Choosing Cell Modems: The Drama Queen of Hardware Design

So you went to a tradeshow and heard about this cool new idea called the Internet Of Things; now it’s time to build an IoT product of your own. You know that to be IoT, your Widget D’lux® has to have a network connection but which to choose?

You could use WiFi or Bluetooth but that would be gauche. Maybe LoRaWAN? All the cool kids are using LoRa for medium or long range wireless these days, but that still requires a base station and Widget D’lux® will be a worldwide phenomenon. Or at least a phenomenon past your bedroom walls. And you know how much user’s hate setting things up. So a cell modem it is! But what do you have to do to legally include one in your product? Well that’s a little complicated.

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Buy A Baofeng While You Still Can? FCC Scowls at Unauthorized Frequency Transmitters

There was a time when a handheld radio transceiver was an object of wonder, and a significant item for any radio amateur to own. A few hundred dollars secured you an FM walkie-talkie through which you could chat on your local repeater, and mobile radio was a big draw for new hams. Thirty years later FM mobile operation may be a bit less popular, but thanks to Chinese manufacturing the barrier to entry is lower than it has ever been. With extremely basic handheld radios starting at around ten dollars and a capable dual-bander being yours for somewhere over twice that, most licencees will now own a Baofeng UV5 or similar radio.

The FCC though are not entirely happy with these radios, and QRZ Now are reporting that the FCC has issued an advisory prohibiting the import or sale of devices that do not comply with their rules. In particular they are talking about devices that can transmit on unauthorised frequencies, and ones that are capable of transmission bandwidths greater than 12.5 kHz.

We’ve reported before on the shortcomings of some of these radios, but strangely this news doesn’t concern itself with their spurious emissions. We’re guessing that radio amateurs are not the problem here, and the availability of cheap transceivers has meant that the general public are using them for personal communication without a full appreciation of what frequencies they may be using. It’s traditional and normal for radio amateurs to use devices capable of transmitting out-of-band, but with a licence to lose should they do that they are also a lot more careful about their RF emissions.

Read the FCC statement and you’ll learn they are not trying to restrict the sale of ham gear. However, they are insisting that imported radios that can transmit on other frequencies must be certified. Apparently, opponents of these radios claim about 1 million units a year show up in the US, so this is a big business. The Bureau warns that fines can be as high as $19,639 per day for continued marketing and up to $147,290 — we have no idea how they arrive at those odd numbers.

So if you’re an American who hasn’t already got a Baofeng or similar, you might be well advised to pick one up while you still can.

UV5-R image via PE1RQM

FCC Filing Reveals Tasty Hardware McSecrets

If you’ve visited a McDonald’s recently, you might have noticed something of a tonal shift. Rather than relying on angsty human teenagers to take customer orders, an increasing number of McDonald’s locations are now using self-serve kiosks. You walk up, enter your order on a giant touch screen, and then take an electronic marker with you to an open table. In mere minutes your tray of nutritious delicious cheap food is brought to you by… well that’s still probably going to be an angsty teenager.

Thanks to a recent FCC filing pointed out to us by an anonymous tipster, we now know what kind of tech Ronald has packed into the electronic table markers (referred to as “tents” in McDonald’s parlance). It turns out they are Bluetooth Low Energy beacons powered by the Nordic nRF52832 chipset, and include some unexpected features such as an accelerometer to detect falls.

The Nordic nRF52832 features a 32-bit ARM Cortex M4F processor at 64 MHz with 512 KB flash and 64 KB SRAM. Quite a bit of punch for a table marker. Incidentally, this is the same chip used in the Adafruit Feather nRF52 Pro, so there’s already an easily obtainable development toolchain.

A image of the backside of the PCB shows a wealth of labeled test points, and we imagine figuring out how to get one of these table markers doing your own bidding wouldn’t be too difficult. Not that we condone you swiping one of these things along with your Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Though we are curious to know just why they need so much hardware to indicate which table to take a particular order to; it seems the number printed on the body of the device would be enough to do that.

This isn’t the first time we’ve taken a peek behind the Golden Arches. From reverse engineering their famous fries to hacking the toys they give out with Happy Meals, there’s more to do at the local McDonald’s than get thrown out of the ball pit again.

FCC Fines Drone FPV Maker for Using Radio Spectrum

If you listen to the radio bands in the United States, you might wonder if anyone at the FCC is paying attention, or if they are too busy selling spectrum and regulating the Internet. Apparently however, they are watching some things. The commission just levied a $180,000 fine on a company in Florida for selling audio/visual transmitters that use the ham bands as well as other frequencies.

The FCC charged that Lumenier Holdco LLC (formerly known as FPV Manuals LLC) was marketing uncertified transmitters some of which exceeded the 1-W power limit for ham transmitters used on model craft.

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Radio Apocalypse: The Emergency Broadcast System

Some sounds are capable of evoking instant terror. It might be the shriek of a mountain lion, or a sudden clap of thunder. Whatever your trigger sound, it instantly stimulates something deep in the lizard brain that says: get ready, danger is at hand.

For my part, you can’t get much scarier than the instantly recognizable two-tone alert signal (audio link warning) from the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). For anyone who grew up watching TV in the 60s and 70s in the US, it was something you heard on at least a weekly basis, with that awful tone followed by a grave announcement that “the broadcasters of your area, in voluntary cooperation with the FCC and other authorities, have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency.” It was a constant reminder that white-hot death could rain from the sky at any moment, and the idea that the last thing you may ever hear was that tone was sickening.

While I no longer have a five-year-old’s response to that sound, it’s still a powerful reminder of a scary time. And the fact that it’s still in use today, at least partially, seems like a good reason to look at the EBS in a little more depth, and find out the story behind the soundtrack of the end of the world.

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RF Noise Floor Concerns From Both Sides Of The Atlantic

Our feed is full of stories about the RF noise floor today, and with good reason. The ARRL reports on the International Amateur Radio Union Region 1 president, [Don Beattie, G3BJ] warning that in densely populated parts of Europe there is a danger that parts of the RF spectrum have become so swamped with noise as to be rendered unusable, while on the other side of the Atlantic we have RadioWorld reporting on similar problems facing AM broadcasting in the USA.

At issue are the usual suspects, interference from poorly shielded or suppressed domestic electronic devices, VDSL broadband, power-over-Ethernet, solar and wind power systems, and a host of other RF-spewing electronics. The combined emissions from all these sources have raised the noise level at some frequencies to the point at which it conceals all but the strongest signals. Any radio amateur will tell you that a station in a rural location will be electrically much quieter than one in a city, it seems that this effect has now reached a crescendo.

In the RadioWorld article, the author [Tom F. King] and his collaborator [Jack Sellmeyer] detail a series of tests they performed on a selection of lighting products from a quality brand, bought at a local Home Depot store. They were gathering data for a submission to the FCC enquiry on the noise floor issue we reported on last year. What they found was unsurprising, significant emissions from all the products they tested. They make some stiff recommendations to the FCC and other bodies concerned with radio spectrum to get tough with offending devices, to stay on top of future developments, and for operators of AM stations to pursue sources of interference.

It could be that there is so much equipment contributing to the noise floor that this battle is lost, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Anyone who has had to prepare a product to pass a properly carried out EMC test will tell you that the requirements are stringent, and it is thus obvious that many manufacturers are shipping products unworthy of the certification they display. It is to be hoped that the authorities will begin to take it seriously before it becomes an order of magnitude worse.

Compliance label image, Moppet65535 [CC BY-SA 3.0].

The ARRL Raises A Stink About Illegal FPV Transmitters

We have all been beneficiaries of the boom in availability of cheap imported electronics over the last decade. It is difficult to convey to someone under a certain age the step change in availability of parts and modules that has come about as a result of both the growth of Chinese manufacturing and Internet sales that allow us direct access to sellers we would once only have found through a lengthy flight and an intractable language barrier.

So being able to buy an ESP8266 module or an OLED display for relative pennies is good news, but there is a downside to this free-for-all. Not all the products on offer are manufactured to legal standards wherever in the world we as customers might be, and not all of them are safe to use. We’ve all seen teardowns of lethal iPhone charger knock-offs, but this week the ARRL has highlighted an illegal import that could take being dangerous to a whole new level as well as bring an already beleaguered section of our community to a new low.

The products the radio amateurs are concerned about are video transmitters that work in the 1.2GHz band. These are sold for use with FPV cameras on multirotors, popularly referred to as drones, and are also being described as amateur radio products though their amateur radio application is minimal. The ARRL go into detail in their official complaint (PDF) about how these devices’ channels sit squarely over the frequencies used by GLONASS positioning systems, and most seriously, the frequencies used by the aircraft transponders on which the safety of our air traffic control system relies.

The multirotor community is the unfortunate recipient of a lot of bad press, most of which is arguably undeserved and the result of ignorant mass media reporting. We’ve written on this subject in the past, and reported on some of the proposals from governments which do not sound good for the enthusiast. It is thus a huge concern that products like those the ARRL is highlighting could result in interference with air traffic, this is exactly not the association that multirotor fliers need in a hostile environment.

The ARRL complaint highlights a particular model with a 5W output, which is easily high enough to cause significant interference. It is however just one of many similar products, which a very straightforward search on the likes of AliExpress or eBay will find on sale for prices well under $100. So if you are concerned with multirotors we’d urge you to ensure that the FPV transmitters you or your friends use are within the legal frequencies and power levels. We’re sure none of you would want an incident involving a manned aircraft on your conscience, nor would you relish the prospect of the encounter with law enforcement that would inevitably follow.

In the past we’ve taken a look at some of the fuss surrounding reported drone incidents, and brought you news of an Australian sausage lover in hot water for drone-based filming. It’s a hostile world out there, fly safe!