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

Hackaday Links: September 1, 2019

The sun may be spotless, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t doing interesting things. A geomagnetic storm is predicted for this weekend, potentially giving those at latitudes where the Northern Lights are not common a chance to see a cosmic light show. According to SpaceWeather.com, a coronal hole, a gap in the sun’s atmosphere that can let the solar wind escape, is about to line up with Earth. The last time this hole was on the Earth-facing side of the sun, the resultant storm gave aurora as far south as Colorado. So if you’re in any of the northern tier states, you might want to find somewhere with dark skies and a good view to the north this weekend.

It’s not only space weather that’s in the news, but weather-weather too. Hurricane Dorian will probably make landfall as a Category 4 storm, probably along Florida’s Atlantic coast, and probably in the middle of the night on Monday. That’s a lot of uncertainty, but one thing’s for sure: amateur radio operators will be getting into the action. The Hurricane Watch Net will activate their net for Dorian on Saturday afternoon at 5:00 PM Eastern time, ready to take reports from stations in the affected area. Not a ham? You can still listen to the live feed once the net activates.

Hams aren’t the only ones getting geared up for Dorian, though. Weather satellite enthusiasts are pointing their SDRs at the sky and grabbing some terrifyingly beautiful pictures of Dorian as it winds up. Some of the downloaded images are spectacular, and if you’ve got an SDR dongle and a couple of pieces of coat hanger wire, you too can spy on Dorian from any number of satellites.

Speaking of which, over on r/RTLSDR, someone has done a little data mining and shown that NOAA 15 is still very much alive. u/amdorj plotted the scan motor current draw and found that it steadily decreased over time, possibly indicating that the bearings aren’t as worn as previously thought. We recently covered the story of the plucky satellite that’s almost two decades past its best-by date; here’s hoping our report on its death was greatly exaggerated.

In one of the weirder bits of marketing we’ve seen lately, NASA decided to name a rock on Mars after septuagenarian rockers The Rolling Stones. The golf ball size rock was blasted about a meter across the Martian landscape when the Mars InSight lander touched down in 2018, leaving a small scar in the dust. The stone had obviously rolled, so phone calls were made and one thing led to another, and before you know it, Robert Downey Jr. is making the announcement before a Stones concert at the Rose Bowl, right in JPL’s backyard. There’s even a cute animation to go along with it. It’s a nice piece of marketing, but it’s not the first time the Stones have been somewhat awkwardly linked to the technology world. We dare you not to cringe.

We’ll finish up today with something not related to space. As Al Williams recently covered, for about fifty bucks you can now score a vector network analyzer (VNA) that will do all sorts of neat RF tricks. The NanoVNA sounds like a great buy for anyone doing RF work, but its low price point and open-source nature mean people are finding all kinds of nifty uses for it. One is measuring the length of coax cables with time-domain reflectometry, or TDR. Phasing antenna arrays? the NanoVNA sounds like the perfect tool for the job.

NanoVNA Is A $50 Vector Network Analyzer

There was a time when oscilloscopes were big and expensive. Now you can get scopes of various sizes and capabilities on nearly any budget. Vector network analyzers — VNAs — haven’t had quite the same proliferation, but NanoVNA may change that. [IMSAI Guy] bought one for about $50 and made a series of videos about it. Spoiler alert: he likes it. You can see one of the several videos he’s posted, below.

NanoVNA is tiny but sweeps from 50 kHz to 900 MHz and has a touch screen. The device uses a rechargeable battery if you need to haul it up to an antenna tower, for example. Just as a quick test, you can see early in the video the analysis of a rubber duck antenna. The device shows return loss as a plot and you can use a cursor to precisely measure the values. It also shows a Smith chart of the reactance.

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Antenna Tuning For GHz Frequencies

Antenna tuning at HF frequencies is something that radio amateurs learn as part of their licence exam, and then hone over their time operating. A few basic instruments and an LC network antenna tuner in a box are all that is required, and everything from a bit of wet string to ten thousand dollars worth of commercial antenna can be loaded up and used to work the world. When a move is made into the gigahertz range though it becomes a little more difficult. The same principles apply, but the variables of antenna design are much harder to get right and a par of wire snippers and an antenna tuner is no longer enough. With a plethora of GHz-range electronic devices surrounding us there has been more than one engineer sucked into a well of doom by imagining that their antenna design would be an easy task.

An article from Baseapp then makes for very interesting reading. Titled “Antenna tuning for beginners“, it approaches the subject from the perspective of miniature GHz antennas for IoT devices and the like. We’re taken through the basics and have a look at different types of antennas and connectors, before being introduced to a Vector Network Analyser, or VNA. Here is where some of the Black Art of high frequency RF design is laid bare, with everything explained through a series of use cases.

Though many of you will at some time or other work with these frequencies it’s very likely that few of you will do this kind of design exercise. It’s hard work, and there are so many ready-made RF modules upon which an engineer has already done the difficult part for you. But it does no harm to know something about it, so it’s very much worth taking a look at this piece.

It’s an area we’ve ventured into before, at a Superconference a few years ago [Michael Ossmann] gave us a fundamental introduction to RF design.