Want to explore the world of radar but feel daunted by the mysteries of radio frequency electronics? Be daunted no more and abstract the RF complexities away with this tutorial on software-defined radar.
Taking inspiration from our own [Gregory L. Charvat], whose many radar projects have graced our pages before, [Luigi Freitas]’ plunge into radar is spare on the budgetary side but rich in learning opportunities. The front end of the radar set is almost entirely contained in a LimeSDR Mini, a software-defined radio that can both transmit and receive. The only additional components are a pair of soup can antennas and a cheap LNA for the receive side. The rest of the system runs on GNU Radio Companion running on a Raspberry Pi; the whole thing is powered by a USB battery pack and lives in a plastic tote. [Luigi] has the radar set up for the 2.4-GHz ISM band, and the video below shows it being calibrated with vehicles passing by at known speeds.
It’s fair to say that software-defined radio represents the most significant advance in affordable radio equipment that we have seen over the last decade or so. Moving signal processing from purpose-built analogue hardware into the realm of software has opened up so many exciting possibilities in terms of what can be done both with more traditional modes of radio communication and with newer ones made possible only by the new technology.
It’s also fair to say that radio enthusiasts seeking a high-performance SDR would also have to be prepared with a hefty bank balance, as some of the components required to deliver software defined radios have been rather expensive. Thus the budget end of the market has been the preserve of radios using the limited baseband bandwidth of an existing analogue interface such as a computer sound card, or of happy accidents in driver hacking such as the discovery that the cheap and now-ubiquitous RTL2832 chipset digital TV receivers could function as an SDR receiver. Transmitting has been, and still is, more expensive.
A new generation of budget SDRs, as typified by today’s subject the LimeSDR Mini, have brought down the price of transmitting. This is the latest addition to the LimeSDR range of products, an SDR transceiver and FPGA development board in a USB stick format that uses the same Lime Microsystems LMS7002M at its heart as the existing LimeSDR USB, but with a lower specification. Chief among the changes are that there is only one receive and one transmit channel to the USB’s two each, the bandwidth of 30.72 MHz is halved, and the lower-end frequency range jumps from 100 kHz to 10 MHz. The most interesting lower figure associated with the Mini though is its price, with the early birds snapping it up for $99 — half that of its predecessor. (It’s now available on Kickstarter for $139.)
A few years ago, we saw the rise of software-defined radios with the HackRF One and the extraordinarily popular RTL-SDR USB TV tuner dongle. It’s been a few years, and technology is on a never-ending upwards crawl to smaller, cheaper, and more powerful widgets. Now, some of that innovation is making it to the world of software-defined radio. The LimeSDR Mini is out, and it’s the cheapest and most capable software defined radio yet. It’s available through a Crowd Supply campaign, with units shipping around the beginning of next year.
The specs for the LimeSDR mini are quite good, even when compared to kilobuck units from Ettus Research. The frequency range for the LimeSDR Mini is 10 MHz – 3.5 GHz, bandwidth is 30.72 MHz, with a 12-bit sample depth and 30.72 MSPS sample rate. The interface is USB 3.0 (the connector is male, and soldered to the board, but USB extension cables exist), and the LimeSDR is full duplex. That last bit is huge — the RTL-SDR can’t transmit at all, and even the HackRF is only half duplex. This enormous capability is thanks to the field programmable RF transceiver found in all of the LimeSDR boards. We first saw these a year or so ago, and now these boards are heading into the hands of hackers. Someone’s even building a femtocell out of a Lime board.
The major selling point for the LimeSDR is, of course, the price. The ‘early bird’ rewards for the Crowd Supply campaign disappeared quickly at $99, but there are still plenty available at $139. This is very inexpensive and very fun — on the Crowd Supply page, you can see a demo of a LimeSDR mini set up as an LTE base station, streaming video between two mobile phones. These are the golden days of hobbyist SDR.