A Few Of My Favorite Things: Amateur Radio

Hackaday has among its staff a significant number of writers who also hold amateur radio licenses. We’re hardware folks at heart, so we like our radios homebrew, and we’re never happier than when we’re working at high frequencies.

Amateur radio is a multi-faceted hobby, there’s just so much that’s incredibly interesting about it. It’s a shame then that as a community we sometimes get bogged down with negativity when debating the minutia. So today let’s talk about a few of my favourite things about the hobby of amateur radio. I hope that you’ll find them interesting and entertaining, and in turn share your own favorite things in the comments below.

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A One-Transistor Ham Transmitter Anyone Can Build

What attracts a lot of people to amateur radio is that it gives you the ability to make your own gear. Scratch-building hams usually start by making their own antennas, but eventually, the itch to build one’s own radio must be scratched. And building this one-transistor transmitter is just about the simplest way to dive into the world of DIY radio.

Of course, limiting yourself to eight components in total entails making some sacrifices, and [Kostas (SV3ORA)]’s transmitter is clearly a study in compromise. For starters, it’s only a transmitter, so you’ll need to make other arrangements to have a meaningful conversation. You’ll also have to learn Morse code because the minimalist build only supports continuous-wave (CW) mode, although it can be modified for amplitude modulation (AM) voice work.

The circuit is flexible enough that almost any part can be substituted and the transmitter will still work. Most of the parts are junk-bin items, although the main transformer is something you’ll have to wind by hand. As described, the transformer not only provides feedback to the transistor oscillator, but also has a winding that powers an incandescent pilot lamp, and provides taps for attaching antennas of different impedances — no external tuner needed. [SV3ORA] provides detailed transformer-winding instructions and shows the final build, which looks very professional and tidy. The video below shows the rig in action with a separate receiver providing sidetone; there’s also the option of using one of the WebSDR receivers sprinkled around the globe to verify you’re getting out.

This little transmitter looks like a ton of fun to build, and we may just try it for our $50 Ham series if we can find all the parts. Honestly, the hardest to come by might be the variable capacitor, but there are ways around that too.

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Remoticon Video: Learning The Basics Of Software-Defined Radio (SDR)

Have you dipped your toe into the SDR ocean? While hacker software-defined radio has been a hot topic for years now, it can be a little daunting to try it out for the first time. Here’s your change to get your legs under you with the SDR overview workshop presented by Josh Conway during the 2020 Hackaday Remoticon.

Josh’s presentation starts with a straightforward definition of SDR before moving to an overview of the hardware and software that’s out there. Hardware designs for radios can be quite simple to build, but they’ll be limited to a single protocol — for instance, an FM radio can’t listen in on 433 Mhz wireless doorbell. SDR breaks out of that by moving to a piece of radio hardware that can be reconfigured to work with protocols merely by making changes to the software that controls it. This makes the radio hardware more expensive, but also means you can listen (and sometimes transmit) to a wide range of devices like that wireless doorbell or automotive tire pressure sensors, but also radio-based infrastructure like airplane transponders and weather satellites.

This is the quickstart you want since it explains  a lot of topis at just the right depth. The hardware overview covers RTL-SDR, ADALM-PLUTO, HackRF, KerberosSDR, and BladeRF (which we just featured over the weekend used on the WiFi procotol). For software, Josh recaps GQRX, SDR#, SDRAngel, ShinySDR, Universal Radio Hacker, Inspectrum, SigDigger, RPITX, GnuRadio Companion, and REDHAWK. He also takes us through a wide swath of the antenna types that are out there before turning to questions from the workshop attendees.

If SDR is still absent in your toolbox, now’s a great time to give it another look. Once you’ve made it through the ‘hello world’ stage, there’s plenty to explore like those awesome RF Emissions testing tricks we as in another Remoticon talk.

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The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands

So far in the $50 Ham series, I’ve concentrated mainly on the VHF and UHF bands. The reason for this has to do mainly with FCC rules, which largely restrict Technician-level licensees to those bands. But there’s a financial component to it, too; high-frequency (HF) band privileges come both at the price of learning enough about radio to pass the General license test, as well as the need for gear that can be orders of magnitude more expensive than a $30 handy-talkie radio.

But while HF gear can be expensive, not everything needed to get on the air has to be so. And since it’s often the antenna that makes or breaks an amateur radio operator’s ability to make contacts, we’ll look at a simple but versatile antenna design that can be adapted to support everything from a big, powerful base station to portable QRP (low-power) activations in the field: the end-fed half-wave antenna.

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Q Multiplier — Er… Multiplies Q

If you are below a certain age, you’ve probably never heard of a Q multiplier. This is a device that increases the “Q” of a radio receiver’s intermediate frequency and, thus, provide a higher selectivity. If you enjoy nostalgia, you can see inside a 1960s-era Heathkit QF-1 Q multiplier in [Jeff’s] informative video, below.

The Q multiplier was a regenerative amplifier that operated at just below the oscillation point. This provided very high amplification for the frequency of interest and less amplification for other frequencies. Some radios had a stage like this built-in, but the QF-1 was made to add into an external radio. For some Heathkit receivers, there was a direct plug to tap into the IF stage for this purpose. Othe radios would require some hacking to get it to work.

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Doing WiFi With Software Defined Radio

Software defined radio lets RF hardware take on a broad spectrum of tasks, all based on how that hardware is utilized in code. The bladeRF 2.0 micro xA9 is one such device, packing a fat FPGA with plenty of room for signal processing chains on board. As a demonstration of its abilities, [Robert Ghilduta] set about writing a software-defined WiFi implementation for the platform.

The work is known as bladeRF-wiphy, as it implements the PHY, or physical layer of the WiFi connection, in the 7-layer OSI networking model. Modulation and demodulation of the WiFi signal is all handled onboard the Cyclone V FPGA, with the decoded 802.11 WiFI packets handed over to the Linux mac80211 module which handles the MAC level, or medium access control. Thanks to the capability baked into mac80211, the system can act as either an access point or an individual station depending on the task at hand.

[Robert] does a great job of explaining the why and the how of implementing WiFi modulation on an FPGA, as well as some basics of modem development in both software and hardware. It’s dense stuff, so for those new to the field of software defined radio, consider taking some classes to get yourself up to speed!

Manual Antenna Tuner Shows How Homebrewing Is Done

If there’s anything about amateur radio that has more witchcraft in it than the design and implementation of antennas, we don’t know what it would be. On the face of it, hanging out a chunk of wire doesn’t seem like it should be complicated, but when you dive into the details, building effective antennas and matching them to the job at hand can be pretty complex.

That doesn’t mean antenna topics have to remain a total mystery, of course, especially once someone takes the time to explain things properly. [Charlie Morris (ZL2CTM)] recently did this with a simple antenna tuner, a device used to match impedances between a transmitter and an antenna. As he explains in the first video below, his tuner design is really just a Wheatstone bridge where the antenna forms half of one leg. A toroidal transformer with multiple taps and a variable capacitor forms an LC circuit that matches the high impedance antenna, in this case a multi-band end-fed halfwave, with the nominal 50-ohm load expected by the transceiver. A small meter and a diode detector indicate when the bridge is balanced, which means the transceiver is seeing the proper load.

The second video below shows the final implementation of the tuner; as a fan of QRP, or low-power operation, [Charlie] favors simple, lightweight homebrew gear that can be easily taken into the field, and this certainly fits the bill. A final video shows the tuner in use in the field, with a NanoVNA proving what it can do. As usual, [Charlie] protests that he not an expert and that he’s just documenting what he did, but he always does such a good job of presenting the calculations involved in component selection that any ham should be able to replicate his builds.

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