Category Archives: RF

Anything to do with radio

WG2 Flight Update

ms_wg2_final_smallThe WG2 long-range balloon flight is now over as far as being able to track it is concerned; it is quite likely still in the air somewhere over Russia, however (as of 27/6/14).

The flight performed much better than we expected for a first try, covering a known distance of 1500 miles, to finally go out of ground-station range over Ukraine about 31 hours after launch.  During the flight the balloon passed through a total of 8 countries (some more than once).

The balloon’s telemetry signal was received across Europe by a network of volunteers (many of whom are amateur radio operators), and fed into the central Habitat system operated by the UK High Altitude Society (UKHAS).  This enabled the flight to be seen in real-time through the spacenear.us site.

At the time contact was lost the balloon and the tracking electronics remained in good health, with the battery expected to last perhaps a further 8 to 10 hours.  Long-range flight predictions from the last known point suggest that the balloon will, if it remains airborne, travel up into Russia and then continue East towards Siberia.

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Tiny Balloon Tracker

Tiny balloon trackerToday sees the first flight of my tiny ARM based GPS tracker.  The balloon (a 36″ Qualatex foil) was launched from Wirral Grammar School for Girls with their Astronomy Club, who were responsible for the successful WGGS1 high-altitude launch last October.

This flight is a float attempt, and can be tracked at spacenear.us with the callsign WG2.  Calculations suggest the battery (a single AAA) should be good until about Friday morning.

The tracker, shown in the picture (more here), has the connector piece removed once programmed.  For scale, the board is the same length as the AAA that powers it.  Wire antennas were used for both GPS and downlink, and these were just soldered straight to the board.  Total mass is about 12 g including the battery.  Technical details of the tracker follow…

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High Altitude Success!

wggs2080The last few months I have been providing engineering assistance to Wirral Grammar School for Girls in their project to launch a helium balloon into the stratosphere.  This first chapter of the project was brought to a stunning conclusion yesterday when we successfully launched and recovered a camera payload, lifting it to a final altitude of 35.5 km (116500 ft).

Telemetry from the balloon was transmitted back to the ground using a pair of trackers made from a modified version of my sensor boards.  The two trackers were configured on different bands using a 433 MHz and 868 MHz RFM22B module respectively, and custom firmware was written to communicate with a uBlox GPS receiver and transmit coordinates via 50 baud RTTY.  The primary downlink was on 434.3 MHz and was received as far away as Belgium and The Netherlands (thanks to all who helped out).

The downlink was received and decoded in real time from a chase car, with a rough landing site being obtained before the signal was finally lost.  Initial indications placed the landing worryingly close to a quarry, although a search with a 7 element yagi turned up an extremely weak signal which was enough to give us a bearing to follow – it turned out to be a further mile and a half away and behind a ridge, which is pretty good going for a 10 mW transmitter lying on the ground.  A short drive further and another wave of the yagi yielded a GPS fix which turned out to be 50 yards into a field about a mile further down the same farm track.  Recovery was quickly affected by DFing the 868 MHz tracker for the final few meters using the much more portable yagi we had for this band.  The camera was still snapping, and had shot over 1300 images.

Many thanks to everyone on #highaltitude on Freenode IRC for their valuable advice, and especially to those involved in the provision of the tools at habhub.org and spacenear.us.

Update 25/10/2013: Some images from the flight are now available on the new gallery

A Software Radio for the Web

webradioThere’s no shortage of good Software Defined Radio (SDR) apps for RTL2382-based dongles, but wouldn’t it be nice if they could be driven remotely?  WebRadio is a project I have been working on which aims to be a fully functional SDR with a user interface that runs in a browser.

The front-end is separated cleanly from the signal processing server by a (fairly) RESTful JSON API, so alternative GUIs are also an option (smartphone apps being the obvious one).

A key feature of the design is server-side decoding of data modes.  Since the original impetus for WebRadio was my involvement with a local school’s high altitude balloon project, initial focus will be on making it decode RTTY, but the modular design makes it easy to add other decoders.

Currently the project builds and runs on a Linux PC, but with only basic functionality (tuning for a single receiver and selection of AM and FM).  Channel filtering also needs some improvement, after which SSB will work as well – this is next on the list.  The GUI is known to work properly in Chrome; for other browsers, for now, YMMV.  Take a look.

RFM22B/23B Availability and RFM69W

There is a degree of uncertainty at the moment regarding the future availability of HopeRF’s RFM22B and RFM23B modules.  Having been in touch with a number of HopeRF’s European distributors the message appears to be that while they are indeed “not recommended for new designs”, there has been no end-of-life notification for either of these products.  Both modules will continue to be available for the foreseeable future, although they may be subject to minimum order quantities once distributor stocks run dry.

Recommended replacements are the RFM69W and RFM69HW.  These new modules appear to be based on Semtech SX1231H, which means they are not an ideal equivalent because of a 2.4 V minimum Vcc (the RFM23B can work down to 1.8 V).  Fingers crossed that HopeRF has actually used the 1.8 V capable non-H version of the chip on the lower power RFM69W.

Several EU distributors have indicated that they will be carrying the new modules within a month or so.  Pricing looks like it will be slightly cheaper than that of the older modules, so that plus the addition of hardware AES should make these a welcome upgrade.

Antenna Measurements – Part 1

PCB antenna with test port attached

I finally found the time to make some measurements on the printed antenna used on my sensor board, which I didn’t think was performing very well.  Turns out I was right.

For this first part of the test various antenna configurations were tested by mounting them on unpopulated sensor boards connected to an Anritsu Sitemaster RF fault analyser via some added SMA connectors.  This instrument is capable of making return loss measurements, which were taken over a range of 800 MHz to 1 GHz.

Return loss is a measure of the proportion of power reflected back into the transmitter (or back out of the antenna) due to a mismatch.  It is given in decibels as incident minus reflected dB, and is related to VSWR.  A high positive return loss value indicates a good match.

Measurements were made on the following antennas:

  • A reference dipole tuned for resonance while mounted on the instrument
  • The printed antenna cut to the recommended length for 868 MHz as given in the TI application note
  • Wire monopoles of length 85 mm, 86 mm and 87 mm

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Implementing the ELV FHT Protocol with an RFM23

Over the last few weeks I have been helping out the guys over at OpenTRV with an implementation of the FHT protocol for use with HopeRF RFM22B and RFM23B modules.  My as-yet unreleased sensor modules (as seen in another post) make use of an RFM23B, and I have an interest in evaluating the Conrad/ELV FHT8V valve head as part of my own central heating upgrades, so this was a job that I needed to do anyway.

The FHT protocol is similar to FS20, but the receivers are battery powered and so use a timeslot technique to avoid the need for a permanently powered receiver.  This necessitates a synchronisation procedure between the controller and its valve.  Once completed, the controller will send a packet approximately every two minutes, keeping the valve in sync.  This means that it can take up to two minutes for a change to take effect, but it does mean that the receiver remains un-powered for most of the time.

This example implements the protocol using the module’s FIFO mode, requiring minimal intervention from the host MCU.  Source is available for ATMEGA328, so it should work on an Arduino, although I have not tested it yet.

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A Simple RF Protocol (or, what is the point of ZigBee?)

I’m going to start by admitting that this isn’t going to be a tirade of abuse against the oddly named 802.15.4-based wireless tech, but rather a request for comments on an open, lightweight alternative, particularly for low-cost sub-GHz applications.  I know what the point of ZigBee is, and the ability to form into self-organising mesh networks is an obvious advantage for large scale industrial automation, but for domestic applications it feels like overkill.

The industry is apparently thinking along the same lines, because the vast majority of DIY Home Automation (HA) stuff on the market in the UK at least is using proprietary sub-GHz like LightwaveRF.  The driver here is probably cost, but it is my view that the lack of interoperability that this leads to is holding back the mass-market acceptance of HA, and is unnecessary.

What I am looking for is a simple, open (as in freely available, properly documented, royalty free) standard for sub-GHz RF that could be implemented on the cheapest of radios in minimal code space.  I am aware of MQTT-S, although even that looks too complicated for simple sensor/actuator applications, and it doesn’t define the lower layers, instead running on top of something like ZigBee or 6LoWPAN.

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Wireless Sensor Boards Arrived

Sensor PCBsAs part of my project to bring our central heating into the 21st century I have been working on a custom wireless sensor platform.  My key aim here is to develop a low-cost, open solution with security designed in from the start; something that a lot of sub-GHz protocols seem to totally omit.  I’m avoiding ZigBee because, as much as I want to like it, I keep coming back to the issue that its complexity just pushes up the system cost.  In a domestic environment a simple sub-GHz solution can easily cover a typical property without resorting to meshing.

The design I have gone for combines temperature and light sensing with a pulse input for connection to the gas and electricity meters.  The microcontroller is an ATMEGA328 and the radio is a Hope RF RFM23B, which is based on a SiLabs Si4431.  This is a synthesised transceiver so the potential for congestion can be avoided through the use of listen-before-talk and frequency hopping, the latter also offering a way around the duty cycle restrictions in the 868 MHz band.

The printed antenna needs to be tuned by trimming it to length, which will no doubt be the subject of a future post.  Once the optimal dimensions have been determined this can be applied to any future spin of the boards in advance.  No prizes for spotting the deliberate mistake with the microstrip track passing under the RF module – I am hopeful it won’t have too great an effect!

The boards in the photograph just came back from iTeadStudio in about a fortnight.  The quality is absolutely excellent considering the <£10 price tag for the 10 circuits.  I have loaded a couple and firmware development is in progress.

Hacking Wireless Radiator Valves with Gnuradio

I have an ongoing project to improve the performance and automation of the heating system in our house, given the ever-rising cost of energy.  As part of this project I am planning to zone the central heating system to allow the temperature of each room to be controlled independently, and to do this I need a way of remotely controlling the radiators.  Because of the level of integration I am looking for I’ve been unable to find an off-the-shelf solution that meets my needs at a price that is acceptable.  Time to start hacking!

The Conrad FHT8V wireless thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs) are available for around £30, which is the sort of price I’m prepared to pay to get this project up and running.  I would ideally like to talk directly to these valves from my own controller, so I bought one of the £60 starter kits which includes the remote thermostat and took a look at the on-air protocol using Gnuradio.

To receive the signal a cheap RTL SDR dongle was used.  This has the Elonics E4000 tuner, which has almost continuous coverage from about 65 MHz to nearly 2 GHz.  The TRVs operate in an ISM band on 868.35 MHz.  Helpfully, the protocol has already been reverse engineered, making building a receiver a simple task.  The modulation is on-off keying with the symbols encoded as mark and space times of two different lengths, so a custom block was needed in order to decode and frame the messages.  This was written in C++ and integrated with the rest of the receiver in Python.

The code can be found here, and should serve as a simple introduction into writing custom Gnuradio blocks.

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