How To Evolve A Radio

Evolutionary algorithms are an interesting topic of study. Rather then relying on human ingenuity and investigation to create new designs, instead, an algorithm is given a target to achieve, and creates “offspring”, iterating in an evolutionary manner to create offspring that get closer to the target with each generation.

This method can be applied to the design of electronic circuits, and is sometimes referred to as “hardware evolution”. A team from Duke University attempted exactly this, aiming to produce an oscillator using evolutionary techniques.

The team used a platform called the “evolvable motherboard”, or EM. The EM is a platform controlled by an attached computer, consisting of reconfigurable solid state switches that allow attached circuit components to be interconnected in every combination possible. These components may be virtually any electronic component; in this experiment, 10 bipolar transistors were used.

The evolutionary algorithm was given a fitness function that rewarded output amplitude and frequency, aiming to create an oscillator operating at 25KHz. However, the team noticed some interesting emergent behavior. The algorithm tended to reward amplification behavior from the circuit, leading to many configurations that oscillated poorly, but amplified ambient noise. In the end, the algorithm developed circuit configurations that acted as a radio, picking up and amplifying signals from the surrounding environment, rather than oscillating on their own. The evolutionary algorithm took advantage of the interaction between not only the circuit elements, but effects such as the parasitic capacitance introduced by the switching matrix and appeared to use the PCB circuit traces as an antenna.

The team conclude that evolutionary algorithms used in circuit design ignore human preconceptions about how circuits work, and will take advantage of sometimes unpredictable and unexpected effects to achieve their targets. This is a blessing and a curse, bringing unconventional designs to the fore, but also creating circuits that may not work well in a generalized environment. If your “oscillator” relies on a nearby noise source to operate, it may operate unpredictably in the field, for example.

We’ve seen evolutionary algorithms used before, such as being applied to robotic design.

Short Length of Wire Turns STM32 Microcontroller into Good-enough Wireless UART Blaster

Hackaday regular [befinitiv] wrote into the tip line to let us know about a hack you might enjoy, wireless UART output from a bare STM32 microcontroller. Desiring the full printf debugging experience, but constrained both by available space and expense, [befinitiv] was inspired to improvise by a similar hack that used the STM32 to send Morse code over standard FM frequencies.

In this case, [befinitiv]’s solution is both more useful and slightly more legal, as the software uses the 27 MHz ISM band to blast out ASK modulated serial data through a simple wire antenna attached to one of the microcontroller’s pins. The broadcast can then be picked up by an RTL-SDR receiver and interpreted back into a stream of data by GNU Radio.

The software for the STM32 and the GNU Radio Companion graph are both available on Bitbucket. The blog post goes into some detail explaining how the transmitter works and what all the GNU Radio components are doing to claw the serial data back from the ether.

[cover image cc by-sa licensed by Adam Greig, randomskk on Flickr]

DIY Tuning Capacitors from Washers and 3D-Printed Parts

The inside of classic radios holds wonders that the sterile chips and SMD components of today’s circuits can’t hold a candle to. Chunky resistors and capacitors, vacuum tubes with cathodes aglow, and seemingly free-form loops of wire forming inductors will all likely make an appearance. But the most fascinating bit of any old radio was connected to the tuning knob: the big variable capacitor with its interdigitating metal plates. Watching one at work, with its plates evenly and finely spaced, is still a joy to behold.

In an attempt to recapture a little of that magic, [Jeremy S. Cook] came up with this home-brew variable tuning capacitor. The frame is built mainly from 3D-printed parts, which supports a shaft made from a common bolt. Plates are fashioned from stainless steel fender washers cut in half; the fixed plates are press-fit into the frame while the rotary plates ride on the shaft. The spacing between the rotary plates is maintained by printed spacers, which also serve to lock the rotor into one solid unit. [Jeremy]’s prototype, for which he provides STL files, can be tuned between about 7 and 15 pF. Check out the build in the video below.

We love the look of this, and we can imagine custom tuning caps would come in handy for certain retro radio builds. The tuning range is a little narrow, but that could be fixed with more plates or closer spacing. That might be a tall order with thick steel washers, but we’ve seen really thin aluminum machined and closely spaced before, so this might be one approach to higher capacitance. Continue reading “DIY Tuning Capacitors from Washers and 3D-Printed Parts”

Tiny Telescope For Simple Radio Astronomy

We are used to imagining radio telescopes as immense pieces of scientific apparatus, such as the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, or the Lovell telescope in the UK. It’s a surprise then that they can be constructed on a far more modest sale using off-the-shelf components, and it’s a path that [Gonçalo Nespral] has taken with his tiny radio telescope using a satellite dish. It’s on an azimuth-elevation mount using an Ikea lazy susan and a lead screw, and it has a satellite TV LNB at the hot end with a satellite finder as its detector.

So far he’s managed only to image the wall of his apartment, but that clearly shows the presence of the metal supporting structure within it. Taking it outdoors has however not been such a success. If we wanted to hazard a guess as to why this is the case, we’d wish to look at the bandwidth of that satellite finder. It’s designed to spot a signal from a TV broadcast bird over the whole band, and thus will have a bandwidth in the hundreds of MHz and a sensitivity that could at best be described as a bit deaf. We hope he’ll try a different path such as an RTL-SDR in the future, and we look forward to his results.

This isn’t the first simple radio telescope we’ve seen here, aside from at least one other LNB-based one we’ve also shown you a WiFi device.

Studying Airplane Radio Reflections With SDR

A property of radio waves is that they tend to reflect off things. Metal surfaces in particular act as good reflectors, and by studying how these reflections work, it’s possible to achieve all manner of interesting feats. [destevez] decided to have some fun with reflections from local air traffic, and was kind enough to share the results.

The project centers around receiving 2.3 GHz signals from a local ham beacon that have been reflected by planes taking off from the Madrid-Barajas airport. The beacon was installed by a local ham, and transmits a CW idenfication and tone at 2 W of power.

In order to try and receive reflections from nearby aircraft, [destevez] put together a simple but ingenious setup.

ADS-B data was plotted on a map and correlated with the received reflections.

A LimeSDR radio was used, connected to a 9 dB planar 2.4 GHz WiFi antenna. This was an intentional choice, as it has a wide radiation pattern which is useful for receiving reflections from odd angles. A car was positioned between the antenna and the beacon to avoid the direct signal overpowering reflected signals from aircraft.

Data was recorded, and then compared with ADS-B data on aircraft position and velocity, allowing recorded reflections to be matched to the flight paths of individual flights after the fact. It’s a great example of smart radio sleuthing using SDR and how to process such data. If you’re thirsty for more, check out this project to receive Russian weather sat images with an SDR.

[Thanks to Adrian for the tip!]

Help For High-Frequency Hobbyists

Dead-bug circuit building is not a pretty affair, but hey, function over form. We usually make them because we don’t have a copper circuit board available or the duty of making one at home is not worth the efforts and chemical stains.

[Robert Melville and Alaina G. Levine] bring to light a compromise for high-frequency prototypes which uses the typical FR4 blank circuit board, but no etching chemicals. The problem with high-frequency radio is that building a circuit on a breadboard will not work because there is too much added inductance and capacitance from the wiring that will wreak havoc on the whole circuit. The solution is not new, build your radio module on a circuit board by constructing “lands” over a conductive ground plane, where components can be isolated on the same unetched board.

All right, sometimes dead-bug circuits capture an aesthetic all their own, especially when they look like this and they do allow for a darned small package for one-off designs.

Buy A Baofeng While You Still Can? FCC Scowls at Unauthorized Frequency Transmitters

There was a time when a handheld radio transceiver was an object of wonder, and a significant item for any radio amateur to own. A few hundred dollars secured you an FM walkie-talkie through which you could chat on your local repeater, and mobile radio was a big draw for new hams. Thirty years later FM mobile operation may be a bit less popular, but thanks to Chinese manufacturing the barrier to entry is lower than it has ever been. With extremely basic handheld radios starting at around ten dollars and a capable dual-bander being yours for somewhere over twice that, most licencees will now own a Baofeng UV5 or similar radio.

The FCC though are not entirely happy with these radios, and QRZ Now are reporting that the FCC has issued an advisory prohibiting the import or sale of devices that do not comply with their rules. In particular they are talking about devices that can transmit on unauthorised frequencies, and ones that are capable of transmission bandwidths greater than 12.5 kHz.

We’ve reported before on the shortcomings of some of these radios, but strangely this news doesn’t concern itself with their spurious emissions. We’re guessing that radio amateurs are not the problem here, and the availability of cheap transceivers has meant that the general public are using them for personal communication without a full appreciation of what frequencies they may be using. It’s traditional and normal for radio amateurs to use devices capable of transmitting out-of-band, but with a licence to lose should they do that they are also a lot more careful about their RF emissions.

Read the FCC statement and you’ll learn they are not trying to restrict the sale of ham gear. However, they are insisting that imported radios that can transmit on other frequencies must be certified. Apparently, opponents of these radios claim about 1 million units a year show up in the US, so this is a big business. The Bureau warns that fines can be as high as $19,639 per day for continued marketing and up to $147,290 — we have no idea how they arrive at those odd numbers.

So if you’re an American who hasn’t already got a Baofeng or similar, you might be well advised to pick one up while you still can.

UV5-R image via PE1RQM