Pi Network Attenuators: Impedance Matching For The Strong Of Signal

If you catch a grizzled old radio amateur propping up the bar in the small hours, you will probably receive the gravelly-voiced Wisdom of the Ancients on impedance matching, antenna tuners, and LC networks. Impedance at RF, you will learn, is a Dark Art, for which you need a lifetime of experience to master. And presumably a taste for bourbon and branch water, to preserve the noir aesthetic.

It’s not strictly true, of course, but it is the case that impedance matching at RF with an LC network can be something of a pain. You will calculate and simulate, but you will always find a host of other environmental factors getting in the way when it comes down to achieving a match. Much tweaking of values ensues, and probably a bit of estimating just how bad a particular voltage standing wave ratio (VSWR) can be for your circuit.

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RadiantBee Is A Flying Microwave Antenna Calibration System

Many of the projects we link to here at Hackaday have extensive write-ups, pages of all the detail you could need. Sometimes though we happen upon a project with only a terse description to go on, but whose tech makes it one worth stopping for and unpicking the web of information around it.

Such a project is [F4GKR] and [F5OEO]’s RadiantBee, an attempt to use a beacon transmitter on a multirotor as an antenna calibration platform. (For more pictures, see this Twitter feed.) In this case a multirotor has a GPS and a 10 GHz beacon that emits 250 ms chirps, from which the receiver can calculate signal-to-noise ratio as well as mapping the spatial response of the antenna.

The transmitter uses a Raspberry Pi feeding a HackRF SDR and a 10 GHz upconverter, while the receiver uses an RTL-SDR fed by a 10 GHz to 144 MHz downconverter. The antennas they are testing are straightforward waveguide horns, but the same principles could be applied to almost any antenna.

There was a time when antenna design at the radio amateur level necessitated extensive field testing, physical measurements with a field strength meter over a wide area, correlation of figures and calculation of performance. But with computer simulation the field has become one much more set in the lab, so it’s rather refreshing to see someone producing a real-world simulation rig. If you ever get the chance to evaluate an antenna through real-world measurement, grasp it with both hands. You’ll learn a lot.

We’ve covered very few real-world antenna tests, but there is mention in this write-up of a radar antenna test of a measurement session on a football field.

Via Southgate ARC.

Backscatter Your Own FM Pirate Radio Station

If you live in a city, you’re constantly swimming in a thick soup of radio-frequency energy. FM radio stations put out hundreds of kilowatts each into the air. Students at the University of Washington, [Anran Wang] and [Vikram Iyer], asked themselves if they could harness this background radiation to transmit their own FM radio station, if only locally. The answer was an amazing yes.

The trailer video, embedded below, demos a couple of potential applications, but the paper (PDF) has more detail for the interested. Basically, they turn on and off an absorbing antenna at a frequency that’s picked so that it modulates a strong FM signal up to another adjacent channel. Frequency-modulating this backscatter carrier frequency adds audio (or data) to the product station.

One of the cooler tricks that they pull off with this system is to inject a second (stereo) channel into a mono FM station. Since FM radio is broadcast as a mono signal, with a left-minus-right signal sent alongside, they can make a two-channel stereo station by recreating the stereo pilot carrier and then adding in their own difference channel. Pretty slick. Of course, they could send data using this technique as well.

Why do this? A small radio station using backscatter doesn’t have to spend its power budget on the carrier. Instead, the device can operate on microwatts. Granted, it’s only for a few feet in any given direction, but the station broadcasts to existing FM radios, rather than requiring the purchase of an RFID reader or similar device. It’s a great hack that piggybacks on existing infrastructure in two ways. If this seems vaguely familiar, here’s a similar idea out of the very same lab that’s pulling off essentially the same trick indoors with WiFi signals.

So who’s up for local reflected pirate radio stations?

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Move Over Baofeng, Xiaomi Want To Steal Your Thunder

To a radio amateur who received their licence decades ago there is a slightly surreal nature to today’s handheld radios. A handheld radio should cost a few hundred dollars, or such was the situation until the arrival of very cheap Chinese radios in the last few years.

The $20 Baofeng or similar dual-bander has become a staple of amateur radio. They’re so cheap, you just buy one because you can, you may rarely use it but for $20 it doesn’t matter. Most radio amateurs will have one lying around, and many newly licensed amateurs will make their first contacts on one. They’re not even the cheapest option either, if you don’t mind the absence of an LCD being limited to UHF only, then the going rate drops to about $10.

The Baofengs and their ilk are great radios for the price, but they’re not great radios. The transmitter side can radiate a few too many harmonics, and the receivers aren’t the narrowest bandwidth or the sharpest of hearing. Perhaps some competition in the market will cause an upping of the ante, and that looks to be coming from Xiaomi, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer. Their Mijia dual-band walkie-talkie product aims straight for the Baofeng’s jugular at only $35, and comes in a much sleeker and more contemporary package as you might expect from a company with a consumer mobile phone heritage. Many radio amateurs are not known for being dedicated followers of fashion, but for some operators the sleek casing of the Mijia will be a lot more convenient than the slightly more chunky Baofeng.

This class of radio offers more to the hardware hacker than just an off-the-shelf radio product, at only a few tens of dollars they become almost a throwaway development system for the radio hacker. We’ve seen interesting things done with the Baofengs, and we look forward to seeing inside the Xiaomi.

We brought you a look at the spurious emissions of this class of radio last year, and an interesting project with a Baofeng using GNU Radio in a slightly different sense to its usual SDR function.

[via Southgate ARC]

Origin of Wireless Security: the Marconi Radio Hack of 1903

The place is the historic lecture theater of the Royal Institution in London. The date is the 4th of June 1903, and the inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, is about to demonstrate his new wireless system, which he claims can securely send messages over a long distance, without interference by tuning the signal.

The inventor himself was over 300 miles away in Cornwall, preparing to send the messages to his colleague Professor Fleming in the theater. Towards the end of Professor Flemings lecture, the receiver sparks into life, and the morse code printer started printing out one word repeatedly: “Rats”. It then spelled out an insulting limerick: “There was a young man from Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily”. Marconi’s supposedly secure system had been hacked.

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Universal Radio Hacker

If you are fascinated by stories you read on sites like Hackaday in which people reverse engineer wireless protocols, you may have been tempted to hook up your RTL-SDR stick and have a go for yourself. Unfortunately then you may have encountered the rather steep learning curve that comes with these activities, and been repelled by a world with far more of the 1337 about it than you possess. You give up after an evening spent in command-line dependency hell, and move on to the next thing that catches your eye.

You could then be interested by [Jopohl]’s Universal Radio Hacker. It’s a handy piece of software for investigating unknown wireless protocols. It supports a range of software defined radios including the dirt-cheap RTL-SDR sticks, quickly demodulates any signals you identify, and provides a whole suite of tools to help you extract the data they contain. And for those of you scarred by dependency hell, installation is simple, at least for this Hackaday scribe. If you own an SDR transceiver, it can even send a reply.

To prove how straightforward the package is, we put an RTL stick into a spare USB port and ran the software. A little investigation of the menus found the spectrum analyser, with which we were able to identify the 433 MHz packets coming periodically from a wireless thermometer. Running the record function allowed us to capture several packets, after which we could use the interpretation and analysis screens to look at the binary stream for each one. All in the first ten minutes after installation, which in our view makes it an easy to use piece of software. It didn’t deliver blinding insight into the content of the packets, that still needs brain power, but at least if we were reverse engineering them we wouldn’t have wasted time fighting the software.

We’ve had so many reverse engineering wireless protocol stories over the years, to pick only a couple seems to miss the bulk of the story. However both this temperature sensor and this weather station show how fiddly it can be without a handy software package to make it easy.

Via Hacker News.

Radio and Phone Speaker has Style

Building a crystal radio isn’t exactly rocket science. Some people who build them go for pushing them technically as far as they can go. Others, like [Billy Cheung], go for style points. The modular radio and phone speaker looks like it came out of the movie Brazil. The metallic gramophone-like speaker horn adds to the appeal and mechanically amplifies the sound, too.

The video (see below) isn’t exactly a how-to, but if you watch to the end there is enough information that you could probably reproduce something at least similar. There are actually several horns. One is made from copper, another from paper, and one from a plastic bottle.

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