Dual SDR Receives Two Bands at Once

There was a time when experimenting with software defined radio (SDR) was exotic. But thanks to cheap USB-based hardware, this technology is now accessible to anyone. While it is fun to play with the little $20 USB sticks, you’ll eventually want to move up to something better and there are a lot of great options. One of these is SDRPlay, and they recently released a new piece of hardware — RSPduo — that incorporates dual tuners.

We’ve talked about using the SDRPlay before as an upgrade from the cheap dongles. The new device can tune either a single 10 MHz band over the range of 1 kHz to 2 GHz, or you can select two 2 MHz bands. This opens up a lot of applications where you need to pick up signals in different areas of the spectrum (e.g., monitoring both sides of a cross-band repeater).

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Tiny Transmitter Brings Out the Spy Inside You

When it comes to surveillance, why let the government have all the fun? This tiny spy transmitter is just the thing you need to jumpstart your recreational espionage efforts.

We kid, of course — you’ll want to stay within the law of the land if you choose to build [TomTechTod]’s diminutive transmitter. Barely bigger than the 337 button cell that powers it, the scrap of PCB packs a fair number of surface mount components, most in 0201 packages. Even so, the transmitter is a simple design, with a two transistor audio stage amplifying the signal from the MEMS microphone and feeding an oscillator that uses a surface acoustic wave (SAW) resonator for stability. The bug is tuned for the 433-MHz low-power devices band, and from the video below, it appears to have decent range with the random wire antenna — maybe 50 meters. [TomTechTod] has all the build files posted, including Gerbers and a BOM with Digikey part numbers, so it should be easy to make one for your fieldcraft kit.

If you want to dive deeper into the world of electronic espionage, boy, have we got you covered. Here’s a primer on microphone bugs, a history of spy radios, or how backscatter was used to bug an embassy.

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Sign of the Smith Chart Times

The Smith chart is a staple for analyzing complex impedance. [W2AEW] notes that a lot of inexpensive test gear like the MFJ-259B gives you complex readings, but fails to provide the sign of the imaginary part of the complex number. That makes it difficult to plot the results on a Smith chart or carry out other analysis. As you might expect, though, he has a solution for you that you can see in the video, below.

A common method is to increase the frequency slightly. In a simple case, you’d expect the imaginary part — the reactance — to go down for a capacitive impedance and up for an inductive one. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply in many common cases, including when you are measuring through a transmission line which is probably what most people are doing with this type of test gear.

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HFT On HF, You Can’t Beat It For Latency

If you are a radio enthusiast of A Certain Age, you may well go misty-eyed from time to time with memories of shortwave listening in decades past. Countries across the world operated their own propaganda radio stations, and you could hear Radio Moscow’s take on world events, the BBC World Service responding, and Radio Tirana proudly announcing that every Albanian village now had a telephone. Many of those shortwave broadcast stations are now long gone, but if you imagine the HF spectrum is dead, think again. An unexpected find in an industrial park near Chicago led to an interesting look at the world of high-frequency trading, or HFT, and how they have moved to using shortwave links when everyone else has abandoned them, because of the unparalleled low latency they offer when communicating across the world.

Our intrepid tower-hunter is [KE9YQ], who was out cycling and noticed a particularly unusual structure adorned with a set of HF beams. These are the large directional antennas of the type you might otherwise expect to see on the roof of an embassy or in the backyard of a well-heeled radio amateur, and were particularly unusual in this otherwise unexciting part of America. There followed an interesting process of tracking down the site’s owners via the FCC permits for its operation, leading to the deduction of its purpose. With other antenna-hunters on the lookout for corresponding sites elsewhere in the world, it seems that this unusual global network hiding in plain sight could soon be revealed.

Unsurprisingly we’ve not covered many shortwave HFT stories. There are however other higher-latency ways to cross the world on HF.

Via SWLing Post, and thanks [W6MOQ] for the tip.

Ham Reviews MiniVNA

[KB9RLW] wanted to build a vector network analyzer (VNA), but then realized he could buy a ready-made one without nearly the cost it would have been only a few years ago. The network in this case, by the way, is an electrical network, not a computer network. You can use a VNA to characterize components, circuits, antennas, and even feed lines at different frequencies. The miniVNA Pro is economical and can exercise circuits from 1 MHz to 3 GHz. You can see the review in the video below.

There are a few ways to actually create a VNA, but in concept, it is a sweep generator, a detector, and a means to plot the response at each frequency in the sweep. So you’d expect, for example, a resonant frequency to show a peak at resonance and a band reject filter to show a low point.

One of the things interesting about the device is that it uses Java software. That means it doesn’t care much what platform you want to use. The software can show two different plots at once, so [Kevin] hooks it to his 20 meter antenna and shows how it can plot the SWR and impedance around the frequency of interest.

The instrument can be USB powered with the same cable you use to connect the PC. However, it also has an internal rechargeable battery. That battery charges on USB and can operate the device with Bluetooth. We can imagine that being handy when you want to climb up a tower and connect it directly to an antenna as long as you stay in Bluetooth range of the PC. There’s also a phone app, so you can go that route, if you prefer and [Kevin] shows the device working with Android. Of course, you could probably rig a Raspberry Pi on your belt and then use WiFi to let someone on the ground remote desktop in to run measurements. A lot of possibilities.

If you want to roll your own, that’s possible, of course. If you want to get by a bit cheaper, there are less expensive options.

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Fail Of The Week: Never Assume All Crystals Are Born Equal

You should be used to our posting the hacks that didn’t quite go according to plan under our Fail Of The Week heading, things that should have worked, but due to unexpected factors, didn’t. They are the fault, if that’s not too strong a term, of the person making whatever the project is, and we feature them not in a spirit of mockery but one of commiseration and enlightenment.

This FOTW is a little different, because it reveals itself to have nothing to do with its originator. [Grogster] was using the widely-available HC-12 serial wireless modules, or clones or even possibly fakes thereof, and found that the modules would not talk to each other. Closer inspection found that the modules with the lack of intercommunication came from different batches, and possibly different manufacturers. Their circuits and components appeared identical, so what could possibly be up?

The problem was traced to the two batches of modules having different frequencies, one being 37 kHz ahead of the other. This was in turn traced to the crystal on board the off-frequency module, the 30 MHz component providing the frequency reference for the Si4463 radio chip was significantly out of spec. The manufacturer had used a cheap source of the component, resulting in modules which would talk to each other but not to the rest of the world’s HC-12s.

If there is a lesson to be extracted from this, it is to be reminded that even when cheap components or modules look as they should, and indeed even when they appear to work as they should, there can still be unexpected ways in which they can let you down. It has given us an interesting opportunity to learn about the HC-12, with its onboard STM8 CPU and one of the always-fascinating Silicon Labs radio chips. If you want to know more about the HC-12 module, we linked to a more in-depth look at it a couple of years ago.

Thanks [Manuka] for the tip.

Umbrella and Tin Cans Turned into WiFi Dish Antenna

There’s something iconic about dish antennas. Chances are it’s the antenna that non-antenna people think about when they picture an antenna. And for many applications, the directionality and gain of a dish can really help reach out and touch someone. So if you’re looking to tap into a distant WiFi network, this umbrella-turned-dish antenna might be just the thing to build.

Stretching the limits of WiFi connections seems to be a focus of [andrew mcneil]’s builds, at least to judge by his YouTube channel. This portable, foldable dish is intended to increase the performance of one of his cantennas, a simple home-brew WiFi antenna that uses food cans as directional waveguides. The dish is built from the skeleton of an umbrella-style photographer’s flash reflector; he chose this over a discount-store rain umbrella because the reflector has an actual parabolic shape. The reflective material was stripped off and used as a template to cut new gores of metal window screen material. It’s considerably stiffer than the reflector fabric, but it stretches taut between the ribs and can still fold up, at least sort of. An arm was fashioned from dowels to position the cantenna feed-horn at the focus of the reflector; not much detail is given on the cantenna itself, but we assume it’s similar in design to cantennas we’ve featured before.

[andrew] hasn’t done rigorous testing yet, but a quick 360° scan from inside his shop showed dozens of WiFi signals, most with really good signals. We’ll be interested to see just how much this reflector increases the cantenna’s performance.

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