In the experiment a laser is fiber optically coupled to an eletro-optic phase modulator, which modulates a 400 MHz FM signal onto the light. The light is then passed into a Carbon monoxide absorption cell with a photodiode used to take the spectroscopic measurements. The signal from the photodiode is passed into a LNA and then into the Airspy where the signal can then be processed on the PC.
The paper is very technical, but describes the setup, and how they characterized and calibrated the Airspy for their measurements. They conclude with the following:
A successful demonstration of a commercially available software defined radio as a lock-in amplifier was performed. For this purpose, the tuner front end and back end were characterized. The sensitivity and non-linearity of the receiver circuit was measured and analyzed. Acquisition of a CO spectral line was demonstrated using FM-spectroscopy with a repetition rate of 1 kHz. This proves the usability of an off-the-shelf SDR as a cheap but powerful lock-in amplifier by adding PLL driven frequency generators. The drawback of the arbitrary initial phase of the used phase locked loops can be either solved by software or hardware measures.
Thanks to PhD student Lucas Riobó of the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina for submitting his very interesting work on creating a "High-speed real-time heterodyne interferometer" with a low cost RTL-SDR dongle. This is a new application for the RTL-SDR that we have not yet seen.
Interferometers are tools that combine two separate electromagnetic waves (e.g. radio or light) and analyze the interference pattern created by their combination. One usage for example is creating a radio telescope interferometer using multiple small radio dishes. The result is that you can get the same resolution as a much larger dish without the cost of needing to build a huge dish. This has been done before with RTL-SDR's and Pulsar detection.
The paper and concept is fairly complex for someone without a background in optical science, but basically it seems that Lucas has created an optical interferometer that interfaces with an RTL-SDR dongle via a wideband optoelectronic front-end. This allows the optical data to be translated into an RF signal which can then easily be analysed with the low cost RTL-SDR. A system like this reduces costs and allows for much easier data acquisition and processing on the PC. He writes:
As you may know, optical Interferometry is a family of techniques in which the superposition of electromagnetic waves (in the optical range of the spectrum), cause the phenomenon of interference in order to extract information. In this work, we implement an optical heterodyne interferometer. This interferometer, the waves (laser beams) that superpose have a frequency shift f0 between them. When the beams interfere, the intensity from the combination of the beams (interferogram) is a sinusoid signal at a frequency f0 (i.e. a carrier signal). In this work, one of the beams reflects over a sample that has a mechanical deformation. Therefore, this information is encoded in the phase of the carrier signal.
We applied the RTL-SDR dongle to demodulate the carrier signal to extract the phase information. Instead of using an antenna, we put a photodiode with a transimpedance amplifier (TIA). Thus, since the signal obtained from the photodiode and the TIA is proportional to the interferogram, the phase/frequency recovery techniques are the same as those used in telecommunications systems (i.e. we can use many demodulation algorithms developed by the community).