Posts Tagged ‘homemade’

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

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.

Perhaps the best known SDR in amateur radio circles are the FLEX rigs from FlexRadio. I had the chance to see a FLEX-3000 in use during Winter Field Day 2011 and had to admit that, barring the lack of knobs & dials, it was a very impressive rig!
One thing stopped me from running out and buying one straight away was the cost and perhaps the notion that once the new had worn off I would regret the significant outlay required to own the blue box. So, I shelved the idea of owning an SDR and found other things to occupy my time.
This changed when a post on mentioned an unmodified digital TV receiving USB device that had been used as a software defined receiver in the 60MHz – 1.7GHz range. The best part was the cost, around $20 for most examples of this kind of device. Finally software & commodity hardware had come together to deliver useful receiver that everyone can afford.
The nuts and bolts:

There are specific parts required to put together your own $20 SDR but I will document what I used to get mine running and hopefully you can follow along.
Hardware: The device that I used was a Ezcap EZTV668 DVB-T Digital TV USB 2.0 Dongle purchased from DealExtreme. The part was shipped from Asia and I gather from reading else ware that DealExtreme is a middleman and not the actual supplier. Be prepared to wait a while if ordering from this supplier, my Ezcap took about 3 weeks to arrive but I have heard that a month or more is not uncommon.
The upside is that shipping is free and your purchase involves 0% tax, this really IS a $20 SDR.
This particular DVB-T dongle uses the RTL2832U chip which is required for use as an SDR, other dongles with this chip may work but if it does not have the RTL chip it will NOT work currently.

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.

Software (Windows) : I had another shot at getting the MS Windows software running and stumbled across the excellent website mentions using a new version of SDR# software which worked very well! 
I would recommend following the instructions under the Windows Software section, this had me up and running in a matter of minutes. Follow the instructions EXACTLY, I made life hard on myself by not paying attention to details and I think was responsible for my earlier issues.
Going further – Antenna : The stock antenna that is supplied with the Ezcap EZTV668 is sufficient for testing but you’ll want to add something a bit more substantial for regular use. You may even want to remove the existing (hard to find) antenna connector from the board and install a standard connector and a less flimsy metal casing. This will help with RF shielding and temperature stability. 
If you are going to use a larger antenna, especially an outside antenna, you’ll want to check to make sure a protection diode has been fitted to the input. The Ezcap EZTV668 is a very inexpensive device and others have found units in which the protection diode was not fitted to save costs.
Going further – 160M – 6M ? : I’ve just seen an interesting blog post titled FunCube Upconverter where the author, George Smart, has built a converter allowing the reception of 160M – 6M using the FunCube dongle. The FunCube is functionally the same as the RTL dongles available for $20. For any home brewers out there this could be a great project as George has included all the details including schematics and board artwork required to build the converter.

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.

I’ve had a lot of fun using the $20 SDR to listen to AM aircraft traffic, local repeaters, emergency services and amazingly good quality broadcast FM stereo programming. Its easy to see, with an SDR, just how wide a radio broadcaster is transmitting and move your filter bandwidth to match.

Hopefully this is just the beginning of inexpensive SDR hardware that the radio community can re-purpose and re-engineer. 

Now I understand – Measuring capacitance with a micro-controller

The excellent article by Rajendra Bhatt explains not only how capacitance can be measured but also how a micro-controller can be interfaced to an analog circuit to create a useful piece of test equipment.

Capacitance meter by Rajendra Bhatt

I found the explanation of the RC time constant method of measurement as interesting as the micro-processor project itself and congratulate Raj on demonstrating a practical and workable real-life example of what can normally be a dry textbook subject.

Click here : to read the article which includes everything you need to duplicate his project. 
The page is part of the excellent web site which is well worth a look. I know it is going in my bookmarks and RSS feed.

Ham Radio and Mesh Networks

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the capabilities of mesh networks. The ability to quickly create ad-hock computer networks could be an invaluable resource for amateur radio operators in general and particularly for emergency communications (EMCOM)

Linksys WRT54GL Router

The particular device and software I have been experimenting with is the Linksys WRT54G router and HSMM-MESH firmware from

Installing the HSMM-MESH firmware changes the way the Linksys router functions and allows it to automatically connect to other HSMM routers in a mesh network. No special configuration is required after setting your callsign. All TCP/IP configuration is pre-configured, even down to automatically assigning addresses to connecting clients.

Mesh Network Diagram

Mesh networks are highly fault tolerant. Every router in the network is aware of every other router and has the ability to move network packets through from one unit to another provided there is a link, or chain of linked routers, between them.
In the diagram to the right each router is represented by a numbered circle. If router number 6 were to fail then network packets that needed to move between router 1 and 7 would travel through routers 2 & 3 or 5 & 10 until 6 was repaired. All this happens automatically and quickly enough so that there is no disruption to the traffic.

Anything you can access on a normal computer network can be made to work on a mesh network. Some of the services that have been demonstrated include email, voice over IP (VOIP), video conferencing, file sharing, web servers & groupware applications.

With simple modified antennas the modest output power from the WRT54G (100 to 200mW) can be used to reach distances of many miles or tens of miles with directional antennas. Mounting the router on a mast in a sealed enclosure can reduce losses from long cable runs while running off 12V power makes them compatible with ham radio power sources including solar and wind power.

The example to the left is from NG5V located on and consists of an omni-directional external antenna and a lawn sprinkler controller box from a popular home improvement store.

Did you know that … Frequencies used by channels one through six of 802.11b and 802.11g fall within the 2.4 GHz amateur radio band. Licensed amateur radio operators may operate 802.11b/g devices under Part 97 of the FCC Rules and Regulations, allowing increased power output but not commercial content or encryption.

I hope to acquire a few more WRT54G routers and put together a mesh network in the Katy TX area as a resource for experimentation and education in an area not normally touched upon by regular amateur radio operators. Who knows what the future holds & it behooves us to investigate this technology and bend it to our own needs.

The Amateur is Progressive … He keeps his station abreast of science. It is well built and efficient. His operating practice is above reproach.

PC power supplies for Amateur Radio equipment?

I’ve noticed a few spirited discussions regarding modifying computer power supplies for use with Amateur Radio equipment. On the surface it seems as though they supply the perfect solution: Inexpensive, high current, regulated 12V DC supplies for a fraction of the cost of specialized amateur equipment. Is it really is as straight forward as lopping off a molex connector and replacing it with an Anderson Powerpole?

By design PC power supplies are designed to output a fairly well regulated 3.3V & 5V to the PC motherboard and 12V to the motherboard, fans and hard-drive motors. Modern units are typically rated anywhere from 75W to 1200W which should be a measurement of the output power available from all the 3.3, 5 and 12 volts. Since this isn’t a lab grade power supply you can expect marketing hyperbole has perhaps inflated the power output figures.

Back when my job was to build PCs I had an issue with a server not being able to start its complete complement of disk drives. When I opened the case I found a 300W desktop supply board had been used in place of the 800W board … sometimes you don’t even get what you pay for!

Before you convert your first PC power supply there are two issues that may, or may not, cause a problem depending on your unit.

The first is load regulation or the ability of the power supply to maintain its rated voltage under load. If the output voltage drops too far your rig will shutdown, distort or fail to provide its rated output power.

The second issue is due to the high frequency switching circuits used in switch mode supplies. Depending on the individual power supply there can be adequate to no filtering to prevent radio frequency interference being broadcast to your receiver. Toroids on the input and output lines can help to reduce interference.

Because of construction differences between models and even between batch numbers for the same model you can never be certain how the power supply you purchase, or recycle, will perform. For the most part people’s experiences have been positive but I have heard of power supplies that were unusable because of RF interference or such poor load regulation that the 12V rail dropped to 11V under load.

Without a motherboard presenting a load and supplying the power-on signal there are a few changes that need to be made to the power supply. Modern power supplies will not enable the 12V output unless the power-on wire is grounded and a load should be placed on the 5V line to help with regulation. Additionally there is usually an adjustment that can be used to raise the voltage above 12V

The following links detail the steps required to convert a PC supply for use with amateur radio equipment. Whether this represents a good investment of your time will depend on your desire to do-it-yourself and the quality of the power supply you begin with. I’ve heard strong opinions either way but I’ll just say that, if luck favors you, you’ll save some money and learn a few new skills in this exercise.

Computer Power Supply Converted for Ham Use


Converting Computer Power Supplies to stabilized 13.8 V DC 20 A

DIY Magnetic Loop Antenna – Part 3

Well, I finally have had time to sit down and put together part three of the DIY Magnetic Loop Antenna, sorry it has taken so long!

This post will cover building and coupling the loop to your transceiver. After reading through posts one and two you should have a good idea of the parts you’ll use and the physical dimensions of the main loop.

DIY Magnetic Loop Antenna – Part 1
DIY Magnetic Loop Antenna – Part 2

Most magnetic loops have the capacitor at the top of the main loop and the gamma match or matching loop at the bottom, this arrangement avoids running the feed-line through the center of the antenna.

You can assemble the main loop from continuous copper tube or from eight straight sections and 45 degree joiners. Make sure you have a blow torch or propane torch to solder the joints as you’ll need more heat than a soldering iron can supply. Whichever way you decide to build the main loop make sure that all joints are soldered or clamped as securely as possible, you want the lowest resistance possible to avoid your output power turning into heat. Other materials can be used for the main loop such as aluminium or low loss coax but copper pipe is easy to work, has low resistivity and available from just about every hardware store.

To construct the frame of the antenna you can use PVC pipe. It is a cheap and relatively sturdy building material and is available in a range of thicknesses, just about any hardware store will stock a wide selection of fittings. It insulates well and can be glued once you are sure your project is in its final form.

Once the main loop is constructed you’ll need to connect your capacitor to the two ends of the pipe at the top of the loop. Depending on the capacitor you may want to solder tags to the ends of the loop so they will be easier to attach. Copper pipe is a great conductor of heat and takes a lot to heat up and solder while it is not advisable to apply the same amount of heat to your capacitor.
It is also a good idea to attach the capacitor to a solid support so that the connections are not under strain.
The main loop and the capacitor forms the resonant circuit of the magnetic loop antenna.

To couple the main loop to your transceiver and match the expected 50 Ohms impedance you can use one of two methods. Probably the easiest is to use is a loop of insulated wire 1/5 the circumference of the main loop. The smaller loop is placed at the bottom of the main loop and can be shifted around to provide the best match. If you have an antenna analyzer you’ll be able to set it to the desired frequency, tune the variable capacitor for resonance and then move the small matching loop around till you have achieved close to 1:1 SWR. If you don’t have an antenna analyzer you can tune the capacitor for the greatest received noise and then on low power tweak the capacitor and move the coupling loop around for best SWR. Do NOT touch the loop while it is transmitting, use a wood or plastic rod to make adjustments as there are high voltages and intense RF fields near the loop.
An alternative to the coupling loop is the gamma match. The shield of the coax feed cable is connected to the base of the main loop while the inner conductor is connected to a point approximately 1/5 of the circumference around the loop. Its a good idea to use stiff wire (large gauge) for the gamma match as it can be critical of the position and orientation and once you have it in the right position you won’t want to move it again.

It would be preferable to have the ability to remotely tune the loop. A motor with a reduction gear could be used to move the variable capacitor but because the point of resonance is very narrow there should be a way of slowing the motor down. A simple control circuit using variable pulse width modulation could be used to slow the motor down while still retaining enough torque to move the capacitor. Whatever method is used to move the capacitor it should be well insulated from the other components of the antenna. Several thousand volts are generated on the MLA and care should be taken to ensure they don’t find their way onto control leads and back into the shack. Control leads should also be wrapped around toriod inductors as they leave the near field of the antenna to reduce the possibility of RF travelling along them.

With a SWR bridge and microcontroller you could build a fully automatic tuner that swept through the range of the tuning capacitor when the SWR rose above a defined limit indicating that the transmit frequency had changed.

With a little creativity and knowledge you could have an impressive MLA the equal of multi-thousand dollar military style units.

Hopefully this has given you some ideas for constructing your own loop antenna. Regardless of if you go top-of-the-line and buy a vacuum variable or build for economy and QRP you’ll have a compact, useful and unique antenna.

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