Behind the Scenes at a Pair of Cell Sites

Those who fancy themselves as infrastructure nerds find cell sites fascinating. They’re outposts of infrastructure wedged into almost any place that can provide enough elevation to cover whatever gap might exist in a carrier’s coverage map. But they’re usually locked behind imposing doors and fences with signs warning of serious penalty for unauthorized access, and so we usually have to settle for admiring them from afar.

Some folks, like [Mike Fisher] aka [MrMobile], have connections, though, and get to take an up close and personal tour of a couple of cell sites. And while the video below is far from detailed enough to truly satisfy most of the Hackaday crowd, it’s enough to whet the appetite and show off a little of what goes into building out a modern cell site. [Mike] somehow got AT&T to take him up to a cell site mounted in the belfry and steeple of the 178-year old Unitarian Church in Duxbury, Massachusetts. He got to poke around everything from the equipment shack with its fiber backhaul gear and backup power supplies to the fiberglass radome shaped to look like the original steeple that now houses the antennas.

Next he drove up to Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest point in the northeast US and home to a lot of wireless infrastructure. Known for having some of the worst weather in the world and with a recent low of -36°F (-38°C) to prove it, Mount Washington is brutal on infrastructure, to which the tattered condition of the microwave backhaul radomes attests.

We appreciate the effort that went into this video, but again, [Mike] leaves us wanting more details. Luckily, we’ve got an article that does just that.

Continue reading “Behind the Scenes at a Pair of Cell Sites”

Tapping into a Ham Radio’s Potential with SDRPlay

Software-defined radios are great tools for the amateur radio operator, allowing visualization of large swaths of spectrum and letting hams quickly home in on faint signals with the click of a mouse. High-end ham radios often have this function built in, but by tapping into the RF stage of a transceiver with an SDR, even budget-conscious hams can enjoy high-end features.

With both a rugged and reliable Yaesu FT-450D and the versatile SDRPlay in his shack, UK ham [Dave (G7IYK)] looked for the best way to link the two devices. Using two separate antennas was possible but inelegant, and switching the RF path between the two devices seemed clumsy. So he settled on tapping into the RF stage of the transceiver with a high-impedance low-noise amplifier (LNA) and feeding the output to the SDRPlay. The simple LNA was built on a milled PCB. A little sleuthing with the Yaesu manual — ham radio gear almost always includes schematics — led him to the right tap point in the RF path, just before the bandpass filter network. This lets the SDRPlay see the signal before the IF stage. He also identified likely points to source power for the LNA only when the radio is not transmitting. With the LNA inside the radio and the SDRPlay outside, he now has a waterfall display and thanks to Omni-Rig remote control software, he can tune the Yaesu at the click of a mouse.

If you need to learn more about SDRPlay, [Al Williams]’ guide to GNU Radio and SDRPlay is a great place to start.

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Measuring HF Signal Speeds In A DIY Coaxial Collinear Antenna

Air Traffic Controllers use Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) as an alternative to secondary radar to track aircraft. The ADS-B is transmitted by the aircraft and contains information such as GPS position, pressure, altitude, and callsign among other things at a 1090 MHz frequency, which can be decoded using any of a number of software tools.

[Mike Field] lives near an airport, and decided he wanted to peek into the tracking signals for fun. He turned to an RTL-based TV Dongle. Since the stock antenna was not cutting it, he decided to make one specifically for the 1090 MHz signal. His design is based on Coaxial Collinear Antenna for ADS-B Receiver by [Dusan Balara] which uses pieces of the coaxial cable cut to the right length. There are a number of calculations involved in determining the size of the cable, however, the hack in this design is the way he uses a USB based oscilloscope to measure the speed of RF waves inside the line in question.

We reached out to [Mike], and this is what he had to say. The idea is to use a cable of half the size of the wavelength which is calculated as

lambda = c/f

For the best reception, the sections of coax need to be half a wavelength long – but the wavelength of the signal inside the coax, which is shorter than the wavelength in free space. As this was a generic cable he had no idea of the dielectric that separates the core from the shield, so the ‘velocity factor’ could be anything depending on the exact composition.

To determine the speed of the signal in the cable, his approach omits the more expensive equipment. A length of coax acts as a stub – any energy that is sent into the cable reaches the far end of the transmission line and is then reflected back to the source. When the cable is 1/4th of the wavelength long, the reflected signal arrives back at the start of the signal 180 degrees out of phase – in a perfect world it would completely null out the input signal. Continue reading “Measuring HF Signal Speeds In A DIY Coaxial Collinear Antenna”

Start Tracking Satellites with This Low-Cost Azimuth-Elevation Positioner

Tracking satellites and the ISS is pretty easy. All you really need is an SDR dongle or a handheld transceiver, a simple homebrew antenna, and a clear view of the sky. Point the antenna at the passing satellite and you’re ready to listen, or if you’re a licensed amateur, talk. But the tedious bit is the pointing. Standing in a field or on top of a tall building waving an antenna around gets tiring, and unless you’re looking for a good arm workout, limits the size of your antenna. Which is where this two-axis antenna positioner could come in handy.

While not quite up to the job it was originally intended for — positioning a 1.2-meter dish antenna — [Manuel] did manage to create a pretty capable azimuth-elevation positioner for lightweight antennas. What’s more, he did it on the cheap — only about €150. His design seemed like it was going in the right direction, with a sturdy aluminum extrusion frame and NEMA23 steppers. But the 3D-printed parts turned out to be the Achille’s heel. At the 1:40 mark in the video below (in German with English subtitles), the hefty dish antenna is putting way too much torque on the bearings, delaminating the bearing mount. But with a slender carbon-fiber Yagi, the positioner shines. The Arduino running the motion control talks GS232, so it can get tracking data directly from the web to control the antenna in real time.

Here’s hoping [Manuel] solves some of the mechanical issues with his build. Maybe he can check out this hefty dish positioner for weather satellite tracking for inspiration.

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3D Printed WiFi Reflectors Custom Designed for the Building

Are you a wizard at antenna design? Chances are you’ve never even given it a try, but this tool could change that. Most home-made WiFi signal boosting antenna plans around the Internet share one feature: they are directional antennas or reflectors. But WiPrint is a tool for designing custom WiFi reflectors that map to the specific application.

If we want to increase the signal strength in two or three different locations the traditional solution is an omnidirectional antenna. The problem is, although a good omnidirectional antenna increases the signal power in those locations we want, it also increases the signal power where we don’t want.

A team of researchers led by Dartmouth College created WiPrint to allow users to input a floor plan, the location of the WiFi access point and a desired signal map into the system. The software uses an optimization algorithm to produce a custom reflector shape for that floor plan. The reflector can then be fabricated and placed next to the access point antenna to reflect and concentrate the signal in the specified area, while decreasing signal strength outside of it. The best thing is: you can actually 3D print the reflector and just glue tin foil on it!

The results show that optimized reflectors can weaken or enhance signals in target areas by up to 10 or 6 dB, respectively, and resulting in throughput changes by up to -63.3% or 55.1%. That is not the only advantage, as the researchers point out:

Our approach provides four benefits. First, it provides strong physical security by limiting the physical reach of wireless signals, hence creating a virtual wall for wireless signals. Second, it relies on a low-cost ($35), reproducible 3D reflector, which can be easily replaced upon substantial changes in the environment or coverage requirement. Third, it offers an easily accessible and easy-to-configure solution to non-expert users. Users only need to specify coverage requirements and a coarse environment model, with which our system computes a reflector shape tailored to the built environment. Finally, it is applicable to commodity low-end Wi-Fi APs without directional or multiple antennas.

The sad part is that, for now, no software is available. The study and results have just been presented at ACM’s BuildSys 2017. It would be great to see something like this open-sourced. Meanwhile, this is further proof that [Brian Benchoff] knew what he was doing when he told you to use duct tape for superior WiFi range.

[Jeri] Builds a Magnetic Loop Antenna

Most new hams quickly learn that the high-frequency bands are where the action is, and getting on the air somewhere between 40- and 160-meters is the way to make those coveted globe-hopping contacts. Trouble is, the easiest antennas to build — horizontal center-fed dipoles — start to claim a lot of real estate at these wavelengths.

So hacker of note and dedicated amateur radio operator [Jeri Ellsworth (AI6TK)] has started a video series devoted to building a magnetic loop antenna for the 160- and 80-meter bands. The first video, included after the break, is an overview of the rationale behind a magnetic loop. It’s not just the length of the dipole that makes them difficult to deploy for these bands; as [Jeri] explains, propagation has a lot to do with dipole height too. [Jeri] covers most of the mechanical aspects of the antenna in the first installment; consuming a 50-foot coil of 3/4″ copper tubing means it won’t be a cheap build, but we’re really looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

We were sorry to hear that castAR, the augmented reality company that [Jeri] co-founded, shut its doors back in June. But if that means we get more great projects like this and guided tours of cool museums to boot, maybe [Jeri]’s loss is our gain?

Continue reading “[Jeri] Builds a Magnetic Loop Antenna”

Snazzy Balun Lets Ham Use Off-The-Shelf Coax

It’s a dilemma many hams face: it’s easy to find yourself with a big spool of RG-11 coax cable, usually after a big cable TV wiring project. It can be tempting to use it in antenna projects, but the characteristic impedance of RG-11 is 75 Ω, whereas the ham world is geared to 50 Ω. Not willing to waste a bounty of free coax, one ham built a custom 1:1 current balun for a 75 Ω dipole.

Converting between balanced and unbalanced signals is the job of a balun, and it’s where the device derives its name. For hams, baluns are particularly useful to connect a dipole antenna, which is naturally balanced, to an unbalanced coax feedline. The balun [NV2K] built is a bifilar 1:1 design, with two parallel wires wound onto a ferrite core. To tweak the characteristic impedance to the 75 Ω needed for his antenna and feedline, [NV2K] added short lengths of Teflon insulation to one of the conductors, which is as fussy a bit of work as we’ve seen in a while. We appreciate the careful winding of the choke and the care taken to make this both mechanically and electrically sound, and not letting that RG-11 go to waste is a plus.

With as much effort as hams put into antenna design, there’s a surprising dearth of Hackaday articles on the subject. We’ve talked a bit about the Yagi-Uda antenna, and we’ve showcased a cool magnetic loop antenna, but there’s precious little about the humble dipole.

[via r/amateurradio]