Category: HF

RadioForEveryone: RTL-SDR Max USB Cable Length, Dongles Image Gallery, Ham-it-up Plus Review

Recently Akos has uploaded three new posts on his RadioForEveryone blog. The first post is a review of the "Ham-It-Up Plus", which is a US$65 upconverter that allows you to listen to HF on RTL-SDR dongles without direct sampling. Compared to the non-plus Ham-It-Up, the plus version includes a TCXO and the noise source circuit is populated. In his post Akos reviews the history of the Ham It Up generations and discusses the connectors and power options. He also reviews the performance and finds that the Plus seems to have better SNR.

In the second post Akos has uploaded his collection of various images of different RTL-SDR dongle brands. The images include circuit board photos so you can easily compare the differences in design between brands.

Finally the third post is an experiment to determine the maximum USB cable length that can be used with RTL-SDRs. His results show that the maximum is 9 meters which is actually more than the USB2.0 spec which states 5m as the maximum. We note that longer than 9m cable runs can also be achieved by using active repeater USB cables or USB hubs.

Testing RTL-SDR max coax length
Testing RTL-SDR max coax length

Connecting an RTL-SDR Panadapter to a uBITX Transceiver

The uBITX is a US$129 HF SSB/CW QRP transceiver kit that works from 3 MHz to 30 MHz with up to 10W TX power. It's a fully analogue radio, but it can be combined with an RTL-SDR to create a panadapter display thanks to a tutorial released by KD8CEC.

The method requires that you use the custom CEC firmware, or modify other firmware,  as this appears to change the output frequency at the tap point. The tap point is made accessible by soldering on an extra SMA connector for the RTL-SDR to connect to. The rest of the work is entirely performed in the uBITX software manager, Omni-Rig and SDR-Console V3.

uBITX with RTL-SDR Panadapter
uBITX with RTL-SDR Panadapter

An Introduction to SDR and SDR Applications for Shortwave Listeners

Over on the SWLing Post blog, author Thomas Witherspoon K4SWL has uploaded a new article titled "Software Defined Radio Primer Part 1: Introduction to SDRs and SDR applications". The article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine, which can be purchased online for $3 per issue.

The idea behind the article is to introduce people to SDR from a shortwave listening point of view, so high performance HF SDRs like the Airspy HF+, Elad FDM-S2 and WinRadio Excalibur are discussed. Thomas notes that these SDRs can perform as well as traditional DX-grade receivers that can cost two to three times more. He also explains what advantages SDR's bring to the shortwave radio listening hobby. This may be a good article to show those still using older hardware radios that haven't yet converted to the SDR world. 

The article is currently part one of a three part series, with parts two and three to be released in October and November.

DXing with SDR in a Car
DXing with SDR in a Car (Photo: Guy Atkins)

Japanese RTL-SDR Products Now Available for International Shipping on Amazon.co.jp

Thanks to 'Nobu' for letting us know that his RTL-SDR products sold on Amazon.co.jp are now available for international shipping (in Japanese, please use the Google Translated version if needed). Before Amazon.co.jp offered international shipping you had to use a third party Japanese forwarding service in order to purchase his products.

Japan has a strong RTL-SDR scene, with a few small Japanese companies and individuals (including Nobu) selling custom RTL-SDR products on their local Amazon store. Products such as upconverters, galvanic isolators, LNAs, filters, cooling products and more are available. Back in 2015 we reviewed some of these products in a post available here. Since then we've found continued use in particular with the galvanic isolator which helps reduce noise from the computer and nearby electronics at HF frequencies. 

Some Japanese RTL-SDR Products available for International Shipping on Amazon.co.jp
Some Custom Japanese RTL-SDR/RF Products available for International Shipping on Amazon.co.jp

Soft66IP: An OpenWebRX RTL-SDR Internet Server now Crowd Funding on Kickstarter

Over on Kickstarter a retrofit PCB for RTL-SDRs called Soft66IP has appeared for crowd funding. The PCB includes a 50 MHz upconverter and RF amplifier on board and incorporates space to plug in an Orange Pi Zero single board computer, and an RTL-SDR.

The project is by Kazunori Miura who is the creator of the Soft66 range of RTL-SDR retrofit products. The kickstarter appears to be for the "Soft66IP", which has been around since early 2017. The main difference appears to be that now OpenWebRX is preloaded on the SDCard, and that there is a custom script running on the Orange Pi Zero which allows you to choose between OpenWebRX and HDSDR. Presumably clicking on HDSDR runs an rtl_tcp server, which can then be connected over the network.

The idea is that this system will be used together with software like OpenWebRX, which would enable the RTL-SDR and radio stream to be accessed online from anywhere in the world via an Ethernet connection. Examples of OpenWebRX receivers can be found on sdr.hu, just search for "RTL-SDR" on the page to find relevant examples.

There are several support options, with the main board (without Orange Pi Zero or RTL-SDR) starting at US$22, and US$88 for the main board including RTL-SDR, Orange Pi Zero, enclosure and SD card. The system could probably be home built for much cheaper, but there is a convenience in purchasing a ready to use system. Although if you're interested in HF and want an internet connected SDR, then you might be better off shelling out for a $299 KiwiSDR instead, which is also an OpenWebRX based SDR.

Soft66IP: Main board + RTL-SDR + Orange Pi Zero.
Soft66IP: Main board + RTL-SDR + Orange Pi Zero.

Using a Raspberry Pi 3, USB Soundcard, Speclab and Exagear to Detect SAQ VLF Transmissions

Thanks to DE8MSH for writing in about his project that involves using a Raspberry Pi 3 and cheap 7€ USB sound card connected to an old Grahn GS1 VLF antenna to detect the SAQ VLF station. Standard PC or USB sound cards can be used as a narrowband VLF capable SDR simply by connecting an antenna to the sound inputs. SAQ (aka Grimeton Radio Station) is a heritage VLF transmitter in Sweden that transmits CW at 17.2 kHz, normally only on Alexanderson Day and Christmas Day, but can sometimes unofficially transmit without announcement due to maintenance, training or local events.

In terms of software running on the Pi 3 DE8MSH uses Spectrum Laboratory (speclab) to monitor the sound card waterfall, and has written a Python script that uploads the processed images from speclab to a Twitter account every 20 minutes. This way he hopes to be able to detect any unannounced SAQ transmissions from his station in Sweden. 

Spectrum Laboratory is actually a Windows and x86 only program, however as shown in one of our previous posts, it is possible to use a special compatibility emulator called Exagear which allows you to run x86 programs on ARM hardware. Together with Wine you can then run x86 Windows programs on single board computers like the Raspberry Pi 3 which run Linux on ARM hardware.

Speclab Screenshot from DE8MSHs Pi3 soundcard monitoring system
Speclab Screenshot from DE8MSHs Pi3 soundcard monitoring system

Understanding Direction Finding on the KiwiSDR

Earlier this month we posted about the KiwiSDR direction finding update, which now allows anyone with internet access to utilize public KiwiSDR's for the purpose of pinpointing the physical location of a transmitter that transmits at a frequency below 30 MHz.

A few people have had trouble understanding how to use the direction finding feature, so KiwiSDR fan Nils Schiffhauer (DK8OK) has written up a KiwiSDR direction finding usage guide. Nils' guide explains the basic technical ideas behind the TDoA (Time Difference of Arrival) direction finding technique used, and highlights some important considerations to take into account in order to get the best results. For example he discusses best practices on how to choose receiver locations, how many receivers to choose, and how to properly take into account the time delaying effects of ionospheric propagation with HF signals.

Finally at the end of the document he shows multiple case studies on HF signals that he's managed to locate using the discussed best practices. Looking through these examples should help make it clear on how receiver locations should be chosen.

DK8OK Locates Radio France at 15320 kHz
DK8OK Locates Radio France at 15320 kHz

Archiving Shortwave History with Software Defined Radio

Broadcast shortwave radio is not always archived for long at the station, so finding sound bites from interesting historical events can be difficult. We know that songs are of course recorded, but talk back radio, discussions in between music, news readings, weather updates, ads and pirate radio are all lost over time. Although these things may seem mundane now, future historians may be interested in listening in on this little slice of life.

At this years HOPE XIII conference, Thomas Witherspoon, owner of the popular SWLing Blog gave a talk titled "Creating a Radio Time Machine: Software-Defined Radios and Time-Shifted Recordings". Currently the talk is available as a full recording of all talks at the conference over on Livestream. Thomas' talk begins at about 9h03m45s (thanks to Aaron Kuhn from the comments for finding the talk. Hackaday also recently ran an article on the content of his talk.

Thomas' idea is to create a database of shortwave radio IQ recordings so that they can be archived for historical purposes. The project is called "The Radio Spectrum Archive" and has a website set up at spectrumarchive.org. To do this modern software defined radios like the RTL-SDR can be used to record a large bandwidth, however the problem is with data storage as IQ recordings can take up extremely large amounts of disk space. 

Interestingly, it turns out that people have actually been making IQ recordings since the 1980's by connecting their shortwave radios to VCR tape recorders. In the modern day these VCR recordings can be digitized into an IQ file, and played back in software like HDSDR. In the video below Thomas demonstrates the playback of a digitized VCR radio recording from May 1 1986. You can hear some interesting news tidbits on the soviet cover-up of Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster and the launch of a new hurricane tracking satellite. If recording was more popular it would have been interesting to hear soviet radio during this time too.

In addition to archiving IQ files, Thomas has been releasing a podcast of curated historical audio recordings from VCR tapes, as well as modern recordings that may be of interest over at shortwavearchive.com.

We envision a future where one day these recordings could be automatically turned into text logs via advanced speech to text software, so they could easily be searched through.

[Also seen on Hackaday]

Radio Spectrum Recordings: A short demonstration