Keeping Clocks On Time, The Swiss Way

Could there be a worse fate for a guy with a Swiss accent than to be subjected to a clock that’s seconds or even – horrors! – minutes off the correct time? Indeed not, which is why [The Guy With the Swiss Accent] went to great lengths to keep his IKEA radio-controlled clock on track.

For those who haven’t seen any of [Andreas Spiess]’ YouTube videos, you’ll know that he pokes a bit of fun at Swiss stereotypes such as precision and punctuality. But really, having a clock that’s supposed to synchronize to one of the many longwave radio atomic clocks sprinkled around the globe and yet fails to do so is irksome to even the least chrono-obsessive personality. His IKEA clock is supposed to read signals from station DCF77 in Germany, but even the sensitive receivers in such clocks can be defeated by subterranean locales such as [Andreas]’ shop. His solution was to provide a local version of DCF77 using a Raspberry Pi and code that sends modulated time signals to a GPIO pin. The pin is connected to a ferrite rod antenna, which of course means that the Pi is being turned into a radio transmitter and hence is probably violating the law. But as [Andreas] points out, if the power is kept low enough, the emissions will only ever be received by nearby clocks.

With his clock now safely synced to an NTP server via the tiny radio station, [Andreas] can get back to work on his other projects, such as work-hardening copper wire for antennas with a Harley, or a nuclear apocalypse-Tweeting Geiger counter.

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The $50 Ham: Dummy Loads, Part 2

In the last installment of “The $50 Ham” I built a common tool used by amateur radio operators who are doing any kind of tuning or testing of transmitters: a dummy load. That build resulted in “L’il Dummy”, a small dummy load intended for testing typical VHF-UHF handy talkie (HT) transceivers, screwing directly into the antenna jack on the radio.

As mentioned in the comments by some readers, L’il Dummy has little real utility. There’s actually not much call for a dummy load that screws right into an HT, and it was pointed out that a proper dummy load is commercially available on the cheap. I think the latter observation is missing the point of homebrewing specifically and the Hackaday ethos in general, but I will concede the former point. That’s why at the same time I was building L’il Dummy, I was building the bigger, somewhat more capable version described here: Big Dummy.

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Be Vewy Vewy Quiet, We’re Hunting Baofengs

In the world of ham radio, a “Fox Hunt” is a game where participants are tasked with finding a hidden transmitter through direction finding. Naturally, the game is more challenging when you’re on the hunt for something small and obscure, so the ideal candidate is a small automated beacon that can be tucked away someplace inconspicuous. Of course, cheap is also preferable so you don’t go broke trying to put a game together.

As you might expect, there’s no shortage of kits and turn-key transmitters that you can buy, but [WhiskeyTangoHotel] wanted to come up with something that could be put together cheaply and easily from hardware the average ham or hacker might already have laying around. The end result is a very capable “fox” that can be built in just a few minutes at a surprisingly low cost. He cautions that you’ll need a ham license to legally use this gadget, but we imagine most people familiar with this particular pastime will already have the necessary credentials.

The heart of this build is one of the fairly capable, but perhaps more importantly, incredibly cheap Baofeng handheld radios. These little gadgets are likely familiar to the average Hackaday reader, as we discussed their dubious legal status not so long ago. At the moment they are still readily available though, so if you need a second (or third…), you might want to pull the trigger sooner rather than later.

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Does WiFi Kill Houseplants?

Spoiler alert: No.

To come to that conclusion, which runs counter to the combined wisdom of several recent YouTube videos, [Andrew McNeil] ran a pretty neat little experiment. [Andrew] has a not inconsiderable amount of expertise in this area, as an RF engineer and prolific maker of many homebrew WiFi antennas, some of which we’ve featured on these pages before. His experiment centered on cress seeds sprouting in compost. Two identical containers were prepared, with one bathed from above in RF energy from three separate 2.4 GHz transmitters. Each transmitter was coupled to an amplifier and a PCB bi-quad antenna to radiate about 300 mW in slightly different parts of the WiFi spectrum. Both setups were placed in separate rooms in east-facing windows, and each was swapped between rooms every other day, to average out microenvironmental effects.

After only a few days, the cress sprouted in both pots and continued to grow. There was no apparent inhibition of the RF-blasted sprouts – in fact, they appeared a bit lusher than the pristine pot. [Andrew] points out that it’s not real science until it’s quantified, so his next step is to repeat the experiment and take careful biomass measurements. He’s also planning to ramp up the power on the next round as well.

We’d like to think this will put the “WiFi killed my houseplants” nonsense to rest – WiFi can even help keep your plants alive, after all. But somehow we doubt that the debate will die anytime soon.

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Radio Gets Ridiculous

There were plenty of great talks at this year’s Supercon, but we really liked the title of Dominic Spill’s talk: Ridiculous Radios. Let’s face it, it is one thing to make a radio or a computer or a drone the way you are supposed to. It is another thing altogether to make one out of things you shouldn’t be using. That’s [Dominic’s] approach. In a quick 30 minutes, he shows you two receivers and two transmitters. What makes them ridiculous? Consider one of the receivers. It is a software defined radio (SDR). How many bits should an SDR have? How about one bit? Ridiculous? Then you are getting the idea.

Dominic is pretty adept at taking a normal microcontroller and bending it to do strange RF things and the results are really entertaining. The breadboard SDR, for example, is a microcontroller with three components: an antenna, a diode, and a resistor. That’s it. If you missed the talk at Supercon, you can see the newly published video below, along with more highlights from Dominic’s talk.

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Your USB Serial Adapter Just Became A SDR

To say that the RTL-SDR project was revolutionary might be something of an understatement. Taking a cheap little USB gadget and using it as a Software Defined Radio (SDR) to explore the radio spectrum from the tens of megahertz all the way into gigahertz frequencies with the addition of nothing more than some open source tools may go down as one of the greatest hacks of the decade. But even in the era of RTL-SDR, what [Ted Yapo] has manged to pull off is still pretty incredible.

With a Python script, a length of wire attached to the TX pin, and a mastery of the electron that we mere mortals can only hope to achieve, [Ted] has demonstrated using a common USB to serial adapter as an SDR transmitter. That’s right, using the cheap little UART adapter you’ve almost certainly got sitting in your parts bin right now and his software, you can transmit in the low megahertz frequencies and even up into VHF with some trickery. The project is still very much experimental, and though this may be the first time, we’re willing to bet this isn’t the last time you’ll be hearing about it.

The basic idea is that when sending certain characters over the UART serial line, they can combine with the start and stop bits to produce a square wave burst at half the baud rate. [Ted] found that sending a string of 0x55 at 19200 baud would generate a continuous square wave at 9600 Hz, and if he turned the baud rate all the way up to 2,000,000 where these USB adapters top out, that signal was transmitted at 1 MHz, right in the middle of the AM dial.

A neat trick to be sure, but alone not terribly useful. The next step was to modulate that signal by sending different characters over UART. [Ted] explains at great length his experiments with multi-level quantization and delta-sigma schemes, and each step of the way shows the improvement of the transmitted audio signal. Ultimately he comes up with a modulation scheme that produces a impressively clean signal, all things considered.

This alone is impressive, but [Ted] isn’t done yet. He realized that this method of transmission was generating some strong frequency harmonics which extended far beyond the theoretical maximum 1 MHz frequency of his UART SDR. In his experimentation he found he was able to pick up a signal from all the way out to 151 MHz, though it was too poor to be of any practical use. Dialing back the expectations a bit, he was able to successfully control a cheap 27 MHz RC toy using the 43rd harmonic of a 631 kHz signal at a range of about 10 feet with a FT232RL adapter, which he notes produces the cleanest signals in his testing.

[Ted] is still working on making transmissions cleaner and stronger by adding filters and amplifiers, but these early accomplishments are already very promising. His work reminds us of a low frequency version of the USB to VGA adapter turned GHz SDR transmitter, and we’re very eager to see where it goes from here.

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ICEstick Makes Terrible Radio Transmitter

We’ve done a lot of posts on how to use the Lattice iCEstick ranging from FPGA tutorials to how to use one as a logic analyzer. If you picked up one of these inexpensive boards here’s a fun little experiment. [T4D10N] saw a project [Hamster] put together to send SOS on the FM radio band using nothing but an FPGA. [Hamster used a Spartan], so he decided to do the same trick using an iCEstick with the open source IceStorm tools.

You might be surprised that the whole thing only takes 53 lines of Verilog — less if you cut out comments and whitespace. That’s because it uses the FPGA’s built-in PLL to generate a fast clock and then uses a phase accumulator divider to produce three frequencies on the FM radio band; one for a carrier and two for a tone, spaced 150 Hz apart. The result is really frequency shift keying but you can hear the results on an FM radio.

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