Tagged: stratux

Low Power RTL-SDR ‘Stratux’ Dongles Now Available in our Store

Over on our store we now have a limited amount of “Low Power V2” RTL-SDR dongles available for sale for $16.95 USD incl. free international shipping. These are dongles that were produced for the Stratux project which aims to provide a very low cost ADS-B and UAT receiver for small airplane pilots. These Stratux kits typically consist of a Raspberry Pi, two nano RTL-SDR dongles, a GPS dongle and a Android or iOS tablet. The two RTL-SDR dongles receive both 1090 MHz ADS-B and 978 MHz UAT which are decoded on the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi then sends the decoded aircraft position and weather data to the tablet via WiFi which is running commercial navigation software.

A full Stratix setup including, Raspberry Pi, two RTL-SDR nano dongles, GPS module, fan, and 1090 + 978 MHz antennas.
A full Stratux setup including: Raspberry Pi, two RTL-SDR nano dongles, GPS module, fan, and 1090 + 978 MHz antennas.

One issue that Stratux users continually run into, is that the Raspberry Pi is sometimes unable to power two or more RTL-SDR dongles. When running a Pi with two RTL-SDR dongles, a GPS dongle, and cooling fan the total power draw is above 1A which can cause power supply problems and glitching. By using a low power RTL-SDR these problems can be avoided by keeping the total current draw under 1A.

The Low Power V2 Stratux RTL-SDR’s draw about 160-170 mA, whereas standard dongles draw about 260 mA, so that’s a saving of almost 100 mA. On battery power this current saving can mean a few hours more of operation. The Low Power RTL-SDR dongle achieves its lower current consumption by using a switch mode power supply instead of a linear regulator which is commonly used on most other RTL-SDR dongles. The trade off is that switch mode supplies are inherently RF noisy, so increased noise can be seen on the spectrum. Despite the increased noise, most applications like ADS-B are not significantly degraded. We have seen switch mode supplies used on some other RTL2832U dongles sold in the HDTV market as well. For example all the R828D based DVB-T2 dongles that we have seen use switch mode supplies as well, and also draw about 170 mA.

We think that these low power RTL-SDRs could be useful in other non-stratux related applications too. For example, they could be used on mobile Android devices. One of the key problems with Android usage is that RTL-SDR dongles tend to drain the battery quickly. They could also be used on solar and battery powered installations to help achieve longer run times. Or like with Stratux they could be used on a Raspberry Pi running other applications, to ensure that multiple dongles can be attached.

Currently we are selling these dongles for $16.95 USD with free international shipping included. Note that these dongles do not come with an enclosure (just a bare PCB), and they do not have a TCXO. Below is more information about these dongles.

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The Stratux Low Power V2 Dongle.
The Stratux Low Power V2 Dongle

Back in November 2016 we posted a review on the Low Power V1 dongles. Since then Chris (the man behind producing these dongles) has brought out the Low Power V2 models which improves upon V1 significantly. By switching to a 4-layer PCB the dongle is now much quieter in terms of RF noise produced from the switch mode power supply, and it also now runs significantly cooler. The dongle also now uses even less power and is more sensitive compared with V1.

Over on his Reddit post Chris compared his Low Power V2 dongle against the Low Power V1, a generic nano dongle and a NESDR Nano 2. In terms of noise plots, the generic nano dongle was the quietest, with the low power V2 dongle coming in second. Interestingly the NESDR Nano 2 was almost as noisy as the low power V1 dongle. The improvements on the low power V2 dongle make it usable on VHF now.

Noise Floor Comparisons between four Nano styled dongles.
Noise Floor Comparisons between four Nano styled dongles. NESDR Nano 2 (Blue), Generic Nano (Orange), Low Power V1 (Gray), Low Power V2 (Yellow).

In terms of heat produced and power used, the NESDR Nano 2 is the hottest and most power hungry, followed by the Generic Nano, the Low Power V1 and then the Low Power V2. For comparison the NESDR Nano 2 draws 1.362W of power, the generic nano 1.318W, the Low Power V1 1.003W, and the new Low Power V2 draws only 0.933W.

Thermal Camera Photos of  four Nano Dongles.
Thermal Camera Photos of four Nano Dongles.

Chris summarizes his results as follows:

  1. The NESDR Nano 2 loses in pretty much every aspect except for noise floor on VHF frequencies compared against the Low Power v1.
  2. You can see the effects of heat on the R820T2 above 1.4 GHz.
  3. The “Generic Nano” was always a great performer in terms of sensitivity.
  4. For ~0.8W (in a dual-band build) less power, the cost is 0.41 dB @ 1090 MHz and 0.64 dB @ 978 MHz (compared to the Generic Nano).

The Low Power V2 dongles appear to be a good improvement over the V1 models. They are useful for applications that need low power draw, for example powering multiple dongles on a Raspberry Pi and for use on battery and solar power. The trade off for low power consumption is increased RF noise, but with the Low Power V2 dongles the noise is not significant and interestingly even outperforms the NESDR Nano 2.

New Low Power RTL-SDR’s for Stratux ADS-B Receivers

Stratux is an RTL-SDR based project that gives small plane pilots access to ADS-B data, without having to purchase an expensive commercial ADS-B installation. It consists of software that runs on a Raspberry Pi, and two RTL-SDR dongles to receive both 1090 MHZ ADS-B, and 978 MHz UAT. The decoded data is then streamed via WiFi to a tablet running navigation aide software with charts for pilots.

Typically Stratux kits come with two standard ‘Nano’ styled RTL-SDR dongles. However, users of the Stratux system have been reporting problems with overheating, and with the Pi struggling with the high current demands of a typical setup which includes two RTL-SDR dongles, active WiFi broadcasting, a GPS unit and an optional cooling fan. A typical RTL-SDR dongle draws 280 mA, so two dongles are already pulling 560 mA.

Chris, creator of the Stratux software and seller of Stratux kits has just released a new low power RTL-SDR dongle (kit with antennas). The cost is $35 USD for two dongles (one for 1090 MHz and one for 978 MHz). The dongle obtains its low power feature by using a switching regulator instead of a linear regulator as the main 3.3V power regulator on the PCB. Normally you would not want to use switching regulator for the main regulator in an RF device because they are very noisy in terms of RF interference generated. However switching regulators are much more efficient compared to linear regulators, and thus save a lot of current wastage. Other dongle manufacturers like ThumbNet have actually gone the other way, removing the secondary 1.2V switching regulator from the standard dongle design, and using a linear regulator instead. The ThumbNets end up with lower noise, but draw 400 mA of current. 

With the switching regulator the new Stratux dongles only draw about 185 mA, a saving of almost 100 mA. They also generate 0.5W less heat. Users of the Stratux system have so far been impressed with them and have not noticed any appreciable difference in ADS-B performance. We think that these low power dongles might also be of interest to people using them on mobile phones or battery/solar powered remote installations.

The new Stratux low power RTL-SDR dongles.
The new Stratux low power RTL-SDR dongles.

During testing, Chris found that there was no significant noise floor increase visible on the 978 MHz  & 1090 MHz frequencies. Most of the switching noise increase appears to be on the lower frequencies, but those frequencies are not relevant for the Stratux use case anyway.

Chris was kind enough to send us some samples of the new low power dongles. First we ran a noise floor scan with rtl_power to determine the effect of the switching regulator. The results show that the spurs and noise floor readings have definitely increased by a significant amount, with an especially large noise floor rise below 400 MHz. In SDR# wandering switching noise spurs are also visible throughout the spectrum, but they tend to weaken in strength once an antenna is connected.

Stratux vs Standard Dongle vs V3 Dongle Noise Floor Scan
Stratux vs Standard Dongle vs V3 Dongle Noise Floor Scan

Fortunately, ADS-B is very tolerant to spurs and is generally not affected by this type of noise. We’ve only given the Stratux a quick test on ADS-B so far, but when compared against another ‘nano’ styled dongle the Stratux performed nearly identically (in fact even a little better) in terms of messages received. The two dongles were connected to the same antenna via a splitter and we logged the number of messages received in 10 minutes.

Quick ADS-B Reception Test
Quick ADS-B Reception Test

In conclusion the Stratux RTL-SDR set out to solve the mobile power issues suffered by people using the Stratux system. It has achieved that with an over 100mA saving in current use. The new Stratux dongle is much noisier, but the noise does not appear to significantly affect ADS-B reception as seen by our results and from the reports from Stratux users who beta tested this dongle.

Chris has also created a post on Reddit /r/stratux which talks a bit more about the new dongle.