Radio direction finding is one of those things that most Hackaday readers are likely to be familiar with at least on a conceptual level, but probably without much first-hand experience. After all it’s not everyday that you need to track down a rogue signal, let alone have access to the infrastructure necessary to triangulate its position. But thanks to the wonders of the Internet, at least the latter excuse is now a bit less valid.
The RTL-SDR Blog has run a very interesting article wherein they describe how the global network of Internet-connected KiwiSDR radios can be used for worldwide radio direction finding. If you’ve got a target in mind, and the time to fiddle around with the web-based SDR user interface, you now have access to the kind of technology that’s usually reserved for world superpowers. Indeed, the blog post claims this is the first time such capability has been put in the hands of the unwashed masses. Let’s try not to mess this up.
To start with, you should have a rough idea of where the signal is originating from. It doesn’t have to be exact, but you want to at least know which country to look in. Then you pick one of the nearby public KiwiSDR stations and tune the frequency you’re after. Repeat the process for a few more stations. In theory the more stations you have the better, but technically three should be enough to get you pretty close.
With your receiving stations selected, the system will then start Time Difference of Arrival (TDoA) sampling. This technique compares the time the signal arrives at each station in relation to the KiwiSDR’s GPS synchronized clock. With enough of this data from multiple stations, it can estimate the origin of the signal based on how long it takes to reach different parts of the globe.
It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty impressive for a community run project. The blog post goes on to give examples of both known and unknown signals they were able to triangulate with surprising accuracy: from the US Navy’s VLF submarine transmitter in Seattle, Washington to the mysterious “Buzzer” number station hidden somewhere in Russia.
RF design isn’t always easy, especially at higher frequencies. Despite improvements in simulation tools, there’s still no substitute for prototyping and trying out different things. That wasn’t so bad when that meant nailing some nails in a piece of wood and wiring up discrete components. But at today’s microwave frequencies and with today’s IC packaging that simply doesn’t work. Solving this problem is what drives a company called X-Microwave. They have a standard grid pattern PCB for a wide range of RF circuits and accessories to tie them all together. Probably the best way to get a feel for the system is to watch the simple video below. There’s also a free simulator tool worth taking note of that you’ll see in a bit.
Before you get too excited, we’ll warn you that while this stuff is cheap if you need it, it isn’t an impulse buy. The baseboards and probes (the connectors) run from $150 to $300. You can get kits, too, but a bare-bones two-port system is going to start at about $550, which is about $100 off the component parts and includes some extras. Then you need less expensive parts to make the boxes around things if you need them. Oh. Then you also need the PCBs which are not cheap, either. Their prices vary widely as you’d expect, but — for example — we saw amplifiers as low as $80 and as high as nearly $1000. So a complete system could get pretty pricey.
A bandpass allows a certain electrical signal to pass while filtering out undesirable frequencies. In a speaker bandpass, the mid-range speaker doesn’t receive tones meant for the tweeter or woofer. Most of the time, this filtering is done with capacitors to remove low frequencies and inductors to remove high frequencies. In radio, the same concept applies except the frequencies are usually much higher. [The Thought Emporium] is concerned with signals above 300MHz and in this range, a unique type of filter becomes an option. The microstrip filter ignores the typical installation of passive components and uses the copper planes of an unetched circuit board as the elements.
A nice analogy is drawn in the video, which can also be seen after the break, where the copper shapes are compared to the music tuning forks they resemble. The elegance of these filters is their simplicity, repeatability, and reproducability. In the video, they are formed on a CNC mill but any reliable PCB manufacturing process should yield beautiful results. At the size these are made, it would be possible to fit these filters on a business card or a conference badge.
Unless you live in a cave, you’ve probably heard a little about the thirteen people — mostly children — trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand. What you may have missed, though, is the hacker/ham radio connection. The British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC) was asked for their expert help. [Rick Stanton], [John Volanthen] and [Rob Harper] answered the call. They were equipped with HeyPhones. The HeyPhone is a 17-year-old design from [John Hey, G3TDZ]. Sadly, [G3TDZ] is now a silent key (ham radio parlance for deceased) so he didn’t get to see his design play a role in this high-profile rescue, although it has apparently been a part of many others in the past.
The HeyPhone is actually considered obsolete but is still in service with some teams. The radio uses USB (upper sideband, not universal serial bus) at 87 kHz. The low frequency can penetrate deep into the ground using either induction loop antennas like the older Molephone, or — more commonly — with electrodes injecting RF energy directly into the ground.
We really like when a vendor finds a great book on a topic — probably one they care about — and makes it available for free. Analog Devices does this regularly and one you should probably have a look at is Software Defined Radio for Engineers. The book goes for $100 or so on Amazon, and while a digital copy has pluses and minuses, it is hard to beat the $0 price.
The book by [Travis F. Collins], [Robin Getz], [Di Pu], and [Alexander M. Wyglinski] covers a range of topics in 11 chapters. There’s also a website with more information including video lectures and projects forthcoming that appear to use the Pluto SDR. We have a Pluto and have been meaning to write more about it including the hack to make it think it has a better RF chip inside. The hack may not result in meeting all the device specs, but it does work to increase the frequency range and bandwidth. However, the book isn’t tied to a specific piece of hardware.
Do you need a bias tee? If you want to put a DC voltage on top of an RF signal, chances are that you do. But what exactly are bias tees, and how do they work?
If that’s your question, [W2AEW] has an answer for you with this informative video on the basics of bias tees. A bias tee allows a DC bias to be laid over an RF signal, and while that sounds like a simple job, theory and practice often deviate in the RF world. The simplest bias tee would have a capacitor in series with the RF input and output to pass AC but block DC from getting out the input, and a DC input with a series inductance to prevent RF from getting into the DC circuit. Practical circuits are slightly more complicated, and [W2AEW] covers all you need to know about how real-world bias tees are engineered. He also gives some use cases for bias tees, from sending DC signals up a feed line to control an antenna tuner or rotator to adding a DC bias to a high-speed serial line.
We’re sure all radio amateurs must have encountered the problem faced by [Alexandre Grimberg PY1AHD] frequently enough that they nod their heads sagely. There you are, relaxing in the sun on the lounger next to the crystal-blue pool, and you fancy working a bit of DX. But the sheer horror of it all, a tower, rotator, and HF Yagi would ruin the aesthetic, so what can be done?
[Alexandre]’s solution is simple and elegant: conceal a circular magnetic loop antenna beneath the rim of a circular plastic poolside table. Construction is the usual copper pipe with a co-axial coupling loop and a large air-gapped variable capacitor, and tuning comes via a long plastic rod that emerges as a discreet knob on the opposite side of the table. It has a 10 MHz to 30 MHz bandwidth, and should provide a decent antenna for such a small space. We can’t help some concern about how easy to access that capacitor is, on these antennas there is induced a surprisingly large RF voltage across its vanes, and anyone unwary enough to sit at the table to enjoy a poolside drink might suffer a nasty RF burn to the knee. Perhaps we’d go for a remotely tuned model instead, for this reason.