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.
The arrival of affordable software defined radio technologies over the last couple of decades has completely changed the way that radio amateurs and other radio enthusiasts approach the airwaves. There’s a minor problem with most software defined receivers though, being by their nature software driven they will usually rely on a host computer for their interface. Thus the experience is one of clicking mouse buttons or using keyboard shortcuts rather than the mechanical analogue dial interfaces that provided easy control of older radios.
This is a problem that has been addressed by [Jon Hudson, G4ABQ], with one of his SDRplay receivers. He’s mounted it and its control PC in the chassis of a very aged and non-functional Marconi CR100 communication receiver, and given it a control interface that only uses the Marconi’s front panel controls (YouTube link). A rotary encoder has been grafted onto the Marconi tuning capacitor with what looks like some Meccano, and in turn that feeds an Arduino which behaves as a keyboard for the benefit of the PC. Some extra buttons have been added for mode selection, spectrum zoom and shift, and care appears to have been taken to give their labels a period feel. Arduino code came courtesy of [Mike Ladd, KD2KOG]. The result is a very controllable SDR receiver, albeit one in a rather large case.
If you are interested in the project then we are told that it will be on the RS stand at Electronica in Munich next week, meanwhile we’ve put the video below the break.
Although GRC (the GNU Radio Companion) uses the word radio, it is really a graphical tool for building DSP applications. In the last post, I showed you how you could experiment with it just by using a sound card (or even less). However, who can resist the lure of building an actual radio by dragging blocks around on a computer screen?
For this post and the accompanying video, I used an SDRPlay. This little black box has an antenna jack on one end and a USB port on the other. You can ask it to give you data about a certain area of the RF spectrum and it will send complex (IQ) data out in a form that GRC (or other DSP tools) can process.
The SDRPlay is a great deal (about $150) but if you don’t want to invest in one there are other options. Some are about the same price (like the HackRF or AirSpy) and have different features. However, you can also use cheap TV dongles, with some limitations. The repurposed dongles are not as sensitive and won’t work at lower frequencies without some external help. On the other hand, they are dirt cheap, so you can overlook a few little wrinkles. You just can’t expect the performance you’ll get out of a more expensive SDR box. Some people add amplifiers and converters to overcome these problems, but at some point it would be more cost effective to just spring for a more expensive converter.
Regular Hackaday readers are used to seeing the hacks that use a cheap USB TV dongle as a software defined radio (SDR). There’s plenty of software that will work with them including the excellent GNU Radio software. However, the hardware is pretty bare-bones. Without modifications, the USB dongle won’t get lower frequencies.
There’s been plenty of other SDR radios available but they’ve had a much heftier price tag. But we recently noticed the SDRPlay RSP, and they now have US distribution. The manufacturer says it will receive signals with 12-bits of resolution over the range of 100 kHz to 2 GHz with an 8MHz bandwidth. The USB cable supplies power and a connection to the PC. The best part? An open API that supports Windows, Linux, Mac, Android, and will even work on a Raspberry Pi (and has GNU Radio support, too).