[Helge Fykse (LA6NCA)] has a type, as they say. At least as far as radios are concerned, he seems to prefer elegant designs that keep the BOM to the minimum needed to get the job done. And Altoids tins — he really seems to like putting radios in Altoids tins.
This QRP transceiver for the 60-meter amateur radio band is a perfect example of that ethos. For the unfamiliar, QRP is Morse code shorthand for decreased power, and is generally used when hams are purposely building and operating radios that radiate very little power, typically below a watt. For this transceiver, [Helge] chose to use modern components, a marked but interesting departure from his recent tube-powered spy radios. The design is centered on a custom oscillator board he designed using an Arduino Pro Mini and an Si5351 oscillator chip. Other components include an ADE-1ASK frequency mixer, an antenna tuner module that can be swapped out for operating on different bands, a receiver that’s little more than a couple of op-amps, and a Darlington pair for an RF power amplifier. Everything fits neatly on a piece of copper-clad board inside the tin box.
As is his tradition, [Helge] was on the air in the field with this radio almost before the solder had time to cool. His first contact was a 240-km shot to a friend, who reported a fine signal from this little gem. And that’s with just powering it off a 9-volt battery when it’s designed to the typical 12-volt supplies hams favor; he estimates this resulted in a signal of about 200 mW. Not too shabby.
Honestly, we’d love to learn more about that oscillator board [Helge] used, and maybe get a schematic for it. We found a little bit about it on his web page, but not the juicy details. If you’re out there, [Helge], please share the wealth.
Continue reading “Altoids Tin Spy Radio Goes Solid State”
Low-power radios, often referred to in the amateur radio community as QRP radios, have experienced a resurgence in popularity lately. Blame it on certain parts of the hobby become more popular, like Parks on the Air (POTA) or Summits on the Air (SOTA). These are events where a radio operator operates off-grid at remote parks or mountaintops. These QRP rigs are a practical and portable way to make contacts. You would think that a five- or ten-watt rig running on batteries would be simple. Surprisingly, they can be enormously complex and expensive. That’s why [Dr. Daniel Marks] built the RFBitBanger, a QRP radio designed to not only be usable off-grid but to be built and maintained off-grid as well.
The radio accomplishes this goal by being built out of as many standard off-the-shelf components as possible. It eschews modern surface-mount components in favor of the much more accessible through-hole parts, including the ATMEGA328P at the center of the build. A PCB design is also available, but it can be built on perf board nearly as easily. The radio supports any mode a QRP operator might use, including CW, SSB, RTTY, and a new mode designed explicitly for this radio called SCAMP which is a low bandwidth, low SNR digital mode built into the Arduino-based firmware. It’s a single-band radio, but any band between 20 and 80 meters can be selected with pluggable filters.
As far as bomb-proof radios go, we can’t imagine a better way to live out an apocalypse than with a radio like this. As long as there’s a well-stocked parts drawer around, this radio could theoretically reach around the world without worrying about warranty claims, expensive parts, or even a company going out of business or not stocking parts for old radios anymore. There’s also more information about this build at the Open Research Institute for those interested. And, if you’re wondering how useful any radio could be using only five watts of transmitter power, take a look at this in-depth look at QRP radio operation.
Thanks to [Stephen Walters] for the tip.
One of the more popular trends in the ham radio community right now is operating away from the shack. Parks on the Air (POTA) is an excellent way to take a mobile radio off-grid and operate in the beauty of nature, but for those who want to take their rig to more extreme locations there’s another operating award program called Summits on the Air (SOTA) that requires the radio operator to set up a station on a mountaintop instead. This often requires lightweight, low-power radios to keep weight down for the hike, and [Dan] aka [AI6XG] has created a radio from scratch to do just that.
[Dan] is also a vacuum tube and CW (continuous wave/Morse code) operator on top of his interest in summiting various mountains, so this build incorporates all of his interests. Most vacuum tubes take a lot of energy to operate, but he dug up a circuit from 1967 that uses a single tube which can operate from a 12 volt battery instead of needing mains power, thanks to some help from a more modern switch-mode power supply (SMPS). The SMPS took a bit of research, though, in order to find one that wouldn’t interfere with the radio’s operation. That plus a few other modern tweaks like a QCX interface and a switch to toggle between receive to transmit easily allows this radio to be quite versatile when operating while maintaining its portability and durability when summiting.
For those looking to replicate a tube-based radio like this one, [Dan] has made all of the schematics available on his GitHub page. The only other limitation to keep in mind with a build like this is that it tends to only work on a very narrow range of frequencies without adding further complexity to the design, in this case within the CW portion of the 40-meter band. But that’s not really a bad thing as most radios with these design principles tend to work this way. For some other examples, take a look at these antique QRP radios for operating using an absolute minimum of power.
Morse code might seem obsolete but for situations with extremely limited bandwidth it’s often still the best communications option available. The code requires a fair amount of training to use effectively, though, and even proficient radio operators tend to send only around 20 words per minute. As a result of the reduced throughput, a type of language evolved around Morse code which, like any language, has evolved and changed over time. QRP initially meant something akin to “you are overloading my receiver, please reduce transmitter power” but now means “operating radios at extremely low power levels”. [MIKROWAVE1] explores some of the earlier options for QRP radios in this video.
There’s been some debate in the amateur radio community over the years over what power level constitutes a QRP operation, but it’s almost certainly somewhere below 100 watts, and while the radios in this video have varying power levels, they tend to be far below this upper threshold, with some operating on 1 watt or less. There are a few commercial offerings demonstrated here, produced from the 70s to the mid-80s, but a few are made from kits as well. Kits tended to be both accessible and easily repairable, with Heathkit being the more recognizable option among this category. To operate Morse code (or “continuous wave” as hams would call it) only requires a single transistor which is why kits were so popular, but there are a few other examples in this video with quite a few more transistors than that. In fact, there are all kinds of radios featured here with plenty of features we might even consider modern by today’s standards; at least when Morse code is concerned.
QRP radios in general are attractive because they tend to be smaller, simpler, and more affordable. Making QRP contacts over great distances also increases one’s ham radio street cred, especially when using Morse, although this benefit is more intangible. There’s a large trend going on in the radio world right now surrounding operating from parks and mountain peaks, which means QRP is often the only way to get that done especially when operating on battery power. Modern QRP radios often support digital and voice modes as well and can have surprisingly high prices, but taking some cues from this video about radios built in decades past could get you on the radio for a minimum or parts and cost, provided you can put in the time.
Continue reading “Exploring The Early Days Of QRP Radio”
It’s been a long time since vacuum tubes were cutting-edge technology, but that doesn’t mean they don’t show up around here once in a while. And when they do, we like to feature them, because there’s still something charming, nay, romantic about a circuit built around hot glass and metal. To wit, we present this compact two-tube “spy radio” transmitter.
From the look around his shack — which we love, by the way — [Helge Fykse (LA6NCA)] really has a thing for old technology. The typewriter, the rotary phones, the boat-anchor receiver — they all contribute to the retro feel of the space, as well as the circuit he’s working on. The transmitter’s design is about as simple as can be: one tube serves as a crystal-controlled oscillator, while the other tube acts as a power amplifier to boost the output. The tiny transmitter is built into a small metal box, which is stuffed with the resistors, capacitors, and homebrew inductors needed to complete the circuit. Almost every component used has a vintage look; we especially love those color-coded mica caps. Aside from PCB backplane, the only real nod to modernity in the build is the use of 3D printed forms for the coils.
But does it work? Of course it does! The video below shows [Helge] making a contact on the 80-meter band over a distance of 200 or so kilometers with just over a watt of power. The whole project is an excellent demonstration of just how simple radio communications can be, as well as how continuous wave (CW) modulation really optimizes QRP setups like this.
Continue reading “Two-Tube Spy Transmitter Fits In The Palm Of Your Hand”
If there’s one thing that amateur radio operators are good at, it’s turning just about anything into an antenna. And hams have a long history of portable operations, too, where they drag a (sometimes) minimalist setup of gear into the woods and set up shop to bag some contacts. Getting the two together, as with this field-portable antenna made from a tape measure, is a double win in any ham’s book.
For [Paul (OM0ET)], this build seems motivated mainly by the portability aspect, and less by the “will it antenna?” challenge. In keeping with that, he chose a 50-meter steel tape measure as the basis of the build. This isn’t one of those retractable tape measures, mind you — just a long strip of flexible metal on a wind-up spool in a plastic case. His idea was to use the tape as the radiator for an end-fed halfwave, or EFHW, antenna, a multiband design that’s a popular option for hams operating from the 80-m band down to the 10-m band. EFHW antennas require an impedance-matching transformer, a miniature version of which [Paul] built and tucked within the tape measure case, along with a BNC connector to connect to the radio and a flying lead to connect to the tape.
Since a half-wave antenna is half the length of the target wavelength, [Paul] cut off the last ten meters of the tape to save a little weight. He also scratched off the coating on the tape at about the 40-meter mark, to make good contact with the alligator clip on the flying lead. The first video below details the build, while the second video shows the antenna under test in the field, where it met all of the initial criteria of portability and ease of deployment.
Continue reading “Wind-Up Tape Measure Transformed Into Portable Ham Antenna”
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the best part about holding an amateur radio license is that it lets you build and use your own transmitting equipment. Hams have been doing this for more than a century — indeed, it was once the only way to get on the air — using whatever technology was available. But the mix of technologies in this low-power transmitter for the 80-meter band is something you don’t see every day.
As ham [Helge Fykse (LA6NCA)] describes in the video below, the project began when he came into possession of a bonanza of vacuum tubes — 12A6 tetrodes, specifically. The new-old-stock tubes were perfect for an RF power amplifier, but that left the problem of what to use for an oscillator. [Helge] chose to meld the old with the new and used oscillator board that he designed. The board has an ATmega88 microcontroller and an Si5351 oscillator, along with a 3V3 regulator to let the module run on 12 volts. And for a nice retro touch, [Helge] put the board in a 3D printed case that looks like an old-fashioned quartz crystal.
There are some other nice design touches here too. A low-pass filter cleans up the harmonics of the oscillator’s 3.5-MHz square wave output before feeding it to the amplifier, in a nod to proper spectrum hygiene. The primary for the amp’s air-core output transformer is hand-wound, with 3D printed spacers to keep the winding neat and even. The tuning process shown below is interesting, and the transmitter was used to make a solid contact with another ham about 100 km away. And we really liked the look of [Helge]’s shack, stuffed as it is with gear both old and new.
We’ve personally tried the Si5351 for QRP transmitters before, but this blend of the old and new really makes us want to find some tubes and get to playing.
Continue reading “Retro And New Tech Combine In This Hybrid Ham Transmitter”