No other project to make it to The Hackaday Prize has people throwing money at their computer screen hoping something would happen than [Michael Colton]’s PortableSDR. It’s a software defined radio designed for coverage up to 30MHz. Amateur radio operators across the world are interested in this project, going so far as to call this the first Baofeng UV-5R killer. That’s extremely high praise.
[Michael] was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions about how his entry to The Hackaday Prize has gone. You can check that out below, along with the final round video of the project. Anyone who wants their own PortableSDR could really help [Michael] out by taking this survey.
What was the inspiration for this? Was it just a desire to build the radio you wanted, and doing something with SDR, or was it something deeper?
It wasn’t really a single moment of inspiration and I don’t know that it was that deep. It evolved. I first learned about SDR radios reading this article by Gerald Youngblood. I was blown away that such a thing existed! A radio that could basically do anything!? I wanted to have one, but couldn’t afford it, I’d need to build my own. So I reread the articles several times and studied the schematics until I pretty much understood how every part worked. He didn’t supply a Bill of Materials, so I reconstructed one. I didn’t know how to layout PCBs back then either, so I started learning Eagle a little. But life got busy, other things came up and I never recreated his radio. As I improved in skill, and in particular got better at working with microcontrollers, I started to think that I could simplify some of his design (he’s got a whole board of shift registers to allow a PC parallel port to control everything). About a year ago I got into ARM chips that had raw power, built in DACs, and DSP libraries! I started to think that one of these chips could do it all. So now I could take out the computer, and if I could do that, I could make it portable, and suddenly it was even more appealing to me than it had been to begin with! Combine all that with my interest in ultralight backpacking and in ergonomics, and that’s how the concept of the PortableSDR was formed.
By this point, I had developed some degree of skill at PCB layout and started making progress on the design. I hadn’t done much yet when I saw this and part of me said, “I’ve been wanting to do this for years and he just knocks something this cool out in a few days!? I’ll show him!” I actually emailed back and forth with Rich for a while. Then the Hackaday Prize was announced and I officially had the kick in the butt I needed to get something made. As much as I dislike deadlines, it really helped. With the PSDR1 there was a time where I decided a “PCB must be made, nothing else gets to be included in this version.” Same happened with the PSDR2, “this is all I get, everything else will have to be in the next one.” It forced me to build something instead of endlessly debating whether this part or that was going to work exactly right. It also helped justify spending a little money I had been saving.
You have a GPS module, and doing CTRL+F 'APRS' reveals nothing on your project logs. What's the timeline for that?
You’re right, not much has been done with the GPS yet. It wasn’t included APRS initially, it was to get accurate time for lower power digital transmission modes like JT65. I didn’t know there was such a thing as HF APRS. The idea of using it for emergency location came later as well. I’ve used this module in another project before, so I’m not worried about making it work, but getting other features working seemed like a higher priority, so the GPS stuff has been on a back burner. I have the TinyGPS library more ore less ported over though. I’ll probably have time and location working pretty soon. Now, writing code to encode and decode these modes is a ways off and beyond my current comfort level. I’ll get there, but given the hugely positive response I’m getting from the community, I think someone may beat me to it. I need to get more hardware out there.
A number of people have called the PortableSDR the first Baofeng UV-R5 killer, a very impressive compliment given that's everyone's go-bag apocalypse radio. You're producing kits, but are there any plans to move to full-scale manufacturing? Is that going to require a redesign, or are you been designing for manufacturing the whole time?
Wow! That’s high praise indeed! One of the great things about the Baofeng radios is the cost, how can you not buy one! I certainly wont be able to compete in that regard. On the other hand, in a real apocalypse (I’ve heard Utah is one of the likely starting points for the zombie apocalypse, BTW) I think the range of an HF radio like the PortableSDR is going to be more useful and its handy display will make finding signals from the few scattered survivors easier. Speaking of which, I wanted this thing to be tough, for backpacking, but also because I don’t like throw-away electronics. I want the PortableSDR to be something that holds up and works well for years, which it may have to, after the complete collapse of society.
I actually haven’t really started selling kits yet. I sent all of the PSDR1 boards to eager followers of my project. At least two of which have been built up (thanks John Laur and Nricciar)! I plan on doing the same with the extra PSDR2 boards, but haven’t gotten to it. I’m going to put up a poll up on my project page. I want to know how many people want kits vs. assembled units. How many want the housing? In metal or plastic? If I do kits, are people really comfortable soldering some of these parts? A few have asked for a kit with the hard parts installed, fair enough. How many people want the PSDR2 as it is, and how many would wait for the PSDR3 (it might be a while)? I can pretty much start doing kits immediately (and plan on it, probably in the next week or two) but assembled boards and housings are going to be much more work. I did design the board and housing for manufacture, most of my design experience is from work, so it’s a habit, but I’ve never been the one that made the manufacturing happen, selected the assembly house, etc. It’s daunting. Also, it seems like 100 unit minimum orders are the norm (at least where I am looking. Hey Hackaday Hive Mind, any recommendations?!) so it might cost me $20-30,000 to start the first production run of the PSDR, and that’s not including the housing or FCC certification! I think I’ll put together a Kickstarter so I can see if there is sufficient demand to cover the costs. I would love to see these out in the wild! I really want to see if people will get involved and help make it amazing, like I think it has the potential to be. This whole process is scary, but exciting!
Hypothetical, and we’re not going to hold you to whatever answer you give. You win the grand prize, a trip to space or about $200,000 USD. Which one to you take, and what is your reasoning for doing so?
A question I’ve given much though to, despite my efforts not to think about it. I would truly love to go to space, and it would break my heart to pass on the opportunity, but the money would have a larger and more lasting effect on my life and family. Most of it would go to boring stuff, taxes (I think people forget or don’t know that taxes are collected on prizes! Though I did see that the space trip has some allowance for that, which is awesome and generous!), tithing, mortgage, savings, etc.
A good portion would go toward continued development (lab toys!) and production of the PSDR. Also, I think I’d take my wife to Japan and Taiwan. It’s weird, but I have a list of possible things I would spend it on, sorted by priority with pros and cons.
If it were orbital, would that make a difference? I’ve thought about that too. I have to admit, a week on the ISS, for example, might be more tempting than I could bear. But then again, someone commented that getting to and staying on the ISS would cost something like $50M. In that case, I’d still have to take the money!
I’ve got some stiff competition! I’ve been following the other four and I really like them all! As I watched their videos, I couldn’t help but be conflicted, I hope I’m the one who wins, but their stuff is awesome! They have all worked hard, done amazing work, and any one of them deserves to win. I’m really grateful to Hackaday and the Evil Overloads for putting this on, it’s spurred on some amazing projects and has been a ton of fun. I hope Hackaday continues to feature other projects that came out of the competition. And thanks to everyone that’s been so encouraging of my project, on my blog, youtube, reddit, even some other blogs! It’s helped me stay motivated and excited through this whole process! I’ll make cool stuff for you!