This Mostly 3D-Printed Discone Antenna Is Ready For Broadband Duty

For hams and other radio enthusiasts, the best part of the hobby is often designing antennas. Part black magic, part hard science, and part engineering, antenna design is an art. And while the expression of that art often ends up boiling down to pieces of wire cut to the correct length, some antennas have a little more going on in the aesthetics department.

Take the discone antenna, for example. Originally designed as a broadband antenna to sprout from aircraft fuselages, the discone has found a niche with public service radio listeners. But with a disk stuck to the top of a cone, the antennas have been a little hard to homebrew, at least until [ByTechLab] released this mostly 3D-printed discone. A quick look at the finished product, resembling a sweater drying rack more than a disc on top of a cone, reveals that the two shapes can be approximated by individual elements instead of solid surfaces. This is the way most practical discones are built, and [ByTechLab]’s Thingiverse page has the files needed to print the parts needed to properly orient the elements, which are just 6-mm aluminum rods. The printed hub pieces sandwich a copper plate to tie the elements together electrically while providing a feedpoint for the antenna as well as a sturdy place to mount it outdoors. This differs quite a bit from the last 3D-printed discone we featured, which used the solid geometry and was geared more for indoor use.

Interested in other antenna designs? Who can blame you? Check out the theory behind the Yagi-Uda beam antenna, or how to turn junk into a WiFi dish antenna.


The Internet of Non-Electronic Things

The bill of materials for even the simplest IoT project is likely to include some kind of microcontroller with some kind of wireless module. But could the BOM for a useful IoT thing someday list only a single item? Quite possibly, if these electronics-less 3D-printed IoT devices are any indication.

While you may think that the silicon-free devices described in a paper (PDF link) by University of Washington students [Vikram Iyer] and [Justin Chan] stand no chance of getting online, they’ve actually built an array of useful IoT things, including an Amazon Dash-like button. The key to their system is backscatter, which modulates incident RF waves to encode data for a receiver. Some of the backscatter systems we’ve featured include a soil sensor network using commercial FM broadcasts and hybrid printable sensors using LoRa as the carrier. But both of these require at least some electronics, and consequently some kind of power. [Chan] and [Iyer] used conductive filament to print antennas that can be mechanically switched by rotating gears. Data can be encoded by the speed of the alternating reflection and absorption of the incident WiFi signals, or cams can encode data for buttons and similar widgets.

It’s a surprisingly simple system, and although the devices shown might need some mechanical tune-ups, the proof of concept has a lot of potential. Flowmeters, level sensors, alarm systems — what kind of sensors would you print? Sound off below.

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Slinky Walks Down Stairs and Picks up 80m Band

Originally intended as a way to stabilize sensitive instruments on ships during World War II, the Slinky is quite simply a helical spring with an unusually good sales pitch. But as millions of children have found out since the 1940’s, once you roll your Slinky down the stairs a few times, you’ve basically hit the wall in terms of entertainment value. So what if we told you there was yet another use for this classic toy that was also fun for a girl and a boy?

As it turns out, a cheap expandable metal coil just so happens to make for a pretty good antenna if you hook it up right. [Blake Hughes] recently took on this project and provided some detailed pictures and information for anyone else looking to hook a couple of Slinkies to their radio. [Blake] reports excellent results when paired to his RTL-SDR setup, but of course this will work with whatever kind of gear you might be using at these frequencies.

Before anyone gets out the pitchforks, admittedly this isn’t exactly a new idea. There are a few other write-ups online about people using a Slinky as a cheap antenna, such as this detailed analysis from a few years ago by [Frank Dörenberg]. There’s even rumors that soldiers used a Slinky from back home as a makeshift antenna during the Vietnam War. So this is something of an old school ham trick revived for the new generation of SDR enthusiasts.

Anyway, the setup is pretty simple. You simply solder the RF jack of your choice to two stretched out Slinkies: one to the center of the jack and one to outside. Then run a rope through them and stretch them out in opposite directions. The rope is required because the Slinky isn’t going to be strong enough when expanded to keep from laying on the ground.

One thing to keep in mind with a Slinky antenna is that these things are not exactly rated for outside use. Without some kind of treatment (like a spray on acrylic lacquer) , they’ll quickly corrode and fail. Though a better idea might simply to be to think of this as a temporary antenna that you put away when you’re done with. Thanks to the fact that the Slinky doesn’t get deformed even when stretching it out to maximum length, that’s relatively easy to accomplish.

If you’re looking for a good RTL-SDR to go along with your new Slinky antenna, check out this roundup of some of the options that are on the market as of 2017. You’ll probably need an upconverter to get down to the 80m band, so you might as well build that while you’re at it.

[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?

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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]

Old Rabbit Ears Optimized for Weather Satellite Downlink

Communicating with a satellite seems like something that should take a lot of equipment. A fancy antenna and racks full of receivers, filters, and amplifiers would seem to be the entry-level suite of gear. But listening to a weather satellite with an old pair of rabbit ears and an SDR dongle? That’s a thing too.

There was a time when a pair of rabbit ears accompanied every new TV. Those days are gone, but [Thomas Cholakov (N1SPY)] managed to find one of the old TV dipoles in his garage, complete with 300-ohm twinlead and spade connectors. He put it to work listening to a NOAA weather satellite on 137 MHz by configuring it in a horizontal V-dipole arrangement. The antenna legs are spread about 120° apart and adjusted to about 20.5 inches (52 cm) length each. The length makes the antenna resonant at the right frequency, the vee shape makes the radiation pattern nearly circular, and the horizontal polarization excludes signals from the nearby FM broadcast band and directs the pattern skyward. [Thomas] doesn’t mention how he matched the antenna’s impedance to the SDR, but there appears to be some sort of balun in the video below. The satellite signal is decoded and displayed in real time with surprisingly good results.

Itching to listen to satellites but don’t have any rabbit ears? No problem — just go find a cooking pot and get to it.

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Hacking a NRF24L01 Radio for Longer Range

[RonM9] wasn’t happy with his 50 foot range on his NRF24L01 project. The RF had to cut through four walls, but with the stock modules, the signal was petering out after two or three walls.  A reasonably simple external dipole antenna managed to increase the range enough to do the job.

[RonM9’s] instructions show where to cut away the existing PCB antenna and empirically tune the 24 gauge wire for best performance. He even includes an Arduino-based test rig so you can perform your own testing if you want.

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