Feb 202022
 

So, for close to a decade now, I’ve had a bicycle-mobile station. Originally just restricted to 2m/70cm FM, it expanded to 2m SSB with the FT-290RII, then later all-band using a FT-857D.

It’s remained largely unchanged all this time. The station is able to receive MW/SW stations as well, and with some limitations, FM broadcast as well. My recent radio purchases will expand this a bit, freeing up the FT-857D’s general-coverage receiver to just focus on amateur bands. It’s been a long-term project though to move to SDR for reception.

What I have now

Already acquired is a Raspberry Pi 4 (8GB model) and a NWDR DRAWS interface board. I actually started out with a Raspberry Pi 3 + DRAWS and was waiting for the case for it to fit into. At that stage was the idea that the FT-897D would do much as it does now, no SDR involved, and I’d put a small hand-held with its own antenna as an APRS rig being driven by the second port on the DRAWS.

Since then; I bought the HackRF One for work (I needed something that could give me a view of the 2.4GHz ISM band for development of the WideSky Hub), the SDR bug firmly bit. Initially it was just DAB+ reception, I decided to get a RTL-SDR to do that so my radio listening wouldn’t be interrupted when a colleague needed to borrow the HackRF. That RTL-SDR saw some use receiving UHF CB traffic at horse endurance ride events at Imbil — I stated to consider whether maybe this might be a better option as a receiver for more than just commercial radio broadcasts.

Hence I purchased the Pi4: I figured that’d have enough CPU grunt that it’d still be able to decode a reasonable amount even if the CPU throttled itself for thermal management purposes. A pair of SDR interfaces would allow me to monitor a couple of bands simultaneously, such as 2m and 70cm together, or 2m/70cm and one of the HF bands.

Even the RTL-SDR v3 dongles are wide enough to watch the entire 2m band. With CAT control of the FT-857D, it’d be possible for the Pi4 to switch the FT-857D to the same frequency and possibly manage some antenna switching relays as well.

A rough design

This morning I came up with this:

A rough design of the SDR set-up

A critical design feature is that this must have a “pass-through” option so that in the event the computer crashes/fails, I can bypass all the fancy stuff and still use the FT-857D safely as I do now without all the fancy SDR stuff.

So while in SDR mode: the station pushbuttons on the handlebar go to a small sequencing MCU that can report events to the Pi4, on transmit the Pi4 can then instruct that MCU to connect the antennas into bypass mode, short-out the SDR inputs to protect them, then engage the PTT on the FT-857D, and transmit audio can either be delivered direct via the analogue inputs as they are now, or over USB/WiFi/Bluetooth through the MiniDIN6 DATA port.

The thinking is to have two SDRs, one of which is “agile” between HF/6m and 2m/70cm modes.

The front-end will be handled via the tablet: a Samsung Galaxy Active3 which can connect over WiFi or USB CDC-Ethernet.

I’ve shown gain-blocks between the antennas and the receivers, this is largely for impedance matching as well as to account for the losses involved in antenna sharing. Not sure what these will technically look like.

The two on the HF side should be ideally 0-60MHz devices. If I use the AirSpy HF+ as pictured, the VHF/UHF LNA connected to it only has to concentrate on the VHF band below 260MHz (really 144-148MHz, but let’s widen that to 87-230MHz for FM broadcast, air-band and DAB+) since that’s where the AirSpy stops.

The other, for now I’m looking at a RTL-SDR since I have one spare, but that could be any VHF/UHF capable SDR including the AirSpy Mini — the LNA on it, as well as the one feeding the FT-857D in receive mode will both need to handle 144-450MHz at a minimum.

It may be these frequency bands are “too wide” for a single device, and so I need to consider band-pass filters + separate band-specific LNAs and additional switching circuitry.

SDR selection

There are a couple of options I’ve considered:

The thing I don’t like about the SDRPlay Duo is the non-free nature of its libraries which seem to be only available for i386 or AMD64. Otherwise on paper it looks like a nice option.

KerberosSDR/KrakenSDR seems like overkill. It’s basically four (or five) RTL-SDRs sharing a common oscillator which is essential for direction-finding, but let’s face it, I’ll never have enough antennas to make such an application feasible on the bicycle. It looks like an echidna now!

BladeRF looks nice, but is pricey and stops short of the HF band so would need an up-converter like the RTL-SDR — not a show-stopper. That said, it’s dual-channel and can transmit as well as receive, so cross-band repeater would be doable.

I should try this with the HackRF One some day, see if I can combine a conventional transceiver + RPi + DRAWS/UDRC + HackRF One to make a cross-band repeater.

The Airspy HF+ is available domestically, and isn’t too badly priced. It doesn’t transmit like the HackRF does, but then again I could stuff one of my Wouxun KG-UVD1Ps in there wired up to the second DRAWS port if I wanted a traditional cross-band set-up.

Next steps

It would seem the LNA / antenna sharing side of things needs consideration next. RF relays will need to be procured that can handle seeing 100W of RF. Where I’ve drawn a single switch, that’ll likely be multiple in reality — when the transmitter is connected to the antenna, the receivers should all be shorted to ground so they don’t get blown up by stray RF.

Maybe the LNAs feeding the FT-857D will need to be connected to a dummy-load to protect them, not sure. Perhaps LNAs aren’t strictly necessary, and I can “cheat” by just connecting receivers in parallel, but I’m not comfortable with this idea right now. So this is the area of research I’m focusing on right now.

Oct 122019
 

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work with 6LoWPAN on the 2.4GHz band. I didn’t have anything that would receive arbitrary signals on this frequency, so I decided to splurge. I got myself my first bit of tax-deductible amateur radio equipment: a HackRF One.

It’s been handy, fire up CubicSDR, and immediately you get a picture of what’s happening on the frequency. In the future I hope to get the WIME framework working so I can decode the 802.15.4 frames and pipe them to Wireshark, but so far, this has been handy.

Since I’m not using it every day, I also put it to a second use, DAB+ reception. I used to listen to various stations a lot, and whilst FM stereo is built into my phone, I’ve got nothing that will do medium-wave AM. The HackRF stops short at 1MHz (officially 10MHz), and needs a suitable antenna to do so. However, it occurred to me that it was more than capable of doing DAB+, so after some experimentation, I managed to get qt-dab working.

Since getting that working, I bought a second SDR, a RTL-SDR v3. The idea is I’d be setting this up on the bicycle with a Raspberry Pi 3 which also has a DRAWS board fitted (the successor to the UDRC). I figured I could use this as a second receiver for amateur radio stuff, or use it for FM stereo/DAB+, maybe short wave.

So today, I was testing this: using the RTL-SDR with a Pi 3, seeing whether it would perform acceptably for that task. Interestingly, CubicSDR will de-modulate FM stereo quite happily when you’re running it via a X11 session forwarded over SSH, but it stutters its way though if you try to run it natively. I think the waterfall displays are too much for the machine to cope with: it can render them, but painting them on the screen causes too much CPU load.

qt-dab however works quite well. It occupies about 60% CPU, which means you don’t want to be doing much else. Whether I can do AX.25 packet simultaneously as planned or not is a valid question. Audio quality through the PWM output on the Pi3 is good too — I did try this with an original Pi and got an aural assault courtesy of the noisy 3.3V power rail, but it seems this problem is largely fixed on the Pi3.

In truth, I’ll probably be using the GNURadio framework directly when I get to implementing this on the bicycle. That makes a custom tailored UI a little easier to implement.

The WTF moment though was whilst putting this rig through its paces… I noticed a new station:

ELF Radio, a station dedicated to Christmas Carols

A new station, “ELF Radio” had appeared in multiplex 9A (202.928MHz)… this is exactly what it sounds like, a station dedicated to Christmas carols. We’re not even half-way though October, and they’re already out to flog the genre to death.

Now, Christmas rage was not a thing when I was younger, it seems the marketing world is intent on ruining this tradition by making excuses for starting the sales earlier and earlier… and it seems the “ambience” is part of the package deal that they insist must start long before that Celtic tradition, Halloween! As a result, most of us are thoroughly fed up by the time December rolls around.

Here’s a hint advertisers: playing this crap so soon in the year will not result in higher sales. It’s a sales repellent!

Mar 082013
 

Just recently, I managed to kill yet another hand-held. Not deliberately, just a combination of conditions and not adapting my behaviour to suit.

I have a Yaesu VX8-DR, which I mainly use on the bicycle for APRS. It isn’t bad, the GPS could be faster, and the Bluetooth is more of a gimmick (in that it only works with some Bluetooth headsets and is intermittent at best), but my biggest nit with it, is that you can’t charge the thing while it’s turned on.

This leads me to the bad habit of just leaving a DC power lead semi-permanently plugged into the side, with the other end plugged into the 12V supply on the bicycle. You guessed it… one bad day of rain, some water got in via the DC jack and basically destroyed it.  I’m pretty sure warranty doesn’t cover that kind of abuse.

I’m not in a hurry to buy another one.  In fact, I probably won’t.  I’m too clumsy to look after an expensive one, so better just to keep the two Chinese cheapies going (Wouxun KG-UVD1P’s).  This lead me to thinking about what I specifically like in a hand-held, and what features I’d look for.

Looking around, it seems the vast majority of sets out there are evolutionary.  An extra handful of memory channels, higher power, bigger battery, ohh look Bluetooth, and this one has {insert some semi-proprietary-digital-mode here}.  Yawn!

Most of them have tiny screens which can’t show a decent amount of information at a glance.  Digital voice is a long way being usable, with about 3 or 4 proprietary or semi-proprietary competing standards.  What about D-Star you say?  Well, what about it.  Nice mode, pity about the codec.  How about P25?  Same deal.

If a digital mode is going to succeed in Amateur radio, it’ll be necessary for a home base to be able to implement it with nothing more than a desktop or laptop computer loaded with appropriate Free Software and a sound card interface.  Not a silly proprietary “DV-Dongle” or some closed-source blob that speaks gibberish no other software can understand.

As for portable use; it should be possible for a hand-microphone that implements the mode on a DSP be plugged into an existing hand-held (like the Wouxun or Yaesu sets I mentioned earlier) to make it interoperable — open standards will help keep costs down here.

Until such a mode comes along (and they’re working on it — already making excellent progress on HF, keep it up guys!) there’s no point in pouring money into a digital mode that will be a white elephant in a few years.

By far the most popular mode on VHF and UHF is plain old FM.  The mode Armstrong made.  It’s everywhere, from your cheap $100 Chinese firecracker set to the most expensive SDR, they all offer it.  Repeaters abound, and it’s available to pretty much all amateur license classes.  And it works good enough for most.

The big problem with FM, is interfacing with repeaters.  In particular, the big use case with hand-helds and repeaters, is being able to recall the settings for a repeater where ever you happen to be.  Now you can carry around a booklet with the settings written in, and punch them into your radio each time.

This works better for some than others.  On the KG-UVD1P with its horrid UI, it is a tiresome affair.  The Yaesu VX-8DR and Kenwood TH-F7E aren’t bad, once you get used to them.  It’s still fiddly and time consuming, definitely not an option while mobile.  This is where memory channels come in.

Now I realise that sets which stored more channels than you could count on one digit-challenged hand were considered a revolution about 10 years ago.  Back then the idea that you could basically control a digital counter, which would supply an address to an EEPROM that would spit out the settings to drive a PLL synthesizer and other control circuitry was truly remarkable.

Today, the EEPROM and counter have been replaced by a MCU that reads the keypad matrix and outputs to a LCD panel, but we’re still basically incrementing a counter that’s acting as an address offset into non-volatile memory.  The only change has been the number of channels.  The Kenwood set I had gave you 400.  The VX-8, gives you 1000 — which can be optionally grouped into 24 banks (by far the best system I’ve seen to date).  The Wouxun gives you a poultry 128.

The hardest thing about this is finding a given repeater in a list.  128 is more than enough if you don’t travel, or if you pre-programme the set with the appropriate channels in some logical ordering before you leave.  In there hints another factor; “logical ordering”, since there’s no way to sort the memory channels by anything other than channel number.

In this day and age, 1000 channels, linearly indexed, is a joke.  I can buy a 2GB MicroSD card from the supermarket for $10.   How much repeater data could you store on one of those?  FAT file system drivers are readily implementable in modern MCUs and a simple CSV file is not that big a deal for a MCU to parse.

It wouldn’t be difficult to build up a few indexes of byte locations to store in NVRAM, and have the CSV store frequency, call sign, a Maidenhead locator and other settings of all the repeaters in the country, then allow the user to choose one searching by frequency, by call-sign, or if the user gives their current grid square (or it derives it from a GPS), by proximity.  That would be a revolution.  The same card could also store a list of Echolink and IRLP nodes, and make a note of such nodes via RF so it can automatically suggest the nearest IRLP node, take you there, then dial whatever node for you after you announce yourself on the frequency.

I’ve seen more elaborate software written for 8-bit micros like the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum back in the day, so clearly not beyond today’s equally powerful AVR, PIC, MSP430 and ARM chips.  A STM32F103RE packs 64KB RAM, 512KB flash and a SDIO interface in a nice small TQFP64 package and costs less than $8.  Even for a Wouxun, that’ll maybe add no more than 20% still keeping it rather competitive with the opposition.

As for user interface?  We don’t need Android on there, although that could be nice.  A decent size resistive touch-screen with a reflective dot-matrix LCD would more than suffice.  This technology, thanks to mobile phones, is cheap enough to implement in this application.  The MCUs needed to drive them have also come down in cost greatly.

Even without the touch-screen — a LCD bigger than a matchbox would allow for text that is easily readable, menus that aren’t constrained in their presentation, and a generally nicer user experience.

SDR hand-helds will likely be the next big revolution, if they are affordable, but I feel that’ll be a way off, and for rag chew on a local repeater, I doubt SDR will be that much superior.  It certainly will push the price up though.

I suppose a start will be to try and come up with a suitable front-end device that can be bolted onto existing transceiver hardware, maybe something that drives the computer control port of a mobile rig such as the FT-857 or IC-706.

From there, it just takes one brave manufacturer to package such a device up with a suitable transceiver in a hand-held form factor to put something to market.  If they did so in a way that could keep this UI module open-source, even better.  Bonus points if there’s a bit of an interface that can take a DSP for digital modes.

Want D-Star, P25, FreeDV, Wongi?  You got it, just slot in the right module, load on the firmware into the UI module, and away you go.  Want to do something special?  Break out the text editor and compiler and start hacking.  The RF side of things can still be as it was before, so shouldn’t pose any more of a problem for regulators than a transceiver with a digital modes jack and computer control interface.

I’m not sure if anyone has worked on such a front-end.  Another option would be a cradle that takes a modern smart-phone or tablet, interfaces via USB to the set, and uses the smart-phone as the UI, also extending the phone’s battery at the same time by supplying the 5V it needs to charge.  Bonus points if it can feed the audio signal to/from the phone for digital modes and/or interfacing with BlueTooth.  A pocket APRS I-Gate and Echolink node, perhaps?  Whatever takes your fancy.

I guess the real answer here will be to come up with something and see if there’s any interest — the “throw it against the wall and see what sticks” approach.