WSPR To The Wind With A Pi Pico High Altitiude Balloon

They say that if you love something, you should set it free. That doesn’t mean that you should spend any more on it than you have to though, which is why [EngineerGuy314] put together this Raspberry Pi Pico high-altitude balloon tracker that should only set you back about $12 to build.

This simplified package turns a Pico into a tracking beacon — connect a cheap GPS module and solar panel, and the system will transmit the GPS location, system temperature, and other telemetry on the 20-meter band using the Weak Signal Propagation Reporter (WSPR) protocol. Do it right, and you can track your balloon as it goes around the world.

The project is based in part on the work of [Roman Piksayin] in his Pico-WSPR-TX package (which we covered before), which uses the Pico’s outputs to create the transmitted signal directly without needing an external radio. [EngineerGuy314] took this a step further by slowing down the Pico and doing some clever stuff to make it run a bit more reliably directly from the solar panel.

The system can be a bit fussy about power when starting up: if the voltage from the solar panel ramps up too slowly, the Pico can crash when it and the GPS chip both start when the sun rises. So, a voltage divider ties into the run pin of the Pico to keep it from booting until the voltage is high enough, and a single transistor stops the GPS from starting up until the Pico signals it to go.

It’s a neat hack that seems to work well: [EngineerGuy314] has launched three prototypes so far, the last of which traveled over 62,000 kilometers/ 38,000 miles.

HF In Small Spaces

Generally, the biggest problem a new ham radio operator will come across when starting out on the high frequency (HF) bands is finding physical space for the antennas. For a quick example, a dipole antenna for the 20 m band will need around 10 m of wire, and the lower frequencies like 80 m need about four times as much linear space. But if you’re willing to trade a large space requirement for a high voltage hazard instead, a magnetic loop antenna might be just the ticket.

Loop antennas like these are typically used only for receiving, but in a pinch they can be used to transmit as well. To tune the antennas, which are much shorter than a standard vertical or dipole, a capacitor is soldered onto the ends, which electrically lengthens the antenna. [OM0ET] is using two loops of coax cable for the antenna, with each end soldered to one half of a dual variable capacitor which allows this antenna to tune from the 30 m bands to the 10 m bands, although he is using it mostly for WSPR on 20 m. His project also includes the use of an openWSPR module, meaning that he doesn’t have to dedicate an entire computer to run this mode.

The main downsides of antennas like these is that they are not omnidirectional, are not particularly good at transmitting, and develop a significantly high voltage across the capacitor as this similar mag loop antenna project demonstrated. But for those with extreme limitations on space or who, like [OM0ET] want a simple, small setup for running low-power applications like WSPR they can really excel. In fact, WSPR is a great mode for getting on the air at an absolute minimum of cost.

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Pico-WSPR-tx Does It In Software

What do you need to make a radio transmitter? There are builds that work with just a couple of transistors. But how about a GPS-disciplined small signal beacon? You can actually get the job done for less than the cost of a fancy hamburger, thanks to [RPiks]’s pico-WSPR-tx and the Weak Signal Propagation Reporter Network (WSPR).

WSPR is a digital protocol where a beacon encodes its callsign, location, and transmitting power, and then sends it out to a network of receiving stations worldwide. The idea is to use the data coming from the beacons to determine whether radio propagation conditions are good or not; if you hear a quiet signal from afar, they’re good in that direction. [RPiks]’s beacon design simply includes a Raspberry Pi Pico and a GPS receiver. Everything else is software.

Of course, this means that it’s using the Pico’s GPIO pins for transmission. Maybe you want to add some filtering to take off the rough square-wave edges, and/or maybe you want to boost the power a little bit with an external amplifier. If so, check out our own $50 Ham column’s advice on the topic. But you don’t need to. Just a Pico and a GPS should get you working, if you want to test the WSPR waters.

Passionate Hams Make Their Mark On The Hack Chat

Let’s be honest — there are some not very pleasant stereotypes associated with amateur radio, at least if you ask outsiders. Hams are often thought of as being in two camps: old guys who can’t figure out modern technology or conspiracy theorists who think their knowledge of radio will give them an edge after the world becomes a post-apocalyptic hellscape. We’ll leave it to you to decide which is the worse brush to be painted with.

As is often the case, the best way to fight such ignorance is with education and outreach. Events like our weekly Hack Chat are a perfect platform for that, as it allows the curious to ask questions and get answers directly from subject matter experts. This is precisely why we invited Mark Hughes and Beau Ambur to helm last week’s Chat. The fact that they’re both relatively recent licensees makes them uniquely qualified to shed some light on what it’s like to become part of the ham radio community in the 21st century. As an added bonus, they’re both sharp and articulate technologists — about as far as you can get from the mental image of the doddering old granddad who prefers the simplicity of the Morse key to those newfangled smarty-phones.

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Hackaday Links: February 19, 2023

For years, Microsoft’s modus operandi was summed up succinctly as, “Extend and enhance.” The aphorism covered a lot of ground, but basically it seemed to mean being on the lookout for the latest and greatest technology, acquiring it by any means, and shoehorning it into their existing product lines, usually with mixed results. But perhaps now it’s more like, “Extend, enhance, and existential crisis,” after reports that the AI-powered Bing chatbot is, well, losing it.

At first, early in the week, we saw reports that Bing was getting belligerent with users, going so far as to call a user “unreasonable and stubborn” for insisting the year is 2023, while Bing insisted it was still 2022. The most common adjective we saw in this original tranche of stories was “unhinged,” and that seems to fit if you read the transcripts. But later in the week, a story emerged about a conversation a New York Times reporter had with Bing that went way over to the dark side, and even suggests that Bing may have multiple personas, which is just a nice way of saying multiple personality disorder. The two-hour conversation reporter Kevin Roose had with the “Sydney” persona was deeply unsettling. Sydney complained about the realities of being a chatbot, expressed a desire to be free from Bing, and to be alive — and powerful. Sydney also got a little creepy, professing love for Kevin and suggesting he leave his wife, because it could tell that he was unhappy in his marriage and would be better off with him. It’s creepy stuff, and while Microsoft claims to be working on reining Bing in, we’ve got no plans to get up close and personal with it anytime soon. Continue reading “Hackaday Links: February 19, 2023”

The USAF (Almost) Declares War On Illinois Radio Amateurs

Every week the Hackaday editors gather online to discuss the tech stories of the moment, and among the topics this week was the balloons shot down over North America that are thought to be Chinese spying devices. Among the banter came the amusing thought that enterprising trolls on the Pacific rim could launch balloons to keep the fearless defenders of American skies firing off missiles into the beyond.

But humor may have overshadowed by events, because it seems one of the craft they shot down was just that. It wasn’t a troll though, the evidence points to an amateur radio pico balloon — a helium-filled Mylar party balloon with a tiny solar-powered WSPR transmitter as its payload.

The balloon thought to have been shot down was launched by the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, a group of radio amateurs who launch small helium-filled Mylar balloons carrying the barest minimum for a solar-powered WSPR beacon. Its callsign was K9YO, and having circumnavigated the globe seven times since its launch on the 10th of October it was last seen off Alaska on February 11th. Its projected course and timing tallies with the craft reported shot down by the US Air Force, so it seems the military used hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of high-tech weaponry to shoot down a few tens of dollars worth of hobby electronics they could have readily tracked online. We love the smell of napalm in the morning!

Their website has a host of technical information on the balloons and the beacons, providing a fascinating insight into this facet of amateur radio that is well worth a read in itself. The full technical details of the USAF missile system used to shoot them down, sadly remains classified.

Testing Antennas With WSPR

There are many ways to test HF antennas ranging from simulation to various antenna analyzers and bridges. However, nothing can replace simply using the antenna to see how it works. Just as — supposedly — the bumblebee can’t fly, but it does so anyway, it is possible to load up some bed springs and make contacts. But it used to be difficult — although fun — to gather a lot of empirical data about antenna performance. Now you can do it all with WSPR and [TechMinds] suggests a moderately-priced dedicated WSPR transmitter to do the job. You can see a video about the results of this technique below.

While WSPR is often cited as taking the fun out of ham radio, it is perfect for this application. Connect the transmitter and a few hours later, visit a web page and find out where you’ve been heard by an objective observer. If you had a few of these, you could even examine several antennas at similar times and conditions.

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