Network Analysers: The Electrical Kind

Instrumentation has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last few years, however, the fundamental analysis techniques that are the foundation of modern-day equipment remain the same. A network analyzer is an instrument that allows us to characterize RF networks such as filters, mixers, antennas and even new materials for microwave electronics such as ceramic capacitors and resonators in the gigahertz range. In this write-up, I discuss network analyzers in brief and how the DIY movement has helped bring down the cost of such devices. I will also share some existing projects that may help you build your own along with some use cases where a network analyzer may be employed. Let’s dive right in.

Network Analysis Fundamentals

As a conceptual model, think of light hitting a lens and most of it going through but part of it getting reflected back.

The same applies to an electrical/RF network where the RF energy that is launched into the device may be attenuated a bit, transmitted to an extent and some of it reflected back. This analysis gives us an attenuation coefficient and a reflection coefficient which explains the behavior of the device under test (DUT).

Of course, this may not be enough and we may also require information about the phase relationship between the signals. Such instruments are termed Vector Network Analysers and are helpful in measuring the scattering parameters or S-Parameters of a DUT.

The scattering matrix links the incident waves a1, a2 to the outgoing waves b1, b2 according to the following linear equation: \begin{bmatrix} b_1 \\ b_2 \end{bmatrix} = \begin{bmatrix} S_{11} & S_{12} \\ S_{21} & S_{22} \end{bmatrix} * \begin{bmatrix} a_1 \\ a_2 \end{bmatrix} .

The equation shows that the S-parameters are expressed as the matrix S, where and denote the output and input port numbers of the DUT.

This completely characterizes a network for attenuation, reflection as well as insertion loss. S-Parameters are explained more in details in Electromagnetic Field Theory and Transmission Line Theory but suffice to say that these measurements will be used to deduce the properties of the DUT and generate a mathematical model for the same.

General Architecture

As mentioned previously, a simple network analyzer would be a signal generator connected and a spectrum analyzer combined to work together. The signal generator would be configured to output a signal of a known frequency and the spectrum analyzer would be used to detect the signal at the other end. Then the frequency would be changed to another and the process repeats such that the system sweeps a range of frequencies and the output can be tabulated or plotted on a graph. In order to get reflected power, a microwave component such as a magic-T or directional couplers, however, all of this is usually inbuilt into modern-day VNAs.
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Handheld Network Analyzer Peek Inside

[Shahriar] recently posted a review of a 6.8 GHz network analyzer. You can see the full video — over fifty minutes worth — below the break. The device can act as a network analyzer, a spectrum analyzer, a field strength meter, and a signal generator. It can tune in 1 Hz steps down to 9 kHz. Before you rush out to buy one, however, be warned. The cost is just under $2,000.

That sounds like a lot, but test gear in this frequency range isn’t cheap. If you really need it, you’d probably have to pay at least as much for something equivalent.

[Shahriar] had a few issues to report, but overall he seemed to like the device. For example, setting the step size too broad can cause the spectrum analyzer to miss narrow signals.

If your needs are more modest, we’ve covered a much simpler (and less expensive) unit that goes to 6 GHz. If you need even less, an Arduino can do the job with a good bit of help. The Analog Discovery 2 also has a network analyzer feature, along with other tools at a more affordable cost, too. Of course, that’s only good to 10 MHz.

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Hackaday Links: May 14, 2017

Maker Faire Bay Area is next weekend, and you know what that means: we’re having a meetup on Saturday night. If you’re in the area, it’s highly recommended you attend. It’s a blinky bring-a-hack with booze. You can’t beat it. I heard the OPShark is showing up. All hail the OPShark. You’re gonna want to RSVP if you’re going k thx.

It only took twelve years, but [ladyada] finally got herself on the cover of Make.

Nvidia has the Jetson, an extremely powerful single board computer + GPU meant for machine learning, imagifying, and robotics applications. If you want to do fancy ML stuff with low power devices, I’d highly recommend you check the Jetson out. Of course, the Jetson is only the brains of any Machine Learning robot; you also need some muscle. To that end, Nvidia released the Isaac robotic simulator. It’s a simulator for standard bits of hardware like quadcopters, hovercrafts (?), robotic arms, and yes, selfie drones. What does this mean? Standardized hardware means someone is going to produce 3rd party hardware, and that’s awesome.

This is just an observation, but fidget spinners are just now hitting the mainstream. We didn’t know what they were for a year ago, and we don’t know now.

A Hebocon is a shitty robot battle. DorkbotPDX just had their first Hebocon and the results were… just about as shitty as you would expect. Since this is a shitty robot battle, a MakerBot made an appearance. This robot, SpitterBot, was designed to blow extruded filament all over its opponent. Did the MakerBot win? Yes, SpitterBot won the ‘Poorest Quality’ award.

Supplyframe, Hackaday’s parent company, hosts monthly-ish electronic get-togethers in the San Fransisco office. The focus of these meetups is to find someone cool who built something awesome and get them to talk about it. The March meetup featured [Pete Bevelacqua] who built a Vector Network Analyzer from scratch. The video is worth a watch.

A VNA On A 200 Euro Budget

If you were to ask someone who works with RF a lot and isn’t lucky enough to do it for a commercial entity with deep pockets what their test instrument of desire would be, the chances are their response would mention a vector network analyser. A VNA is an instrument that measures the S-parameters of an RF circuit, that rather useful set of things to know whose maths in those lectures as an electronic engineering student are something of a painful memory for some of us.

The reason your RF engineer respondent won’t have a VNA on their bench already will be fairly straightforward. VNAs are eye-wateringly expensive. Second-hand ones are in the multi-thousands, new ones can require the keys to Fort Knox. All this is no obstacle to [Henrik Forstén] though, he’s built himself a 30MHz to 6 GHz VNA on the cheap, with the astoundingly low budget of 200 Euros.

The operation of a VNA
The operation of a VNA

On paper, the operation of a VNA is surprisingly simple. RF at a known power level is passed through the device under test into a load, and the forward and reverse RF is sampled on both its input and output with a set of directional couplers. Each of the four couplers feeds what amounts to an SDR, and the resulting samples are processed by a computer. His write-up contains a full run-down of each section of the circuit, and is an interesting primer on the operation of a VNA,

[Henrik] admits that his VNA isn’t as accurate an instrument as its commercial cousins, but for his tiny budget the quality of his work is evident in that it is a functional VNA. He could have a batch of these assembled and he’d find a willing queue of buyers even after taking into account the work he’s put in with his pricing.

[Henrik]’s work has appeared on these pages several times before, and every time he has delivered something special. We’ve seen his radar systems, home-made horn antennas, and a very well-executed ARM single board computer. This guy is one to watch.

Thanks [theEngineer] for the tip.