Control a Swarm of RC Vehicles with ESP8266

Over at RCgroups, user [Cesco] has shared a very interesting project which uses the ever-popular ESP8266 as both a transmitter and receiver for RC vehicles. Interestingly, this code makes use of the ESP-Now protocol, which allows devices to create a mesh network without the overhead of full-blown WiFi. According to the Espressif documentation, this mode is akin to the low-power 2.4GHz communication used in wireless mice and keyboards, and is designed specifically for persistent, peer-to-peer connectivity.

Switching an ESP8266 between being a transmitter or receiver is as easy as commenting out a line in the source code and reflashing the firmware. One transmitter (referred to as the server in the source code) can command eight receiving ESP8266s simultaneously. [Cesco] specifically uses the example of long-range aircraft flying in formation; only coming out of the mesh network when it’s time to manually land each one.

[Cesco] has done experiments using both land and air vehicles. He shows off a very hefty looking tracked rover, as well as a quickly knocked together quadcopter. He warns the quadcopter flies like “a wet sponge”, but it does indeed fly with the ESP’s handling all the over the air communication.

To be clear, you still need a traditional PPM-compatible RC receiver and transmitter pair to use his code. The ESPs are simply handling the over-the-air communication. They aren’t directly responsible for taking user input or running the speed controls, for example.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an ESP8266 take the co-pilot’s seat in a quadcopter, but the maniacal excitement we feel when considering the possibility of having our very own swarm of flying robots gives this particular project an interesting twist.

3D Printed Antenna is Broadband

Antennas are a tricky thing, most of them have a fairly narrow range of frequencies where they work well. But there are a few designs that can be very broadband, such as the discone antenna. If you haven’t seen one before, the antenna looks like — well — a disk and a cone. There are lots of ways to make one, but [mkarliner] used a 3D printer and some aluminum tape to create one and was nice enough to share the plans with the Internet.

As built, the antenna works from 400 MHz and up, so it can cover some ham bands and ADS-B frequencies. The plastic parts act as an anchor and allow for coax routing. In addition, the printed parts can hold a one-inch mast for mounting.

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Review: LimeSDR Mini Software Defined Radio Transceiver

It’s fair to say that software-defined radio represents the most significant advance in affordable radio equipment that we have seen over the last decade or so. Moving signal processing from purpose-built analogue hardware into the realm of software has opened up so many exciting possibilities in terms of what can be done both with more traditional modes of radio communication and with newer ones made possible only by the new technology.

It’s also fair to say that radio enthusiasts seeking a high-performance SDR would also have to be prepared with a hefty bank balance, as some of the components required to deliver software defined radios have been rather expensive. Thus the budget end of the market has been the preserve of radios using the limited baseband bandwidth of an existing analogue interface such as a computer sound card, or of happy accidents in driver hacking such as the discovery that the cheap and now-ubiquitous RTL2832 chipset digital TV receivers could function as an SDR receiver. Transmitting has been, and still is, more expensive.

The LimeSDR Mini's chunky USB stick form factor.
The LimeSDR Mini’s chunky USB stick form factor.

A new generation of budget SDRs, as typified by today’s subject the LimeSDR Mini, have brought down the price of transmitting. This is the latest addition to the LimeSDR range of products, an SDR transceiver and FPGA development board in a USB stick format that uses the same Lime Microsystems LMS7002M at its heart as the existing LimeSDR USB, but with a lower specification. Chief among the changes are that there is only one receive and one transmit channel to the USB’s two each, the bandwidth of 30.72 MHz is halved, and the lower-end frequency range jumps from 100 kHz to 10 MHz. The most interesting lower figure associated with the Mini though is its price, with the early birds snapping it up for $99 — half that of its predecessor. (It’s now available on Kickstarter for $139.)

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An Autonomous Drone For Working Rare Squares

Amateur radio is an extremely broad church when it comes to the numerous different activities that it covers. Most of the stories featuring radio amateurs that we cover here have involved home-made radios, but that represents a surprisingly small subset of licence holders.

One activity that captivates many operators is grid square collecting. The map is divided into grid squares, can you make contact with all of them? Land-based squares in Europe and North America are easy, those in some more sparsely populated regions a little less so, and some squares out in the ocean are nigh-on impossible. As an attempt to solve this problem, the Jupiter Research Foundation Amateur Radio Club have put an HF transceiver and associated electronics in a WaveGlider autonomous seagoing vehicle. The idea is that it will traverse the ocean, and you can work it, thus getting the contact you require to add those rarest of grid squares to your list.

The transceiver in question is a commercial portable one, an Elecraft KX3, and the brain of the payload is a Raspberry PI. It’s operating the FT8 mode, and will respond to a call on 14074 kHz in an automated fashion (Or it would, were its status page not telling us that it is offline due to power issues). It’s currently somewhere in the Pacific ocean, having been at sea now for a couple of months.

We spotted this through a spirited online discussion as to whether working an automated station is really a proper contact at all, with one amateur commenting that it might be a way for him to keep on going post mortem. But the ethics of the contact aside, it’s an extremely interesting project and one we hope eventually will come back online.

Thanks Sotabeams, via [AE5X].

Finding Noise with an Antenna

[K5ACL], aka [SignalSearch], recently brought his active receive loop antenna in off the roof to give it a checkup and perform any necessary maintenance. While it was in the shack, he took the opportunity to discuss how well it would perform indoors. The verdict? Not ideal. He’d mount it 50 feet away from the house if the HOA would let him.

Houses, and subsequently most ham shacks, are filled with noise sources that interfere badly with HF. So after spending a minute or so listening on an SDR, [K5ACL] demonstrates another use for this type of tightly-tuned antenna—as a noise detector.

The main culprit in [K5ACL]’s house is the ceiling light that’s right there in the shack. You can see the noise striping the waterfall as he turns it on and off. But the noise from the light is small potatoes compared to some other common household items, like those power line adapters that turn house wiring into networking cable. Those produce so much noise that even an active loop is really no match. Stay tuned after the break to watch [K5ACL] work the bands through the noise.

Loop antennas are great if you’re stuck in an apartment building or a congested city. They’re easy enough to make, whether you want a portable loop or a permanent installation.

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Quantifying Latency in Cheap RC Transmitters

For those just starting out in the world of RC, a low cost transmitter like the Flysky FS-i6S can be very compelling. But is buying a cheap transmitter setting yourself up for failure down the line? The general feel in the RC community has been that cheaper transmitters have higher latency or “lag” on their inputs, which is precisely the kind of thing you want to avoid when flying along at 40+ MPH. As such, the general wisdom has been that your transmitter is one area where you don’t want to cheap out.

Wanting to put that theory to the test, [Marek Baczynski] set out to compare the response time between the Flysky FS-i6S and the more established Taranis X9D. In the video after the break, he uses his Saleae logic analyzer to time how long it takes movement on the transmitter sticks to get interpreted as servo commands at the receiver.

[Marek] connects the logic analyzer directly to the gimbals of both transmitters, allowing him to see user input before any processing is done by the electronics. It’s particularly interesting to see how the smooth analog curves of the gimbals are converted to a “staircase” digital output.

The final results of the latency test end up being fairly surprising. To put it simply: the cheaper Flysky radio not only more accurately interprets the user’s input, but does it considerably faster than the Taranis. [Marek] says he was so surprised by these results that he re-ran the test three times to verify.

But even taking into account the apparently higher fidelity of the cheap radio, he cautions you shouldn’t swap out your gear just yet. Higher end transmitters have a number of other features which make them worth hanging on to, even if the newer generation of radios is slightly faster. The real takeaway from this video is that if you’re just getting into the RC game, these cheaper transmitters aren’t necessarily the kiss of death the community makes them out to be.

Experiments like this and the recent detailed analysis of common hobby motors show just how seriously people take the world of RC. It’s unlikely this single experiment will quell the debate about “cheap” RC transmitters, but perhaps it’s a start.

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This Radio Gets Pour Reception

When was the last time you poured water onto your radio to turn it on?

Designed collaboratively by [Tore Knudsen], [Simone Okholm Hansen] and [Victor Permild], Pour Reception seeks to challenge what constitutes an interface, and how elements of play can create a new experience for a relatively everyday object.

Lacking buttons or knobs of any kind, Pour Reception appears an inert acrylic box with two glasses resting on top. A detachable instruction card cues the need for water, and pouring some into the glasses wakes the radio.

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