Sunday, December 1, 2013

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

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Desert Farming Experiment Yields First Results

Desert Farming Experiment Yields First Results | Science/AAAS | News

A project to “green” desert areas with an innovative mix of technologies—producing food, biofuel, clean water, energy, and salt—reached a milestone this week in the Gulf state of Qatar. A pilot plant built by the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) produced 75 kilograms of vegetables per square meter in three crops annually, comparable to commercial farms in Europe, while consuming only sunlight and seawater.  The heart of the SFP concept is a specially designed greenhouse. At one end, salt water is trickled over a gridlike curtain so that the prevailing wind blows the resulting cool, moist air over the plants inside. This cooling effect allowed the Qatar facility to grow three crops per year, even in the scorching summer. At the other end of the greenhouse is a network of pipes with cold seawater running through them. Some of the moisture in the air condenses on the pipes and is collected, providing a source of fresh water.

One of the surprising side effects of such a seawater greenhouse, seen during early experiments, is that cool moist air leaking out of it encourages other plants to grow spontaneously outside. The Qatar plant took advantage of that effect to grow crops around the greenhouse, including barley and salad rocket (arugula), as well as useful desert plants. The pilot plant accentuated this exterior cooling with more “evaporative hedges” that reduced air temperatures by up to 10°C. “It was surprising how little encouragement the external crops needed,” says SFP chief Joakim Hauge.

The third key element of the SFP facility is a concentrated solar power plant. This uses mirrors in the shape of a parabolic trough to heat a fluid flowing through a pipe at its focus. The heated fluid then boils water, and the steam drives a turbine to generate power. Hence, the plant has electricity to run its control systems and pumps and can use any excess to desalinate water for irrigating the plants.

The Qatar plant has also experimented with other possibilities such as culturing heat-tolerant algae, growing salt-tolerant grasses for fodder or biofuel, and evaporating the concentrated saline the plant emits to produce salt.

The Qatar plant—which is supported by Qatari fertilizer companies Yara International and Qafco—is just 1 hectare in extent with 600 square meters of growing area in the greenhouse. The fact that this small greenhouse produced such good yields, Hauge says, suggests that a commercial plant—with possibly four crops a year—could do even better. SFP researchers estimate that a facility with 60 hectares of growing area under greenhouses could provide all the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and egglants now imported into Qatar. The results “reveal the potential for enabling restorative growth and value creation in arid land,” Hauge says. "I personally think that it is very important that people promote and invest in these ideas. Protected agriculture (I call it "indoor food production") is an important option for the desert areas, particularly in the Middle East," says Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo. "The big question is economic feasibility. How much did it cost to produce 75 kg of cucumbers per square meter?"

SFP is now engaged in studies aimed at building a 20-hectare test facility near Aqaba in Jordan. “This will be a considerable scaling up from the 1 hectare in Qatar,” Hauge says, and big enough to demonstrate commercial operation.

Friday, November 8, 2013

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.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

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.

For most HAMs the experience of seeing sub-one watt WSPR signals decoded from across the globe is enough of a thrill. However, the fine folks at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have taken this a little further and used the Very Long Baseline Array radio telescope to precisely pinpoint the position of the Voyager 1 space probe.

While the layperson might see detecting the glimmer of 22 watts across the vastness of space miraculous, the amateur radio community can see this feat as the natural evolution and refinement of the technology and medium we know and love.


Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array telescope turned its gaze to NASA's famed Voyager 1 and captured an image of this iconic spacecraft's faint radio signal. The Green Bank Telescope also detected Voyager's signal, picking it out from the background radio noise in less than one second.

Astronomers using the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and Green Bank Telescope (GBT) spotted the faint radio glow from NASA's famed Voyager 1 spacecraft -- the most distant man-made object.

According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the VLBA imaged the signal from Voyager 1's main transmitter after the spacecraft had already passed beyond the edge of the heliosphere, the bubble of charged particles from the Sun that surrounds our Solar System.

Using NASA's Deep Space Network, JPL continually tracks Voyager and calculates its position on the sky, which is known as the ephemeris. Since the VLBA has the highest resolution, or ability to see fine detail, of any full-time astronomical instrument, NRAO astronomers believed they could locate Voyager's ephemeris position with unprecedented precision. This is unrelated to Voyager's distance from the Sun or position relative to the heliosphere.

The initial observations, which were made on February 21, placed Voyager very near, but not precisely at its predicted location. The difference was a few tenths of an arcsecond. An arcsecond is the apparent size of a penny as seen from 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) away. The second observations on June 1 produced similar results.

"It is possible that these observations are at the milliarcsecond [one-thousandth of an arcsecond] level, or better," said NRAO scientist Walter Brisken, who led the observations with the VLBA. At 11.5 billion miles -- Voyager's approximate distance at the time of the initial observations -- one milliarcsecond would be roughly 50 miles across.

Voyager's main transmitter shines at a feeble 22 watts, which is comparable to a car-mounted police radio or -- in visible light -- a refrigerator light bulb. Though incredibly weak by the standards of modern wireless communications, Voyager's signal is astoundingly bright when compared to most natural objects studied by radio telescopes.

"The ability to pinpoint the location of Voyager and other spacecraft is critical as we explore the inner Solar System and beyond," said Brisken. "The NRAO's VLBA has the capability to do this vital task with unprecedented precision."

Voyager 1, which was launched in 1977, is now headed away from the Sun at a speed of about 38,000 miles per hour.

In a remarkably sensitive complementary observation, the NRAO's Green Bank Telescope (GBT), which is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope, easily detected Voyager's signal, picking it out from the background radio noise in less than one second.

"Voyager is the first man-made object to penetrate the interstellar medium, and we really want to be able to receive the data from this new frontier," said NRAO scientist Toney Minter, who oversaw the Green Bank observations. "This information will provide many clues about how the interstellar medium behaves and how the Sun interacts with it."

"NRAO's instruments have the capability to provide the most accurate position information of distant spacecraft like Voyager," said NRAO Director Tony Beasley. "The remarkable sensitivity of GBT and VLBA's sharp vision are essential for discovery but also have unique capabilities that have enabled us to make this contact with one of humanity's most ambitious missions of exploration."

The VLBA is a system of radio antennas located across the United States from Hawaii to St. Croix. The antennas work together as a single telescope nearly 5,000 miles across, giving the VLBA its ability to see fine details. Only seven of the VLBA's full complement of 10 antennas were used to make these observations.

The 100-meter GBT is located in the National Radio Quiet Zone and the West Virginia Radio Astronomy Zone, which protect the incredibly sensitive telescope from unwanted radio interference. The GBT observations were made by NRAO scientists Toney Minter and Frank Ghigo, and Green Bank Director Karen O'Neil.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

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.

Monday, January 14, 2013

KARS Presentation - Ham Radio Resources on the Internet

At the Katy Amateur Radio Society business meeting I presented a brief rundown of a Internet resources that might interest the Radio Amateur. Here is that presentation in Google Docs format. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

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!"