CATS mobile transceiver in a 3d-printed case

CATS: A New Communication And Telemetry System

CATS is a new communication and telemetry standard intended to surpass the current Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) standard by leveraging modern, super-cheap Frequency Shift Keying (FSK) transceivers rather than standard FM units. The project is in the early stages, but as of this writing, there is a full open source software stack and reference hardware for both Raspberry Pi-based gateway devices and an STM32-based mobile device.

CATS packets are called ‘whiskers!’

From a radio perspective, CATS uses raw FSK rather than the inefficient AFSK used by APRS. A real killer for channel utilization is the PTT time; this is the dead time around a packet APRS requires for ‘keying up’ and ‘keying down.’ The CATS standard is aggressive with PTT timing, enabling the channel to get going on sending the data sooner.

Additionally, compared to APRS, the packet baud rate increases from 1200 baud to 9600 baud. Other key points are using LDPC encoding for forward error correction and data whitening (a useful PDF guide from Ti) to smooth over any burst errors.

One of the neat concepts of APRS is the APRS-IS (APRS Internet service). This enables amateur radio services to be connected over the Internet, vastly improving range. The CATS equivalent is called FELINET (if you’re not spotting all the ‘cat’ references by now, go and get another coffee). Together with the I-gate hardware, FELINET bridges the CATS radio side with the current APRS network. As FELINET expands to more than the current few dozen nodes, APRS services will no longer be required, and FELINET may well replace it. Interestingly, all software for FELINET, the APRS relay, and the I-Gate firmware are written in Rust. We told you learning Rust was going to be worth the effort!

On the reference hardware side of things, the CATS project has delivered a Raspberry Pi hat, which uses a 1 watt RF4463 transceiver and supporting passives. The design is about as simple as it can be. A mobile transceiver version uses an STM32 micro to drive the same RF4463 but with supporting power supplies intended to run from a typical automotive outlet. Both designs are complete KiCAD projects. Finally, once you’ve got some hardware in place and the software installed, you will want to be able to debug it. CATS has you covered with an RTL-SDR I-Gate module, giving you an independent packet log.

APRS is quite mature, and we’ve seen many hacks on these pages. Here’s an earlier APRS IGate build using a Raspberry Pi. Need to hook up your PC to a cheap Chinese transceiver? You need the all-in-one cable. As with many things amateur-radio-oriented, you can get playing cheaply.

FM Radio Is Discriminating

AM radios were easy to understand. The strength of the signal goes up and down, and the audio follows. FM radio is a little more difficult. [AllAmericanFiveRadio] has an old tube FM set and takes us on a tour of how the FM discriminator works. You can see the video below.

The first step is to look at the IF signal on the scope. It is hard to see, but the frequency is changing, and that’s the basis of modulation that the discriminator has to resolve.

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Pico-Sized Ham Radio

There are plenty of hobbies around with huge price tags, and ham radio can certainly be one of them. Experienced hams might have radios that cost thousands of dollars, with huge, steerable antennas on masts that can be similarly priced. But there’s also a side to the hobby that throws all of this out of the window in favor of the simplest, lowest-cost radios and antennas that still can get the job done. Software-defined radio (SDR) turned this practice up to 11 as well, and this radio module uses almost nothing more than a microcontroller to get on the air.

The design uses the capabilities of the Raspberry Pi Pico to handle almost all of the radio’s capabilities. The RF oscillator is driven by one of the Pico’s programmable I/O (PIO) pins, which takes some load off of the processor. For AM and SSB, where amplitude needs to be controlled as well, a PWM signal is generated on another PIO which is then mixed with the RF oscillator using an analog multiplexer. The design also includes a microphone with a preamplifier which can be fed into a third PIO; alternatively it can receive audio from a computer via the USB interface. More processor resources are needed when generating phase-modulated signals like RF, but the Pico is still quite capable of doing all of these tasks without jitter larger than a clock cycle.

Of course this only outputs a signal with a few milliwatts of power, so for making any useful radio contacts with this circuit an amplifier is almost certainly needed. With the heavy lifting done by the Pico, though, the amplifier doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. While the design is simple and low-cost, it’s not the simplest radio possible. This transmitter sends out radio waves using only a single transistor but you will be limited to Morse code only.

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ESP32 Drives Tiny FM Radio

Even as music streaming services and podcast apps dominate most of our listening time, it’s still a great idea to keep a radio on hand, if for nothing else than in emergency situations. After all, blizzards, hurricanes, and other natural disasters can quickly take out both home and mobile Internet access. If you’d like to have an FM radio with the absolute smallest footprint, take a look at this one built around an ESP32.

While the radio uses the ESP32 as the main control board hosted by a TTGO T-Display board which adds a 1.14 inch ST7789V IPS panel, it also makes use of the TEA5767 chip for handling the FM radio signals. As [Volos Projects] has it programmed, the ESP32 stores five preset channels which can be toggled using two buttons at the bottom of the device. There’s also some circuitry to handle output to headphones or a stereo.

For making the radio even smaller, some of the audio processing could be done on the ESP32 instead, although its much simpler to take a slightly larger footprint and offload this to an audio processing chip. Since the source code for this project is open, modifications could be done including adding seek/tune functionality instead of relying only on presets. If you’re not building this for emergencies, though, and your entire area is dominated by cookie cutter corporate-owned radio stations, an ESP32 with an internet connection is great for accessing better radio stations around the world.

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Supercon 2022: Sam Mulvey Shows You How To FM Radio

Sam Mulvey built his own radio station in Tacoma, WA. Is there a better way to meld ham radio practice with a colossal number of DIY electrical and computer projects? Sam would say there isn’t one! This 45-minute talk is basically the lessons-learned review of setting up KTQA 95.3 – the radio station on the hill.

Sam starts out the talk by introducing you to LPFM. And maybe you didn’t know that there’s a special type of license issued by the US FCC allowing non-profit community radio stations up to 100 W, covering an radius of around 5 km. It’s like running a pirate radio station, but by jumping through a few legal hoops, made legal.

Trash on the Radio

Putting a radio station together on a budget requires a ton of clever choices, flexibility, and above all, luck. But if you’re willing to repair a busted CD player or turntable, scrounge up some used computers, and work on your own amplifiers, the budget doesn’t have to be the limiting factor.

Being cheap means a lot of DIY. For instance, Sam and friends made a custom console to support all the gear and hide all the wiring. Some hot tips from the physical build-out: painted cinderblocks make great studio monitor stands, and Cat-5 can carry two channels of balanced audio along with power, with sufficient isolation that it all sounds clean. Continue reading “Supercon 2022: Sam Mulvey Shows You How To FM Radio”

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Hackaday Links: December 11, 2022

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” That might be stretching things a bit, especially when the “paradise” in question is in New Jersey, but there’s a move afoot to redevelop the site of the original “Big Bang Antenna” that has some people pretty upset. Known simply as “The Horn Antenna” since it was built by Bell Labs in 1959 atop a hill in Holmdel, New Jersey, the antenna was originally designed to study long-distance microwave communications. But in 1964, Bell Labs researchers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the microwave remnants of the Big Bang, the cosmic background radiation, using the antenna, earning it a place in scientific history. So far, the only action taken by the township committee has been to authorize a study to look into whether the site should be redeveloped. But the fact that the site is one of the highest points in Monmouth County with sweeping views of Manhattan has some people wondering what’s really on tap for the site. A petition to save the antenna currently has about 3,400 signatures, so you might want to check that out — after all, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

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Generating Stereo FM Signals, Thanks To Python

A casual understanding of how AM radio works is pretty easy to come by, and standard FM is only a little more complicated. Things can go off the tracks a bit with stereo FM, though — figuring out how they squeeze two separate audio tracks onto one radio signal is a bit of a head-scratcher. In that case, wrapping your head around the concept might be helped by mocking up a stereo FM signal with an arbitrary waveform generator and a little bit of Python.

Not that [Sebastian] of Baltic Lab was unfamiliar with multiplex FM theory, mind you. As he explains it, his goal was to generate a valid stereo FM signal with a different pure tone on each channel, 700 Hz on the left and 2,200 Hz on the right. Luckily, [Sebastian] has a nice AWG, the Siglent SDG1032X, which has an Ethernet connection that can be used to control it remotely along with PyVISA, a Python package for controlling instruments using the Virtual Instrument Software Architecture protocol.

The meat of this project, and what really helps drive home the concept of putting multiple audio signals onto an FM signal, lies in the Python code that generates the component parts. [Sebastian] does a great job explaining how he programatically generates the sum and difference signals along with the 19 kHz pilot tone, and puts them all together into one waveform. The output of the program is used to generate a series of values that are sent to the arbitrary waveform generator, which outputs the desired FM signal. Looking at the output on a spectrum analyzer, the two audio tones are clearly visible, as are the attenuated pilot tone and some other spikes a little further up.

Just add an antenna to the setup and you’d have the world’s dullest FM radio station — but at least it’d be in stereo. Or if you want to check out the origin story for FM radio, we’ve got something for that too.