Hackaday Links: March 14, 2021

It’ll be Pi Day when this article goes live, at least for approximately half the globe west of the prime meridian. We always enjoy Pi Day, not least for the excuse to enjoy pie and other disc-shaped foods. It’s also cool to ponder the mysteries of a transcendental number, which usually get a good treatment by the math YouTube community. This year was no disappointment in this regard, as we found two good pi-related videos, both by Matt Parker over at Standup Maths. The first one deals with raising pi to the pi to the pi to the pi and how that may or may not result in an integer that’s tens of trillions of digits long. The second and more entertaining video is a collaboration with Steve Mould which aims to estimate the value of pi by measuring the volume of a molecular monolayer of oleic acid floating on water. The process was really interesting and the results were surprisingly accurate; this might make a good exercise to do with kids to show them what pi is all about.

Remember basic physics and first being exposed to the formula for universal gravitation? We sure do, and we remember thinking that it should be possible to calculate the force between us and our classmates. It is, of course, but actually measuring the attractive force would be another thing entirely. But researchers have done just that, using objects substantially smaller than the average high school student: two 2-mm gold balls. The apparatus the Austrian researchers built used 90-milligram gold balls, one stationary and one on a suspended arm. The acceleration between the two moves the suspended ball, which pivots a mirror attached to the arm to deflect a laser beam. That they were able to tease a signal from the background noise of electrostatic, seismic, and hydrodynamic forces is quite a technical feat.

We noticed a lot of interest in the Antikythera mechanism this week, which was apparently caused by the announcement of the first-ever complete computational model of the ancient device’s inner workings. The team from University College London used all the available data gleaned from the 82 known fragments of the mechanism to produce a working model of the mechanism in software. This in turn was used to create some wonderful CGI animations of the mechanism at work — this video is well worth the half-hour it takes to watch. The UCL team says they’re now at work building a replica of the mechanism using modern techniques. One of the team says he has some doubts that ancient construction methods could have resulted in some of the finer pieces of the mechanism, like the concentric axles needed for some parts. We think our friend Clickspring might have something to say about that, as he seems to be doing pretty well building his replica using nothing but tools and methods that were available to the original maker. And by doing so, he managed to discern a previously unknown feature of the mechanism.

We got a tip recently that JOGL, or Just One Giant Lab, is offering microgrants for open-source science projects aimed at tackling the problems of COVID-19. The grants are for 4,000€ and require a minimal application and reporting process. The window for application is closing, though — March 21 is the deadline. If you’ve got an open-source COVID-19 project that could benefit from a cash infusion to bring to fruition, this might be your chance.

And finally, we stumbled across a video highlighting some of the darker aspects of amateur radio, particularly those who go through tremendous expense and effort just to be a pain in the ass. The story centers around the Mt. Diablo repeater, an amateur radio repeater located in California. Apparently someone took offense at the topics of conversation on the machine, and deployed what they called the “Annoy-o-Tron” to express their displeasure. The device consisted of a Baofeng transceiver, a cheap MP3 player loaded with obnoxious content, and a battery. Encased in epoxy resin and concrete inside a plastic ammo can, the jammer lugged the beast up a hill 20 miles (32 km) from the repeater, trained a simple Yagi antenna toward the site, and walked away. It lasted for three days and while the amateurs complained about the misuse of their repeater, they apparently didn’t do a thing about it. The jammer was retrieved six weeks after the fact and hasn’t been heard from since.

Getting On The Air With A 10-Minute-ish Ham Transmitter

Artificially constrained designs can be among the most challenging projects to build, and the most interesting to consider. The amateur radio world is no stranger to this, with homebrew radio designs that set some sort of line in the sand. Such designs usually end up being delightfully minimalist and deeply instructive of first principles, which is one reason we like them so much.

For a perfect example of this design philosophy, take a look at [VK3YE]’s twist on the classic “10-Minute Transmitter”. (Video, embedded below.)

The design dates back to at least the 1980s, when [G4RAW] laid down the challenge to whip up a working transmitter from junk bin parts and make a contact within 15 minutes — ten for the build and five for working the bands. [VK3YE] used the “oner” — one-transistor — design for his 10-minute transmitter, but invested some additional time into adding a low-pass filter to keep his signal clean, and a power amplifier to boost the output a bit.

Even with the elaborations, the design is very simple and easy to understand. Construction is the standard “ugly style” that hams favor for quick builds like this. There are no parts that would be terribly hard to find, and everything fits into a small metal box. The video below shows the design and build, along with some experiments with WebSDR receivers to check out range both with and without the power amplifier.

Seeing these kinds of builds really puts us in the mood for some low-power action. Could something like this pop up in “The $50 Ham” series? Quite possibly yes.

Continue reading “Getting On The Air With A 10-Minute-ish Ham Transmitter”

Monitor SpaceX Rocket Launches With Software-Defined Radio

The amateur radio community has exploded with activity lately especially in the software-defined radio (SDR) area since it was found that a small inexpensive TV tuner could be wrangled to do what only expensive equipment was able to do before. One common build with these cards is monitoring air traffic, which send data about their flights out in packets over the radio and can easily be received and decoded now. It turns out another type of vehicle, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 spacecraft, reports data via radio as well and with some slightly upgraded hardware it’s possible to “listen in” to these flights in a similar way.

Reddit users [derekcz] and [Xerbot] used a HackRF module to listen in to the Falcon 9’s data transmissions during its latest launch. While the HackRF is a much more expensive piece of equipment compared to the RTL-SDR dongles used to listen in on aircraft, it is much more capable as well, with a range from 1 MHz to 6 GHz. Using this SDR peripheral as well as a 1.2 m repurposed satellite dish, the duo were able to intercept the radio transmissions from the in-flight rocket. From there, they were recorded with GNU Radio, converted into binary data, and then translated into text.

It seems as though the data feed included a number of different elements including time, location information, and other real-time data about the rocket’s flight. It’s a great build that demonstrates the wide appeal of software-defined radio, and if you want to get started it’s pretty easy to grab a much cheaper dongle and use it for all kinds of applications like this. Go check out [Tom Nardi]’s piece on the last seven years of RTL-SDR to get caught up to speed.

Thanks to [Adrian] for the tip!

Capstan Winch Central To This All-Band Adjustable Dipole Antenna

The perfect antenna is the holy grail of amateur radio. But antenna tuning is a game of inches, and since the optimum length of an antenna depends on the frequency it’s used on, the mere act of spinning the dial means that every antenna design is a compromise. Or perhaps not, if you build this infinitely adjustable capstan-winch dipole antenna.

Dipoles are generally built to resonate around the center frequency of one band, and with allocations ranging almost from “DC to daylight”, hams often end up with a forest of dipoles. [AD0MZ]’s adjustable dipole solves that problem, making the antenna usable from the 80-meter band down to 10 meters. To accomplish this feat it uses something familiar to any sailor: a capstan winch.

The feedpoint of the antenna contains a pair of 3D-printed drums, each wound with a loop of tinned 18-gauge antenna wire attached to some Dacron cord. These make up the adjustable-length elements of the antenna, which are strung through pulleys suspended in trees about 40 meters apart. Inside the feedpoint enclosure are brushes from an electric drill to connect the elements to a 1:1 balun and a stepper motor to run the winch. As the wire pays out of one spool, the Dacron cord is taken up by the other; the same thing happens on the other side of the antenna, resulting in a balanced configuration.

We think this is a really clever design that should make many a ham happy across the bands. We even see how this could be adapted to other antenna configurations, like the end-fed halfwave we recently featured in our “$50 Ham” series.

Hackaday Links: January 3, 2021

Last week we featured a story on the new rules regarding drone identification going into effect in the US. If you missed the article, the short story is that almost all unmanned aircraft will soon need to transmit their position, altitude, speed, and serial number, as well as the position of its operator, likely via WiFi or Bluetooth. The FAA’s rule change isn’t sitting well with Wing, the drone-based delivery subsidiary of megacorporation Alphabet. In their view, local broadcast of flight particulars would be an invasion of privacy, since observers snooping in on Remote ID traffic could, say, infer that a drone going between a pharmacy and a neighbor’s home might mean that someone is sick. They have a point, but how a Google company managed to cut through the thick clouds of irony to complain about privacy concerns and the rise of the surveillance state is mind boggling.

Speaking of regulatory burdens, it appears that getting an amateur radio license is no longer quite the deal that it once was. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a $35 fee for new amateur radio licenses, license renewals, and changes to existing licenses, like vanity call signs. While $35 isn’t cheap, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s better than the $50 fee that the FCC was originally proposing. Still, it seems a bit steep for something that’s largely automated. In any case, it looks like we’re still good to go with our “$50 Ham” series.

Staying on the topic of amateur radio for a minute, it looks like there will be a new digital mode to explore soon. The change will come when version 2.4.0 of WSJT-X, the program that forms the heart of digital modes like WSPR and FT8, is released. The newcomer is called Q65, and it’s basically a follow-on to the current QRA64 weak-signal mode. Q65 is optimized for weak, rapidly fading signals in the VHF bands and higher, so it’s likely to prove popular with Earth-Moon-Earth fans and those who like to do things like bounce their signals off of meteor trails. We’d think Q65 should enable airliner-bounce too. We’ll be keen to give it a try whenever it comes out.

Look, we know it’s hard to get used to writing the correct year once a new one rolls around, and that time has taken on a relative feeling in these pandemic times. But we’re pretty sure it isn’t April yet, which is the most reasonable explanation for an ad purporting the unholy coupling of a gaming PC and mass-market fried foods. We strongly suspect this is just a marketing stunt between Cooler Master and Yum! Brands, but taken at face value, the KFConsole — it’s not a gaming console, it’s at best a pre-built gaming PC — is supposed to use excess heat to keep your DoorDashed order of KFC warm while you play. In a year full of incredibly stupid things, this one is clearly in the top five.

And finally, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our airline pilots, or at least a subset of them, aren’t seeing things. There has been a steady stream of reports from pilots flying in and out of Los Angeles lately of a person in a jetpack buzzing around. Well, someone finally captured video of the daredevil, and even though it’s shaky and unclear — as are seemingly all videos of cryptids — it sure seems to be a human-sized biped flying around in a standing position. The video description says this was shot by a flight instructor at 3,000 feet (914 meters) near Palos Verdes with Catalina Island in the background. That’s about 20 miles (32 km) from the mainland, so whatever this person is flying has amazing range. And, the pilot has incredible faith in the equipment — that’s a long way to fall in something with the same glide ratio as a brick.

Fox Hunting With Software-Defined Radio

Fox hunting, or direction finding, is a favorite pastime in the ham radio community where radio operators attempt to triangulate the position of a radio transmission. While it may have required a large amount of expensive equipment in the past, like most ham radio operations the advent of software-defined radio (SDR) has helped revolutionize this aspect of the hobby as well. [Aaron] shows us how to make use of SDR for direction finding using his custom SDR-based Linux distribution called DragonOS.

We have mentioned DragonOS before, but every iteration seems to add new features. This time it includes implementation of a software package called DF-Aggregator. The software (from [ckoval7]), along with the rest of DragonOS, is loaded onto a set of (typically at least three) networked Raspberry Pis. The networked computers can communicate information about the radio waves they receive, and make direction finding another capable feature found in this distribution.

[Aaron] has a few videos showing the process of setting this up and using it, and all of the software is available for attempting something like this on your own. While the future of ham radio as a hobby does remain in doubt, projects like this which bring classic ham activities to the SDR realm really go a long way to reviving it.

Continue reading “Fox Hunting With Software-Defined Radio”

Gathering Eclipse Data Via Ham Radio

A solar eclipse is coming up in just a few weeks, and although with its path of totality near the southern tip of South America means that not many people will be able to see it first-hand, there is an opportunity to get involved with it even at an extreme distance. PhD candidate [Kristina] and the organization HamSCI are trying to learn a little bit more about the effects of an eclipse on radio communications, and all that is required to help is a receiver capable of listening in the 10 MHz range during the time of the eclipse.

It’s well-known that certain radio waves can propagate further depending on the time of day due to changes in many factors such as the state of the ionosphere and the amount of solar activity. What is not known is specifically how the paths can vary over the course of the day. During the eclipse the sun’s interference is minimized, and its impact can be more directly measured in a more controlled experiment. By tuning into particular time stations and recording data during the eclipse, it’s possible to see how exactly the eclipse impacts propagation of these signals. [Kristina] hopes to take all of the data gathered during the event to observe the doppler effect that is expected to occur.

The project requires a large amount of volunteers to listen in to the time stations during the eclipse (even if it is not visible to them) and there are only a few more days before this eclipse happens. If you have the required hardware, which is essentially just a receiver capable of receiving upper-sideband signals in 10 MHz range, it may be worthwhile to give this a shot. If not, there may be some time to cobble together an SDR that can listen in (even an RTL-SDR set up for 10 MHz will work) provided you can use it to record the required samples. It’s definitely a time that ham radio could embrace the hacker community.