Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Measuring SWR with an extreme QRP transmitter

As I've used the prototype RF breakout boards for the Raspberry Pi, I've found one or two unexpected challenges posed by such a low power transmitter. This post deals with one of them, the problem of measuring SWR with not enough power to operate my SWR bridge.

When your transmitter only supplies 10mW of RF power it is extremely important that all components handling that RF do so with maximum efficiency. When you have plenty of power to spare it does not matter if you lose a bit along the way, but when you have so little in the first place your every loss will be felt. You thus need to ensure that your connectors and feeder are as low-loss as possible, and that your antenna has as good an SWR as you can make it. If you have a higher power transmitter on the same band in your shack it will be easy to use that to set up your antenna, but if all you have is a Raspberry Pi you may have to take a different tack from that which you are used to.

This might seem like a blindingly obvious revelation, but a 10mW transmitter does not have enough power to operate a lot of commercial SWR meters. Devices sold for use with watts or more of RF power may not have a range with the sensitivity required to give a reading when supplied with small numbers of milliwatts. My trusty Howes resistive SWR bridge for example is nominally a QRP device, but QRP in that case seems to mean watts in the single digits and it starts to have problems as the power dips under 500mW. When presented with 10mW it gives no meter deflection at all, to all intents and purposes it has become a useless instrument.

My solution when I needed to measure the SWR of my 70MHz WSPR dipole was to go back to SWR basics and use a directional coupler on its own with my multimeter measuring the voltage on its reverse port. My directional coupler dates from my days experimenting with 435MHz ATV, and is a few inches of coupled stripline on a PCB in a diecast box with Schottky diodes feeding its ports. 70MHz is probably not its ideal frequency, but just as an example with the Raspberry Pi as an RF source I measured between about 10 and 100mV on the reverse port increasing with the SWR of the termination. For the record the 70MHz dipole measured 81mV compared with a 50 ohm terminator's 10mV, indicating a poor SWR that turned out to be from a detached co-ax braid connection.

Some more information on directional couplers:
W2AEW video on directional couplers
GM8OTI stripline directional coupler for UHF
VK1HW ferrite directional coupler for HF and VHF

Friday, 26 June 2015

Raspberry Pi RF breakout kit on Kickstarter

So, I've done it. Put the Raspberry Pi RF board on Kickstarter. The thing I said I didn't think would work out as it would put me into VAT. In the end I decided I'd have to sell  a huge number to reach the VAT threshold so it was worth the risk. Time will tell how good a decision that was.

What have I learned from putting it all together? Everything costs more than you think it will. When I assembled a kit with components, packaging, instructions, a sticky address label, an invoice, and a Language Spy sticker, it really came home how many items I'd have to price up in quantity. And you learn just how quickly those small items can blow your original estimate out of the water.

Putting the pitch together was the easy bit. Writing comes easily to me. The video is more of a slideshow than a video, I felt there was little point trying to shoot an artsy video for an electronic kit. Kickstarter strongly recommend a video so I did one, that's it.

So here I am, all bases (I hope) covered. Kickstarter's fee and a contingency for lost deliveries factored in, the pitch done, and lead times secured from all suppliers. When I Tweeted the board I got a huge response, let's hope that will translate to a funded project.

So please head on over to the Kickstarter campaign, and if you like it, back it!

The link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2001938575/rf-breakout-kit-for-the-raspberry-pi

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A Raspberry Pi gives me a lifetime DX record

    The other day I dug out and dusted off my amateur radio logbook. The last entry was in 1993, a 70cms FSTV test with 2m talkback with a friend a few miles away. I noted at the time that my power output on 70cms was 50mW, and that the test was a failure. The transmitter was homebrew and I still have it, though I think I may have scavenged the output transistor.
    It's weird, reactivating a callsign so long dormant. Long enough dormant in fact that what always felt like a rather new callsign is now something of an old-timer. A lot's happened since 1993 in amateur radio, there are some interesting new bands and modes, and I can now use all the HF bands if I want to. I bet that went down like a lead balloon with the sheds-and-allotments nets on 80m! :) But to be honest I'm no longer interested in sitting in a shack at a microphone. I was always in it to experiment with radio and though I spent a lot of happy hours on 2M FM back in the day I'm probably not returning.
    Of the new modes that have appeared since I buried my personal amateur radio time capsule, WSPR caught my eye. Extreme QRP and extreme narrow bandwidth, and best of all, possible using just the internal clock generator of a Raspberry Pi. So with a quickly assembled 70MHz low-pass filter and an equally hastily built dipole I put together a 4M WSPR beacon.

    It's a while since I had an operational transmitter of my own. This one's only producing about 100mW, but it's still important to ensure a minimum emission of unwanted radiation. When your transmitter is at heart a logic level square wave there is a lot of possibility for harmonics.
    I hope it's not a damning admission when I say I was never able to really ensure I wasn't transmitting harmonics back in the day. I had my wavemeter but it couldn't go up into the high harmonics so if I built anything I had to rely on overprovision of low pass filtering. I suspect I was not alone in this and I never had the DTI breathing down my neck so I am happy I got it right.
   Now I have something unavailable to me in the 1980s and '90s, an RTL-SDR. I can have a waterfall spectrum analyser view of any couple of MHz slice of spectrum between 25MHz and 2GHz, so I can take a look for harmonics. Of course it's not a calibrated device so it's difficult for me to check relative values even if I turn off the AGC, but I can still check for presence or absence of radiation.
    In the room next to the Raspberry Pi, there are the harmonic peaks. Much lower than the carrier, but still there. Half a mile away though, the carrier is just as strong but the harmonics are no longer present. The lower-level harmonics I detected in the same room are not reaching my antenna, the LPF is doing its job. Good, that's what I want to hear.
    So, turn on the Pi, run WsprryPi, and keep an eye on the WSPR map to see who spots it. 4M is neither an easy DX band nor a popular WSPR band, so it wan't exactly a surprise when none of the five or so stations active at the time in Western Europe spotted me. But a Raspberry Pi doesn't use much power, so just leave it running.
    After two days, a sporadic-E opening. And a single spot, from just north of Madrid, in Spain. Nearly 790 miles to this part of Oxfordshire, for 4M that counts as pretty extreme DX.
    So, EA4ETR. The first callsign in my logbook since 1993, the first non-G callsign, and far and away my furthest DX on a difficult band all in one go. And all with a £25 computer and a filter and antenna from junkbox parts. Not a fancy chequebook transceiver in sight.
    That for me is what amateur radio should be all about.