Network Analysers: The Electrical Kind

Instrumentation has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last few years, however, the fundamental analysis techniques that are the foundation of modern-day equipment remain the same. A network analyzer is an instrument that allows us to characterize RF networks such as filters, mixers, antennas and even new materials for microwave electronics such as ceramic capacitors and resonators in the gigahertz range. In this write-up, I discuss network analyzers in brief and how the DIY movement has helped bring down the cost of such devices. I will also share some existing projects that may help you build your own along with some use cases where a network analyzer may be employed. Let’s dive right in.

Network Analysis Fundamentals

As a conceptual model, think of light hitting a lens and most of it going through but part of it getting reflected back.

The same applies to an electrical/RF network where the RF energy that is launched into the device may be attenuated a bit, transmitted to an extent and some of it reflected back. This analysis gives us an attenuation coefficient and a reflection coefficient which explains the behavior of the device under test (DUT).

Of course, this may not be enough and we may also require information about the phase relationship between the signals. Such instruments are termed Vector Network Analysers and are helpful in measuring the scattering parameters or S-Parameters of a DUT.

The scattering matrix links the incident waves a1, a2 to the outgoing waves b1, b2 according to the following linear equation: \begin{bmatrix} b_1 \\ b_2 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} S_{11} & S_{12} \\ S_{21} & S_{22} \end{bmatrix} * \begin{bmatrix} a_1 \\ a_2 \end{bmatrix} .

The equation shows that the S-parameters are expressed as the matrix S, where and denote the output and input port numbers of the DUT.

This completely characterizes a network for attenuation, reflection as well as insertion loss. S-Parameters are explained more in details in Electromagnetic Field Theory and Transmission Line Theory but suffice to say that these measurements will be used to deduce the properties of the DUT and generate a mathematical model for the same.

General Architecture

As mentioned previously, a simple network analyzer would be a signal generator connected and a spectrum analyzer combined to work together. The signal generator would be configured to output a signal of a known frequency and the spectrum analyzer would be used to detect the signal at the other end. Then the frequency would be changed to another and the process repeats such that the system sweeps a range of frequencies and the output can be tabulated or plotted on a graph. In order to get reflected power, a microwave component such as a magic-T or directional couplers, however, all of this is usually inbuilt into modern-day VNAs.
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Handheld Network Analyzer Peek Inside

[Shahriar] recently posted a review of a 6.8 GHz network analyzer. You can see the full video — over fifty minutes worth — below the break. The device can act as a network analyzer, a spectrum analyzer, a field strength meter, and a signal generator. It can tune in 1 Hz steps down to 9 kHz. Before you rush out to buy one, however, be warned. The cost is just under $2,000.

That sounds like a lot, but test gear in this frequency range isn’t cheap. If you really need it, you’d probably have to pay at least as much for something equivalent.

[Shahriar] had a few issues to report, but overall he seemed to like the device. For example, setting the step size too broad can cause the spectrum analyzer to miss narrow signals.

If your needs are more modest, we’ve covered a much simpler (and less expensive) unit that goes to 6 GHz. If you need even less, an Arduino can do the job with a good bit of help. The Analog Discovery 2 also has a network analyzer feature, along with other tools at a more affordable cost, too. Of course, that’s only good to 10 MHz.

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Review: Digilent Analog Discovery 2

I recently opened the mailbox to find a little device about the size of White Castle burger. It was an “Analog Discovery 2” from Digilent. It is hard to categorize exactly what it is. On the face of it, it is a USB scope and logic analyzer. But it is also a waveform generator, a DC power supply, a pattern generator, and a network analyzer.

I’ve looked at devices like this before. Some are better than others, but usually all the pieces don’t work well at the same time. That is, you can use the scope or you can use the signal generator. The ones based on microcontrollers often get worse as you add channels even. The Analog Discovery 2 is built around an FPGA which, if done right, should get around many of the problems associated with other small instrumentation devices.

I’d read good things about the Discovery 2, so I was anxious to put it through its paces. I will say it is an impressive piece of gear. There are a few things that I was less happy with, though, and I’ll try to give you a fair read on what I found both good and bad.

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Arduino RF Network Analyzer

What do you get when you combine a direct digital synthesis (DDS) chip, a power detector, and an Arduino? [Brett Killion] did make that combination and wound up with a practical network analyzer.

The project uses an Analog Devices AD9851 DDS chip clocked at 180 MHz which will output a sine wave at any frequency from 0 Hz and 72 MHz. A Butterworth low pass filter processes the DDS signal and then feeds a two-transistor amplifier. The circuit will output about 0dBm into 50 ohms. The power detector is an Analog Devices AD8307 along with a 50-ohm input load. There is no filtering on the power detector so it can measure from very low frequencies to 500MHz.

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Altoids Tin Network Analyzer

Network Analyzers are frequently used for measuring filters, making them extremely valuable for building radios and general mucking about with RF. They are, however, extremely expensive. You can, however, build one in an Altoids tin with an Arduino Nano, a small screen, and an AD9850 frequency synthesis module picked up on eBay.

The basic idea behind a network analyzer is to feed a frequency into a device, and measure the amplitude comingĀ out of the device, and plot this relationship over a frequency. [Bill Meara] has been a human network analyzer before, changing frequencies and plotting the output of devices under test by hand. [DuWayne] (KV4QB) build a device to automate the entire process.

The block diagram is easy enough – an AD9850 sends a signal to the device, and this is measured by the Arduino with a small amplifier. The signal is measured again when it comes back from the device under test, and all this is plotted on a small display. Simple, and [DuWayne] is getting some very good readings with a lowpass filter and crystal filter made on a small solderless breadboard.