Raspberry Pi Hat Adds SDR With High Speed Memory Access

An SDR add-on for the Raspberry Pi isn’t a new idea, but the open source cariboulite project looks like a great entry into the field. Even if you aren’t interested in radio, you might find the project’s use of a special high-bandwidth memory interface to the Pi interesting.

The interface in question is the poorly-documented SMI or Secondary Memory Interface. [Caribou Labs] helpfully provides links to others that did the work to figure out the interface along with code and a white paper. The result? Depending on the Pi, the SDR can exchange data at up to 500 Mbps with the processor. The SDR actually uses less than that, at about 128 Mbps. Still, it would be hard to ship that much data across using conventional means.

On the radio side, the SDR covers 389.5 to 510 MHz and 779 to 1,020 MHz. There’s also a wide tuning channel from 30 MHz to 6 GHz, with some exclusions. The board can transmit at about 14 dBm, depending on frequency and the receive noise figure is under 4.5 dB for the lower bands and less than 8 dB above 3,500 MHz. Of course, some Pis already have a radio, but not with this kind of capability. We’ve also seen SMI used to drive many LEDs.

Vacuum Tube Magic Comes To The 741

Some of you may remember a recent project that featured on these pages, a 555 timer reproduced using vacuum tubes. Its creator [Usagi Electric] was left at loose ends while waiting for a fresh PCB revision of the 555 to be delivered, so set about creating a new vacuum tube model of a popular chip, this time the ubiquitous 741 op-amp. (Video, embedded below.)

The circuit is fairly straightforward, using six small pentodes. The first two are  a long-tailed pair as might be expected, followed by two gain stages, then a final gain stage feeding a cathode follower with feedback. It’s neatly built on a PCB with IC-style “pins” made from more PCB material, then put in a huge replication of an IC socket on a wooden baseboard.

The result is an op-amp, but not necessarily a good one. He looks at the AC performance instead of the DC even though it’s a fully DC-coupled circuit, and finds that while it performs as expected in a classic op-amp circuit it still differs from the ideal at higher gain. The frequency response is poor too, something he rectifies by replacing the feedback capacitor with a smaller value. Sadly he doesn’t look at its common mode performance, though we’d expect that without close matching of the tubes it might leave something to be desired.

It’s obvious that this project would never be selected as an op-amp given the quality of even the cheapest silicon op-amp in comparison. But its value is in a novelty, a talking point, and maybe a chance to learn about op-amps. For that, we like it.

We covered the vacuum tube 555 when details of it emerged, but if op-amps are your bag we’ve looked at a simple one very closely indeed.

Continue reading “Vacuum Tube Magic Comes To The 741”

APRS Implemented At Low Cost And Small Size

Before smartphones and Internet of Things devices were widely distributed, the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) was the way to send digital information out wirelessly from remote locations. In use since the 80s, it now has an almost hipster “wireless data before it was cool” vibe, complete with plenty of people who use it because it’s interesting, and plenty of others who still need the unique functionality it offers even when compared to more modern wireless data transmission methods. One of those is [Tyler] who shows us how to build an APRS system for a minimum of cost and size.

[Tyler]’s build is called Arrow and operates on the popular 2 metre ham radio band. It’s a Terminal Node Controller (TNC), a sort of ham radio modem, built around an ESP32. The ESP32 handles both the signal processing for the data and also uses its Bluetooth capability to pair to an Android app called APRSDroid. The entire module is only slightly larger than the 18650 battery that powers it, and it can be paired with a computer to send and receive any digital data that you wish using this module as a plug-and-play transceiver.

While the build is still has a few limitations that [Tyler] notes, he hopes that the project will be a way to modernize the APRS protocol using methods for radio transmission that have been improved upon since APRS was first implemented. It should be able to interface easily into any existing ham radio setup, although even small balloon-lofted radio stations can make excellent use of APRS without any extra equipment. Don’t forget that you need a license to operate these in most places, though!

Balloon Antenna Doesn’t Need A Tower

What do you do with floral wire and balloons from Dollar Tree? If you are [Ham Radio Crash Course], you make a ham radio antenna. Floral wire is conductive, and using one piece as a literal sky hook and the other as a ground wire, it should do something. He did use, as you might expect, a tuner to match the random wire length.

The first attempt had too few balloons and too much wind. He eventually switched to a non-dollar store helium tank. That balloon inflates to about 36 inches and appears to have plenty of lift. It looks like by the end he was using two of them.

Continue reading “Balloon Antenna Doesn’t Need A Tower”

Ham Radio Traffic Logger Using A Bug In Baofeng Electronics

A Baofeng radio is often one of the first purchases a new ham radio operator makes these days due to the decent features and low price tag. They are far from perfect, but with a bit of creative inspiration, it’s possible to make the quirks work in your favor. By taking advantage of a loud pop on the earphone outputs whenever the LCD backlight turns on, [WhiskeyTangoHotel] built a radio traffic counter using an ESP8266.

Whenever there is a transmission on one of the frequencies the radio is tuned to, the backlight turns on. Connecting the audio output to an oscilloscope, [WhiskeyTangoHotel] measured a 5V spike whenever this happens. Using a pair of diodes in series to drop the voltage to a safe level, the ESP8266 detects the voltage spike and updates a Google spreadsheet with the timestamp via IFTTT.

This gave [WhiskeyTangoHotel] empirical data on how much traffic passes through the local VHF repeater, but we wouldn’t blame them if the hack itself was the real motivator.

Of course, this would also be a perfect application for the RTL-SDR, which should allow you to do the above and much more, all in software. Add a bit of AI and you can even extract the call signs. The RTL-SDR is also a good tool for learning about RF modulation.

UV5-R image via PE1RQM

What Is Ultra Wideband?

If you’ve been following the world of mobile phone technology of late, you may be aware that Apple’s latest IPhones and AirTag locator tags bring something new to that platform. Ultra wideband radios are the new hotness when it comes to cellphones, so just what are they and what’s in it for those of us who experiment with these things?

An Apple AirTag being paired with an iPhone. Swisshashtag, CC BY-SA 4.0.
An Apple AirTag being paired with an iPhone. Swisshashtag, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Ultra wideband in this context refers to radio signals with a very high bandwidth of over 500 MHz, and a very low overall power density spread over that  spectrum. Transmissions are encoded not by modulation of discrete-frequency carriers as they would be in a conventional radio system, but by the emission of wideband pulses of RF energy across that bandwidth.  It can exist across the same unlicensed spectrum as narrower bandwidth channelised services, and that huge bandwidth gives it an extremely high short-range data transfer bandwidth capability. The chipsets used by consumer devices use a range of UWB channels between about 3.5 and 6.5 GHz, which in radio terms is an immense quantity of spectrum. Continue reading “What Is Ultra Wideband?”

QMESH: LoRa Mesh Networked Voice Communications

LoRa is great for sending short data packets over long ranges but is not normally suitable for voice communications. [Dan Fay] is looking to change this with QMesh, a synchronized, flooded mesh network protocol for ham radio applications.

In a flooded mesh network every node repeats every message it receives. This has the theoretical advantage of making the network self-healing if a single node stops working, but often just means that the nodes will interfere with each other. Thanks to some characteristics of LoRa, [Dan] is using several tricks to get around this packet collision problem. LoRa network can make use of the “capture effect”, which allows a receiver to differentiate between two packets if the power level difference is large enough. This is further improved by adding forward error correction and slightly changing the frequency and timing of the LoRa chirps. QMesh also implements TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) by splitting transmission into time slots, and only transmitting every third slot. This means it is operating on a 33% duty cycle, which is much higher than the 0.1%-10% allowed on license-free ISM-bands, which legally limits it to the ham bands.

On the hardware side, [Dan] has been using the STM32 NUCLEO-144 development boards with F4/L4/F7/H7 microcontrollers and a custom shield with a 1 W LoRa module and OLED screen. While [Dan] wants to eventually build handheld radios, he plans to first develop small FM repeaters that encode voice as codec2 and use QMesh as a backhaul. QMesh is still under development, but we would love to see the results of some long-range testing, and we are excited to see how it matures.

If your interested in a more basic LoRa-based human-to-human messaging system, take a look at Meshtastic. It’s been going very rapidly over the past year. To learn more about LoRa and other digital modulation schemes, check out the crash course we did with an SDR a while back.