5G Is For Robots

Ecclesiastes 1:9 reads “What has been will be again, what has done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Or in other words, 5G is mostly marketing nonsense; like 4G, 3G, and 2G was before it. Let’s not forget LTE, 4G LTE, Advance 4G, and Edge.

Just a normal everyday antenna array in a Seattle parking garage.

Technically, 5G means that providers could, if they wanted to, install some EHF antennas; the same kind we’ve been using forever to do point to point microwave internet in cities. These frequencies are too lazy to pass through a wall, so we’d have to install these antennas in a grid at ground level. The promised result is that we’ll all get slightly lower latency tiered internet connections that won’t live up to the hype at all. From a customer perspective, about the only thing it will do is let us hit the 8Gb ceiling twice as faster on our “unlimited” plans before they throttle us. It might be nice on a laptop, but it would be a historically ridiculous assumption that Verizon is going to let us tether devices to their shiny new network without charging us a million Yen for the privilege.

So, what’s the deal? From a practical standpoint we’ve already maxed out what a phone needs. For example, here’s a dirty secret of the phone world: you can’t tell the difference between 1080p and 720p video on a tiny screen. I know of more than one company where the 1080p on their app really means 640 or 720 displayed on the device and 1080p is recorded on the cloud somewhere for download. Not a single user has noticed or complained. Oh, maybe if you’re looking hard you can feel that one picture is sharper than the other, but past that what are you doing? Likewise, what’s the point of 60fps 8k video on a phone? Or even a laptop for that matter?

Are we really going to max out a mobile webpage? Since our device’s ability to present information exceeds our ability to process it, is there a theoretical maximum to the size of an app? Even if we had Gbit internet to every phone in the world, from a user standpoint it would be a marginal improvement at best. Unless you’re a professional mobile game player (is that a thing yet?) latency is meaningless to you. The buffer buffs the experience until it shines.

So why should we care about billion dollar corporations racing to have the best network for sending low resolution advertising gifs to our disctracto cubes? Because 5G is for robots.

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Bouncing Signals Off The Moon

One of the great things about ham radio is that isn’t just one hobby. Some people like to chit chat, some like to work foreign countries, some prepare for emergencies, and there are several space-related activities. There are hundreds of different kinds of activities to choose from. Just one is moonbounce, and [Ham Radio DX] decided to replicate a feat many hams have done over the years: communicate with someone far away by bouncing signals from the moon.

The set up is pretty sophisticated but not as bad as you might imagine. You can see that they spend a lot of time getting the equipment aligned. A known reference point helps them set the position of the antenna. A GPS keeps both stations in sync for frequency and time.

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Bike-Mounted Synthetic-Aperture Radar Makes Detailed Images

Synthetic-aperture radar, in which a moving radar is used to simulate a very large antenna and obtain high-resolution images, is typically not the stuff of hobbyists. Nobody told that to [Henrik Forstén], though, and so we’ve got this bicycle-mounted synthetic-aperture radar project to marvel over as a result.

Neither the electronics nor the math involved in making SAR work is trivial, so [Henrik]’s comprehensive write-up is invaluable to understanding what’s going on. First step: build a 6-GHz frequency modulated-continuous wave (FMCW) radar, a project that [Henrik] undertook some time back that really knocked our socks off. His FMCW set is good enough to resolve human-scale objects at about 100 meters.

Moving the radar and capturing data along a path are the next steps and are pretty simple, but figuring out what to do with the data is anything but. [Henrik] goes into great detail about the SAR algorithm he used, called Omega-K, a routine that makes use of the Fast Fourier Transform which he implemented for a GPU using Tensor Flow. We usually see that for neural net applications, but the code turned out remarkably detailed 2D scans of a parking lot he rode through with the bike-mounted radar. [Henrik] added an auto-focus routine as well, and you can clearly see each parked car, light pole, and distant building within range of the radar.

We find it pretty amazing what [Henrik] was able to accomplish with relatively low-budget equipment. Synthetic-aperture radar has a lot of applications, and we’d love to see this refined and developed further.

[via r/electronics]

A Doppler Radar Module From First Principles

If you’ve ever cast your eyes towards experimenting with microwave frequencies it’s likely that one of your first ports of call was a cheaply-available Doppler radar module. These devices usually operate in the 10 GHz band, and the older ones used a pair of die-cast waveguide cavities while the newer ones use a dielectric resonator and oscillator on a PCB. If you have made your own then you are part of a very select group indeed, as is [Reed Foster] and his two friends who made a Doppler radar module their final project for MIT’s 6.013 Applications of Electromagnetics course.

Their module runs at 2.4 GHz and makes extensive use of the notoriously dark art of PCB striplines, and their write-up offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of this type of design. We see their coupler and mixer prototypes before they combined all parts of the system into a single PCB, and we follow their minor disasters as their original aim of a frequency modulated CW radar is downgraded to a Doppler design. If you’ve never worked with this type of circuitry before than it makes for an interesting read.

We’ve shown you a variety of commercial Doppler modules over the years, of which this teardown is a representative example.

X-Rays Are The Next Frontier In Space Communications

Hundreds of years from now, the story of humanity’s inevitable spread across the solar system will be a collection of engineering problems solved, some probably in heroic fashion. We’ve already tackled a lot of these problems in our first furtive steps into the wider galaxy. Our engineering solutions have taken humans to the Moon and back, but that’s as far as we’ve been able to send our fragile and precious selves.

While we figure out how to solve the problems keeping us trapped in the Earth-Moon system, we’ve sent fleets of robotic emissaries to do our exploration by proxy, to make the observations we need to frame the next set of engineering problems to be solved. But as we reach further out into the solar system and beyond, our exploration capabilities are increasingly suffering from communications bottlenecks that restrict how much data we can ship back to Earth.

We need to find a way to send vast amounts of data back as quickly as possible using as few resources as possible on both ends of the communications link. Doing so may mean turning away from traditional radio communications and going way, way up the dial and developing practical means for communicating with X-rays.

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Grape Plasma Explained

You’ve probably seen the videos of a grape — cut almost totally in half — in a microwave creates a plasma. A recent physics paper studies the phenomenon with a lot of high-tech gear and now the actual mechanism is known. [Veritasium] interviews the scientists and explains the grape plasma phenomenon in plain language. You can see the video below or read the paper directly.

Turns out the grape is about 1/10 of the microwave frequency and the refractive index of the grape at microwave frequencies might be as much as ten. A whole grape can get all the microwaves trapped inside, but two grapes — or two halves — that touch create fields strong enough to ionize the air.

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Microwave Parts Become Quick And Nasty Jacob’s Ladder

The Jacob’s Ladder is an electrical device named after a biblical “ladder to Heaven”, consisting of a pair of vertically oriented conductors that spread apart vertically. These conductors are charged with high voltage, which creates the repeatedly climbing arc we’ve all come to know and love from science fiction movies of yesteryear.

[LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER] was on a scavenger hunt for electronic junk, and came across a microwave in a skip that was begging to be hacked. After kicking around a few ideas, it was decided that the microwave would donate its high voltage transformer to create a Jacob’s ladder. The transformer is first bolted down to a piece of wood, and creates some sparks on the bench when shorted. The output is then wired to a pair of copper pipes to create the classic effect.

Unfortunately, the device isn’t self starting, requiring the electrodes to be temporarily short circuited to generate the initial arc. We suspect that increasing the voltage may help things somewhat, either with another transformer in series or with a voltage multiplier.

It goes without saying that high voltage projects do bring certain risks to life and limb that should not be overlooked. If you’ve still got a thirst for danger, check out this home built X-ray machine. Video after the break.

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