Calibrating A VNA The Proper Way

Those of us who have bought cheap TinyVNA devices for our RF experimentation will be used to the calibration procedure involving short-circuit, 50 Ω, and open terminations, followed by a direct connection between ports. We do this with a kit of parts supplied with the device, and it makes it ready for our measurements. What we may not fully appreciate at the level of owning such a basic instrument though, is that the calibration process for much higher-quality instruments requires parts made to a much higher specification than the cheap ones from our TinyVNA. Building a set of these high-quality parts is a path that [James Wilson] has taken, and in doing so he presents a fascinating discussion of VNA calibration and the construction of standard RF transmission line components.

We particularly like the way that after constructing his short, load and open circuit terminations using high-quality SMA sockets, he put a custom brass fitting 3D printed by Shapeways on the end of each to make them easier to handle while preserving their RF integrity. If we’d bought a set of terminations looking like these ones as commercial products we would be happy with their quality, but the real test lay in their performance. Thanks to a friend he was able to get them tested on instruments with much heftier price tags, and found them to be not far short of the simulation and certainly acceptable within his 3 GHz range.

Curious about VNAs at the affordable end of the spectrum? We took a look at the TinyVNA, which while it is something of a toy is still good enough for lower frequency measurements.

LibreVNA Is A Quality Open Hardware Vector Network Analyser

There was a time when a Vector Network Analyser or VNA was the type of instrument that cost as much as a very fancy car or even a small house. The advent of commodity semiconductors that perform at high RF frequencies coupled with microcontrollers powerful enough to handle the data acquisition and processing might not yet have put those high-perfomance instruments within reach, but at our end of the market it’s opened the possibilities for some useful yet affordable devices. A fresh contender comes from [Jankae], whose LibreVNA tops out at 6 GHz and shows some significant attention to design detail that puts it above some of the budget offerings.

At its heart is the versatile Si5351 multi-way clock generator, accompanied by a pair of MAX2871 phase-locked-loop chips for the higher frequency local oscillators. A switched bank of low-pass filters take care of local oscillator harmonics, and in the receive chain there are ADL5081 mixers feeding a dual conversion IF running at 70 MHz and then 300 kHz. Finally the ADCs are Microchip’s MCP3313, and all is kept in sync by an FPGA and an STM32G431 microcontroller. The main data proccessing is offloaded to a host computer, with a software package and GUI able to be compiled on Windows, Linux, and OSX.

The PCB shows the attention to detail, not least in the power supply arrangements, with every major component receiving its own regulator to ensure no RF makes it down the power rails. It’s clear that a properly made LibreVNA won’t be as cheap as some of its rivals, but we think the corresponding performance hike would make the extra cost worthwhile.

If VNAs are new to you, we covered an introduction from [W2AEW] a while back.

Learning About VNAs

We live in a good time to be an electronics geek. It used to be only the richest or shrewdest among us had a really good oscilloscope, while these days it is entirely feasible to have a scope that would have cost a fortune a few decades ago, a logic analyzer, arbitrary waveform generator, and what would have once been a supercomputer and still not be in debt. One of the cooler pieces of gear for people working on RF electronics is a vector network analyzer (VNA) which used to be exotic, but now can be bought for very little. But what do you do with it? [W2AEW] has the answer.

We always look forward to a video from [W2AEW]. Even if we know about the subject he covers, we usually pick up something new or interesting. Like all of his videos, this one is intensely practical. Not a lot of drawing but plenty of scope shots and experimenting.

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So. You Bought A VNA. Now What?

It’s never too late in life for new experiences, but there’s a new experience I had a few weeks ago that I wasn’t expecting. I probably received my first piece of test equipment – a multimeter –  in the early 1980s, and since then every time I’ve received a new one, whether an oscilloscope, logic analyser, spectrum analyser or signal generator, I’ve been able to figure out how to use it. I have a good idea what it does, and I can figure out whatever its interface may be to make it do what I want it to. My new experience came when I bought a piece of test equipment, and for the first time in my life didn’t have a clue how to use it.

That instrument is a Vector Network Analyser, or VNA, and it’s worth spending a while going through the basics in case anyone else is in the same position. My VNA is not a superlative piece of high-end instrumentation that cost the GDP of a small country, it’s the popular $50 NanoVNA that has a fairly modest frequency range and performance, but is still a functional VNA that can take useful measurements. But I’m a VNA newbie, what does a VNA do? Continue reading “So. You Bought A VNA. Now What?”

NanoVNA Tests Antenna Pattern

When [Jephthai] wanted to build his own Yagi antenna, he turned to MMANA software for antenna modeling. This is an antenna analysis program that uses the moment method to calculate parameters for different antenna geometries. After building the Yagi, the predicted tuning and impedance matched the real antenna nicely. But what about the radiation pattern? To test that, he used a NanoVNA and a clever test setup.

He needed a test spot out of the antenna’s near field so he set up his workstation 18 feet away from the test antenna which was on a mount that could rotate. On the edge of the workstation table — affixed with painter’s tape — is a NanoVNA connected to a laptop.

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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.

Complex Impedances Without The Pain

Any grizzled electronic engineer will tell you that RF work is hard. Maintaining impedance matching may be a case of cutting wires to length at lower frequencies, but into the low centimetre and millimetre wavelengths it becomes a Dark Art aided by mysterious and hugely expensive test equipment beyond the reach of mere mortals. A vector network analyser or VNA may be beyond the reach of many, but [Tomasz Wątorowski] is here to tell us about how with some resistors, mathematics, and a bit of lateral thinking its functions may be replicated with a more modestly equipped bench.

It’s not a method for the faint-hearted as the mathematics are of the variety that you probably learned as an undergraduate but let slip from your memory with thanks after the course ended. The method involves measuring the return loss both with and without a resistor of known value in series with the antenna, these figures allow the real and imaginary components of the antenna’s impedance to be calculated. There is a further piece of work though, this method doesn’t determine whether the antenna is capacitive or inductive. Repeating the measurement with either a capacitive or inductive matching network allows this to be determined, and the value of the appropriate matching component to be calculated.

If you are interested in this kind of work, start with a primer on RF design.

Complex impedance matching using scalar measurements, math and resistors