Digital Attenuator Goes from Manual to Arduino Control

[Kerry Wong] comes across the coolest hardware, and always manages to do something interesting with it. His widget du jour is an old demo board for a digital RF attenuator chip, which can pad a signal in discrete steps according to the settings of some DIP switches. [Kerry]’s goal: forget the finger switch-flipping and bring the attenuator under Arduino control.

As usual with his videos, [Kerry] gives us a great rundown on the theory behind the hardware he’s working with. The chip in question is an interesting beast, an HMC624LP4E from Hittite, a company that was rolled into Analog Devices in 2014. The now-obsolete device is a monolithic microwave integrated circuit (MMIC) built on a gallium arsenide substrate rather than silicon, and attenuates DC to 6-GHz signals in 64 steps down to -31.5 dBm. After a functional check of the board using the DIP switches, he whipped up a quick Arduino project to control the chip with its built-in serial interface. It’s just a prototype for now, but spinning the encoder is a lot handier than flipping switches, and once this is boxed up it’ll make a great addition to [Kerry]’s RF bench.

If this video puts you in an RF state of mind, check out some of [Kerry]’s other videos, like this one about temperature-compensated crystal oscillators, or the mysteries of microwave electronics.

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These Capacitors are a Cheap Gimmick

If you search through an electrical engineering textbook, you probably aren’t going to find the phrase “gimmick capacitor” but every old ham radio operator knows about them. They come in handy when you need a very small capacitor of unknown value. For example, if you are trying to balance the stray capacitance in a circuit, you might not know exactly what value you need, but you know it won’t be very much. That’s when you want a gimmick capacitor.

A gimmick capacitor is made by taking two strands of insulated wire and twisting them together; the length and the tightness of the twist determine the capacitance. Tightening or loosening the twist, or trimming some of the wire off, makes it tunable.

These are most commonly found in RF equipment or high-speed logic because of the small capacitance involved — usually about 1 to 2 pF per inch of twist or so. The thicker the insulation, the less capacitance you’ll get, so it is common to use magnet wire or something else with a thin insulating layer. You can take this one step further and decrease the spacing by stripping down one wire as long as it isn’t going to touch anything else.

Obviously, the insulation needs to be good enough for the voltage on them, an important consideration in tube circuits, for instance. But other than that, a gimmick capacitor is a straightforward tool to have in your box of design tricks. Can we take this further? Continue reading “These Capacitors are a Cheap Gimmick”

Everything You Didn’t Know You Were Missing About Bias Tees

Do you need a bias tee? If you want to put a DC voltage on top of an RF signal, chances are that you do. But what exactly are bias tees, and how do they work?

If that’s your question, [W2AEW] has an answer for you with this informative video on the basics of bias tees. A bias tee allows a DC bias to be laid over an RF signal, and while that sounds like a simple job, theory and practice often deviate in the RF world. The simplest bias tee would have a capacitor in series with the RF input and output to pass AC but block DC from getting out the input, and a DC input with a series inductance to prevent RF from getting into the DC circuit. Practical circuits are slightly more complicated, and [W2AEW] covers all you need to know about how real-world bias tees are engineered. He also gives some use cases for bias tees, from sending DC signals up a feed line to control an antenna tuner or rotator to adding a DC bias to a high-speed serial line.

It’s an interesting circuit, and we learned a lot, which is par for the course with [W2AEW]’s videos. Check out some of his other offerings, like a practical guide to the mysteries of Smith charts, or his visualization of how standing waves work.

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High-Effort Streaming Remote for Low-Effort Bingeing

There’s no limit to the amount of work some people will put into avoiding work. For instance, why bother to get up from your YouTube-induced vegetative state to adjust the volume when you can design and build a remote to do it for you?

Loath to interrupt his PC streaming binge sessions, [miroslavus] decided to take matters into his own hands. When a commercially available wireless keyboard proved simultaneously overkill for the job and comically non-ergonomic, he decided to build a custom streaming remote. His recent microswitch encoder is prominently featured and provides scrolling control for volume and menu functions, and dedicated buttons are provided for play controls. The device reconfigures at the click of a switch to support Netflix, which like YouTube is controlled by sending keystrokes to the PC through a matching receiver. It’s a really thoughtful design, and we’re sure the effort [miroslavus] put into this will be well worth the dozens of calories it’ll save in the coming years.

A 3D-printed DIY remote is neat, but don’t forget that printing can also save a dog-chewed remote and win the Repairs You Can Print contest.

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A Watch Only A Ham Can Use

We’re not sure what to make of this one. With the variety of smartwatches and fitness trackers out there, we can’t be surprised by what sort of hardware ends up strapped to wrists these days. So a watch with an RPN calculator isn’t too much of a stretch. But adding a hex editor? And a disassembler? Oh, and while you’re at it, a transceiver for the 70cm ham band? Now that’s something you don’t see every day.

The mind boggles at not only the technical prowess needed to pull off what [Travis Goodspeed (KK4VCZ)] calls the GoodWatch, but at the thought process that led to all these features being packed into the case of a Casio calculator watch. But a lot of hacking is more about the “Why not?” than the “Why?”, and when you start looking at the feature set of the CC430F6137 microcontroller [Travis] chose, things start to make sense. The chip has a built-in RF subsystem, intended no doubt to enable wireless sensor designs. The GoodWatch20 puts the transceiver to work in the 430-MHz band, implementing a simple low-power (QRP) beacon. But the real story here is in the hacks [Travis] used to pull this off, like using flecks of Post-It notes to probe the LCD connections, and that he managed to stay within the confines of the original case.

There’s some real skill here, and it makes for an interesting read. And since the GoodWatch is powered by a coin cell, we think it’d be a great entry for our Coin Cell Challenge contest.

[via r/AmateurRadio]

Tapping into a Ham Radio’s Potential with SDRPlay

Software-defined radios are great tools for the amateur radio operator, allowing visualization of large swaths of spectrum and letting hams quickly home in on faint signals with the click of a mouse. High-end ham radios often have this function built in, but by tapping into the RF stage of a transceiver with an SDR, even budget-conscious hams can enjoy high-end features.

With both a rugged and reliable Yaesu FT-450D and the versatile SDRPlay in his shack, UK ham [Dave (G7IYK)] looked for the best way to link the two devices. Using two separate antennas was possible but inelegant, and switching the RF path between the two devices seemed clumsy. So he settled on tapping into the RF stage of the transceiver with a high-impedance low-noise amplifier (LNA) and feeding the output to the SDRPlay. The simple LNA was built on a milled PCB. A little sleuthing with the Yaesu manual — ham radio gear almost always includes schematics — led him to the right tap point in the RF path, just before the bandpass filter network. This lets the SDRPlay see the signal before the IF stage. He also identified likely points to source power for the LNA only when the radio is not transmitting. With the LNA inside the radio and the SDRPlay outside, he now has a waterfall display and thanks to Omni-Rig remote control software, he can tune the Yaesu at the click of a mouse.

If you need to learn more about SDRPlay, [Al Williams]’ guide to GNU Radio and SDRPlay is a great place to start.

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A TEMPEST in a Dongle

If a couple of generations of spy movies have taught us anything, it’s that secret agents get the best toys. And although it may not be as cool as a radar-equipped Aston Martin or a wire-flying rig for impossible vault heists, this DIY TEMPEST system lets you snoop on computers using secondary RF emissions.

If the term TEMPEST sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve covered it before. [Elliot Williams] gave an introduction to the many modalities that fall under the TEMPEST umbrella, the US National Security Agency’s catch-all codename for bridging air gaps by monitoring the unintended RF, light, or even audio emissions of computers. And more recently, [Brian Benchoff] discussed a TEMPEST hack that avoided the need for thousands of dollars of RF gear, reducing the rig down to an SDR dongle and a simple antenna. There’s even an app for that now: TempestSDR, a multiplatform Java app that lets you screen scrape a monitor based on its RF signature. Trouble is, getting the app running on Windows machines has been a challenge, but RTL-SDR.com reader [flatfishfly] solved some of the major problems and kindly shared the magic. The video below shows TempestSDR results; it’s clear that high-contrast images at easiest to snoop on, but it shows that a $20 dongle and some open-source software can bridge an air gap. Makes you wonder what’s possible with deeper pockets.

RF sniffing is only one of many ways to exfiltrate data from an air-gapped system. From power cords to security cameras, there seems to be no end to the ways to breach systems.

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