No Signal For Your Radio-Controlled Watch? Just Make Your Own Transmitter

You can win any argument about the time when you have a radio controlled watch. Or, at least, you can if there’s any signal. [Henner Zeller] lives in a place where there is no reception of the DCF77 signal that his European wristwatch expects to receive. Consequently, he decided to make his own tiny transmitter, which emulates the DCF77 signal and allows the watch to synchronise.

A Raspberry Pi Zero W is the heart of the transmitter, and [Henner] manages to coax it into generating 77500.003Hz on a GPIO pin – close enough to the 77.5kHz carrier that DCF77 uses. The signal is AM, and transmits one bit/s, repeating every minute. A second GPIO performs the required attenuation, and a few loops of wire are sufficient for an antenna which only needs to work over a few inches. The Raspberry Pi syncs with NTP Stratum 1 servers, which gives the system time an accuracy of about ±50ms. The whole thing sits in a slick 3D printed case, which provides a stand for the watch to rest on at night; this means that every morning it’s synchronised and ready to go.

[Henner] also kindly took the time to implement the protocols for WWVB (US), MSF (UK) and JJY (Japan). This might be just as well, given that we recently wrote about the possibility of WWVB being switched off. Be sure to check the rules in your area before giving this a try.

We’ve seen WWVB emulators before, like this ATtiny45 build, but we love that this solution is an easy command line tool which supports many geographical locations.

What Will You Do If WWVB Goes Silent?

Buried on page 25 of the 2019 budget proposal for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), under the heading “Fundamental Measurement, Quantum Science, and Measurement Dissemination”, there’s a short entry that has caused plenty of debate and even a fair deal of anger among those in the amateur radio scene:

NIST will discontinue the dissemination of the U.S. time and frequency via the NIST radio stations in Hawaii and Ft. Collins, CO. These radio stations transmit signals that are used to synchronize consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches, and may be used in other applications like appliances, cameras, and irrigation controllers.

The NIST stations in Hawaii and Colorado are the home of WWV, WWVH, and WWVB. The oldest of these stations, WWV, has been broadcasting in some form or another since 1920; making it the longest continually operating radio station in the United States. Yet in order to save approximately $6.3 million, these time and frequency standard stations are potentially on the chopping block.

What does that mean for those who don’t live and breathe radio? The loss of WWV and WWVH is probably a non-event for anyone outside of the amateur radio world. In fact, most people probably don’t know they even exist. Today they’re primarily used as frequency standards for calibration purposes, but in recent years have been largely supplanted by low-cost oscillators.

But WWVB on the other hand is used by millions of Americans every day. By NIST’s own estimates, over 50 million timepieces of some form or another automatically synchronize their time using the digital signal that’s been broadcast since 1963. Therein lies the debate: many simply don’t believe that NIST is going to shut down a service that’s still actively being used by so many average Americans.

The problem lies with the ambiguity of the statement. That the older and largely obsolete stations will be shuttered is really no surprise, but because the NIST budget doesn’t specifically state whether or not the more modern WWVB is also included, there’s room for interpretation. Especially since WWVB and WWV are both broadcast from Ft. Collins, Colorado.

What say the good readers of Hackaday? Do you think NIST is going to take down the relatively popular WWVB? Are you still using devices that sync to WWVB, or have they all moved over to pulling their time down over the Internet? If WWVB does go off the air, are you prepared to setup your own pirate time station?

[Thanks to AG6QR for the tip.]

Ask Hackaday: Is Your Clock Tied to Mains Frequency?

Earlier in March we heard about a quirk of the interconnected continental European electricity grid which caused clocks to lose about six minutes so far this year. This was due to a slight dip in the mains frequency. That dip didn’t put anything out of commission, but clocks that are designed to accumulate the total zero-crossings of the power grid frequency of 50 Hz don’t keep accurate time when that frequency is, say 49.985 Hz for an extended period of time.

An interesting set of conversations popped up from that topic. There were several claims that modern alarm clocks, and most devices connected to mains, no longer get their clock timing from mains frequency. I’ve looked into this a bit which I’ll go into below. But what we really want to know is: are your alarm clocks and other devices keeping time with the grid or with something else?

Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: Is Your Clock Tied to Mains Frequency?”

Crowdsourcing The Study Of An Eclipse’s Effect On Radio Propagation

If you are an American, you’ll probably now find yourself in one of three camps. People who are going to see the upcoming solar eclipse that will traverse your continent, people who aren’t going to see the eclipse, and people who wish everyone would just stop going on incessantly about the damn eclipse.

Whichever of those groups you are in though, there is an interesting project that you can be a part of, an effort from the University of Massachusetts Boston to crowdsource scientific observation of the effect a solar eclipse will have on the upper atmosphere, and in particular upon the propagation of low-frequency radio waves. To do this they have been encouraging participants to build their own simple receiver and antenna, and make a series of recordings of the WWVB time signal station before, during, and after the eclipse traverse.

This is an interesting and unusual take upon participation in the eclipse, and has the potential to advance the understanding of atmospheric science. It would be fascinating to also look at the effect of the eclipse on WSPR contacts, though obviously those occur in amateur bands at higher frequencies.

If you are an EclipseMob participant, we’d love to hear from you in the comments. Does your receiver perform well?

Thanks [Douglas] for the tip.

Micro Radio Time Station Keeps Watch in Sync

The US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) broadcasts atomic clock time signals from Fort Collins, Colorado on various frequencies. The WWVB signal on 60 kHz blasts out 70,000 watts that theoretically should reach the entire continental US. Unfortunately for [Anish Athalye], the signals do not reach his Massachusetts dorm, so he built this GPS to WWVB converter to keep his Casio G-Shock self-setting watch on track.

Not a repeater but a micro-WWVB transmitter, [Anish]’s build consists of a GPS receiver module and an ultra low-power 60kHz transmitter based on an ATtiny44a microcontroller’s hardware PWM driving a ferrite rod antenna. It’s not much of a transmitter, but it doesn’t need to be since the watch is only a few inches away. That also serves to keep the build in compliance with FCC regulations regarding low-power transmissions. Heavy wizardry is invoked by the software needed to pull time data off the GPS module and convert it to WWVB time code format, with the necessary time zone and Daylight Savings Time corrections. Housed in an attractive case, the watch stand takes about three minutes to sync the watch every night.

[Anish] offers some ideas for improving the accuracy, but we think he did just fine with this build. We covered a WWVB signal spoofer before, but this build is far more polished and practical.

Measuring The Accuracy Of A Rubidium Standard

A rubidium standard, or rubidium atomic clock, is a high accuracy frequency and time standard, usually accurate to within a few parts in 1011. This is still several orders of magnitude less than some of the more accurate standards – for example the NIST-F1 has an uncertainty of 5×10-16 (It is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 100 million years) and the more recent NIST-F2 has an uncertainty of 1×10-16 (It is expected to neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 300 million years). But the Rb standard is comparatively inexpensive, compact, and widely used in TV stations, Mobile phone base stations and GPS systems and is considered as a secondary standard.

[Max Carter] recently came into possession of just such a unit – a Lucent RFG-M-RB that was earlier in use at a mobile phone base station for many years. Obviously, he was interested in finding out if it was really as accurate as it was supposed to be, and built a broadcast-frequency based precision frequency comparator which used a stepper motor to characterise drift.

Compare with WWVB Broadcast

WWVB Receiver
WWVB Receiver

The obvious way of checking would be to use another source with a higher accuracy, such as a caesium clock and do a phase comparison. Since that was not possible, he decided to use NIST’s time/frequency service, broadcasting on 60 kHz – WWVB. He did this because almost 30 years ago, he had built a receiver for WWVB which had since been running continuously in a corner of his shop, with only a minor adjustment since it was built.

Comparator Circuit Installed in a Case

His idea was to count and accumulate the phase ‘slips’ generated by comparing the output of the WWVB receiver with the output of the Rb standard using a digital phase comparator. The accuracy of the standard would be calculated as the derivative of N (number of slips) over time. The circuit is a quadrature mixer: it subtracts the frequency of one input from the other and outputs the difference frequency. The phase information is conveyed in the duty cycle of the pulses coming from the two phase comparators. The pulses are integrated and converted to digital logic level by low-pass filter/Schmitt trigger circuits. The quadrature-phased outputs are connected to the stepper motor driver which converts logic level inputs to bi-directional currents in the motor windings. The logic circuit is bread-boarded and along with the motor driver, housed in a computer hard drive enclosure which already had the power supply available.

Continue reading “Measuring The Accuracy Of A Rubidium Standard”

Build Your Own Radio Clock Transmitter

Deep in the Colorado foothills, there are two radio transmitters that control the time on millions of clocks all across North America. It’s WWVB, the NIST time signal radio station that sends the time from several atomic clocks over the airwaves to radio controlled clocks across the continent. You might think replicating a 70 kW, multi-million dollar radio transmitter to set your own clock might be out of reach, but with a single ATtiny45, just about everything is possible.

Even though WWVB has enough power to set clocks in LA, New York, and the far reaches of Canada, even a pitifully underpowered transmitter – such as a microcontroller with a long wire attached to a pin PWMing at 60kHz – will be more than enough to overpower the official signal and set a custom time on a WWVB-controlled clock. This signal must be modulated, of course, and the most common radio controlled clocks use an extremely simple amplitude modulation that can be easily replicated by changing the duty cycle of the carrier. After that, it’s a simple matter of encoding the time signal.

The end result of this build is an extremely small one-chip device that can change the time of any remote-controlled clock. We can guess this would be useful if your radio controlled clock isn’t receiving a signal for some reason, but the fact that April 1st is just a few days away gives us a much, much better idea.