Superheterodyne Radios Explained

The general public thinks there is one thing called a radio. Sure, they know there are radios that pick up different channels, but other than that, one radio is pretty much like the other. But if you are involved in electronics, you probably know there are lots of ways a radio can work internally. A crystal set is very different from an FM stereo, and that’s different still from a communications receiver. We’d say there are several common architectures for receivers and one of the most common is the superheterodyne. But what does that mean exactly? [Technology Connection] has a casual explanation video that discusses how a superhet works and why it is important. You can see the video, below.

Engineering has always been about building on abstractions. This is especially true now when you can get an IC or module that does most of what you want it to do. But even without those, you would hardly start an electronics project by mining copper wire, refining it, and drawing your own wire. You probably don’t make many of your own resistors and capacitors, neither do you start your design at the fundamental electronic equations. But there’s one abstraction we often forget about: architecture. If you are designing a receiver, you probably don’t try to solve the problem of radio reception; instead you pick an architecture that is proven and design to that.

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Speaking the Same Language as a Wireless Thermometer

Temperature is a delicate thing. Our bodies have acclimated to a tight comfort band, so it is no wonder that we want to measure and control it accurately. Plus, heating and cooling are expensive. Measuring a single point in a dwelling may not be enough, especially if there are multiple controlled environments like a terrarium, pet enclosure, food storage, or just the garage in case the car needs to warm up. [Tim Leland] wanted to monitor commercially available sensors in several rooms of his house to track and send alerts.

The sensors of choice in this project are weather resistant and linked in his project page. Instead of connecting them to a black box, they are linked to a Raspberry Pi so your elaborate home automation schemes can commence. [Tim] learned how to speak the thermometer’s language from [Ray] who posted about it a few years ago.

The system worked well, but range from the receiver was only 10 feet. Thanks to some suggestions from his comments section, [Tim] switched the original 433MHz receiver for a superheterodyne version. Now the sensors can be a hundred feet from the hub. The upgraded receiver is also linked on his page.

We’ve delved into thermocouple reading recently, and we’ve featured [Tim Leland] and his 433MHz radios before.

Hacking When it Counts: POW Canteen Radios

Of all the horrors visited upon a warrior, being captured by the enemy might count as the worst. With death in combat, the suffering is over, but with internment in a POW camp, untold agonies may await. Tales of torture, starvation, enslavement and indoctrination attend the history of every nation’s prison camps to some degree, even in the recent past with the supposedly civilizing influence of the Hague and Geneva Conventions.

But even the most humanely treated POWs universally suffer from one thing: lack of information. To not know how the war is progressing in your absence is a form of torture in itself, and POWs do whatever they can to get information. Starting in World War II, imprisoned soldiers and sailors familiar with the new field of electronics began using whatever materials they could scrounge and the abundance of time available to them to hack together solutions to the fundamental question, “How goes the war?” This is the story of the life-saving radios some POWs managed to hack together under seemingly impossible conditions.

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Radio Receiver Build Log and More

At Hackaday, we like to see build logs, and over on Hackaday.io, you can find plenty of them. Sometimes, though, a builder really outdoes themselves with a lot of great detail on a project, and [N6QW’s] Simple-Ceiver project certainly falls into that category. The project logs document many different stages of completeness, and we linked the first one for you as a starting point, but you’ll definitely want to read up to the present. (There were 16 parts, some spanning multiple posts, last time we checked).

It is definitely worth the effort though. The project started out as a direct conversion receiver, but the design goes through and converts it into a superheterodyne receiver. Along the way, [N6QW] shares construction techniques, design advice, and even simulation plots (backed up with actual scope measurements). The local oscillator, of course, uses an Arduino and an AD9850 synthesizer.

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Simple Superheterodyne SW Receiver Harks Back Almost 100 years

Early radio receivers worked on a principle called Tuned Radio frequency (TRF), patented in 1916. They weren’t very easy to use, requiring each stage to be tuned to the same frequency (until ganged capacitors made that a bit easy). The Superheterodyne design, devised in 1918, was superior, but more expensive at that time. Cost considerations led adoption of the Superhet design to lag behind TRF until almost 1930. Since then, until quite recently, the Superhet design has been at the heart of a majority of commercial radio receivers. Direct Conversion Receivers were devised around 1930, but required elaborate phase locked loops which restricted their use in commercial receivers. The point of all this background is that the Superhet design has served very well for more than 90 years, but will soon be rendered redundant once Software defined Radio (SDR) becomes ubiquitous. Which is why this study of the simple Superheterodyne shortwave receiver deserves closer study.

[Dilshan] built this two transistor and two IF transformer based superheterodyne radio designed to receive 13m to 41m bands. The whole build is assembled on a breadboard, making it easy to teach others to experiment. [Dilshan] offers very useful insights into antenna, rod coil and IF transformer parameters. To dive in to Radio architecture, check this post on Amateur Radio. And if you would like to get a closer look at Antique Radios, check this post on Restoring Antique Radios.