Category: Airspy

Video Comparing the RSP-1A Against the Airspy HF+, and Testing out the Airspy HF+ R3 Mod

Over on YouTube icholakov has uploaded two new comparison videos. The first compares the Airspy HF+ against an RSP-1A on HF signals with a W6LVP receive loop antenna in a noisy suburban backyard in Florida.

Results appear to be quite similar for most signals, although we noted better performance from the HF+ on some particular weak signals surrounded by strong AM stations in the test such as the 810 kHz signal at 3:37, but lower noise on some signals received by the RSP-1A such as at 9:32. The tests were performed with a stock HF+ without any firmware updates applied so it's possible that the updates could improve results further.

In the second video icholakov performs the R3 mod on his Airspy HF+ and compares the results before and after. It appears that shorting R3 improves reception on MW slightly, and has little effect at higher frequencies. We also note that the R3 mod is mostly designed to mostly improve VLF/LF reception which is not tested in the video.

W6LVP receiving loop: Airspy HF+ vs. SDRPlay RSP-1A
W6LVP receiving loop: Airspy HF+ vs. SDRPlay RSP-1A

Airspy HF+ R3 Modification test
Airspy HF+ R3 Modification test

Using the Airspy HF+ as a Power Meter By Calibrating it with a Resistor

Over on YouTube, Leif (SM5BSZ) has uploaded a video where he shows how the Airspy HF+ can be used as an accurate power meter for RF signals. Leif notes that if the noise figure (NF) or minimum discernible signal (MDS) of an SDR is known, then it is possible to use that SDR as a power meter by calibrating it with a resistor (dummy load) at room temperature. To determine power levels Leif uses the signal diagnostics plugin which is built into SDR#. He writes in the video description:

When the noise figure (NF) or minimum discernible signal (MDS) of a software defined radio (SDR) is known we can use that radio as a power meter just by calibrating it on a room temperature resistor. Here the Airspy HF+ is used to demonstrate the principles. Note that MDS depends on the temperature. Manufacturer data is for a warmed up unit. Cold units have significantly lower MDS. Note the observations on bad adapters and attenuators towards the end of the video. One conclusion is that the HF+ is EXCELLENT in keeping common mode currents on the USB as well as on the antenna cable outside. They do not enter the receiver provided that the nut holding the SMA connector is firmly tightened.

hfpluspowermeter
hfpluspowermeter

In another video Leif also tests out a pre-production version of a HF+ preselector currently being designed by Youssef (designer of the HF+) by measuring the filter responses.

hfpluspreselector
hfpluspreselector

Thomas N1SPY Demonstrates Receiving SSTV Images from the ISS

Earlier in the month the International Space Station (ISS) was transmitting SSTV images down to the earth for anyone to receive an decode. The ISS does this several times a year to commemorate special space related events, such as the day Yuri Gagarin (first man in space) was launched.

In the video Thomas explains why the ISS does this, how to track the ISS, and then he demonstrates actually receiving and decoding the signal. Thomas uses an Airspy HF+ to receive the signal on 145.8 MHz, however an RTL-SDR could do the same job. For decoding he uses the MMSSTV software.

For new on when the ISS might transmit SSTV again, keep at eye on the ARISS Blog, and the ISS Ham Twitter page.

Thomas N1SPY receives SSTV signals from the ISS
Thomas N1SPY receives SSTV signals from the ISS

Testing the Airspy with the New And Improved Version of ADSBSpy

Airspy have recently released an update to their ADSBspy decoder, which is an Airspy One/R2 compatible decoder for 1090 MHZ ADS-B signals. According to 'prog', the software developer of ADSBSpy, his setup can see almost double the number of aircraft and with fewer false positives when using the updated software. Prog writes that the secret to the improvement is some reworked DSP code that aims to exploit oversampling in the Airspy to the maximum.

We compared the new (1.0.0.38/39) decoder against the old decoder (1.0.0.37) which used to get similar performance to dump1090. The test setup was two Airspy dongles connected to a dipole antenna via a splitter, with our Triple Filtered ADS-B LNA used by the antenna. One Airspy was used to power the LNA via it's bias tee, and both units received the same amplified signal. We found indeed that the new version of ADSBSpy receives a good number more aircraft in our set up, and an increased number of ADS-B messages too.

It seems that most of the additionally received aircraft must be from extremely weak signals, because when looking in Virtual Radar Server the extra aircraft usually only show their ICAO and maybe altitude and speed until they get closer.

So far this software appears to provide the best performance on ADS-B that we've seen so far, so if you are using an Airspy for ADS-B tracking we'd like to hear results from anyone who upgrades.

The New ADS-B Spy Receives More Aircraft and Messages
The New ADS-B Spy Receives More Aircraft and Messages

Investigating the Adjustable IF Bandwidth on the R820T Chip

Over on his blog, Thierry Leconte has been writing about some IF bandwidth experiments that he's performed on the R820T2 chip. This is the tuner chip that is used in most RTL-SDR dongles, and well as on the Airspy R2 and Mini SDRs. It has a programmable IF bandwidth and high pass filter which can be used to filter neighboring interfering signals out to reduce imaging and overload problems. In the RTL-SDR and Airspy drivers the bandwidth is adjusted to a fixed setting depending on the bandwidth selected.

To perform the tests he uses a noise source connected to his Airspy, varies the IF filter bandwidth and then plots the results. He finds that there are two adjustments for the IF filter, one coarse and one fine, as well as an additional high pass filter. By manually reducing these settings it's possible to get better filtering at the expense of reduced bandwidth. 

He notes that reducing the bandwidth is useful for his two apps, acarsdec and vdlm2dec which receive ACARS and VDL aircraft signals. These signals are not high in bandwidth so they can easily benefit from tighter filtering.

Adjusting the High Pass Filter on the R820T2
Adjusting the High Pass Filter on the R820T2

Going Portable with the Airspy HF+, Raspberry Pi and 7-Inch Touch LCD

Over on the swling blog we've seen a post where contributor 'Tudor' demonstrates his Airspy HF+ running nicely on a Raspberry Pi 3, 7-inch touchscreen LCD, and USB power bank. The video shows GQRX running very smoothly on the Pi, and how the setup is able to receive various HF signals. Tudor writes:

I bought the RPi to use it as a Spyserver for my Airspy HF+ SDR.

My main radio listening location is a small house located on a hill outside the city and there is no power grid there (it’s a radio heaven!), so everything has to run on batteries and consume as little power as possible.

My first tests showed that the Raspberry Pi works very well as a Spyserver: the CPU usage stays below 40% and the power consumption is low enough to allow it to run for several hours on a regular USB power bank. If I add a 4G internet connection there I could leave the Spyserver running and connect to it remotely from home.

Then I wondered if the Raspberry Pi would be powerful enough to run a SDR client app. All I needed was a portable screen so I bought the official 7” touchscreen for the RPi.

I installed Gqrx, which offers support for the Airspy HF+. I’m happy to say it works better than I expected, even though Gqrx wasn’t designed to work on such a small screen. The CPU usage is higher than in Spyserver mode (70-80%) but the performance is good. Using a 13000 mAh power bank I get about 3.5 hours of radio listening.

On the swling blog post comments Tudor explains some of his challenges including finding a battery that could supply enough current, finding a low voltage drop micro-USB cable, and reducing the noise emanating from the Raspberry USB bus. Check out the post comments for his full notes. 

Airspy HF+ and Gqrx running on Raspberry Pi
Airspy HF+ and Gqrx running on Raspberry Pi

Measuring the Noise Figure of Airspy and HackRF SDRs in Real Time

The Noise Figure (NF) is an important metric for low noise amplifiers and SDRs. It's a measure of how much components in the signal chain degrade the SNR of a signal, so a low noise figure metric indicates a more sensitive receiver. The Noise Figure of a radio system is almost entirely determined by the very first amplifier in the signal chain (the one closest to the antenna), which is why it can be very beneficial to have a low NF LNA placed right at the antenna

Over on his blog Rowetel has been attempting to measure the noise figure of his HackRF and Airspy, and also with the SDRs connected to an LNA. He's managed to come up with a method for measuring the noise figure of these devices in real time. The method involves using a GNU Octave script that he created and a calibrated signal generator.

It’s a GNU Octave script called nf_from_stdio.m that accepts a sample stream from stdio. It assumes the signal contains a sine wave test tone from a calibrated signal generator, and noise from the receiver under test. By sampling the test tone it can establish the gain of the receiver, and by sampling the noise spectrum an estimate of the noise power.

As expected, Rowetel found that the overall noise figure was significantly reduced with the LNA in place, with the Airspy's measuring a noise figure of 1.7/2.2 dB, and the HackRF measuring at 3.4 dB. Without the LNA in place, the Airspy's had a noise figure of 7/7.9 dB, whilst the HackRF measured at 11.1 dB.

Some very interesting sources of noise figure degradation were discovered during Rowetel's tests. For example the Airspy measured a NF 1 dB worse when used on a different USB port, and using a USB extension cable with ferrites helped too. He also found that lose connectors could make the NF a few dB's worse, and even the position of the SDR and other equipment on his desk had an effect.

Noise figure measurement
Noise figure measurement

R820T2 Chip Discontinued: Low Cost R820T2 RTL-SDRs will Continue, Airspy Will Redesign

The R820T2 is the main tuner chip used in most RTL-SDR dongles. Several months ago Rafael Micro ceased regular production of their R820T2 chip, and the older R820T has also been discontinued for some time too.

However, Rafael are still producing new quality R820T2 chips for factories if they make very large bulk orders. Since it is one Chinese manufacturer producing all of RTL-SDR.com V3, NooElec, FlightAware and most generically branded dongles, the volume restriction is not a problem for them as long as the RTL-SDR is still in demand. So most dongles using R820T2 RTL-SDRs should be able to continue business as usual for the forseeable future. But we have also recently seen that a lot of generically branded RTL-SDR dongles presumably produced at other factories have started to ship with the less desirable FC0012/13 tuner chips instead.

The R820T chip is already 8 years old, and the R820T2 has been around for the last two years. The R820T2 was a slight improvement on the R820T, due to a higher quality manufacturing process used to produce it. The change in manufacturing process resulted in mostly higher yields, less chip-to-chip variance, better sensitivity, reduced L-band heat VCO lock issues, and wider filters. 

Recently the Youssef from the Airspy team announced the likely early retirement of their Airspy One and R2 line of products. These are SDRs that used the R820T2 tuner chip combined with a 12-bit ADC, allowing for significantly better performance compared to an RTL-SDR. It seems that they were able to acquire R820T2 chips from a distributor, but the stock proved to be very low yield. Possibly once discontinued a lot of low quality chips were dumped onto the distributors for final sale. They write:

I have some bad news. Rafael Micro officially discontinued the R820T2 since a few months. This is the tuner we use in the Airspy R2 and Airspy Mini.

We tried to secure an extra batch from Rafael (even at a higher price) but the quality of the silicon of the samples we received wasn't very good and most units didn't pass our automated QA tests. Sacrificing the performance is out of question. The alternatives proposed by Rafael are not pin compatible and require both a significant hardware redesign and new tuner control code - and this is a large investment with very little guarantees on the final result.

I can say this has been one of the longest running designs that resisted the new silicon tuner SDR's popping in and out while setting a standard for performance and price.

For now, our distributors are running out of R2/Mini's very quickly and, until a final solution is found or a new replacement is designed, there won't be any new batches out.

Youssef from Airspy also notes that he's beginning work on designing a new unit:

I was checking my notes for alternatives to the current Airspy R2/Mini design and wondered if consulting the community would give some constructive input. As the market is already crowded with low cost receivers and transceivers, but yet Icom manages to sell a 4 figures SDR, I was thinking of making something that is as open as possible for extensions and work good enough for the most demanding operators and pro's, all while being affordable.

The idea is to replace the R820T2 tuner with one of its latest high performance siblings, then replace the old LPC4370 with the brand new i.MX RT1020. This MCU can be interfaced with a good ADC and has enough processing power for oversampling and decimation through the Cortex M7 core, which will bring the final resolution higher.
The general goals:

  • Better RX performance than the general purpose low cost silicon transceivers
  • 12 bit RX at 10MHz bw and up to 16bit at narrow band
  • Coverage from 30 MHz to 1.8 GHz or more
  • Switched pre-selectors
  • Open source
  • Same form factor as the Airspy HF+ (same box actually)
  • Leverage the RF manufacturing and testing capability developed at Itead Studio
  • Affordable

So in conclusion there is no need to panic buy R820T2 RTL-SDRs as production will continue as per normal for the forseeable future as the RTL-SDR demand is high enough for factories to make large bulk orders of new R820T2 chips. Even if the R820T2 is fully discontinued, there are alternative tuners with the same performance that we can switch to after a minor redesign.

Note that we're currently out of stock of RTL-SDR V3's on Amazon and low in stock on our store but this is not related to R820T2, but rather simply shipping delays. We should be fully back in stock within a few weeks.

The R820T2 on an RTL-SDR
The R820T2 on a RTL-SDR V3