29 Sept 2012

QRO optical beacon for over-the-horizon tests

12W red LEDs for optical beaconing
This afternoon I ordered 3 off 12W red LEDs, called a Phlatlight PT54, from the USA. These were originally designed for use in projectors and are VERY bright indeed (425 lumens at 8.1A!).  My plan is to use one of these in my new 481THz optical CW/QRSS beacon for over the horizon non line-of-sight (NLOS) tests this winter.  If you are interested, look up item 170884888890 on eBay. The datasheet for the Phlatlight LED is available at http://www.mouser.com/catalog/specsheets/pt54phlatlight.pdf .

My original beacon circuit is shown below and was a good signal over the horizon 3.6km from home when using Spectran to show the received signal, which was not even visible to the naked eye or audible in a headset. I am hoping that a very similar circuit will work for the Phlatlight LED beacon.

The QRO beacon should be much stronger, so I am expecting to be able to achieve much greater NLOS ranges, especially as my receiver is capable of considerably greater sensitivity with more work and using better PIN photodiodes with a more optimal 3dB sensitivity angle. The main issue is a thermal one: although the device is mounted on quite a good heatsink, I need to find out how hot this gets when sending CW or QRSS and derate it accordingly. I am hoping that around 4-5A should be possible which should allow some 20dB more output.

Autumn Projects Update

About 6 weeks ago I listed a number of projects that I wanted to do this autumn. Here is a progress report.
  1. Finish the 472kHz transverter and write this up. DONE
  2. Simple 28MHz QRP WSPR transceiver to use with a netbook. DONE (but the TX only beacon is boxed)
  3. Stand alone 137kHz receiver (for use with PC).
  4. Semi-permanent E-field probe antenna and on-line 137kHz/472kHz grabbers
  5. More non line-of-sight light beam experiments (get better distances). 12W Phlatlight LEDs and more sensitive SRF213 detectors ordered
  6. Semi-permanent 481THz QRSS beacon for NLOS light beam tests.
  7. Alternative HF antennas - maybe re-erect my Par Electronics 40/20/10 end-fed.
  8. Further earth-mode (ground conduction) experiments - tests at around 30 and 73kHz as well as more tests at VLF aiming to improve best though ground DX (currently 6km with 5W). More permanent earth-mode "antenna" erected.
  9. Experiment with horizontal loop antenna on TX at VLF (maximising coupling into ground).
  10. Build some better LF/MF test gear such as resistive SWR bridge, 50W dummy load and a noise bridge.
So, the next project is probably going to be (3) a stand-alone 137kHz receiver combined with some E-field probe development. What I am hoping to do is make a 137kHz RX that can be run from home uploading to an on-line grabber and that can also be used in the car with a roof mounted E-field probe antenna. This will allow me to do some fairly accurate field strength measurements with various TX antennas. With a bit of care I should be able to make this work on various bands from 8.97kHz through to 500kHz.  What I am hoping to be able to do is have a car-mounted receiver with PC that can be used for "drive around" tests although this will depend a lot on the LF noise in the car when the engine is running. I may have to limit tests to static ones with the car electrics not running.

28 Sept 2012

Operating 10m QRP SSB

Today I took a break from designing and building innovative new stuff to enjoy 10m SSB whilst it is good. For some days now the band has been opening up to the USA and I've been getting good WSPR reports with WISPY on a regular basis with 200mW.

So, today it was out with the FT817 and 5W pep QRP to see what I could manage. QSOs in the log inside an hour included 5B4ES, TB5ZND, CN2LO/P and KG2KJ. No great DX but solid QSOs on sideband with just the halo antenna. I must admit, the speech processor really does help enormously.

24 Sept 2012

The current G3XBM shack layout

The current G3XBM operating station

This is the current G3XBM operating position. The new additions are the 472/500kHz 10W transverter and the little WISPY 10m WSPR TX beacon, which has been boxed today. These are the two boxes to the left of the FT817. I've also increased WISPY's output power to about 250mW and have been getting loads and loads of WSPR USA spots this afternoon, including some from the west coast (W7).  I do my design and building elsewhere in the house. This is not ideal, but it does make for an uncluttered operating environment.

The vast majority of my equipment is home built and much of it home designed. Not shown in the picture are the Sixbox (6m AM), the Fredbox (2m AM), Chirpy (10m CW) plus any of the VLF kit. The last time I bought a new transceiver was about 10 years ago.

500kHz WSPR over 5 days

The attached table shows the different stations that have reported my 500kHz WSPR in the last 5 days. In summary, 19 different stations in 8 different countries with best DX OH1LSQ (1736km) and last night LB9YE (1489km). My most recent calculation of my ERP is around 80-120mW. Who says 500kHz QRP into a very small antenna with a useless (?) indoor ground system doesn't work then? I can't wait for 472-479kHz to be released in the UK.

22 Sept 2012

A 500kHz WSPR screenshot from Finland

Paul-Henrik, OH1LSQ has kindly send me his screenshot showing my WSPR signal as received in Finland. It shows a visible, if weak, trace on the screen.
The weak trace seen by OH1LSQ on 500kHz this evening
Conditions on LF appear to be excellent this evening and this is supported by the propagation forecast for this evening from G4ILO's website (see below) and on the RHS for the current conditions.

New weak signal modes for LF/MF

On the LF-reflector this evening comes news that Joe Taylor K1JT is thinking about the development of some new software for weak signal work on the lower bands. Although Joe has not yet had much chance to start coding development of the new modes, they should lead to even lower useable signal levels. JT8-2 is a couple of dB more sensitive than WSPR but JT8-30 (will take 30 mins to send a message) is likely to be around 12-14dB better. Modulation is a form of 8-FSK.

Mode   T/R   TxT    df    tsym   BW    S/N*
       (m)   (s)   (Hz)    (s)  (Hz)   (dB)
JT8-1    1    52  1.577   0.63  12.6  -26.9
JT8-2    2   112  0.732   1.37   5.9  -30.2
JT8-5    5   292  0.281   3.56   2.2  -34.4
JT8-10  10   592  0.139   7.22   1.1  -37.5
JT8-30  30  1792  0.046  21.85   0.4  -42.3
* Noise power measured in a 2500 Hz bandwidth.
How quickly K1JT can do the necessary coding will depend on his work load - he is a Nobel Prize winning physicist - but we are looking forward to the first release of this software in the coming months.

Just to put a measure on this, 12 dB weaker signals (using JT8-30) would mean considerably greater range could be achieved for a given ERP, or the power level of the TX could be 16 times lower for a given range (with WSPR), all things being equal.

500kHz REAL DX with the new transverter

DX reports on 500kHz WSPR this evening using the new 10W transverter
My new 500kHz transverter has "done the business" with reception this evening of my WSPR signal (for the third autumn running) by OH1LSQ at a distance of 1736km. What I find incredible is that this is with low milliwatts ERP from an antenna that is tiny: the outer of the 6m vertical coax (the feed to my 10m halo) tuned against a ground formed by my central heating system copper and brought to resonance with a tapped coil on a ferrite rod sitting on the shack desktop.
500kHz WSPR reports map
The new 472kHz band is clearly going to be great fun for all, even without anything special in the way of antennas. However, my experience with small antennas on 136kHz is a different matter: on that band it is MUCH harder to get reports from any distance with QRP.

For details of my 472/500kHz transverter see https://sites.google.com/site/g3xbmqrp/Home/472khz-transverter

QRPtransceiver.com website

This website looks a useful resource for anyone wanting to find out about the commercial QRP radios on the market. As far as I can tell it lists virtually every QRP radio there is and gives some information/links about every one. Well worth a visit and I am surprised I've not seen it before (or at least if I did I had forgotten it!). The link is http://www.qrptransceiver.com/ .

21 Sept 2012

GPS tracking?

Some help needed......

When out in the field locally receiving my VLF and LF test transmissions from home, it would be very helpful to be able to plot signal strength against location. For example, if doing a drive test, with an E-field probe antenna on the car feeding an LF RX and PC audio package such as Spectran, it would be excellent to be able to plot a map or database showing field strength and location. Now I have to confess I haven't a clue where to start! My knowledge of GPS is almost zero and my PC skills are limited to MS Word and simple spreadsheets in Excel (some years ago). So, if anyone knows of a SIMPLE way of achieving this goal please let me know.

On a related subject, what is the best, low cost, pocket GPS tracker that would record a walk (distance, track taken, times) and allow this to be plotted on a map when one gets home?

10m Simple Sideband (DSB) Transceiver

Regular readers of this blog will recall that about a year ago I started breadboarding a simple DSB speech transceiver for 10m. Having had great success with the WISPY 10m WSPR transceiver, I now have a very simple design for the TX part of such a DSB speech transceiver (just need to add an audio preamp/clipper/filter), so I am beginning to get ideas together for this project again. A power of around 1W pep (DSB) equivalent to 500mW pep SSB is the minimum I think. On RX a single balanced diode mixer (or a double balanced mixer such as an ADE-1 or SBL1) should be fine. For the VFO, I am thinking of a mixer/VFO with a tuning range of 28.4-28.6MHz. The RX audio design from WISPY works well but it will need another audio stage to drive headphones.

I want to have another go at a 136kHz transverter (based on my latest architecture), more non-line-of-sight (NLOS) optical comms, E-field probes, more earth mode comms, WSPR beacons for other bands,  etc etc...

My problem is I've too many ideas in my head and not enough hours in the day to try them all out. What I need is a spare, free, design team (!) to take these ideas forward whilst I get on with other things, like looking after the grandchildren, gardening, maintaining the house, eating and sleeping etc. Since retiring 4 years ago I have no idea why I've no spare time!

20 Sept 2012

500kHz WSPR - 990km already tonight

This map shows people who have copied my 500kHz WSPR signal (using the new transverter) up to 11.20pm tonight. Best DX report so far is DL4RAJ at 990km from near the Czech border who gave me an astounding +5dB S/N report, a signal level good enough for a CW QSO.

472/500kHz transverter FINISHED

Today I completed the rev E version of my 10W transverter. In the end I reverted to a double balanced mixer and this immediately solved my issues with mixer stability that I had with the transistor mixer design. Air testing this evening, I am getting plenty of reports but a slight drive is noticable in the reports, probably as I am using a small plastic box and the PA heatsink warming is causing the 3.2MHz crystal to move about 1Hz during the WSPR TX cycle. It really needs a bit bigger metal box, but it will do.

The lastest transverter schematic (there may be value errors)
WSPR reports 20.9.12 with the above transverter and 6m long antenna
The desktop 472/500kHz station, ATU (don't laugh!) and antenna current meter

18 Sept 2012

Japan Ham Fair 2012


The recent Japanese ham fair in Tokyo showcased the latest products about to hit the market in the coming months. Included was the IC-7100 all-mode, all band (including 4m) 100W mobile. What was not there was the long awaited FT-817 replacement.  A product I have not seen mentioned yet is the Yaesu FTM-400D digital VHF/UHF radio. I don't think this is a D-star radio, so what form of digital modulation does it use? Is this a Japan only product?

WSPR for the iPod Touch

Like many these days, I've an Apple iPod Touch and use it every day for web browsing. When watching the TV or reading the paper it is handy to be able to check my WSPR spots with a quick look at the iPod Touch.

The Apple iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch do not have that many amateur radio apps. There are a few very useful ones like an audio spectrum analyser, an oscilloscope, Echolink and a repeater database, but what I would really like is a full WSPR interface for the iPod Touch.  Does anyone know if such an app has/is being developed for Apple or Android products? Even Apple OS PCs seem to be less well catered for with regard to amateur radio software.

Further WSPR development?

On the LF reflector recently there's been discussion about how to make weak signal modes decode at even lower S/N ratios. Joe Taylor K1JT, who created WSPR, was approached by Stefan DK7FC, a very well known LF DXer, to see if WSPR could be further developed to achieve this.  One idea is a slower version of WSPR with a 4 or 8 minute time slot instead of the current 2 minute period. Theoretically it should be possible to get successful decodes with much weaker signals. Joe is currently busy with other work, but took kindly to Stefan's suggestion and said he would take a look later in the year.  With WSPR performance roughly equivalent to QRSS10, such a move would be welcomed by many of us trying to get reports on VLF, LF and MF with QRP.

472kHz transverter - real progress

Since reverting to a passive double balanced mixer based design, the circuit is now behaving properly with no signs of oscillation and a good clean signal from the PA. Although I have used an SBL1 mixer, it will work with any similar mixer package. Tomorrow I may try the design with an NE602 as this would allow the separate oscillator to be removed. With an NE602 it should be possible to do the complete TX-RX transverter with 1 IC, 2 transistors and 1 FET.  Now THAT would be neat.

16 Sept 2012

472kHz transverter "progress"?

This afternoon, after a break of a few weeks, I went back to my 10W 472kHz transverter design. The intention was to simply build a second sample to prove repeatability. As is often the case, things didn't quite work out that way: instead I discovered an MF oscillation when drive was removed in some situations. Despite trying all the usual tricks so far, I've not managed to fix it yet. It is not the PA: driving it and the squarer stage directly with a 472kHz signal all is well. It looks like a problem around the oscillator and mixer but so far I have not managed to tame it. Also, and this is probably the same issue, on RX there is a wideband noise resulting in desensitisation. For this evening I have stopped work and will take a fresh look tomorrow. Maybe the double balanced mixer in my original 2010 circuit was not such a bad idea after all.

This is a classic situation when a spectrum analyser would really help as I could see in an instant where the trouble was by poking around with an RF probe and observing the spectrum on the analyser.

15 Sept 2012

Bitsbox - excellent service (again)

A few days ago I decided to order some electronics components to replenish my stocks - resistors, common capacitors, trimmers, FETs etc, so I placed an order with Bitsbox, my favourite UK supplier. The order was acknowledged immediately and the goods arrived next day by first class post. Bitsbox prices are very sensible (resistors 1p each in 50 offs for example) and they charge a fixed £1.75 delivery charge per order for UK first class post.  I've now used this company several times and cannot fault the service. They stock a wide range of parts - certainly most of what I need for VLF-VHF experimental building - and the delivery is super fast. 

G3XBM recommends Bitsbox.

14 Sept 2012

WISPY reports and a red kite

For the last month we seem to have been away from home half the time. The last few days we have been in Yorkshire for a sibling reunion with my wife's brothers.

On the way back home we had a REAL surprise driving along the Leeds ring road. I could not believe my eyes when I saw a red kite flying quite low overhead. These fine forked tailed raptor birds were once confined to a small part of south central Wales but following selective reintroduction they are making a comeback all over the place. We see them near Newmarket quite often, but I was totally surprised to see one driving through urban Leeds!

When I got back home I switched on the WIPSY beacon and was rewarded with a string of reports including a +6dB S/N from Germany - not bad for 100mW. The now regular  report from EA8FF was not long coming as was a report from F5VLY and several other DL stations and G8KNN not far away.

11 Sept 2012

WISPY TX gets better (and even cheaper!)

Today I did a rebuild of the TX only version of the WISPY 10m WSPR beacon to improve it in several ways.  Switching to germanium diodes helps produce a much better looking DSB signal out of the mixer. With silicon diodes there was not quite enough drive. The second change was to remove the 2N3866 PA and replace it with a couple of paralleled up 2N3904s (each with a small emitter resistor so they share current properly). A 2N3866 is around £1.50 whereas a couple of 2N3904s are about 6 pence.  Output is now a clean DSB signal, even without the low pass filter, with a conservative 200mW DSB out (100mW equivalent SSB signal in the WSPR band). This is now a very pleasing little design that can be built for even less.  Within 5 minutes of turning it on it got a remarkable -3dB S/N report from EA8FF over 3000kms away.

10 Sept 2012

The first UK broadcast station

The first public broadcasts in the UK were not by the BBC but a few years before in 1920 from the station 2MT in Writtle, Essex. It was known as Two Emma Toc.

The book "2MT Writtle – The Birth of British Broadcasting" by Tim Wander gives the history of this first station. It is available from Amazon for £18.95.

TX only WSPR beacon

UPDATE 11.9.12: see later post for improved version

WISPY is a full 2-way WSPR transceiver but there may be occasions when just a simple WSPR TX is needed. This is the (current) schematic of the WSPR TX beacon for 10m, but the very same schematic with a different crystal and values should work on any HF band. On lower bands the doubler could be removed and a simple on-frequency crystal substituted.  The doubler approach was the cheapest way for 10m WSPR.

The schematic needs rationalising and some further simplification, so treat this (as always) as a design starting point.

9 Sept 2012

Solar predictions

The NASA solar physics website has some recent updates to the solar cycle peak predictions:
"The current prediction for Sunspot Cycle 24 gives a smoothed sunspot number maximum of about 76 in the Fall of 2013. The smoothed sunspot number (for 2012/02) is already nearly 67 due to the strong peak in late 2011 so the official maximum will be at least this high. We are currently well over three years into Cycle 24. The current predicted and observed size makes this the smallest sunspot cycle since Cycle 14 which had a maximum of 64.2 in February of 1906."
Looks like they are expecting a double peak cycle with a slightly larger peak about a year from now. We'll see. The peak is likely to be very low compared with mega-peaks seen in the last half century.

WISPY-10 schematic (draft A)

OK, I promised to show the schematic of WISPY-10 (there may be versions for lower bands later) today so here it is. I have breadboarded and tested the TX and the RX parts on-air and both work well. In the transceiver I have used the oscillator with an additional buffer (x2) stage on TX and this has still to be tested but I don't expect any issues at all. Also shown is the TX-RX change-over using the back-to-back diodes in the middle of a series tuned circuit on the RX input. On TX the diodes conduct and the capacitor forms part of the output low pass filter.
Updated schematic (an error spotted by G3TFX)
At the moment I am not planning any further work as I want to crack on with the 472kHz work but I expect to return to this in a few weeks' time.

Click on the schematic for a larger, more readable, version. Please let me know if you spot any obvious errors (e.g. where I have put grossly wrong values of components in) so I can update the schematic.

Please feel free to use this as a starting point for your own version. All in, I doubt the components would cost more than £5 (7 euros or 8 dollars) even if all the parts were obtained new.

The 2N3866 runs quite hot in class A and I want to change this biasing in the final version. I may also susbstitute the 2N3866 for a couple of paralleled 2N3904s to save further cost.

The same circuit will work well on PSK31 (pull the crystal to the right frequency of course) but both with WSPR and PSK31 do not over drive the PA. This is a DSB transmitter and there will be splatter either side of the carrier for tens of kHz if driven too hard. Adjust the drive so the output from the PA is a clean, DSB signal free from obvious audio distortion.

8 Sept 2012

WISPY now transmitting!

Breadboard of WISPY TX - 50mW pep WSPR (100mW DSB)
Very pleased with my little 3 transistor DSB 28MHz WSPR transmitter. Since turning it on at 11.34am I've received around 30 reports from stations in Europe despite the power being just 50mW pep ...and as I write my first spot from Africa: -14dB S/N (a good report) from EA8FF in the Canary Islands!

Schematic to follow tomorrow. OK, I know - there is no low pass filter on the breadboard. As the circuit is linear throughout and there is filtering on both stages the output is pretty clean, but I will add a 3-section LPF on the final transceiver version.

This is a very simple, all discrete parts, design using 2 x 2N3904s, 1 x 2N3866 (may be overkill) and a couple of 1N4148 diodes in the mixer.  Again, I use a cheap 14.060MHz crystal, pulled a bit and  doubled, as the LO.

6 Sept 2012

FLEX-6700R hype?

Just read this on a UK supplier's website:
The FLEX-6700R™ Signature Series receiver is based on a new hardware architecture and SmartSDR™ software platform.  This hardware uses Digital Down Conversion (DDC) to convert from RF to digital.  The FLEX-6700R uses two Spectral Capture Units™ (SCU) for the RF to digital conversion and an ultra high performance on-board signal processing and control system to perform demodulation, filtering, and audio stream management.  The result is incredible receiver dynamic range and received signal clarity.
The FLEX-6700R model receiver utilizes two SCUs for reception from 0.33 to 77 MHz plus 135 to 165 MHz and the ability to create up to 8 full featured independent SLICE RECEIVERS.  Optimized preselector filters can be selected for the ham bands for greater out of band rejection.
SmartSDR is the “ecosystem” of the radio platform.  It organizes all the signal processing power in the radios into an advanced radio fabric.  SmartSDR understands the capabilities of each SCU and how to harness its power.  It also comprises of the “presentation layer” or GUI client that the user interacts with.  The FLEX-6700 utilizes an Ethernet connection for high-speed “driverless” access to the graphical user interface (GUI).
Now I know there are people around with too much money and there are some applications when a very good receiver may be of benefit, but would YOU spend £4799.94 on one? This is just the receiver remember! No thanks. I'll continue to build simple rigs for a few pounds and accept their limitations.

WISPY progress (TX side)

Despite promising to finish off the 472kHz transverter properly first, I decided to have a go at the TX side of the 10m DSB WSPR and PSK transceiver (WISPY). Starting with the PA and working back to the drivers I breadboarded a simple linear amp based on a couple of 2N3904s and a 2N3866. Power out is around 1.2W pep. I also added the osc/doubler and single balanced mixer later but have not optimised the overall strip. This phone image shows the breadboard I was working on - not a pretty sight. If time allows tomorrow I'll continue this and maybe get to hook it up to an antenna and a PC on TX.

5 Sept 2012

Moonbounce with WSJT and MAP65

At a recent EME conference in Cambridge John Regnault, G4SWX demonstrated EME using WSJT by remotely operating his 1kW EME station (using the call GB2EME) located on the east coast of the UK. They worked well over 100 DX stations off the moon during the conference (which I did not attend). Joe Taylor W1JT who invented WSJT and MAP65 (and WSPR!) was there.

Although I'm an engineer who enjoys doing "a lot with a little", one has to be impressed by the dedication and sheer hard work some amateurs put into the hobby. Recently G4BAO demonstrated to me his 10/24GHz station which has software controlled rotators, mast top RF sections and GPS locked SDR receivers. He was able to make state of the art 10/24GHz narrow-band operation look easy, when in reality it was the culmination of a lot of very hard work over very many years. Of course, the effort goes on and on.  

Energy harvesting wireless bus bell push

The latest edition of Land Mobile Magazine (a magazine for professionals in the mobile radio business) has an interesting column showing how London Eco-Routemaster buses are being fitted with a novel sort of bell push (the kind you push to ask the bus driver to stop) which harvests energy from the action of pushing the bell to send a wireless signal through the bus to the driver. The bell push uses an energy harvesting chip from EnOcean a company that specialises in such devices.

The EnOcean evaluation kit (for professional developers) as shown on their website
This is the first time that I've seen a very practical use for energy harvesting. I assume that the device "harvests" kinetic energy (from the pushing action) and thermal energy (from the finger tips) but it must generate a few uWatts for this to work.  So, no batteries, no wires, wireless comms and good for 300k presses. There has to be a QRP application!

For more on this read the article on line at Land Mobile magazine

On with the projects.....

Back home now, so it is on with the autumn projects list.

Several people have been contacting me about the latest 472/500kHz 10W transverter. Someone in OK-land is designing a PCB and I hear a "dead bug" version has been successfully built in the USA - not sure whether an exact copy or "based on" - but it has already been used on MF WSPR with a report from over 2000km up the USA east coast. So, I will continue with refining this design first and then get on with the "WIPSY" 28MHz simple WSPR transceiver next.

The non line-of-sight optical beaconing tests will resume a little later when the evenings start to draw in. I want to set up a more powerful, semi-fixed 481THz optical beacon so that I can do a series of DX tests under various degrees of cloud cover. Tests last winter suggest much further will be possible than the 9km NLOS ranges achieved with clear air scatter when signals were audible by ear. By using much lower sub-carrier frequencies the optical detector sensitivity will be very much greater allowing even weaker signals to be detected on QRSS3 and QRSS30.

DXTV challenge?

Sorry for the absence of postings last week but we've been on holiday. No ham gear with me, but I did spot several nice HF and VHF yagis on my travels.

Several of my blog readers were DXTV enthusiasts (like me a long time ago), so I wonder who will be the first to identify where we were on holiday by this testcard copied at 4am this morning on the hotel TV? No prizes for giving me the country, but interested to know how many out there know the answer and whether or not this card has ever been copied in the UK on Band 1 TV. This was on 625 line UHF.