Sunday, November 10, 2019

MLA-30 active receive loop antenna

After reading a glowing review of the low cost MLA-30 active receive loop antenna, I ordered one from Aliexpress for just AU$55. Here are my initial impressions.

The components are of good quality and you get a generous run of coax.

The phantom power box is good (although the power LED is very bright). It's powered from a micro USB socket which might add to the noise floor.

I installed it on the balcony on a PVC pipe. I haven't done a good job of getting the steel wire to be circular but it's a good start. At least it has a low wind profile.

Comparison here is rather unfair on 40m as I have an excellent dipole. Here's reception on the dipole.

Here's reception on the loop. The noise floor is certainly higher.

Of course, the benefit of the loop is that it covers all of HF so beats the dipole on bands like 80m.

Connectors are SMA which works well with SDR receivers. Here is a recording of 9MHz shortwave using the loop. It's not as good as my big dipole but I'm really impressed with what you can hear with a small loop on the balcony.

I'm impressed with this receive loop. If you have space for a full size dipole then that's the way to go but if you only have a balcony then this is a great way to listen.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

13 Minutes to the Moon - interesting podcast

Thanks to talented friend Aidan Roberts, I've just listened to a fascinating podcast series from the BBC World Service called "13 Minutes to the Moon". You can get it by searching in your podcast player or downloading here.

The series tells the story of Apollo 11 but in particular examines the final descent to the moon and the things that went wrong, including communications failure and the 1202 (and 1201) overflow alarms from the flight computer.

As well as different versions of the audio from the mission, there are original interviews with some of those involved. I've read several books about the Apollo program and there was new material for me in this.

The music for the podcast is by Hans Zimmer and he's even interviewed about his memory of the landing. You've got to take podcasts seriously now that they have music composed by the guy who wrote themes for Interstellar and many others.

Friday, November 01, 2019

First experiment with LoRa transceivers

LoRa is a fascinating radio system for low power but long range digital data communications. Low cost transceivers claim a range of 15km. John, VK2ASU, has been working with these for a few months with an application involving reporting activity at a remote site.

I also came across LoRa when talking with the City of Ballarat for a GovHack story. They put a LoRa Gateway up on the town hall and are using it to collect data from all over town including things like rubbish bins reporting their fullness.

Here's my hardware setup. (Receive and transmit sides look the same).

I'm using cheap Arduino Nano Pros. They need to be 3.3V to talk to the LoRa Module.

The modules I purchased are RA-01 SX1278 on 433MHz. They were AU$8.67 each (but cheaper if you buy 2 or more). For starters I'm using ones with the little spring antennas and obviously better antennas help them go further.

With one at the extreme end of the house to the other here's the received packets.

So none are being lost. I'm not sure if the protocol re-sends if there's no ACK.

The Arduino library is one of the ones available right in the IDE. It is by Sandeep Mistry and the source code and documentation is here. To get started I wired up to Arduino Nano Pros using the wiring diagram from this excellent tutorial. The examples titled "LoRaSender" and "LoRaReceiver" work well and the only change is to set the frequency to 433E6 (meaning 433MHz) on each end.

There are many levers to adjust with LoRa and you can trade of data rate for range. John ASU advises that he uses these settings:

TxPower (20,20);
Spreadfactor (12);
Bandwidth (62.5E3);

I'm just using the defaults for now.

The tutorial mentioned that the 3.3V supply from the Arduino wasn't sufficient and that may be the case at higher transmit power levels, but for me it's working from the VCC line on the board which is powered by the USB Serial board I use.

The LoRa physical protocol

LoRa is a proprietary protocol but, naturally, this puzzle has led to some excellent work to figure out how it works.

On a waterfall, the spectrum shows what people call "chirps", that is the frequency sweeps rapidly up or down. Here's a picture from the GRCon16 video above by Matt Knight.

The receiver looks for the regular header at the top and uses that to sync up with the transmitter before the data packet begins. Note that the image above is vastly expanded. I've tried to view this with an RTL-SDR dongle in SDR# and all you see is very brief signals for each packet.