Antenna Tuning For GHz Frequencies

Antenna tuning at HF frequencies is something that radio amateurs learn as part of their licence exam, and then hone over their time operating. A few basic instruments and an LC network antenna tuner in a box are all that is required, and everything from a bit of wet string to ten thousand dollars worth of commercial antenna can be loaded up and used to work the world. When a move is made into the gigahertz range though it becomes a little more difficult. The same principles apply, but the variables of antenna design are much harder to get right and a par of wire snippers and an antenna tuner is no longer enough. With a plethora of GHz-range electronic devices surrounding us there has been more than one engineer sucked into a well of doom by imagining that their antenna design would be an easy task.

An article from Baseapp then makes for very interesting reading. Titled “Antenna tuning for beginners“, it approaches the subject from the perspective of miniature GHz antennas for IoT devices and the like. We’re taken through the basics and have a look at different types of antennas and connectors, before being introduced to a Vector Network Analyser, or VNA. Here is where some of the Black Art of high frequency RF design is laid bare, with everything explained through a series of use cases.

Though many of you will at some time or other work with these frequencies it’s very likely that few of you will do this kind of design exercise. It’s hard work, and there are so many ready-made RF modules upon which an engineer has already done the difficult part for you. But it does no harm to know something about it, so it’s very much worth taking a look at this piece.

It’s an area we’ve ventured into before, at a Superconference a few years ago [Michael Ossmann] gave us a fundamental introduction to RF design.

Fail Of The Week: The Arduino Walkie That Won’t Talkie

There’s something seriously wrong with the Arduino walkie-talkie that [GreatScott!] built.

The idea is simple: build a wireless intercom so a group of motor scooter riders can talk in real-time. Yes, such products exist commercially, but that’s no fun at all. With a little ingenuity and a well-stocked parts bin, such a device should be easy to build on the cheap, right?

Apparently not. [GreatScott!] went with an Arduino-based design, partly due to familiarity with the microcontroller but also because it made the RF part of the project seemingly easier due to cheap and easily available nRF24 2.4 GHz audio streaming modules. Everything seems straightforward enough on the breadboard – an op-amp to boost the signal from the condenser mic, a somewhat low but presumably usable 16 kHz sampling rate for the ADC. The radio modules linked up, but the audio quality was heavily distorted.

[GreatScott!] assumed that the rat’s nest of jumpers on the breadboard was to blame, so he jumped right to a PCB build. It’s a logical step, but it seems like it might be where he went wrong, because the PCB version was even worse. We’d perhaps have isolated the issue with the breadboard circuit first; did the distortion come from the audio stage? Or perhaps did the digitization inject some distortion? Or could the distortion be coming from the RF stage? We’d want to answer a few questions like that before jumping to a final design.

We love that [GreatScott!] has no issue with posting his failures – we’ve covered his suboptimal CPU handwarmer, and his 3D-printed BLDC motor stator was a flop too. It’s always nice to post mortem these things to avoid a similar fate.

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A DIY Step Attenuator, By Gluing Together Two Smaller Ones

In the RF world, attenuators are a useful test and measurement tool. Variable units that can apply different levels of attenuation in discrete steps are even better. [DuWayne] made a 63 dB step attenuator by putting two smaller units in series, with an Arduino Nano in control of them. With a 3D printed enclosure and OLED for feedback, the device is easily adjusted with a single rotary encoder. There was even room to add a micro USB plug for recharging the power supply.

The two smaller digital attenuators [DuWayne] used are essentially breakout boards for the PE4302 digital RF attenuator, and cheaply available from the usual overseas sources. They are capable of up to 31.5 dB of attenuation in 0.5 dB steps, and by using two in series (and controlling them in parallel) [DuWayne] gets a range of up to 63 dB. The design files can be downloaded from a Dropbox share for the project, should you wish to try any of it for yourself.

Are you interested in RF and maybe software defined radio (SDR)? We’ve covered all the stuff you’ll need to get started with an inexpensive RTL-SDR, and sooner or later you may find yourself in need of [Dan Maloney]’s info on cheap and effective dummy loads.

Camera Sees Electromagnetic Interference Using An SDR And Machine Vision

It’s one thing to know that your device is leaking electromagnetic interference (EMI), but if you really want to solve the problem, it might be helpful to know where the emissions are coming from. This heat-mapping EMI probe will answer that question, with style. It uses a webcam to record an EMI probe and the overlay a heat map of the interference on the image itself.

Regular readers will note that the hardware end of [Charles Grassin]’s EMI mapper bears a strong resemblance to the EMC probe made from semi-rigid coax we featured recently. Built as a cheap DIY substitute for an expensive off-the-shelf probe set for electromagnetic testing, the probe was super simple: just a semi-rigid coax jumper with one SMA plug lopped off and the raw end looped back and soldered. Connected to an SDR dongle, the probe proved useful for tracking down noisy circuits.

[Charles]’ project takes that a step further by adding a camera that looks down upon the device under test. OpenCV is used to track the probe, which is moved over the DUT manually with the help of an augmented reality display that helps track coverage, with a Python script recording its position and the RF power measurements. The video below shows the capture process and what the data looks like when reassembled as an overlay on top of the device.

Even if EMC testing isn’t your thing, this one seems like a lot of fun for the curious. [Charles] has kindly made the sources available on GitHub, so this is a great project to just knock out quickly and start mapping.

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Cold Plasma Torch Produces A Cleansing Flame That Never Consumes

It’s basically a lightsaber. Except smaller. And with an invisible blade. And cold to the touch. But other than that, this homebrew cold plasma torch (YouTube, embedded below) is just like the Jedi’s choice in elegant weaponry.

Perhaps we shouldn’t kid [Justin] given how hard he worked on this project – seventeen prototypes before hitting on the version seen in the video below – but he himself notes the underwhelming appearance of the torch without the benefit of long-exposure photography. That doesn’t detract from how cool this build is, pun intended. As [Justin] explains, cold plasma or non-equilibrium plasma is an ionized stream of gas where the electron temperature is much hotter than the temperature of the heavier, more thermally conductive species in the stream. It’s pretty common stuff, seen commercially in everything from mercury vapor lamps to microbial sterilization.

It’s the latter use that piqued [Justin]’s interest and resulted in a solid year of prototyping before dialing in a design using a flyback transformer to delivery the high voltage to a stream of argon flowing inside a capillary tube. The quartz tube acts as a dielectric that keeps electrons from escaping and allows argon to be ionized and wafted gently from the tube before it can reach thermal equilibrium. The result is a faint blue glowing flame that’s barely above room temperature but still has all the reactive properties of a plasma. The video shows all the details of construction and shows the torch in action.

Hats off to [Justin] for sticking with a difficult build and coming through it with an interesting and useful device. We’ve no doubt he’ll put it to good use in his DIY biohacking lab in the coming months.

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Does WiFi Kill Houseplants?

Spoiler alert: No.

To come to that conclusion, which runs counter to the combined wisdom of several recent YouTube videos, [Andrew McNeil] ran a pretty neat little experiment. [Andrew] has a not inconsiderable amount of expertise in this area, as an RF engineer and prolific maker of many homebrew WiFi antennas, some of which we’ve featured on these pages before. His experiment centered on cress seeds sprouting in compost. Two identical containers were prepared, with one bathed from above in RF energy from three separate 2.4 GHz transmitters. Each transmitter was coupled to an amplifier and a PCB bi-quad antenna to radiate about 300 mW in slightly different parts of the WiFi spectrum. Both setups were placed in separate rooms in east-facing windows, and each was swapped between rooms every other day, to average out microenvironmental effects.

After only a few days, the cress sprouted in both pots and continued to grow. There was no apparent inhibition of the RF-blasted sprouts – in fact, they appeared a bit lusher than the pristine pot. [Andrew] points out that it’s not real science until it’s quantified, so his next step is to repeat the experiment and take careful biomass measurements. He’s also planning to ramp up the power on the next round as well.

We’d like to think this will put the “WiFi killed my houseplants” nonsense to rest – WiFi can even help keep your plants alive, after all. But somehow we doubt that the debate will die anytime soon.

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Understanding Modulated RF With [W2AEW]

There was a time — not long ago — when radio and even wired communications depended solely upon Morse code with OOK (on off keying). Modulating RF signals led to practical commercial radio stations and even modern cell phones. Although there are many ways to modulate an RF carrier with voice AM or amplitude modulation is the oldest method. A recent video from [W2AEW] shows how this works and also how AM can be made more efficient by stripping the carrier and one sideband using SSB or single sideband modulation. You can see the video, below.

As is typical of a [W2AEW] video, there’s more than just theory. An Icom transmitter provides signals in the 40 meter band to demonstrate the real world case. There’s discussion about how to measure peak envelope power (PEP) and comparison to average power and other measurements, as well.

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