Fail Of The Week: Never Assume All Crystals Are Born Equal

You should be used to our posting the hacks that didn’t quite go according to plan under our Fail Of The Week heading, things that should have worked, but due to unexpected factors, didn’t. They are the fault, if that’s not too strong a term, of the person making whatever the project is, and we feature them not in a spirit of mockery but one of commiseration and enlightenment.

This FOTW is a little different, because it reveals itself to have nothing to do with its originator. [Grogster] was using the widely-available HC-12 serial wireless modules, or clones or even possibly fakes thereof, and found that the modules would not talk to each other. Closer inspection found that the modules with the lack of intercommunication came from different batches, and possibly different manufacturers. Their circuits and components appeared identical, so what could possibly be up?

The problem was traced to the two batches of modules having different frequencies, one being 37 kHz ahead of the other. This was in turn traced to the crystal on board the off-frequency module, the 30 MHz component providing the frequency reference for the Si4463 radio chip was significantly out of spec. The manufacturer had used a cheap source of the component, resulting in modules which would talk to each other but not to the rest of the world’s HC-12s.

If there is a lesson to be extracted from this, it is to be reminded that even when cheap components or modules look as they should, and indeed even when they appear to work as they should, there can still be unexpected ways in which they can let you down. It has given us an interesting opportunity to learn about the HC-12, with its onboard STM8 CPU and one of the always-fascinating Silicon Labs radio chips. If you want to know more about the HC-12 module, we linked to a more in-depth look at it a couple of years ago.

Thanks [Manuka] for the tip.

An FM Transceiver From An Unexpected Chip

The Si47xx series of integrated circuits from Silicon Labs is a fascinating series of consumer broadcast radio products, chips that apply SDR technologies to deliver a range of functions that were once significantly more complex, with minimal external components and RF design trickery.  [Kodera2t] was attracted to one of them, the Si4720, which boasts the unusual function of containing both a receiver and a transmitter for the FM broadcast band and is aimed at mobile phones and similar devices that send audio to an FM car radio. The result is a PCB with a complete transceiver controlled by an ATmega328 and sporting an OLED display, and an interesting introduction to these devices.

The Si4720 internal block diagram, from its data sheet.
The Si4720 internal block diagram, from its data sheet.

A look at the block diagram from the Si4720 reveals why it and its siblings are such intriguing devices. On-chip is an SDR complete in all respects including an antenna, which might set the radio enthusiasts among the Hackaday readership salivating were it not that the onboard DSP is not reprogrammable for any other purpose than the mode for which the chip is designed. The local oscillator also holds a disappointment, being limited only to the worldwide FM broadcast bands and not some of the more useful or interesting frequencies. There are however a host of other similar Silicon Labs receiver chips covering every conceivable broadcast band, so the experimenter at least has a good choice of receivers to work with.

If you need a small FM transmitter and have a cavalier attitude to spectral purity then it’s easy enough to use a Raspberry Pi or just build an FM bug. But this project opens up another option and gives a chance to experiment with a fascinating chip.

Clive Sinclair, The Other Author

A reasonable selection of the Hackaday readership will have had their first experiences of computing on an 8-bit machine in a black case, with the word “Sinclair” on it. Even if you haven’t work with one of these machines you probably know that the man behind them was the sometimes colourful inventor Clive (now Sir Clive) Sinclair.

The finest in 1950s graphic design, applied to electronics books.
The finest in 1950s graphic design, applied to electronics books.

He was the founder of an electronics company that promised big results from its relatively inexpensive electronic products. Radio receivers that could fit in a matchbox, transistorised component stereo systems, miniature televisions, and affordable calculators had all received the Sinclair treatment from the early-1960s onwards. But it was towards the end of the 1970s that one of his companies produced its first microcomputer.

At the end of the 1950s, when the teenage Sinclair was already a prolific producer of electronics and in the early stages of starting his own electronics business, he took the entirely understandable route for a cash-strapped engineer and entrepreneur and began writing for a living. He wrote for electronics and radio magazines, later becoming assistant editor of the trade magazine Instrument Practice, and wrote electronic project books for Bernard’s Radio Manuals, and Bernard Babani Publishing. It is this period of his career that has caught our eye today, not simply for the famous association of the Sinclair name, but for the fascinating window his work gives us into the state of electronics at the time.

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An SSB Transceiver On Only One Type of Transistor

There are a multiplicity of transmission modes both new and old at the disposal of a radio amateur, but the leader of the pack is still single-sideband or SSB. An SSB transmitter emits the barest minimum of RF spectrum required to reconstitute an audio signal, only half of the mixer product between the audio and the RF carrier, and with the carrier removed. This makes SSB the most efficient of the analog voice modes, but at the expense of a complex piece of circuitry to generate it by analog means. Nevertheless, radio amateurs have produced some elegant designs for SSB transmitters, and this one for the 80m band from [VK3AJG] is a rather nice example even if it isn’t up-to-the-minute. What makes it rather special is that it relies on only one type of device, every one of its transistors is a BC547.

In design terms, it follows the lead set by other simple amateur transmitters, in that it has a 6 MHz crystal filter with a mixer at either end of it that switch roles on transmit or receive. It doesn’t use the bidirectional amplifiers popularised by VU2ESE’s Bitx design, instead, it selects transmit or receive using a set of diode switches. The power amplifier stretches the single-device ethos to the limit, by having multiple BC547s in parallel to deliver about half a watt.

While this transmitter specifies BC547s, it’s fair to say that many other devices could be substituted for this rather aged one. Radio amateurs have a tendency to stick with what they know and cling to obsolete devices, but within the appropriate specs a given bipolar transistor is very similar to any other bipolar transistor. Whatever device you use though, this design is simple enough that you don’t need to be a genius to build one.

Via [G4USP]. Thanks [2ftg] for the tip.

Monitor Foot Traffic Using Radio

We talk a lot about information security around here, but in reality it’s not at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Most people are content to walk around with their phones constantly looking for WiFi or Bluetooth connections despite the dangers. But if you’re not a black hat sort of person, you can do something like [Verkehrsrot] did and use all of these phones to do something useful and harmless.

[Verkehrsrot]’s project involves building a radio listening device in order to get an estimate of the amount of traffic in a particular area. The device polls for and detects WiFi and Bluetooth devices nearby and tallies them. For the privacy-minded, it doesn’t persistently store any information about the people or the devices that it detects. The project also runs on a variety of platforms, although you can get the whole thing up and running with little more than an ESP32 and a small lithium-ion battery.

If you’re looking for a useful way to tally the number of people in a given area, this project could be the thing for you. Not everyone keeps their WiFi and Bluetooth turned on, but even so this is still a good way to estimate. But if you need to count everyone going into a room, for example, you’ll need another way to count them.

Speaking the Same Language as a Wireless Thermometer

Temperature is a delicate thing. Our bodies have acclimated to a tight comfort band, so it is no wonder that we want to measure and control it accurately. Plus, heating and cooling are expensive. Measuring a single point in a dwelling may not be enough, especially if there are multiple controlled environments like a terrarium, pet enclosure, food storage, or just the garage in case the car needs to warm up. [Tim Leland] wanted to monitor commercially available sensors in several rooms of his house to track and send alerts.

The sensors of choice in this project are weather resistant and linked in his project page. Instead of connecting them to a black box, they are linked to a Raspberry Pi so your elaborate home automation schemes can commence. [Tim] learned how to speak the thermometer’s language from [Ray] who posted about it a few years ago.

The system worked well, but range from the receiver was only 10 feet. Thanks to some suggestions from his comments section, [Tim] switched the original 433MHz receiver for a superheterodyne version. Now the sensors can be a hundred feet from the hub. The upgraded receiver is also linked on his page.

We’ve delved into thermocouple reading recently, and we’ve featured [Tim Leland] and his 433MHz radios before.

Review: LimeSDR Mini Software Defined Radio Transceiver

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.

The LimeSDR Mini's chunky USB stick form factor.
The LimeSDR Mini’s chunky USB stick form factor.

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.)

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