible board, to control the Si5351 mounted on an Adafruit breakout board. An LCD display shows the current frequency and provides a simple interface display for changing the output. A dial encoder allows for direct adjustment of the frequency. The ham frequency band and the frequency increment for each encoder step are controlled by a joystick. When you get into the 10 meter band you definitely want to be able to jump by kHz increments, at least, since the band ranges from 28 MHz to 29.7 MHz.

So what is the Si5351? The data sheet calls it an I2C-Programmable Any-Frequency CMOS Clock Generator + VCXO. Phew! Let’s break that down a bit. The chip can be controlled from a microprocessor over an I2C bus. The purpose of the chip is to generate clock outputs from 8 kHz to 160 MHz. Not quite any frequency but a pretty good range. The VCXO means voltage controlled crystal oscillator. The crystal is 25 MHz and provides a very stable frequency source for the chip. In addition, the Si5351 will generate three separate clock outputs.

[Tom] walks through the code for his VFO and provides it via GitHub. An interesting project with a lot of the details explained for someone who wants to do their own hacks. His work is based on work done by others that we’ve published before, which is what hacking is all about.

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A Geek’s Revenge For Loud Neighbors

It seems [Kevin] has particularly bad luck with neighbors. His first apartment had upstairs neighbors who were apparently a dance troupe specializing in tap. His second apartment was a town house, which had a TV mounted on the opposite wall blaring American Idol with someone singing along very loudly. The people next to [Kevin]’s third apartment liked music, usually with a lot of bass, and frequently at seven in the morning. This happened every day until [Kevin] found a solution (Patreon, but only people who have adblock disabled may complain).

In a hangover-induced rage that began with thumping bass at 7AM on a Sunday, [Kevin] tore through his box of electronic scrap for every capacitor and inductor in his collection. An EMP was the only way to find any amount of peace in his life, and the electronics in his own apartment would be sacrificed for the greater good. In his fury, [Kevin] saw a Yaesu handheld radio sitting on his desk. Maybe, just maybe, if he pressed the transmit button on the right frequency, the speakers would click. The results turned out even better than expected.

With a car mount antenna pointed directly at the neighbor’s stereo, [Kevin] could transmit on a specific, obscure frequency and silence the speakers. How? At seven in the morning on a Sunday, you don’t ask questions. That’s a matter for when you tell everyone on the Internet.

Needless to say, using a radio to kill your neighbor’s electronics is illegal, and it might be a good idea for [Kevin] to take any references to this escapade off of the Internet. It would be an even better idea to not put his call sign online in the future.

That said, this is a wonderful tale of revenge. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, either. Wikihow, Yahoo Answers and Quora – the web pages ‘normies’ use for the questions troubling their soul – are sometimes unbelievably literate when it comes to unintentional electromagnetic interference, and some of the answers correctly point out grounding a stereo and putting a few ferrite beads on the speaker cables is the way to go. Getting this answer relies entirely on asking the right question, something I suspect 90% of the population is completely incapable of doing.

While [Kevin]’s tale is a grin-inducing two-minute read, You shouldn’t, under any circumstances, do anything like this. Polluting the airwaves is much worse than polluting your neighbor’s eardrums; one of them violates municipal noise codes and another is breaking federal law. It’s a good story, but don’t do it yourself.

Editor’s Note: Soon after publishing our article [Kevin] took down his post and sent us an email. He realized that what he had done wasn’t a good idea. People make mistakes and sometimes do things without thinking. But talking about why this was a bad idea is one way to help educate more people about responsible behavior. Knowing you shouldn’t do something even though you know how is one paving stone on the path to wisdom.
–Mike Szczys

The Michigan Mighty-Mite Rides Again

One of the best things about having your amateur radio license is that it allows you to legally build and operate transmitters. If you want to build a full-featured single-sideband rig with digital modes, have at it. But there’s a lot of fun to be had and a lot to learn from minimalist builds like this Michigan Mighty-Mite one-transistor 80-meter band transmitter.

If the MMM moniker sounds familiar, it may be because of this recent post. And in fact, [W2AEW]’s build was inspired by the same SolderSmoke blog posts that started [Paul Hodges] on the road to his breadboard and beer can build.  [W2AEW]’s build is a bit sleeker, to be sure, but where the video really shines is in the exploration and improvement of the signal quality. The basic Mighty-Mite outputs a pretty dirty signal – [W2AEW]’s scope revealed 5 major harmonic spikes, and what was supposed to be a nice sine wave was full of divots and potholes. There’s only so much one transistor, a colorburst crystal and a couple of capacitors can do, so the video treats us to an explanation of the design of the low-pass filter needed to get rid of the harmonics and clean up the output into a nice solid sine wave.

If your Morse skills aren’t where they should be to take advantage of the Might-Mite’s CW-only mode, then you’ll need to look at other modulations. Maybe a tiny FM transmitter would suit your needs better?

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the Phonetic Alphabet?

Sometimes words just have to be spelled for others. I’ve been on phone conversations where the person on the other end is spelling for me and it’s painful. “Was that a ‘b’ or a ‘p’?” Sometimes they’ll try on the fly to use words with the beginning letter trying to convey the letter: “B as in boy”. Then they’ll get stumped mumbling while they think desperately for ‘k’ words… ‘ketchup’. Okay, but is that really ketchup or catsup? Now think how much easier spelling is on a phone than over a poor quality radio channel. What we say, and how we say it is the key to our brain’s ability to error correct human speech. It’s a solved problem that was built into radio etiquette long ago.

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Ten Mile Raspberry Pi WiFi (with a Catch)

How would you like to have a WiFi connection that covers 10 miles? Or how about an even wider network made up of a mesh of multiple nodes? It is possible, but there is a catch: you probably need a ham radio license to do it (at least, you do in the United States).

What makes it possible is the realization that conventional WiFi channels 1-6 are inside an existing US ham band. That means (if you are a ham) you can elect to use FCC part 97 rules instead of part 15 that governs WiFi routers. That means you can use more power and–even more importantly–better antennas to get greater range.

Traditionally, hams have used custom firmware for Netgear routers or Ubiquiti hardware. However, [WZ0W] recently posted his experience using Raspberry Pi boards as mesh nodes. The code (which also works with some other single board computers) is available on GitHub (with details on the project blog). [WZ0W] points out that, unlike using a consumer router, using a Pi provides a reasonably powerful computer for hosting services as well as hosting the network.

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You Can Learn a Lot from a Dummy (Load)

If you work on RF circuits–even if you aren’t a ham radio operator–you ought to have a dummy load. A dummy load is a non-radiative “antenna” with known impedance that you can use to test your RF circuit without radiating. For radio work, you usually just need a 50-ohm resistor that is non-inductive (at least at the frequencies you are interested in) and that can dissipate the amount of power you’ll expect it to handle (at least for a short time). [VO1PWF] wanted a dummy load and built his own.
CantennaThe Cantenna (not the Pringle’s kind; see left) was a famous dummy load design when Heathkit was in business. It was a single carbon rod immersed in a paint can full transformer oil (which we now know was full of dangerous PCBs; and we don’t mean printed circuit boards). [VO1PWF’s] design is a little more practical, using some resistors in parallel (20 1K resistors), a plastic pipe housing, and mineral oil to keep it all cool.

The reason for the parallel resistors is to maximize the power handling capability. The resistors are 3W units, so the dummy load–in theory–can handle 60 watts. Often, high power resistors are wire wound and thus have a good bit of parasitic inductance that makes the dummy load reactive (not a good thing since that makes the load impedance vary by frequency). They do make non-inductive wire wound resistors, but these aren’t truly non-inductive. The wire winds in two different directions, so the inductance tends to cancel out. We wouldn’t trust them to be a pure resistance in a high-power dummy load design.

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