Review: Hands On With The Swarm Satellite Network Eval Kit

If you have devices out in the field, you probably want to connect with them. There was a time when that was hard to do, requiring telephone wires or specialized radio gear. Now cellular data is prevalent, but even cellular isn’t everywhere. If you have the cash, you can pay a number of satellite companies to carry your data, but that’s generally pricey and has its own challenges.

The age of satellite constellations is changing that. Of course everyone by now has heard of Starlink which is offering satellite internet via numerous satellites that are much smaller than traditional telecom satellites. But they’re not the only came in town.

A company called Swarm has put up a constellation of 1/4U cube satellites in low orbits. They offer a ground station that uses an omni antenna and a subscription access program for small amounts of data. They sent us a unit to review, and while I haven’t used the system in a real project yet, the kit was pretty impressive.

About Swarm

Swarm tile device
The Swarm Tile is made to mount on a PCB

The Swarm “tile” is a tiny radio that can talk bi-directionally with small satellites in low Earth orbit. The little unit is made to mount on a PCB, can control its power consumption, and talks to your system via a standard 3.3V UART connection. It does, however, require a small antenna and maybe even a smaller antenna for its GPS module. Small, in this case, is about a mid-size handy talkie antenna. There is a half-wave antenna that doesn’t need a ground plane and a shorter antenna that does need a ground plane.

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L Band Satellite Antennas Revealed

[SignalsEverywhere] has a lot of satellite antennas and he’s willing to show them off — inside and out — in his latest video that you can see below. Using software-defined radio techniques, you can use these antennas to pull off weather satellite images and other space signals.

A lot of these antennas are actually made for some commercial purpose like keeping ships connected to Inmarsat. In fact, the shipborne antenna has a nice motorized system for pointing the antenna that [SignalsEverywhere] is hoping to modify for his own purposes.

With what appears to be standard NEMA 17 steppers onboard, it should be relatively easy to supplant the original controller with an Arduino and CNC shield. Though considering the resale value these particular units seem to have on eBay, we might be inclined to just roll our own positioner.

The QHF QFH antenna is another interesting teardown. The antenna makes a helix shape and looks like it would be interesting to build from scratch. There isn’t a lot of details about the antenna designs, but it is interesting to see the variety and range of antennas and how they appear internally.

L band is from 1 GHz to 2 GHz, so signals and antennas get very strange at these frequencies. The wavelength of a 2GHz signal is only 15cm, so small antennas can work quite well and are often as much mechanical designs as electrical. The L band contains everything from GPS to phone calls to ADS-B.

We’ve seen radiosonde antennas reborn before. Dish antenna repurposing is also popular.

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3D Printed Helical Satcom Feed

With the advent of cheap software defined radios made popular by the RTL-SDR project a few years back, satellite communications are now within the budget of even the most modest hacker. For $20 USD you can get a USB SDR module that is more than capable of receiving signals from any number of geosynchronous satellites, but you’ll need something a little more robust than rabbit ears to pick up a signal broadcast from over 22,000 miles away.

Building a satellite-capable antenna isn’t necessarily difficult, but does involve a fair bit of arcane black magic and mathematics to do properly; something that can scare away those new to the hobby. But by using a 3D printed mandrel, [Tysonpower] has come up with a feed you can build and mount on a standard dish without having to take a crash course in antenna theory. [Tysonpower] reports the feed has a center frequency 1550 MHz, and works well for reception of Inmarsat, AERO and HRPT signals.

The channel in the 3D printed core of the feed ensures that the inserted wire is of the correct length and in the perfect position for optimal reception. All you need to do is print the core, wrap it with wire, and then solder the end to a connector on a ground-plane that’s nothing more than a sheet of aluminum. [Tysonpower] was even kind enough to model up a mount that will allow you to bolt this feed to a standard satellite dish.

We’ve previously covered using RTL-SDR to receive Inmarsat transmissions, and hardware for the Outernet project, both of which would be great applications for an antenna like this.

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