Classifying Crystals With An SDR Dongle

When it comes to radio frequency oscillators, crystal controlled is the way to go when you want frequency precision. But not every slab of quartz in a tiny silver case is created equal, so crystals need to be characterized before using them. That’s generally a job for an oscilloscope, but if you’re clever, an SDR dongle can make a dandy crystal checker too.

The back story on [OM0ET]’s little hack is interesting, and one we hope to follow up on. The Slovakian ham is building what looks to be a pretty sophisticated homebrew single-sideband transceiver for the HF bands. Needed for such a rig are good intermediate frequency (IF) filters, which require matched sets of crystals. He wanted a quick and easy way to go through his collection of crystals and get a precise reading of the resonant frequency, so he turned to his cheap little RTL-SDR dongle. Plugged into a PC with SDRSharp running, the dongle’s antenna input is connected to the output of a simple one-transistor crystal oscillator. No schematics are given, but a look at the layout in the video below suggests it’s just a Colpitts oscillator. With the crystal under test plugged in, the oscillator produces a huge spike on the SDRSharp spectrum analyzer display, and [OM0ET] can quickly determine the center frequency. We’d suggest an attenuator to change the clipped plateau into a sharper peak, but other than that it worked like a charm, and he even found a few dud crystals with it.

Fascinated by the electromechanics of quartz crystals? We are too, which is why [Jenny]’s crystal oscillator primer is a good first stop for the curious.

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Temperature Sensor and Simple Oscillator Make a Value-Added HF Beacon

Sometimes the best projects are the simple, quick hits. Easily designed, fast to build, and bonus points for working right the first time. Such projects very often lead to bigger and better things, which appears to be where this low-power temperature beacon is heading.

In the world of ham radio, beacon stations are transmitters that generally operate unattended from a known location, usually at limited power (QRP). Intended for use by other hams to determine propagation conditions, most beacons just transmit the operator’s call sign, sometimes at varying power levels. Any ham that can receive the signal will know there’s a propagation path between the beacon and the receiver, which helps in making contacts. The beacon that [Dave Richards (AA7EE)] built is not a ham beacon, at least not yet; operating at 13.56 MHz, it takes advantage of FCC Part 15 regulations regarding low-power transmissions rather than the Part 97 rules for amateur radio. The circuit is very simple — a one-transistor Colpitts oscillator with no power amplifier, and thus very limited range. But as an added twist, the oscillator is keyed by an ATtiny13 hooked to an LM335 temperature sensor, sending out the Celsius and Fahrenheit temperature in Morse every 30 seconds or so. The circuit is executed in Manhattan style, which looks great and leaves plenty of room for expansion. [Dave] mentions adding a power amp and a low-pass filter to get rid of harmonics and make it legal in the ham bands.

Beacons are just one of the ways for hams to get on the air without talking. Another fun way to analyze propagation is WSPR, which is little like an IoT beacon.

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Simple Decoder Serves as Solo Ham’s Test Buddy

For a hobby that’s ostensibly all about reaching out to touch someone, ham radio can often be a lonely activity. Lots of hams build and experiment with radio gear much more than they’re actually on the air, improving their equipment iteratively. The build-test-tweak-repeat cycle can get a little tedious, though, especially when you’re trying to assess signal strength and range and can’t find anyone to give you a report.

To close the loop on field testing, [WhiskeyTangoHotel] threw together a simple ham radio field confirmation unit that’s pretty slick. It relies on the fact that almost every ham radio designed for field use incorporates a DTMF encoder in the microphone or in the transceiver itself. Hams have used Touch Tones for in-band signaling control of their repeaters for decades, and even as newer digital control methods have been introduced, good old analog DTMF hangs in there. The device consists of a DTMF decoder attached to the headphone jack of a cheap handy talkie. When a DTMF tone is received, a NodeMCU connected to the decoder calls an IFTTT job to echo the key to [WTH]’s phone as an SMS message. That makes it easy to drive around and test whether his mobile rig is getting out. And since the receiver side is so portable, there’s a lot of flexibility in how tests can be arranged.

On the fence about ham as a hobby? We don’t blame you. But fun projects like this are the perfect excuse to go get licensed and start experimenting.

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Making Software Defined Radio Portable

While most smartphones can receive at least some radio, transmitting radio signals is an entirely different matter. But, if you have an Android phone and a few antennas (and a ham radio license) it turns out that it is possible to get a respectable software-defined radio on your handset.

[Adrian] set this up to be fully portable as well, so he is running both the transceiver and the Android phone from a rechargeable battery bank. The transceiver is also an interesting miniaturized version of the LimeSDR, the Lime SDR Mini, a crowdfunded Open Source radio platform intended for applications where space is at a premium. It operates on the 10 MHz to 3.5 GHz bands, has two channels, and has a decent price tag too at under $100.

For someone looking for an SDR project or who needs something very portable and self-contained, this could be a great option. The code, firmware, and board layout files are all also open source, which is always a great feature. If you’re new to SDR though, there’s a classic project that will get you off the ground for even less effort.

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A Watch Only A Ham Can Use

We’re not sure what to make of this one. With the variety of smartwatches and fitness trackers out there, we can’t be surprised by what sort of hardware ends up strapped to wrists these days. So a watch with an RPN calculator isn’t too much of a stretch. But adding a hex editor? And a disassembler? Oh, and while you’re at it, a transceiver for the 70cm ham band? Now that’s something you don’t see every day.

The mind boggles at not only the technical prowess needed to pull off what [Travis Goodspeed (KK4VCZ)] calls the GoodWatch, but at the thought process that led to all these features being packed into the case of a Casio calculator watch. But a lot of hacking is more about the “Why not?” than the “Why?”, and when you start looking at the feature set of the CC430F6137 microcontroller [Travis] chose, things start to make sense. The chip has a built-in RF subsystem, intended no doubt to enable wireless sensor designs. The GoodWatch20 puts the transceiver to work in the 430-MHz band, implementing a simple low-power (QRP) beacon. But the real story here is in the hacks [Travis] used to pull this off, like using flecks of Post-It notes to probe the LCD connections, and that he managed to stay within the confines of the original case.

There’s some real skill here, and it makes for an interesting read. And since the GoodWatch is powered by a coin cell, we think it’d be a great entry for our Coin Cell Challenge contest.

[via r/AmateurRadio]

Tapping into a Ham Radio’s Potential with SDRPlay

Software-defined radios are great tools for the amateur radio operator, allowing visualization of large swaths of spectrum and letting hams quickly home in on faint signals with the click of a mouse. High-end ham radios often have this function built in, but by tapping into the RF stage of a transceiver with an SDR, even budget-conscious hams can enjoy high-end features.

With both a rugged and reliable Yaesu FT-450D and the versatile SDRPlay in his shack, UK ham [Dave (G7IYK)] looked for the best way to link the two devices. Using two separate antennas was possible but inelegant, and switching the RF path between the two devices seemed clumsy. So he settled on tapping into the RF stage of the transceiver with a high-impedance low-noise amplifier (LNA) and feeding the output to the SDRPlay. The simple LNA was built on a milled PCB. A little sleuthing with the Yaesu manual — ham radio gear almost always includes schematics — led him to the right tap point in the RF path, just before the bandpass filter network. This lets the SDRPlay see the signal before the IF stage. He also identified likely points to source power for the LNA only when the radio is not transmitting. With the LNA inside the radio and the SDRPlay outside, he now has a waterfall display and thanks to Omni-Rig remote control software, he can tune the Yaesu at the click of a mouse.

If you need to learn more about SDRPlay, [Al Williams]’ guide to GNU Radio and SDRPlay is a great place to start.

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Grabbing Better Images From A Newer Russian Satellite

The Soviet Union took the world by surprise when it sent its Sputnik satellite into low earth orbit way back in 1957. The event triggered a space race between the Soviets and the United States and ushered in technologies that would go on to touch the lives of every human on earth. Today, several nations have a space program. And one of the more useful things to put in orbit are weather satellites.

In 2014, the Russians launched their Meteor N M-2 weather satellite into a polar orbit. The part that were most interested in is the fact that it transmits images at 137.1 MHz using the standard LRPT protocol. However, the newer Meteor N M-2 transmits images at twelve times the resolution of US NOAA satellites. No typo there –  that’s twelve (12!) times. Have we got your attention now?

We shouldn’t have to tell you to jump on over to [phasenoise’s] blog which gives you everything you need to start grabbing some of these awesome images.

Now, before you get your jumper wires in a bunch – we are well aware that receiving satellite images is nothing new.

Thanks to [Roy Tremblay] for the tip!