Radar in Space: The Gemini Rendezvous Radar

In families with three kids, the middle child always seems to get the short end of the stick. The first child gets all the attention for reaching every milestone first, and the third child will forever be the baby of the family, and the middle child gets lost in-between. Something similar happened with the U.S. manned space program in the 60s. The Mercury program got massive attention when America finally got their efforts safely off the ground, and Apollo naturally seized all the attention by making good on President Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon.

In between Mercury and Apollo was NASA’s middle child, Project Gemini. Underappreciated at the time and even still today, Gemini was the necessary link between learning to get into orbit and figuring out how to fly to the Moon. Gemini was the program that taught NASA how to work in space, and where vital questions would be answered before the big dance of Apollo.

Chief among these questions were tackling the problems surrounding rendezvous between spacecraft. There were those who thought that flying two spacecraft whizzing around the Earth at 18,000 miles per hour wouldn’t work, and Gemini sought to prove them wrong. To achieve this, Gemini needed something no other spacecraft before had been equipped with: a space radar.

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Harley-Hardened Wire Helps High-Gain Antenna Hack

What does a Harley-Davidson motorcycle have to do with building antennas? Absolutely nothing, unless you happen to have one and need to work-harden copper wire to build a collinear antenna for LoRa.

We’ll explain. Never being one to settle, [Andreas Spiess] needed a better antenna for his LoRa experiments. Looking for high gain and an omnidirectional pattern, he bought a commercial colinear antenna, which is a wire with precisely spaced loops that acts like a stack of dipoles. Sadly, in a head-to-head test [Andreas] found that the commercial antenna was no better than lower gain antennas in terms of range, and so he decided to roll his own.

Copper wire is a great material for antennas since it can be easily formed without special tools and it solders like a champ. But the stuff you get at the home center is nowhere near stiff enough for a free-standing vertical whip. This is where the Harley came in: [Andreas] used his Hog to stretch out the 1.75-mm diameter (a little bigger than #14 AWG) copper wire. Not only did the work-hardening stiffen the wire, it reduced its diameter to the 1.4 mm needed for the antenna design. His vector network analyzer told him that ground-plane elements and a little fiddling with the loop diameter were needed to get the antenna to resonate at 868 MHz, but in the end it looks like the antenna is on track to deliver 5-dBi of gain.

Of course there are plenty of other ways to stretch out a wire — you could just stretch it out with hanging weights, or even with a go-kart motor-powered winch if you’re ambitious. But if you’ve got a bike like that, why not flaunt it?

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The Biggest Corner Antenna We’ve Ever Seen

Radio waves are received on antennas, for which when the signal in question comes over a long distance a big reflector is needed. When the reception distance is literally astronomical, the reflector has to be pretty darn big. [The Thought Emporium] wants to pick up signals from distant satellites, the moon, and hopefully a pulsar. On the scale of home-built amateur radio, this will be a monstrous antenna. The video also follows the break.

In hacker fashion, the project is built on a budget, so all the parts are direct from a hardware store, and the tools are already in your toolbox or hackerspace. Electrical conduit, chicken wire, PVC pipes, wood blocks, and screws make up most of the structure so put away your crazy links to Chinese distributors unless you need an SDR. The form of the antenna is the crucial thing, and the shape is three perpendicular panels as seen in the image and video. The construction in the video is just a suggestion, but it doesn’t involve welding, so that opens it to even more amateurs.

Even if you are not trying to receive a pulsar’s signature, we have hacks galore for radios and antennas.

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Bandpass Filters from the CNC Mill

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.

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Using An AI And WiFi To See Through Walls

It’s now possible to not only see people through walls but to see how they’re moving and if they’re walking, to tell who they are. We finally have the body scanner which Schwarzenegger walked behind in the original Total Recall movie.

Seeing through walls: real life, poses, skeletonsThis is the work of a group at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The seeing-through-the-wall part is done using an RF transmitter and receiving antennas, which isn’t very new. Our own [Gregory L. Charvat] built an impressive phased array radar in his garage which clearly showed movement of complex shapes behind a wall. What is new is the use of neural networks to better decipher what’s received on those antennas. The neural networks spit out pose estimations of where people’s heads, shoulders, elbows, and other body parts are, and a little further processing turns that into skeletal figures.

They evaluated its accuracy in a number of ways, all of which are detailed in their paper. The most interesting, or perhaps scariest way was to see if it could tell who the skeletal figures were by using the fact that each person walks with their own style. They first trained another neural network to recognize the styles of different people. They then pass the pose estimation output to this style-recognizing neural network and it correctly guessed the people with 83% accuracy both when they were visible and when they were behind walls. This means they not only have a good idea of what a person is doing, but also of who the person is.

Check out the video below to see some pretty impressive side-by-side comparisons of live action and skeletal versions doing all sorts of things under various conditions. It looks like the science fiction future in Total Recall has gotten one step closer. Now if we could just colonize Mars.

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A Cleverly Concealed Magnetic Loop Antenna

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.

[Alexandre] has many unusual loop projects under his belt, as well as producing commercial loops. Most interesting to us on his YouTube feed is this one with a capacitor formed from co-axial soft drink cans.

Thanks [Geekabit] for the tip.

Desktop Radio Telescope Images The WiFi Universe

It’s been a project filled with fits and starts, and it very nearly ended up as a “Fail of the Week” feature, but we’re happy to report that the [Thought Emporium]’s desktop WiFi radio telescope finally works. And it’s pretty darn cool.

If you’ve been following along with the build like we have, you’ll know that this stems from a previous, much larger radio telescope that [Justin] used to visualize the constellation of geosynchronous digital TV satellites. This time, he set his sights closer to home and built a system to visualize the 2.4-GHz WiFi band. A simple helical antenna rides on the stepper-driven azimuth-elevation scanner. A HackRF SDR and GNU Radio form the receiver, which just captures the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) value for each point as the antenna scans. The data is then massaged into colors representing the intensity of WiFi signals received and laid over an optical image of the scanned area. The first image clearly showed a couple of hotspots, including a previously unknown router. An outdoor scan revealed routers galore, although that took a little more wizardry to pull off.

The videos below recount the whole tale in detail; skip to part three for the payoff if you must, but at the cost of missing some valuable lessons and a few cool tips, like using flattened pieces of Schedule 40 pipe as a construction material. We hope to see more from the project soon, and wonder if this FPV racing drone tracker might offer some helpful hints for expansion.

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