Police Baffled? Send For The Radio Amateurs!

The police force in Evanston, Illinois had a problem on their hands. A mystery transmitter was blocking legal use of radio devices, car key fobs, cellphones, and other transmitters in an area of their city, and since it was also blocking 911 calls they decided to investigate it. Their first call for help went to the FCC who weren’t much use, telling them to talk to the manufacturers of the devices affected.

Eventually they approached the ARRL, the USA’s national amateur radio organisation, who sent along [Kermit Carlson, W9XA] to investigate. He fairly quickly identified the frequencies with the strongest interference and the likely spot from which it originated, and after some investigation it was traced to a recently replaced neon sign power supply. Surprisingly the supply was not replaced with a fault-free unit, its owner merely agreeing to turn it off should any further interference be reported.

The ARRL are highlighting this otherwise fairly unremarkable case to draw attention to the problem of devices appearing on the market with little or no pretence of electromagnetic compatibility compliance. In particular they are critical of the FCC’s lacklustre enforcement response in cases like this one. It’s a significant problem worldwide as huge numbers of very cheap switch-mode mains power supplies have replaced transformers in mains power applications, and in any center of population its effects can be readily seen with an HF radio in the form of a significantly raised RF noise floor. Though we have reported before on the FCC’s investigation of the noise floor problem we’d be inclined to agree with the ARRL that it is effective enforcement of EMC regulations that is key to the solution.

City of Evanston police vehicle picture, [Inventorchris] (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr.

Tearing into Delta Sigma ADCs Part 2

In part one, I compared the different Analog to Digital Converters (ADC) and the roles and properties of Delta Sigma ADC’s. I covered a lot of the theory behind these devices, so in this installment, I set out to find a design or two that would help me demonstrate the important points like oversampling, noise shaping and the relationship between the signal-to-noise ratio and resolution.

Modulator Implementation

modulatorCheck out part one to see the block diagrams of what what got us to here. The schematics shown below are of a couple of implementations that I played with depicting a single-order and a dual-order Delta Sigma modulators.

schematicBasically I used a clock enabled, high speed comparator, with two polarities in case I got it the logic backwards in my current state of burn out to grey matter ratio. The video includes the actual schematic used.

Since I wasn’t designing for production I accepted the need for three voltages since my bench supply was capable of providing them and this widget is destined for the drawer with the other widgets made for just a few minutes of video time anyway. Continue reading “Tearing into Delta Sigma ADCs Part 2”

Tearing into Delta Sigma ADC’s

It’s not surprising that Analog to Digital Converters (ADC’s) now employ several techniques to accomplish higher speeds and resolutions than their simpler counterparts. Enter the Delta-Sigma (Δ∑) ADC which combines a couple of techniques including oversampling, noise shaping and digital filtering. That’s not to say that you need several chips to accomplish this, these days single chip Delta-Sigma ADCs and very small and available for a few dollars. Sometimes they are called Sigma-Delta (∑Δ) just to confuse things, a measure I applaud as there aren’t enough sources of confusion in the engineering world already.

I’m making this a two-parter. I will be talking about some theory and show the builds that demonstrate Delta-Sigma properties and when you might want to use them.

Continue reading “Tearing into Delta Sigma ADC’s”

FCC to Investigate Raised RF Noise Floor

If you stand outside on a clear night, can you see the Milky Way? If you live too close to a conurbation the chances are all you’ll see are a few of the brighter stars, the full picture is only seen by those who live in isolated places. The problem is light pollution, scattered light from street lighting and other sources hiding the stars.

The view of the Milky Way is a good analogy for the state of the radio spectrum. If you turn on a radio receiver and tune to a spot between stations, you’ll find a huge amount more noise in areas of human habitation than you will if you do the same thing in the middle of the countryside. The RF noise emitted by a significant amount of cheaper modern electronics is blanketing the airwaves and is in danger of rendering some frequencies unusable.

Can these logos really be trusted? By Moppet65535 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Can these logos really be trusted? By Moppet65535 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
If you have ever designed a piece of electronics to comply with regulations for sale you might now point out that the requirements for RF interference imposed by codes from the FCC, CE mark etc. are very stringent, and therefore this should not be a significant problem. The unfortunate truth is though that a huge amount of equipment is finding its way into the hands of consumers which may bear an FCC logo or a CE mark but which has plainly had its bill-of-materials cost cut to the point at which its compliance with those rules is only notional. Next to the computer on which this is being written for example is a digital TV box from a well-known online retailer which has all the appropriate marks, but blankets tens of megahertz of spectrum with RF when it is in operation. It’s not faulty but badly designed, and if you pause to imagine hundreds or thousands of such devices across your city you may begin to see the scale of the problem.

This situation has prompted the FCC Technological Advisory Council to investigate any changes to the radio noise floor to determine the scale of the problem. To this end they have posted a public notice (PDF) in which they have invited interested parties to respond with any evidence they may have.

We hope that quantifying the scale of the RF noise problem will result in some action to reduce its ill-effects. It is also to be hoped though that the response will not be an ever-tighter set of regulations but greater enforcement of those that already exist. It has become too easy to make, import, or sell equipment made with scant regard to RF emissions, and simply making the requirements tougher for those designers who make the effort to comply will not change anything.

This is the first time we’ve raised the problem of the ever-rising radio noise floor here at Hackaday. We have covered a possible solution though, if stray RF is really getting to you perhaps you’d like to move to the National Radio Quiet Zone.

[via Southgate amateur radio news]

Quieting a Cheap LCD Projector

There’s an old saying along the lines of “You pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. That’s true of technology, too, but a good hacker can sometimes teach an old monkey new tricks. [Heye] bought an LCD projector for $60 off AliExpress, and it turned out to be rather noisy: the air fan that sucked in air to cool the LED light source made a whooshing noise.

No surprise there, but rather than give up, he decided to see what he could do about the noise. So, he took the projector apart. After some excavation, he realized that the main source of noise was the input fan, which  was small and partly covered. That’s a recipe for noise, so he cut out the plastic grille over it and mounted a larger, quieter fan on the outside. He also designed and 3D printed an external hood for this larger fan. The result, he says, is much quieter than the original, and still keeps the LED light source fairly cool. It’s a neat hack that shows how a few hours and a bit of ingenuity can sometimes make a cheap device better.

Projector hacks are a staple here. And our favorite? Swapping out the light source for a candle.

Add Fiber-optic Control to Your CNC

CNC machines can be very noisy, and we’re not talking about the kind of noise problem that you can solve with earplugs. With all those stepper motors and drivers, potentially running at high-speed, electrical noise can often get to the point where it interferes with your control signals. This is especially true if your controller is separated from the machine by long cable runs.

But electrical noise won’t interfere with light beams! [Musti] and his fellow hackers at IRNAS decided to use commodity TOSLINK cables and transmitter / receiver gear to make a cheap and hackable fiber-optic setup. The basic idea is just to bridge between the controller board and the motor drivers with optical fiber. To make this happen, a couple of signals need to be transmitted: pulse and direction. They’ve set the system up so that it can be chained as well. Serializing the data, Manchester encoding it for transmission, and decoding it on reception is handled by CPLDs for speed and reliability.

The team has been working on this project for a while now. If you’d like some more background you can check out their original design ideas. Design files from this released version are up on GitHub. A proposed improvement is to incorporate bi-directional communications. Bi-directional comms would allow data like limit-switch status to be communicated back from the machine to the controller over fiber.

This optical interface is in service of an open-source plasma cutter design, which is pretty cool in itself. And if the IRNAS group sounds familiar to you, that may be because we recently ran a story on their ambitious gigabit ethernet-over-lightbeam project.

Logic Noise: The Switching Sequencer Has the Beat

Logic Noise is all about using logic circuits to make sounds. Preferably sound that will be enjoyable to hear and useful for making music. This week, we’ll be scratching the surface of one of my favorite chips to use and abuse for, well, nearly anything: the 4051 8-way analog switch. As the name suggests, you can hook up eight inputs and select one from among them to be connected up to the output. (Alternatively, you can send a single input to one of eight destinations, but we won’t be doing that here.)

Why is this cool? Well, imagine that you wanted to make our oscillator play eight notes. If you worked through our first installment, you built an abrasive-sounding but versatile oscillator. I had you tapping manually on eight different resistors or turning a potentiometer to eight different positions. This week, we’ll be letting the 4051 take over some of the controls, leaving us to do the more advanced knob twiddling.

Continue reading “Logic Noise: The Switching Sequencer Has the Beat”