Etherkit, Operating, Wideband Transmission

Wideband Transmission #7

More Musings about Etherkit’s Future

As I mentioned in my previous post, we are still undergoing a stage of tremendous upheaval in our household. I won’t really know how our new life will shake out quite yet, but I am certain that my time will be more restricted. I think I’ll have a good grasp on the extent of this within a month or so. In the mean time, I’ve been thinking about Etherkit. It’s a bit weird to air this out on the blog, but I think it would be good for others to hear my thoughts about this and have the chance to offer feedback.

The assumption is that I’m going to have less time to work on Etherkit (the only real question being how much less time), which means that if I do have enough time left to continue with the business I will need help by either outsourcing manufacturing or finding someone to bring on as a partner. If possible, I’d like to go that route, as I’m not really ready to see Etherkit fold up yet. This would also require more funding, so I would probably have to find a way to raise capital via the sale of equity, or perhaps I could crowdfund enough on a future product to keep things afloat.

Right now I have in the product pipeline OpenBeacon 2, which is perhaps 80% finished (most of the remaining work is in firmware), and a handful of small useful RF modules. On the drawing board I have a couple of QRP transceiver designs utilizing the Si5351 that would definitely fall into the category of cheap and cheerful, and would probably be a lot of fun to bring to market. Also, since OpenBeacon 2 is based on the Arduino Zero, I’ve been discovering the power of the Atmel SAMD series of ARM Cortex-M0+ microcontrollers. I’d love to develop a dev board derivative of the Arduino Zero using some of the SAMD line that have a bit less flash storage and consequently are a bit less expensive. I think hams (and other hackers) would really like such a device.

The other option is that due to time constraints I just cannot realistically continue Etherkit as an active business (at least regarding retail sales of physical stuff). If that happens, then I would still like to stay active in some way, under the restrictions in my available time. Perhaps writing may be a good choice, since that is quite portable and can be picked up and set aside a lot easier than designing electronics. Writing technical books, for a new blog that earns money somehow, or as a contract writer for an existing website are all possibilities. I’ve thought it might be nice to write about test and measurement for the ham’s home lab.

Either way, I’m not done with the ham homebrew community. The open question is merely how much time I can still give. Let me know what you think about the above in the comments.

Back to the Shack

It’s been a while since I’ve transmitted any RF on the amateur bands other than the testing that I’ve been conducting for OpenBeacon 2. Between how much time I’ve been putting into OpenBeacon 2 (and refining the Si5351 library), it’s been very difficult to find the time to sit down to operate. On top of that, I honestly just haven’t felt much of the operating mojo, so unsurprisingly I haven’t even tried to make it a priority.

Generally, it’s not great to force these things, but I’m getting to the point where I’m feeling a bit disconnected from amateur radio and that I really need to be QRV again in order to rebuild that connection. The ARRL Centennial in 2014 was a great operating year for me because it gave me a concrete and interesting goal to pursue.

W1AW WAS

So I figure that I need something similar to get me motivated again. A good goal perhaps would be to finally finish up basic DXCC from this QTH. As of right now, I stand at 75 confirmed entities in LoTW. It shouldn’t be that difficult to get 25 more confirmations in LoTW by the end of the year, especially if I carve out a couple of weekends for contesting. I used to chase a lot of the big DXepditions as well, and that might be another good source to pick up a handful of ATNOs (assuming I pay whatever fee they charge for a prompt LoTW upload). I’d also like to actually get a successful HF SOTA activation or two under my belt, and this would be a good summer to do that.

The League

Speaking of the venerable institution, I let my membership lapse recently. Not really with the mind to do so, but given the rather significant dues increase, it was becoming a bit more difficult to justify the expense. Yeah, they are only asking $10 more per year, but I have to ask myself if I’m getting $50 of value every year.

I was honestly barely reading the QSTs that were arriving in the mail. However, the archives always have been one of the best features of the membership. I’m glad they do work with the FCC to represent our interests. Their lab does a good job of evaluating products. It feels that their organizational structure is a bit too ossified; a bit too hierarchical for my tastes. Getting feedback to the leadership seems difficult if you aren’t already connected to leadership.

On the balance, I’m generally pro-ARRL, but I still don’t know that I see the value of just forking over $50 annually. I understand why they needed to do a rate increase (although it probably would have been better to phase it in more gradually rather than a 20% hit all at once). I also understand the economics of why it would be difficult to offer a membership without QST, unless a paper QST was scrapped entirely. I would be curious to see how the rate increase ends up affecting their member numbers and their bottom line.

Etherkit, Homebrewing, Random Musings, Wideband Transmission

Wideband Transmission #2

CC1 Beta Kit For Sale

I ended up having one leftover kit from the CC1 beta test and I thought that an experience builder might like to build it. There are a few minor mods to perform to the PCB, so it’s best suited for someone who feels comfortable with that. The (hopefully) final PCB spin is coming soon and will be slightly different, but this version works well, as AA7EE can attest to. I can offer the kit for a discount over the final CC1 retail price, and it’s currently available for 20 or 40 meters (although the final retail product will be available for more bands). Contact me at milldrum at gmail dot com if you are interested.

SOTA 12 Meter Challenge

I’m not subscribed to the SOTA reflector, but I saw a post on the VK3ZPF blog that there was an announcement on the reflector that there will be a SOTA 12 Meter Challenge. I think this is a great idea and I want to support it if I can. I haven’t made too many 12 meter QSOs, but when I have it seems like the DX has been pretty easy picking. When it’s open, the band seems quiet and the signals sound great. The plus for SOTA activation is that a resonant antenna is small and easy to pack.

My original plans for the CC1 were to only support up to 15 meters, but I think I may add 12 meters in order to support this initiative. The DDS in the CC1 is clocked at 50 MHz, so technically I should be able to output a 24.9 MHz signal, although I don’t know in practice how well this works at a frequency so close 0.5 Fc. If I can get it to work, I will release it as an available band on the CC1.

New PCBs Are Here!

CRX1 Beta
CRX1 Beta

Here is the latest beta PCB from the Etherkit, the CRX1 receiver! It is all-SMT construction, but I spread out the components a bit more than the CC1 and all of the parts are on one side of the PCB only. It’s VXO-tuned for the 40 meter band (a few kilohertz around 7.030 MHz) and is based on the Clackamas transceiver which I entered into the 2010 FDIM Challenge (which means it’s also a cousin of the CC1). This receiver has only discrete components (size 0805 resistors/caps, SOT-23 transistors), so it should be fairly easy to build. In other words, a good warm-up for the CC1. It also has a port for an external VFO, so it will be a platform for experimentation as well.

I’ll build this PCB up today and verify that it works, then get a few beta testers to confirm that all is well. Hopefully I can get this product onto market fairly quickly, with a low price. Stay tuned for more details as work progresses.

More Stuff For Sale!

I’ve added some new gear to my For Sale page that would be a great addition to the bench of any homebrewer. Please stop by and take a look!

CC-Series, DX, Etherkit, QRP

The Thrill of QRP DX

Last night after the rest of the family was in bed, I was hacking on the CC1 firmware to add the BFO calibration routine so that I could get an accurate readout of my receive frequency. After successfully completing that task at the late hour of 0130, I decided to cruise 40 meters to see what was going on. Normally the best time for 40 meter DX at my QTH seems to be from about 0200 or so until sunrise, so I thought I might catch something.

Scanning below 7.030 MHz, I came across a very loud station. I figured it was somebody in CONUS, but decided to listen for an ID just in case. It actually turned out to be PJ2/K8ND in Curaçao. Not exactly rare DX, but it’s still quite a ways from my QTH and it’s a new one for me. So I figured I would take a crack at it with the CC1. Long story short, I set the CC1 in XIT mode and after an hour of trying, my 3 watt signal finally managed to crack the JA-wall. I was pretty excited! Not exactly a heroic snag in the annals of DXing, but it was a good one for me. My single HF antenna is a ZS6BKW only up about 30 feet, so busting a 40 meter pileup to a station 6000 km away made my night. My first DX contact on the CC1! Even better, I woke up to find that the FB op uploaded his log to LoTW immediately, and I’ve got +1 to my DXCC count.

QRP is fun!

CC-Series, Etherkit

CC1 #1

A brief post to show you the CC1 prototype, now inside of its aluminum enclosure. This is the actual enclosure that will be used for production, but I will have the end caps custom cut and silkscreened, so you won’t have to do it yourself. Pardon my questionable metalworking skills, and please note the the production tuning knob will be different (a bit smaller so as to not interfere with the LEDs). At least this will give you some idea of what the final product will look like. The dimensions of the enclosure is 70 x 100 x 29 mm (or 2.75 x 3.93 x 1.14 inches). The first photo shows a size comparison with a standard deck of cards. The weight is 190 grams (6.7 oz).

After the latest circuit tweaks, everything is looking very good with this beta test. I will have more news for the beta testers in the near future. Exciting!

CC1-40 In Enclosure
CC1-40 In Enclosure
CC1-40 Front
CC1-40 Front
CC1-40 Rear
CC1-40 Rear
CC-Series, Etherkit

First RF

CC1-40 Prototype
CC1-40 Prototype

Two days ago, I received my pack of 10 CC1 prototype PCBs from Seeed Studio. The excitement was too much, so I immediately started building the first CC1 prototype as soon as my wife got home from work. Not surprisingly, I didn’t go to bed until I completed the build, sometime around 3 AM. I knew it was futile to even try to sleep, as I’d just lie in bed wondering if I had messed something up with the circuit. The radio seemed to pass all of the basic checks early that morning, but had a few oddities that needed to be worked out.

Yesterday, I was able to tweak some component values and got almost everything in line with my Manhattan-built prototype. I could hear a good rush of band noise as the antenna was connected, signals were coming in, and there was a stable 3 W CW output from the transmitter. Everything was looking great, but by the time the radio was ready to go QRV, 40 meters was closed and I was dead tired anyway.

NT7S CC1 Beta Test QSL
NT7S CC1 Beta Test QSL

Tonight, I tried to make a first QSO with AA7EE, but 40 meters had already gone long by the time I was able to make it to the radio at 6 PM, and Oakland was well out of the skip zone. There were a lot of signals from Rockies and east on the band, so I cruised a bit looking for a CQ. No luck finding anybody CQing, so I found a clear spot just above the QRP watering hole and called CQ with the CC1 keyer memory. Right off the bat, I got a call from WA0JLY! We gave each other 559 reports, but he actually came up to 579 by the end of the QSO. It was a very short QSO, as just as we exchanged reports, I was called away to help with our 10 month old son Eli. So I apologize Denny for the cutting the QSO short and for my shaky fist! Earlier today, I made some special QSL cards to commemorate the occasion and WA0JLY will get the first one. I do plan on getting more on-air time with the CC1 over the next few months, something that I’ve set aside far too much while I’ve been doing design.

So the initial verdict for this CC1 beta test is looking good. I will be getting in touch with the original beta testers soon and soon after that will contact those who requested to be in on the next beta (if you are one of those people and you don’t hear from me soon, feel free to contact me). As I’ve been saying recently, I’m cautiously optimistic about this board spin. I hope that I will be able to deliver a good product to my beta testers that has all of the original bugs eliminated.

Edit

I’ve had a lot of people ask for details about the CC1 and I forgot that it has been a while since I’ve last reviewed the details about the rig on the blog. So here’s a quick list of specs. Please keep in mind that this is strictly preliminary and subject to change for the release version.

  • Monoband CW QRP transceiver kit
  • DDS VFO (AD9834), full band coverage
  • Mostly SMT construction (0805 resistor/capacitors)
  • Initial available bands: 40, 30, 20, 15 (probably will add 80 and 17 if there is demand)
  • ATmega328P microcontroller with built-in keyer and straight key mode, audio frequency annunciation, RIT/XIT, voltage supply readout, breakout headers to UART, I2C, ADC, GPS port for WSPR transmission (and hopefully APRS over PSK63)
  • TX output power: 3 W
  • RX current: ~40 mA
  • TX current (13.7 VDC, 3 W): ~370 mA
  • MDS: -125 dBm
  • IF rejection: 86 dB
  • Image rejection: 95 dB
  • Two-tone, 3rd order IMD dynamic range: 75 dB
  • PCB dimensions: 70 x 99 mm
  • Custom matching aluminum enclosure measuring 70 x 100 x 25 mm will be included
CC-Series, Etherkit, Homebrewing, Test Equipment

HNY

Yes, a belated Happy New Year greetings! It’s hard to believe that 2013 is already well under way. I figured it was about time to give you a quick update on what’s going on in the shack right now.

First up is the discrete component grabber receiver for 14.141 MHz that I prototyped to be paired with the OpenBeaconMini project. The receiver itself consists of a roughly 2 kHz wide crystal filter on the front end, feeding into a single-balanced diode ring mixer, which drives an AF amp using 2N4401 and 2N4403 transistors. Because I’m not able to put up a proper outdoor antenna for the grabber right now, I decided to put the VE7BPO cascode active antenna on it instead. It seems to work well, but I don’t know for sure because there are basically no signals on this part of the band. I intended to use my Raspberry Pi with the receiver as a grabber, but I had no luck getting either LOPORA or QRSSVD to work properly and reliably. It may just be asking too much of the poor beast. So I’m going to try to appropriate another PC in order to get the grabber receiver QRV so that on-air testing of OpenBeaconMini can begin in earnest.

Discrete component monitor RX for 14.141 MHz
Discrete component monitor RX for 14.141 MHz

Next, I wanted to give you a very brief overview of my most recent purchase for the lab: a Rigol DS1022U arbitrary waveform generator. As far as I can tell, this appears to be pretty much the same as the DS1022A model that is sold in the US. But being a typical ham, I wanted to save a few dollars, so I purchased it off of eBay from seller who says he is an authorized Rigol dealer.

Rigol DG1022U Arbitrary Waveform Generator
Rigol DG1022U Arbitrary Waveform Generator

The DG1022[U|A] has two channels that can output a sine wave up to 25 MHz in 1 mHz (as in millihertz) steps. It can also provide square, ramp, pulse, noise, and arbitrary waveforms at lesser frequencies. It can modulate the waveform in a variety of ways, including AM, FM, PM, PWM, and FSK. It can, of course, also do sweeps of various parameters. The output amplitude into 50 Ω ranges from 10 Vpp on Channel 1 or 3 Vpp on Channel 2 down to 2 mVpp on both channels (or -50 dBm). The shielding on this AWG seems to be excellent. Using my HP 355C/355D attenuator combo, I can get a signal down to about -140 dBm (disclaimer: not a scientific measurement, made using my ear as a detector and listening on my IC-718). The dual outputs makes it very useful for a variety of two-tone receiver measurements, one of the big reasons driving my purchase. The Channel 2 output also doubles as a 200 MHz frequency counter input. Paired with the USB connectivity of the device (it seems to enumerate as a usbtmc device), that will be extremely handy for measuring oscillator drift. The DG1022 can also link the two channels together and give them a specific phase difference, as you can see below. This will make it very handy as a I/Q LO when I want to experiment with phasing and SDR rigs.

I/Q Output from DG1022U

So far, I’ve been very pleased with my purchase. I don’t feel like I’ve had it or used it long enough to give you a full review, but I thought that this preview would at least be a bit helpful for those thinking about using it. One of my goals for the new year is to do a much better job of characterizing everything that I build. Since I intend to start selling transceivers in the near future, it’s doubly-important that I can make accurate measurements of my products so that I can properly state their specifications. To this end, I’ve decided to sell off a bunch of my unused or replaceable test equipment (please take a look at the for sale posting) in order to finance the new, calibrated test gear. Next up on my purchase list is a Rigol DSA815TG spectrum analyzer (just reviewed favorably in the February 2013 QST), but that’s going to require the sale of everything on that page!

Finally, I’ve got the CC1 prototype PCBs on their way from Seeed Studio right now. It looks like they just cleared customs in the US, so hopefully they will be in my hands in the next few days. With any luck, I’ll have the first one built by the weekend and will be well on the way to a new beta test. I’ll put up a quick post to show off the PCBs, and when the first prototype unit is completed. Stay tuned!

CC-Series, Etherkit, Operating

Field Day 2012

OTVARC Field Day 2012 at Stub Stewart State Park

Even though I’ve been insanely busy with home life and running Etherkit, I felt like I needed to get out and do a bit of operating to get back in touch with that aspect of amateur radio. In the past few years, Dave W8NF has invited me to come up to the OTVARC Field Day site at Stub Stewart State Park, but I’ve avoided it due to the fact that late June is usually the time of year when my grass allergies peak here in western Oregon. Fortunately, this year has been a bit of a La Niña year, so it has been unusually wet and mild, which means that the pollen is under good control after a nice rain. A few days before Field Day this year, and my allergies had been pretty mild, so I decided to invite myself up to the public site to check it out and maybe do a little bit of operating.

I arrived at the park at about 4 PM on Saturday. As you can see from the photo above, the weather probably wasn’t to the liking of most people, but it was perfect for me: dry, having just previously rained. OTVARC had four operating positions set up: one CW/digital tent (two K3s), one phone tent (two IC-756IIIs), one VHF (where the above photo was taken), and the GOTA station in the RV you can see in the center of the photo. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the antenna farm ran in a straight line from where I was standing down towards the pavilion in the background. There were 40 foot masts roughly equally spaced out with fixed beams on them, then wire antennas for the lower bands strung between the masts.

After a bit of chatting with W8NF and some introductions to club officers and members, I partook in the grilled hamburgers which were offered (wasn’t going to eat OTVARCs food, but thanks for the invite!) and then Dave and I sat down in the phone tent to try to work some 20 meter SSB. I was at the logging PC and Dave was manning the mic (each phone station was equipped with Dave’s brilliant Logiklipper, natch). We didn’t have much success for some reason on 20 phone, probably due to the antenna we were stuck with (the G5RV, if I remember correctly). I ended up moving over to the other phone station, which was on 15 meters. I actually had a decent run of search & pounce operation, for a non-contester like myself. I wanted to try to park on a frequency and CQ, but I noticed it was 8 PM by this time, so I needed to get back home.

Prototype SSB Rig

Both before I left for Stub Stewart and after I returned, I also used Field Day as an opportunity to test out the “mainframe” of a new SSB transceiver design I’ve been working on (meaning the RF stages, minus the microcontroller/DDS/LED frequency display). A breadboarded DDS-60 was used as the temporary VFO for the radio, and I connected the whole works up to battery power to work as 1E OR from my own station. This iteration of the radio is monoband (20 meters on this unit) and QRP (power output is about 7 watts max with a IRFIZ16G final), so I knew I would be a little guppy in a big pond, but figured it was worth a try just to see that it was working properly. I actually ended up doing better than I expected. In about 1.5 hours of casual search & pounce operation, I was able to make 11 QSOs with stations in the sections NE, ID, AK, PAC (x3!), KS, AZ, and NM. The PAC stations were all in Hawaii and were booming in easily 20 to 60 dB over S9. Two of those three PAC QSOs were snagged on first call. It’s a little spooky having such an easy QSO only using 6-7 watts SSB over such a long distance. Yes, all of the heavy lifting credit goes to the other station, but QRP SSB can work if you take care to know your propagation and try to work the stations which are loudest. Given a QTH from a peak (such as a SOTA activation) and a decent antenna, I don’t doubt that it could be quite effective.

So the rig seems to work, and I don’t even have a name for it yet, but it’s shaping up quite nicely. The microcontroller/DDS/LED module is nearly complete, then I’m going to package the rig in a WA4MNT-style copper clad chassis so that I can take the rig with me to Salmoncon in a few weeks. With any luck, beta testing will begin in no more than two months, and hopefully a quick entry to the market after that. On a side note, as much as it pained me to set aside the CC-Series to develop something else, I think it was vitally important for me to do so. I was too stuck in a rut with the CC-Series design and needed a mental breakout to something different. I’ve learned some good circuit design ideas from this radio, which should translate into vast improvements in the next iteration of the CC-Series. I do intend to give my CC-Series beta testers a worthy radio in this next round of testing.

CC-Series, Cool Stuff, Dayton 2012, Etherkit, OpenBeacon

Dayton Or Bust

I’ve got another grab-bag of miscellaneous news for this post, but I’m going to lead off with the big one: I’m going to be a presenter at the world’s preeminent QRP convention: Four Days In May 2012. The tentative topic for my presentation will be about the free and open source tools that I use in the development of my products and how you can put them to use in your own homebrewing endeavors. This will be my first time speaking to an audience larger than about 25 people, so I hope that I can provide an entertaining and informative talk at such a prestigious event. I’ll be speaking in front of a lot of people who I consider to be much more capable than I and some who I consider my virtual Elmers. It is my sincere desire to not disappoint.

I am very excited for the opportunity to go back to Dayton so soon after my last trip. I really didn’t expect to have the chance to go again for quite a few more years, so the ability to get back to the convention after only two years is a great blessing. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jennifer, who didn’t hesitate to encourage me to go, even though she will be dealing with a 2-month-old baby and a near 2-year-old by herself for a few days while I’m away.

In other news, I feel like I’ve gotten over the steep part of the learning curve with Kicad, having successfully made PCBs for my little Twin-T code practice oscillator. You can see a short video of it in action above. The output level is suitable for modern, sensitive headphones, but if you want room-filling audio such as in my video, you’ll need to connect it to an amplified speaker. The PCB is designed to fit in the ubiquitous Altoids tin, with room to spare for a 9 V battery.  I expect that this will eventually make it to my stable of products, but it’s low priority considering the long delay on the CC-Series and the need to get it ready to sell by May. If you are really interested in the project, write a comment or shoot me an email (milldrum at gmail) and I’ll see if I can’t work something out to get you hooked up with a kit early.

The OpenBeacon project is cruising right along. Now that I know that I can successfully make a PCB with Kicad, I’ve taken the plunge and decided to migrate all of my workflow there (I think this will include the next board spin of CC-Series, since there are so many changes to be made there will be no real advantage to staying with TinyCAD/FreePCB). The OpenBeacon PCB design is nearing completion. Once I get a shipment from Mouser in the next few days to verify that my newly-created PCB footprints match the actual physical components, I’ll be ready to submit my CAM files to Seeed Studio for prototype boards. With any luck, I’ll have them back within about two weeks. (Protip: it’s worth taking the time to place your component against a 1:1 printout of your Gerber to make sure it will fit. Don’t ask me how I know this.)

Once those CAM files are off to China, it will be full-bore on the CC-Series. With the deadline of mid-May staring me down hard, I figure I will have to get those CAM files out within no more than three weeks. That will put me into mid-March for getting the PCBs back, which will give a pretty slim margin of time to beta test and prepare the kit for final sale. Going to be pulling some long, late-night shifts…that I can already see.

I’ve also got a few more projects in the pipeline for after FDIM and the deployment of CC-Series and OpenBeacon. The first is a fairly simple and inexpensive VXO DC transceiver that I hope to initially kit for the high bands of 10, 12, and 15 meters. It uses a topology which is somewhat unique. The other is an extrapolation of the receiver circuitry of this rig to use as a dedicated QRSS grabber receiver. But I may be getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s get this CC-Series launched, then see where the winds take us.

CC-Series, Design, Meta, OpenBeacon

Catching Up With Etherkit

The year is not starting out as well as I had hoped. Back during the beta test of the CC-20 I had set a goal to complete my revisions and be ready to sell production kits by 1 January 2012. Obviously that date has come and gone and I’m still not on the market. A few circumstances have contributed to this situation. First, the days available for me to work exclusively on Etherkit has been cut from 4 per week to less than 2 due to family member’s work schedules being changed. Second, it took me longer than expected to tackle the bugs in the CC-20 beta; the worst being the high number of spurs in the receiver.

So where does thing sit right now? The next CC-20 board revision is just about ready to be implemented. I’ve had to move to a DDS with a higher master clock frequency and change out the product detector from a dual-gate MOSFET to a diode-ring mixer. One advantage of the new DDS is that I can greatly simplify the transmitter circuitry, but this will require the trade-off of a fairly significant revision of the PCB.

I have been getting my PCBs manufactured in China, and right now many of the manufacturing firms (my board house included) are shutting down for two weeks to observe the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). So even if I do send my Gerber files to the board house, they probably won’t be back for at least a month. In the meantime, I’ve decided to work on a side project that’s been rattling around in my head for a while: a QRSS/CW/Feld Hell/Etc. beacon. Also, in response to a lot of positive response that I have received from my simple Twin-T code practice oscillator, I also spent a few days revising the circuit to make the output a bit more robust and then created a PCB for the circuit in Kicad so I could transition my EDA to an actively developed software package (I was using TinyCAD/FreePCB previously, which seems to be pretty much a dead end).

OpenBeacon Prototype
OpenBeacon Prototype

So allow me to tell you a bit more about the beacon project. For now, I’ve decided to dub it OpenBeacon (I know, so very original). But there is a decent reason for the name. Much like the CC-Series, I intend for this project to fill a niche in the market that is very empty right now. The list of notable open source/open hardware kits out in the market is very small. The only one I think of off the top of my head is OpenQRP. As far as QRSS kits, I’m only aware of the one from the talented Hans Summers. My goal for this project is to provide a kit that is open, extensible, relatively inexpensive and simple, and ripe for user modification. Let me tell you a bit more about the project specs and how they fit into this goal.

Let’s start with the bare hardware. The transmitter is a standard, vanilla Colpitts oscillator followed by an emitter follower buffer, which feeds a class A PA with fully adjustable output power (provided by a very cheap and cheerful part, the BD139). At full-bore with 13.8 VCC, the transmitter can put out about 300 mW into 50 Ω. The brains of the operation is an Atmel ATtiny85 microcontroller. The way that it interacts with the transmitter is via its PWM output, which can generate a voltage from 0 V to 5 V after proper filtering. This control voltage is fed to a reversed-biased LED which acts as a varactor to tune the oscillator in very tiny amounts (< 10 Hz). The PWM output is essentially an 8-bit DAC, so not only can the varactor be flipped between 0 V and 5 V, but it can be set to many intermediate values, which allows for things like Feld Hell and just about any kind of graphic or glyph you can think of to be transmitted. The transmitter PA is also keyed with a PNP transistor which is controlled by the ATtiny85, which allows the OpenBeacon to operate in standard CW beacon mode.

The main way in which this project will meet the goals I stated above is in its user interface. There is a handy open source project called V-USB which gives USB interface capability to AVR microcontrollers that do not have USB built-in. This allows me to wire a USB port to the ATtiny85 and have the V-USB firmware take care of all the ugly business behind the scenes so that I can focus on interfacing the OpenBeacon to a PC. With a simple command line program, the user will have the ability to switch between the many operating modes available, set his own callsign and beacon message without having to have the microcontroller programmed for him, upload custom glyphs to be transmitter, and monitor the status of the beacon. No need to mess with jumpers or in-circuit programmers (although the ISP port will be available for those who want to hack their OpenBeacon). The client program is written in C and should be able to be compiled for Linux, Windows, and OS X machines.

KI6FEN Grabber Capture
KI6FEN Grabber Capture

Right now, the prototype is pretty much complete save a few minor tweaks. Yesterday, I got the code for the CW modes completed and put the beacon on the air in DFCW 6 second dit mode just above 10.140010 MHz. Conditions weren’t great, but I did manage to get a few weak captures on the KL7UK grabber and one from KI6FEN via Twitter. The signal was way too wide and extremely drifty, but I’ve solved those problems by changing the coupling capacitor between the LED varactor and the oscillator and by creating a rudimentary thermal chamber for the beacon out of pink antistatic foam. I’ll be leaving the beacon on for the next few days when I’m not working on the project (which will be most of the day). Any reception reports would be greatly appreciated!

So the plan is to get the CC-Series PCB revisions hopefully done by next weekend so that they can be sent off to the board house before their vacation is over. In my little bits of downtime, I’ll continue work on the code for the OpenBeacon. The plan for this project is to get the PCBs cranked out very quickly. Now that I’m familiar with Kicad, I think it won’t be too difficult or take too long to design the boards. I’m also going to be trying out a new PCB vendor which promises much cheaper prices and faster turnaround times on smaller boards such as this. With any luck, I can fast-track OpenBeacon testing and production and have it out while the CC-Series is in it’s final beta test. Stay tuned, this is make-or-break time!

CC-Series, Design, Homebrewing, QRP, Test and Measurement

Single-Ended Mixers and Reverse Isolation

Progress on CC-Series development proceeds at a reasonably-good clip right now. One of my last big hardware bugs to stamp out is some nasty microphonics that seem to be generated by the combination product detector/BFO. Today, I believe that I made some significant progress towards solving it and wanted to share what I learned.

IF Amp & Product Detector from CC-20 Beta 1

I’ve done a lot of reading in Experimental Methods in RF Design (EMRFD) about microphonics in DC receivers (read chapter 8!), and the number one cause of it is poor LO-RF port isolation in the mixer. The CC-Series uses a venerable old circuit which hasn’t seen much use in a while. A dual-gate MOSFET is pressed into double-duty as a product detector and BFO (see above). Since the dual-gate MOSFET product detector is in a single-ended configuration, it inherently has bad LO-RF isolation. This allows VFO (or BFO in this case) signal to leak out the product detector input, and have a good portion of that signal reflect back into the product detector. So naturally, the CC-20 could be experiencing the microphonics because of this phenomena. One of the solutions mentioned in EMRFD is to put an amp in front of the mixer which has excellent reverse isolation (signals coming into the amp output don’t tend to get out of the input, and therefore can’t reflect back in again).

I had the suspicion that the common-source JFET amp in front of the product detector might be the culprit. So what’s the best type of amp to place in front of a single-ended mixer? The common-gate JFET amp is a good and popular choice. However, VE7BPO notes on a recently published web page that the best commonly found amp configuration for this particular parameter appears to be the cascode (see the bottom of the page).

In order to test this theory, I went to work on a project that I had set aside earier: a direct conversion receiver based on the CC-Series product detector. When there was no preamp in front of it, the microphonics were unbearable. I figured that a good way to test my theory would be to put a cascode amp in front of this mixer and see how much it helped. I decided to put a dual-gate MOSFET preamp in front of it, as this is essentially a cascode amp and it fits with the dual-gate MOSFET product detector. Once the new preamp was added, the change was dramatic. The microphonics were gone.

Next, I decided to be a bit more rigorous in my study and quantify the exact difference between the common-source JFET amp and the dual-gate MOSFET amp. First I breadboarded the common-source JFET amp and ran it through the test procedure in the page linked above (at 18 MHz). The results were atrocious. Only 30 dB of reverse isolation, which is worse than the worst amp listed there (the feedback amp). Next, I dug out an old dual-gate MOSFET amp I had breadboarded for my 2008 investigations and ran it through the same test. As expected, the results were vastly superior: 68 dB of reverse isolation. This lines up nicely with Todd’s measured results of >64 dB for the hybrid cascode (I used a spectrum analyzer while he used an oscilloscope, so I was able to get a pretty good measurement down to low signal levels).

So this appears to be strong evidence that the IF amp is the problem. It seems certain that the next version of the CC-Series is going to scrap those awful common-source amps for a much nicer dual-gate MOSFET amp. The lesson to take away from this is that if you are going to use a single-ended mixer for any but the most simplistic applications, it must be fronted with an amplifier with an excellent reverse isolation. While the typical common-gate JFET amp will work OK, for best results it looks like a cascode or dual-gate MOSFET amp is the way to go.