RF Modulation: Crash Course For Hackers

When you’re looking to add some wireless functionality to a project, there are no shortage of options. You really don’t need to know much of the technical details to make use of the more well-documented modules, especially if you just need to get something working quickly. On the other hand, maybe you’ve gotten to the point where you want to know how these things actually work, or maybe you’re curious about that cheap RF module on AliExpress. Especially in the frequency bands below 1 GHz, you might find yourself interfacing with a module at really low level, where you might be tuning modulation parameters. The following overview should give you enough of an understanding about the basics of RF modulation to select the appropriate hardware for your next project.

Three of the most common digital modulation schemes you’ll see in specifications are Frequency Shift Keying (FSK), Amplitude Shift Keying (ASK), and LoRa (Long Range). To wrap my mechanically inclined brain around some concepts, I found that thinking of RF modulation in terms of pitches produced by a musical instrument made it more intuitive.

And lots of pretty graphs don’t hurt either. Signals from two different RF dev boards were captured and turned into waterfall and FFT plots using a $20 RTL-SDR dongle. Although not needed for wireless experimentation, the RTL-SDR is an extremely handy debugging tool, even to just check if a module is actually transmitting. Continue reading “RF Modulation: Crash Course For Hackers”

Mr. Carlson Gets Zapped By Snow

As a Canadian, [Mr. Carlson] knows a thing or two about extreme winter weather. Chances are good, though, that he never thought he’d get zapped with high voltage generated by falling snow.

[Mr. Carlson]’s shocking tale began with a quiet evening in his jam-packed lab as a snowstorm raged outside. He heard a rhythmic clicking coming from the speakers of his computer, even with the power off. Other speakers in the lab were getting into the act, as was an old radio receiver he had on the bench. The radio, which was connected to an outdoor antenna by a piece of coax, was arcing from a coil to the chassis in the front end of the radio. The voltage was enough to create arcs a couple of millimeters long and bright blue-white, with enough current to give [Mr. Carlson] a good bite when he touched the coax. The discharges were also sufficient to destroy an LED light bulb in a lamp that was powered off but whose power cord was unlucky enough to cross the antenna feedline.

Strangely, the coil from which the arc sprang formed a 36-ohm shunt to the radio’s chassis, giving the current an apparently easy path to ground. But it somehow found a way around that, and still managed to do no damage to the sturdy old radio in the process. [Mr. Carlson] doesn’t offer much speculation as to the cause of the phenomenon, but the triboelectric effect seems a likely suspect. Whatever it is, he has set a trap for it, to capture better footage and take measurements should it happen again. And since it’s the Great White North, chances are good we’ll see a follow-up sometime soon.

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Full Duplex Radio Claimed Easier With Analog Module

There’s an old saying that we have one mouth and two ears so you can listen twice as much as you talk. However, talking and listening at the same time is fairly difficult and doing it with radio signals is especially hard. A company called Kumu Networks has an analog module that can use self-interference cancellation which allows transmitting and receiving on the same frequency with around 50 dB of the transmitted signal in the transceiver. You can see a video about Kumu’s claims its technology below.

You may think that cell phones and ham radio repeaters transmit and receive at the same time, which of course they do, but usually on different frequencies to avoid direct interference. A diplexer is a device that sorts out the two frequencies while a duplexer sorts them out by the direction of the signal, but they are tricky to use. A duplexer can operate on a single frequency in applications such as radar, and even then it is still very difficult to prevent leakage from the transmitter from overloading and desensitizing the receiver.

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Fail Of The Week: Ambitious Vector Network Analyzer Fails To Deliver

If you’re going to fail, you might as well fail ambitiously. A complex project with a lot of subsystems has a greater chance of at least partial success, as well as providing valuable lessons in what not to do next time. At least that’s the lemonade [Josh Johnson] made from his lemon of a low-cost vector network analyzer.

For the uninitiated, a VNA is a versatile test instrument for RF work that allows you to measure both the amplitude and the phase of a signal, and it can be used for everything from antenna and filter design to characterizing transmission lines. [Josh] decided to port a lot of functionality for his low-cost VNA to a host computer and concentrate on the various RF stages of the design. Unfortunately, [Josh] found the performance of the completed VNA to be wanting, especially in the phase measurement department. He has a complete analysis of the failure modes in his thesis, but the short story is poor filtering of harmonics from the local oscillator, unexpected behavior by the AD8302 chip at the heart of his design, and calibration issues. Confounding these issues was the time constraint; [Josh] might well have gotten the issues sorted out had the clock not run out on the school year.

After reading through [Josh]’s description of his project, which was a final-year project and part of his thesis, we feel like his rating of the build as a failure is a bit harsh. Ambitious, perhaps, but with a spate of low-cost VNAs coming on the market, we can see where he got the inspiration. We understand [Josh]’s disappointment, but there were a lot of wins here, from the excellent build quality to the top-notch documentation.

Weird World Of Microwaves Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, December 18 at noon Pacific for the Weird World of Microwaves Hack Chat with Shahriar Shahramian! We’ve been following him on The Signal Path for years and are excited to pick his brain on what is often considered one of the dark arts of electronics.

No matter how much you learn about electronics, there always seems to be another door to open. You think you know a thing or two once you learn about basic circuits, and then you discover RF circuits. Things start to get a little strange there, and stranger still as the wavelengths decrease and you start getting into the microwave bands. That’s where you see feed lines become waveguides, PCB traces act as components, and antennas that look more like musical instruments.

Shahriar is no stranger to this land. He’s been studying millimeter-wave systems for decades, and his day job is researching millimeter-wave ASICs for Nokia Bell Labs in New Jersey, the birthplace of the transistor. In his spare time, Shahriar runs The Signal Path, a popular blog and YouTube channel where he dives tear-downs, explanations, and repairs of incredibly sophisticated and often outrageously expensive equipment.

We’ll be sitting down with Shahriar this week for the last Hack Chat of 2019 with a peek inside his weird, wonderful world of microwaves. Join us with your questions about RF systems, microwaves in the communication industry, and perhaps even how he manages to find the gear featured on his channel.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, December 18 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

A Modern Take On A Piece Of Old Test Equipment

The HP 11947A is something of a footnote in the back catalogue of Hewlett Packard test equipment. An attenuator and limiter with a bandwidth in the megahertz rather than the gigahertz. It’s possible that few laboratories have much use for one in 2019, but it does have one useful property: a full set of schematics and technical documentation. [James Wilson] chose the device as the subject of a clone using surface mount devices.

The result is very satisfyingly within spec, and he’s run a battery of tests to prove it. As he says, the HP design is a good one to start with.   As a device containing only passive components and with a maximum frequency in the VHF range this is a project that makes a very good design exercise for anyone interested in RF work or even who wishes to learn a bit of RF layout. At these frequencies there are still a significant number of layout factors that can affect performance, but the effect of conductor length and  stray capacitance is less than the much higher frequencies typically used by wireless-enabled microcontrollers.

Hackaday Superconference: An Analog Engineer Dives Into RF

Those of us who work with electronics will usually come to the art through a particular avenue that we master while imbibing what we need from those around it. For example, an interest in audio circuitry may branch into DSP and microcontrollers as projects become more complex. Some realms though retain an aura of impossibility, a reputation as a Dark Art, and chief among them for many people is radio frequency (RF). Radio circuitry is often surprisingly simple, yet that simplicity conceals a wealth of complexity because the medium does not behave in the orderly manner of a relatively static analogue voltage or a set of low-frequency logic levels.

Chris Gammell is a familiar face to many Hackaday readers for his mastery of much electronic trickery, so it comes as something of a surprise to find that RF has been one of the gaps in his knowledge. In his talk at the Hackaday Superconference he took us through his journey into RF work, and the result is a must-watch for anyone with a curiosity about radio circuitry who didn’t know where to start.

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