An FM Transceiver From An Unexpected Chip

The Si47xx series of integrated circuits from Silicon Labs is a fascinating series of consumer broadcast radio products, chips that apply SDR technologies to deliver a range of functions that were once significantly more complex, with minimal external components and RF design trickery.  [Kodera2t] was attracted to one of them, the Si4720, which boasts the unusual function of containing both a receiver and a transmitter for the FM broadcast band and is aimed at mobile phones and similar devices that send audio to an FM car radio. The result is a PCB with a complete transceiver controlled by an ATmega328 and sporting an OLED display, and an interesting introduction to these devices.

The Si4720 internal block diagram, from its data sheet.
The Si4720 internal block diagram, from its data sheet.

A look at the block diagram from the Si4720 reveals why it and its siblings are such intriguing devices. On-chip is an SDR complete in all respects including an antenna, which might set the radio enthusiasts among the Hackaday readership salivating were it not that the onboard DSP is not reprogrammable for any other purpose than the mode for which the chip is designed. The local oscillator also holds a disappointment, being limited only to the worldwide FM broadcast bands and not some of the more useful or interesting frequencies. There are however a host of other similar Silicon Labs receiver chips covering every conceivable broadcast band, so the experimenter at least has a good choice of receivers to work with.

If you need a small FM transmitter and have a cavalier attitude to spectral purity then it’s easy enough to use a Raspberry Pi or just build an FM bug. But this project opens up another option and gives a chance to experiment with a fascinating chip.

Filter your Pi and be a Responsible Pirate

At this point it’s pretty well-known that you can tack a long wire to the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO, install some software, and you’ve got yourself the worlds easiest pirate FM radio station. We say that it’s a “pirate” station because, despite being ridiculously easy to do, broadcasting on these frequencies without a license is illegal. Even if you had a license, the Raspberry Pi with a dangling bit of wire will be spewing out all kinds of unintentional noise, making it a no-go for any legitimate purposes.

Unfiltered output of Pi broadcasting on 107.3 MHz

In an effort to address that issue, [Naich] has written up a couple posts on his blog which not only discuss why the Pi is such a poor transmitter, but shows how you can build a filter to help improve the situation. You’ll still be a lawless pirate if you’re transmitting on FM stations with your Pi, but you won’t be a filthy lawless pirate.

In the first post, [Naich] shows us exactly what’s coming out of the wire antenna when the Pi is broadcasting some tunes on the default 107.3 MHz, and it ain’t pretty. The Pi is blasting out signals up and down the spectrum from 50 MHz to 800 MHz, and incredibly, these harmonics are in some cases stronger than the intentional broadcast. Definitely not an ideal transmitter.

[Naich] then goes on to show how you can build a DIY filter “hat” for the Pi that not only cuts down a lot of the undesirable chatter, but even boosts the intended signal a bit. The design is surprisingly simple, only costs a few bucks in components, and conveniently is powered directly from the Pi’s GPIO. It even gives you a proper antenna jack instead of a bare wire wound around a header pin.

We’ve seen plenty of projects utilizing the Raspberry Pi FM transmission hack, and while this mod still doesn’t make it perfect, it’s always nice to see an awesome hack made even better.

An Especially Tiny And Perfectly Formed FM Bug

It used to be something of an electronic rite of passage, the construction of an FM bug. Many of us will have taken a single RF transistor and a tiny coil of stiff wire, and with the help of a few passive components made an oscillator somewhere in the FM broadcast band. Connect up a microphone and you were a broadcaster, a prankster, and probably set upon a course towards a life in electronics. Back in the day such a bug might have been made from components robbed from a piece of scrap consumer gear such as a TV or VCR, and perhaps constructed spider-web style on a bit of tinplate. It wouldn’t have been stable and it certainly wouldn’t have been legal in many countries but the sense of achievement was huge.

As you might expect with a few decades of technological advancement, the science of FM bugs has moved with the times. Though you can still buy the single transistor bugs as kits there is a whole range of fancy chips designed for MP3 players that provide stable miniature transmitters with useful features such as stereo encoders. That’s not to say there isn’t scope for an updated simple bug too though, and here [James] delivers the goods with his tiny FM transmitter.

Gone is the transistor, and in its place is a MAX2606 voltage-controlled oscillator. The on-chip varicap and buffer provided by this device alleviate some of the stability issues suffered by the transistor circuits, and to improve performance further he’s added an AP2210 low-dropout regulator to catch any power-related drift. If it were ours we’d put in some kind of output network to use both sides of the differential output, but his single-ended solution at least offers simplicity. The whole is put on a board so tiny as to be dwarfed by a CR2032 cell, and we can see that a bug that size could provide hours of fun.

This may be a small and simple project, but it has found its way here for being an extremely well-executed one. It’s by no means the first FM bug we’ve shown you here, just a few are this one using scavenged SMD cellphone parts, or this more traditional circuit built on a piece of stripboard.

Build a Tiny (Unstable) Bugging Device

We don’t know who the [amgworkshop] wanted to listen in on, but they apparently went searching for a small FM wireless transmitter. There’s plenty of circuits around, but they wanted something smaller. The original circuit had a variable capacitor to tune the output frequency. The new design uses a fixed capacitor and a spring for an antenna. You can see the build steps in the video below, but don’t expect a lot of frequency stability or fidelity out of a single transistor transmitter.

The parts list is minimal. In addition to a coin cell holder (which serves as the construction base), you need a transistor, two resistors, three capacitors, a homemade inductor (very easy to make with some wire and a drill bit), and an electret microphone. Of course, you need a battery, too. The whole thing is potted with hot glue.

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ARM Board Transmits FM

There is more than a casual link between computer people and musicians. Computers have created music since 1961 when an IBM7094 sang the song Daisy Bell (later inspiring another computer, the HAL 9000, to do the same).

[Vinod.S] wanted to create music on an STM32F407 Discovery board, but he also wanted it to play on his FM radio. He did it, and his technique was surprising and straightforward. The key is that the ARM processor on the Discovery board uses an 8MHz crystal, but internally (using a phase-locked loop, or PLL) it produces a 100MHz system clock. This happens to be right in the middle of the FM radio band. Bringing that signal back out of the chip on a spare output pin gives you the FM carrier.

That’s simple, but a carrier all by itself isn’t sufficient. You need to FM modulate the carrier. [Vinod.S] did the music playback in the usual way and fed the analog signal via a resistor to the crystal. With some experimentation, he found a value that would pull the crystal frequency enough that when multiplied up to 100MHz, it would produce the desired amount of FM deviation. You can see a video of the whole thing in action, below.

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Swarm of Tiny Pirate Transmitters Gets the Message out in Syria

They say that the first casualty of war is the truth, and that’s probably only more the case in a civil war. When one side in a conflict controls the message, the other side is at a huge disadvantage. Technology can level the playing field, and in the case of the Syrian Civil War, a swarm of tiny Raspberry Pi transmitters is helping one side get their message out.

We won’t pretend to understand the complexities of this war, but it’s clear that the Syrian government controls broadcast media and access to the internet, and is using them for propaganda while denying the opposition access to the same. A decentralized medium can get the message out under these conditions, and that’s exactly what Pocket FM does. Built around a Raspberry Pi and a frequency-agile FM transmitter, a Pocket FM can take multiple audio feeds and transmit them out to a 5km radius. Small enough to be packed up and deployed quickly and able to be powered by batteries or solar panels, the pirate transmitters can be here one minute and gone the next, yielding a robust network resistant to takedown attempts.

The network built around Pocket FM in Syria is small but growing, and it appears to be making a difference in the conflict. We find the concept of a decentralized network intriguing and potentially empowering, at least in situations where the letter of the law regarding broadcasting is not a prime consideration. That’s where projects like Airchat seek to build an unsanctioned network. The same goes for Tweeting on the Amateur Radio Band in a project aptly named HamRadioTweets.

We wonder how a fleet of these Pi-based transmitters could aid in recovery from natural disasters?

[via r/amateurradio and TomHiggins]

FM 101 and Transmitter Build with Afroman

One of our favorite purveyors of electronics knowledge is at it again. This time, [Afroman] explains how frequency modulation works while building up a short-range FM transmitter on a board he has available at OSH Park.

The design is based on a MAX2606 voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) chip that can do 70-150MHz. [Afroman] sets it up to oscillate at about 100MHz using a 390nH inductor. He also put a potentiometer voltage divider on the 2606’s tuning pin. Voltage changes issued through the pot alter the transmitting frequency in small increments, making it easy to dial in a suitable channel for your broadcast. Add an electret mic and about a meter’s worth of solid-core wire and you have yourself an FM transmitter that is good for around 20 meters.

There are plenty of ways to build a small FM transmitter that allow for some experimentation and don’t involve placing SMD components. We covered a build last summer that uses a couple of 3904s and rides a 9V connector salvaged from a dead battery. The downside is that transistor-based transmitters tend to be less frequency-stable than a VCO chip.

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