Where to find the $20 Software Defined Radio?
A while back I wrote a blog post about the availability of $20 software defined VHF/UHF radios in the form of re-purposed USB digital television dongles.
Now-days, with the improvements in software and documentation, the hardest part is finding the right dongle. What you order from EBay, and what you receive, can be two different things and only some of the dongles are suitable for use as VHF/UHF software defined radios.
So, I was pleased to see that at least one hobbyist electronics supplier has sought out and supplies a suitable device for SDR at a fair price :
Adafruit has available the USB dongle and “antenna” suitable for experimentation for $22.50, not far from the EBay (direct from China) price.
Click here to go directly to the product page: Software Defined Radio Receiver USB Stick – RTL2832 w/R820T
No, I didn’t receive a free evaluation unit and I don’t work for Adafruit … I’m just glad to see these useful devices available from a local company with an increased chance of you “Getting what you paid for.”
Adafruit also helpfully stock the adapter cables to convert the less common MCX antenna connector into the much more common BNC connector: MCX Jack to BNC RF Cable Adapter
Shock and Awe – The story of electricity.
Amateur radio has a long history, going all the way back to wireless experiments in the late 1800s. However the study of electricity has its roots in the observation of natural phenomena and stretches back much further.
I ran across this excellent three part documentary detailing the story of the discovery of electricity. The presenter is Jim Al-Khalili, currently Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. He not only knows his stuff, he is also an interesting and engaging speaker.
The documentary runs for three hours but is worth your time if you are interested in the story of electricity and the people behind its discovery and history. I hope you find it as enjoyable as I did.
At 522,000,000 miles per watt, Voyager 1 might be the ultimate in QRP.
At 522,000,000 miles per watt, Voyager could be the ultimate in QRP … if you have the right antenna.
From Backblocks To High Seas
I came across this great piece of history via the Google+ page of Cristian YO8TNB and had to share it here for others to enjoy. I have a soft spot for New Zealand, being so close to my country of birth, and I particularly noticed the carefully cultured accent of the announcer. On a more serious note, this video is an invaluable record of the wired and wireless technology used in 1939 and the procedures for transmitting a message from land to sea.
Philco Tropic Model 3012
Last weekend I attended the Houston Vintage Radio Association holiday dinner & picked up a Philco Tropic Model 3012 during the fundraiser auction. I had let a few other radios go without placing a bid and was beginning to think I might go home empty handed when I saw the Philco “on the block”. A few seconds later I was the proud owner of this vintage receiver.
|Philco Tropic 3012|
Information on this model seems a little scarce, however the style of case was introduced by Philco in 1951 and used in their line of AM/FM receivers for many years after that. This particular example is a transformer-less AC/DC set with a potentially live chassis and the unusual (to me) lineup of 14Q7, 7B7, 14B6, 35A5 & 35Y4 vacuum tubes.
What prompted me to bid on this particular radio was the inclusion of two shortwave bands in addition to the typical AM broadcast band. The dials are marked off in meters which also appealed to the ham radio side of my interests.
After attaching a short length of wire as an antenna I was able to pick up signals across the two SW1 & SW2 bands so I’ll be interested to see what it can receive with a long wire antenna at night.
After a gentle cleaning with dilute mild detergent to remove dirt I rubbed in some beeswax polish to restore the original gloss. Sadly the plastic dial is cracked in the middle but I can look past that given its a little more unusual than the typical All American Five receiver.
Being over fifty years old I wonder what this radio has been used to listen to and what stories it could tell. Perhaps it gave some youngster his or her first taste of ham radio, listening to shortwave stations and AM QSOs until they received the final demand to, “Switch that radio off and GO TO BED!”
Get your head in the cloud.
Even though my day job is completely centered around Information Technology I still miss changes and shifts in technology that happen practically under my nose. As much as I hear vendors speak about “The Cloud” I haven’t had much time to investigate and discover if this “new technology” is something I can put to use.
If you already know what “The Cloud” is then you can skip the following paragraph, otherwise please read on:
The easiest way to understand the cloud is to think of it as a utility, like electricity. When you plug a device into a wall outlet, electricity flows. You didn’t generate the electricity yourself. In fact, you probably have no idea where the electricity was generated. It’s just there when you want it. All you care about is that your device works. Cloud computing works on the same principle. Through an internet connection (the equivalent of an electrical outlet), you can access whatever applications, files, or data you have opted to store in the cloud–anytime, anywhere, from any device. How it gets to you and where it’s stored are not your concern (well, for most people they’re not).
There is no end to the stream of interesting projects that are being developed “in the cloud” and its hard to keep track of them all. Some projects have turned into things that we’re all familiar with; Flickr, Facebook & Twitter are a few examples. Some appear and vanish like the proverbial “Flash in the pan” and, since you generally lose access once they run out of steam, it can be disappointing if you have invested any time in those applications.
I’ve collected a few cloud based applications/services here that might be of interest to the radio amateur and/or experimenter. They look like they should stick around for a while and have already reached a fair level of maturity:
circuits.io: Described as a free circuit editor in your browser, it is actually a lot more. You can not only design practically any kind of circuit using just a web browser, you can turn that circuit into a printed circuit board and then BUY that PCB board online. Several different technologies had to come together to make this into an effective tool. This tool is fairly new but is becoming very popular. Hopefully it will stick around and continue to mature into something great.
WebSDR: While arguably not a “cloud application” it does allow you listen to software defined radios, using a web browser, from anywhere you have internet access.
There are multiple sdr receivers located across the globe using a variety of receivers and antennas. Some are tuned to the HF bands while others cover VHF & UHF bands.
This is an invaluable free service provided by institutions and individuals at their own cost.
APRS.fi: The distributed network of Automatic Packet Reporting System stations, repeaters, clients and map servers could be considered to be “of the cloud” before the cloud even existed. With an APRS equipped radio you can log your position from a GPS, over the air & through another ARPS receiver. This is then sent out (usually) across the internet to other systems which in turn can map your location or update other APRS clients or radios. APRS has also been extended to include the ability to text message which is particularly useful in locations where cell phone SMS messages or email are not possible!
Echolink: Like APRS, Echolink links the Internet to amateur radio. However Echolink links the audio and PTT (push to talk) signals from a radio or software client to a radio in another physical location. If you’re stuck in a hotel room or another location without access to a radio you can still “get on the air” using an Echolink client on your Windows, Linux, iOS or Android computer & handheld device. Most Echolink connected stations are VHF/UHF but there are HF stations connected as well. Echolink is not designed to replace radio to radio communications but instead increases the connectivity of amateur radio operators and allows hams, who otherwise would not be able to operate, the pleasure of getting on the air.
As you can see, some of these “cloud apps” pre-date the idea of cloud computing by quite a while. Just another example of amateur radio folks being ahead of the curve without even realizing it.
The $20 Software Defined Radio
Despite my interest in boat-anchors I do find myself peeking ‘over the wall’ from time to time and taking a look at new and emerging technologies. After several demonstrations from friends I had become convinced of the incredible potential of software defined radios and even found thinking about owning one … one day.
Software (Linux) : After poor results with the software running on MS Windows I moved across to Linux and got it working well there. I can’t point you to a single howto for this because I used several different guides and tried a few things before it started working. The most helpful, and probably all you really need, are the build-gnuradio script which gets hardware support and gnu-radio running and the “Getting Started With RTL-SDR” page by Tom Nardi which covers installing Gqrx. All the software used is in development and requires familiarity with the command line to install and use at the moment.
Update : Thanks to a link from Neil W2NDG to an EBay sale I’ve been able to track down a pre-assembled HF up-converter on this page : New HF Converter Kit for the SDR Fun Cube Dongle The price seems to be 45 euros, or about $55 US.