If you are someone whose interests lie in the field of RF, you won’t need telling about the endless field of new possibilities opened up by the advent of affordable software defined radio technology. If you are a designer or constructor it might be tempting to believe that these radios could reduce some of the problems facing an RF design engineer. After all, that tricky signal processing work has been moved into code, so the RF engineer’s only remaining job should be to fill the not-so-huge gap between antenna and ADC or DAC.
In some cases this is true. If you are designing an SDR front end for a relatively narrow band of frequencies, perhaps a single frequency allocation such as an amateur band, the challenges are largely the same as those you’d find in the front end of a traditional radio. The simplest SDRs are thus well within the abilities of a home constructor, for example converting a below-100kHz-wide segment of radio spectrum to the below-100kHz baseband audio bandwidth of a decent quality computer sound card which serves as both ADC and DAC. You will only need to design one set of not-very-wide filters, and the integrated circuits you’ll use will not be particularly exotic.
But what happens if the SDR you are designing is not a simple narrow-band device? [Chris Testa, KD2BMH] delivered a talk at this year’s Dayton Hamvention looking at some of the mistakes he made and pitfalls he encountered over the last few years of work on his 50MHz to 1GHz-bandwidth Whitebox handheld SDR project. It’s not a FoTW in the traditional sense in that it is not a single ignominious fail, instead it is a candid and fascinating examination of so many of the wrong turnings a would-be RF engineer can make.
The video of his talk can be found below the break, courtesy of Ham Radio Now. [Chris]’s talk is part of a longer presentation after [Bruce Perens, K6BP] who some of you may recognise from his activities when he’s not talking about digital voice and SDRs. We’re jumping in at about the 34 minute mark to catch [Chris], but [Bruce]’s talk is almost worth an article in itself..
Young electronics hackers today are very fortunate to grow up in an era with both a plethora of capable devices to stimulate their imagination, and cheap and ready access to them. Less than the price of a hamburger meal can secure you a Linux computing platform such as the Raspberry Pi Zero, and a huge choice of sensors and peripherals are only an overnight postage envelope away.
Casing back a few decades to the 1980s, things were a little different for electronically inclined youth. We had the first generation of 8-bit microcomputers but they were expensive, and unless you had well-heeled parents prepared to buy you a top-end model they could be challenging to interface to. Other electronic parts were far more expensive, and mail order could take weeks to deliver the goods.
For some of us, this was not a problem. We simply cast around for other sources of parts, and one of the most convenient was the scrap CRT TV you’d find in nearly every dumpster in those days before electronic recycling. If you could make it from 1970s-era consumer-grade discrete components, we probably did so having carefully pored over a heap of large PCBs to seek out the right component values. Good training, you certainly end up knowing resistor colour codes by sight that way.
Wireless is easier today than ever, with many standards to choose from. But you don’t need anything elaborate if you simply want to cut the cord. A few years back, [Roman Black] experimented with the cheap RF modules you can find on auction sites and from surplus electronics vendors for only a few dollars, and wrote up his findings. They’re well worth a look.
At the heart of the board is an ATmega328 clocked at 8MHz to reduce power consumption and fused to drop out at 1.7V. The radio module is a HopeRF RFM69C which as supplied is a little bit too big for the AA form factor so [Johan] has carefully filed away the edge of the PCB to make it fit. Enough room is left within the shape of an AA cell for a couple of DS18B20 temperature sensors and an indicator LED. He provides a handy buyer’s guide to the different versions of a 3xAA box with a lid, and all the files associated with the project are available in his GitHub repository.
Especially with the onboard radio module we can see that the AADuino board could be a very useful piece of kit. Perhaps for instance it could be used as a very low power self-contained UKHASnet node.
We’ve featured quite a few Arduino clones over the years that try to break the size mould in some way. This stripboard Arduino almost but not quite equals the AAduino’s size, as does this PCB version barely wider than the DIP package of its processor. But the AADuino is a bit different, in that it’s a ready-made form factor for putting out in the field rather than just another breadboard device. And we like that.
The need for clear and reliable communication has driven technology forward for centuries. The longer communication’s reach, the smaller the world becomes. When it comes to cell phones, seamless network coverage and low power draw are the ideals that continually spawn R&D and the eventual deployment of new equipment.
Almost all of us carry a cell phone these days. It takes a lot of infrastructure to support them, whether or not we use them as phones. The most recognizable part of that infrastructure is the communications tower. But what do you know about them?
If you do any work with analogue signals at frequencies above the most basic audio, it’s probable that somewhere you’ll have a box of coax adaptors. You’ll need them, because the chances are your bench will feature instruments, devices, and modules with a bewildering variety of connectors. In making all these disparate devices talk to each other you probably have a guilty past: at some time you will have created an unholy monster of a coax interface by tying several adaptors together to achieve your desired combination of input and output connector. Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.
As anyone who is a veteran of many RF projects will tell you, long component leads can be your undoing. Extra stray capacitances, inductances, and couplings can change the properties of your design to the point at which it becomes unfit for purpose, and something of a black art has evolved in the skill of reducing these effects.
RF Biscuit is [Georg Ottinger]’s attempt to simplify some of the challenges facing the RF hacker. It’s a small PCB with a set of footprints that can be used to make a wide range of surface-mount filters, attenuators, dummy loads, and other RF networks with a minimum of stray effects. Provision has been made for a screening can, and the board uses edge-launched SMA connectors. So far he’s demonstrated it with a bandpass filter and a dummy load, but he suggests it should also be suitable for amplifiers using RF gain blocks.
It’s a tough challenge, to produce a universal board for multiple projects with very demanding layout requirements such as those you’d find in the RF field. We’re anxious to see whether the results back up the promise, and whether the idea catches on.
This appears to be the first RF network prototyping board we’ve featured here at Hackaday. We’ve featured crystal filters before, and dummy loads though, but nothing that brings them all together. What would you build on your RF Biscuit?