THP Hacker Bio: Michael R Colton

With many hackers out there realizing how much you can do with a few RF blocks connected to a computer, it’s no surprise software defined radio would make a showing in the semifinalists for The Hackaday Prize. [Michael]’s project is the PortableSDR, a small, self-contained unit that handles just about everything below 30MHz. No, [Michael] isn’t dealing with gigahertz accessible with fancier SDRs, but that’s not the point: PortableSDR is meant to do everything – vector analysis, a neat waterfall display, transmit and receive – in a small, portable package you can take anywhere. It’s also fairly cheap to build, and of course completely open source.

This isn’t [Michael]’s first rodeo; he’s built a number of equally cool projects before. He was kind enough to send in a short bio, available below.

Just one? Obviously radio and electronics are big. Hackaday is my favorite site, if that tells you anything.

I enjoy all sorts of outdoor activities, backpacking, rock-climbing and, most recently, paragliding.

I’ve been interested in Asian culture and languages for years. I studied Japanese in high school and college and I was able to serve as a missionary for two years in Taiwan where I picked up Mandarin.

I wanted to be an inventor as a kid (now I’m actually a little skeptical of people who call themselves that). I took things apart, ruined lots of VCRs, electrocuted myself a bunch of times, even knocked myself out once. My dad says when I was three or four I broke the side view mirror off his sports car and he couldn’t figure out how. I played with electronics, shopped at Radio Shack, bought a BASIC stamp kit (for like $100! Seriously?) and played with that a little, but in college I wasn’t confident I’d ever really understand electronics, so I got my education in psychology instead. But I continued to play, found out how cheap AVRs and PICs are and moved up to those.
I was lucky to make friends with a guy who worked for an aerial data collection company (before it was cool) who wanted to split of and use “multi-rotors” for aerial video. I knew a little about electronics so I helped him and together we started Utah Aerials. I started making my own aircraft, and eventually met with a start-up engineering firm about producing them. The boss was impressed and hired me.
That was about three years ago, now I work as a product designer and electrical engineer at RPH Engineering, spending most of my time doing circuit design and firmware, but I get to do concept art and mechanical design from time to time. I’m lucky to have a job where I get to work on lots of interesting projects. I feel very blessed that I was hired, as I don’t have a degree in any of this, and only had light experience at the time (It didn’t hurt that my boss didn’t have to pay me very much).
I hope that might be inspiring to some people out there. I didn’t go to school for this, and for years I thought I’d never understand any of it well enough to make the things I wanted to make. I just followed what was interesting to me and kept learning. To those that are overwhelmed with how much there is to know, hang in there. I still have so much to learn, but when it starts to click, it’s a pretty amazing feeling.

Other than my wife, it would probably be learning and making, experiencing new things. Before I could build things, I would draw a lot, I’d create people, places and things that only existed on paper.

Printers are a pretty good one. Maybe computers in general. Sometimes I wish software was a thing that could be smashed… ugh.

I was a die-hard Mac user as a kid and I still think it’s very well designed and usable, but pretty much everything I want to do requires Windows (7 or Server editions please) so that’s what I find myself using most. I play with Linux here and there and I love what it can do, but haven’t really gotten comfortable with it, everything seems to take so much work.

Oscilloscopes. Just picked up a Rigol DS1074Z and I love it (get the signal gen, it’s worth it!) That said, if Tektronics wants to sponsor me, I’d gladly accept a MDO3/4000.

Also, Current limited bench supplies have saved my bacon a number of times….. also flux pens. And if you can swing it, a binocular microscope, I don’t know how I lived without it.

I’m really enjoying the STM32 microcontrollers. The F4 in the PortableSDR is a beast! 180Mhz, FPU, lots of memory, and ten each of every peripheral you could ever want. They are so flexible too. On the AVR-Arduino/PICs, your GPIO are digital or analog, sometimes you have a built in pull up resistor. The STM32s (I imagine a lot of this applies to other ARMs as well) have pull ups and pull downs, and open-drain, various drive levels for every GPIO. It has DACs built in, etc. I was using an AVR for something once and I was going to be using TTL serial, but it was inverted, so I had to add some circuitry to flip it, don’t need to on the STM32s it has that ability built in.

C. (Also C++/C#/Java) No real reason, it’s just what I know and am comfortable with (not that I’m particularly good at any of them) also runs on anything!

I have a secret one (not helpful, I know.) I hope to Kickstart at some point.I am part way into a connect home security/home automation system that includes thermostat control, and power consumption measurement. The coolest part, though, is that is uses the Portal Turret voices (open a door and you hear, “Hello? Who’s there?” walk in front of the motion sensor and get, “There you are!”)

I’d like to make a Paramotor (electric even) or try to make a super efficient electric vehicle (reverse trike with an aerodynamic cowling, I think).

Electrostatic headphone drivers and amplifier.That was three right? And really, that’s just want I’d like to do in the next few years. Sometimes I wish I would get fired so I had time to work on all this stuff!

I’d been interested in Software Defined Radio since I first heard about it a few years ago (this article in particular) and wanted to build my own. As I learned more and more about electronics and microcontrollers in particular, I thought I could combine SDR with my interest in the outdoors.

Lots of stuff! Here are a few: To the DSP guys, how do I build an arbitrary filter for FFT convolution with a known kernel length? The way I am doing it now seems to be wrapping around even though I have padded my samples. I’m probably making tons of mistakes… RF guys, I’d love a hand designing an efficient RF amp to get up in to the 1-5 what range, that is small and can run off 3 volts. To the Hams that are into morse code, what hand do you use, what angle do you position your key at, I’m thinking 45 degrees? Ever tried capacitive keyers, what did you think? There is a ton of brain power in the Hackaday community, so I hope people will tear into the PortableSDR and help me make it better. I look forward to (hopefully constructive) feedback!

CutSeveral. I thought the GPS Clock was very polished. I wouldn’t mind building myself one. And the microwave lost PLA project?! Hybrid Jetski, I’ll take one. Cardboard hovercraft. To name a few. Several of the projects I like did make it to the semifinals.


Things are progressing very well. My main problem is time. We’ve got less than a month until the next round of judging, but it takes about a week to have a PCB produced and another week to have it shipped (if you are cheap/poor) so that’s half of the available time gone right there! And I haven’t even finished designing the next revision yet… I want to source some LCDs from China and I am having the same problem shipping times.
There is a lot I am learning as I go, so some things take longer than expected or don’t work right at first. But that’s part of why I wanted to do this. It’s amazing how much I’m learning. It’s really stretching my brain. It’s really fun.

I have been having a lot of fun with the contest and it’s been inspiring to see all the cool things other people have come up with. Also, I really appreciate all the positive support I’ve received from people as I’ve worked on this project. A few have built their own already, and someone even posted about my project on reddit. Thanks everyone!

6 thoughts on “THP Hacker Bio: Michael R Colton

  1. I’m really looking forward to seeing this project done, and hopefully made available. As a fellow ham, I can see a hundred uses for a portable, self-contained SDR. This is certainly leaps and bounds better than the RTL-SDR and upconverter combo I’m using now.
    As for CW (AKA Morse code), I use a Bencher BY-1 paddle that I position at roughly 45 degrees relative to the table/bench edge. This puts is at roughly 10 -15 degrees off the angle of my forearm. While this is comfortable for me, I think that every operator is different, so I suggest aiming for what is comfortable to you.

  2. I’m looking forward to this being completed, but I enjoy the regular updates too. I would like to use this for APRS or something similar while backpacking, as being able to check in regularly on long trips would put a lot of people’s hearts at ease. Also being able to get text based messages in the backcountry would be good for me as well.
    I don’t (yet!) have the skill to design something this complicated myself, but I think I could build it given the instructions. I’m anxiously awaiting every update, best of luck to you!! I hope you can key some CW from space!!!

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