Category Archives: Tutorials

The AirSpy HF+ Discovery and a new era of portable SDR DXing

The following article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.


The AirSpy HF+ Discovery and a new era of portable DXing

I admit it: I used to be a bit of an old-fashioned radio curmudgeon. One of those, “I like my radios with knobs and buttons” likely followed by, “…and no other way!”

However, about fifteen years ago, many of my DXing friends started turning to the world of software defined radios (or in common parlance, “SDRs”). I staunchly opposed ever following in their footsteps. One of the reasons I for this––a good one––is that, since I spend the bulk of my day in front of a computer, why would I ever want to use a computer when I’m playing radio?

But then…gradually, I found myself playing around with a few SDRs. And I quickly learned that third-generation SDRs were capable of doing something very impressive (and fun), indeed:  making spectrum recordings.  Using this tool, I found I could record not only the audio of one individual signal, but the audio of entire swathes of radio spectrum.  And even more impressive, I learned that you could later load or “play back” the spectrum recording and tune through the bands as if in real time. Any time you want. Before long, I was hooked: SDRs had become my portal into radio time travel!

I quickly found that I loved many of the other advantages of using an SDR, as well, including visual ones––like the ability to view spectrum. The interactive interface allows one to actually see radio signals across the band in real time. I also found incredible value in waterfall displays, which show signals changing in amplitude and frequency over time. Cool stuff.

I purchased my first dedicated SDR in 2012, a WinRadio Excalibur. It was––and still is––a benchmark receiver, performing circles around my tabletop receivers and general coverage transceivers.

And today, although I own and love a number of legacy radios and still listen to them in the good old-fashioned manner to which I became accustomed, I find I’m now spending the bulk of my time DXing with SDRs.

And then, more recently, two amazing things happened in the world of SDRs. Strong market competition, together with serious innovations, have come into play. Thus, for less than $200 US, you can now purchase an SDR that would have easily cost $1,000 US only ten years ago. And now, in many cases, the $200 SDR of today will outperform the $1,000 SDR of yesteryear. We are, indeed, living in good times.

And now––no more a radio curmudgeon––I’m comfortable with my SDR-user status and time at the computer, and glad I was just curious enough about SDRs to let them into my radio (and computer) world.

Portable SDRs

Since I initially dived into the world of SDRs, I’ve tried to think of a way to take them into the field.

But first, let’s get an obvious question out of the way:

Why would you want to drag an SDR into the field, when a traditional battery-powered radio is so much easier to manage?

After all, you may say, portable and even mobile tabletop receivers require no computer, no hard drive, and are likely more reliable because there are less components to manage or to cause problems for you.

In answer, let’s look at a few scenarios where heading to the field with an SDR system might just make sense.  (Hint: Many of these reasons are rooted in the SDR’s ability to record spectrum).

Good Reason #1:  Your home location is not ideal for playing radio.

Photo by Henry Be

My good friend, London Shortwave, lives in the middle of London, England. He’s an avid radio enthusiast and DXer, but his apartment is almost a perfect storm of radio interference. Listening from his home is challenging, to say the least: he can only use indoor antennas and RFI/QRM simply inundated his local airwaves.

Many years ago, he discovered that the best way to DX was to go to an area that put urban noise and radio interference at a distance.  He found that by visiting large local parks, he could play radio with almost no RFI.

Being a computer guru, he started working on a portable SDR setup so that he could go to a park, set up an antenna, and record radio spectrum while he read a book.  His systems evolved with time, each iteration being more compact less conspicuous that the previous. Later, he could head back home, open the recorded spectrum files, and tune through these “time-shifted” recordings in the comfort of his flat. This allowed London Shortwave to maximize the low-RFI listening experience by reliving the time in the park.

Over the years, he tweaked and adapted his setup, often writing his own code to make small tablets and portable computers purpose-built portable-spectrum-capture devices. If you’re curious, you might like to read about the evolution of his systems on his blog.

Clearly, for London Shortwave, an SDR is the right way to capture spectrum and thus likely the best solution for his DX listening.

Good Reason #2:  Weak-signal workarounds.

Typically radio enthusiasts turn to field operation to work in a lower-noise environment and/or where there are no antenna restrictions, often to log new stations and DX.

SDRs afford the DXer top-shelf tools for digging weak signals out of the muck. SDR applications have advanced tools for tweaking AGC settings, synchronous detectors, filters, noise reduction, and even to tailor audio.

The WinRadio Excalibur application even includes a waterfall display which represents the entire HF band (selectable 30 MHz or 50 MHz in width)

On top of that, being able to see a swath of spectrum and waterfall gives one an easier way––a visual way––to pinpoint weak or intermittent signals. This is much harder to do with a legacy radio.

Case in point:  I like listening to pirate radio stations on shortwave. With a spectrum display, I can see when a new station may be tuning up on the band so can position the receiver to listen in from the beginning of the broadcast, and never miss a beat.

Or, in another example, the visual aspect of spectrum display means I can easily locate trans-Atlantic DX on the mediumwave bands by looking for carrier peaks on the spectrum display outside the standard North American 10 kHz spacing. The signals are very easy to spot.

Good Reason #3: DXpeditions both small and large.

Mark Fahey, scanning the bands with his WinRadio Excalibur/Surface Pro 2 combo at our 2015 PARI DXpedition

Whether you’re joining an organized DXpedition or you’re simply enjoying a little vacation DXpedition, SDRs allow you to make the most of your radio time.

Indeed, most of the organized DXpedition these days heavily incorporate the use of SDRs specifically so DXers can record spectrum. Much like example #1 above, doing this allows you to enjoy the noise-free optimal conditions over and over again through spectrum recordings. Most DXpeditioners will have an SDR making recordings while they use another receiver to DX in real time. Later, they take the recording home and dig even more weak signals out of the mix: ones that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Good Reason #4: Sharing the spectrum with like-minded listeners.

Earlier this year, Mark gave me this 8TB hard drive chock-full of spectrum recordings.

One of the joys I’ve discovered  in making field spectrum recordings is sharing them with fellow DXers. Most of the time when I go to shortwave radio gatherings (like the Winter SWL Fest), I take a couple hard drives to exchange with other SDR enthusiasts. My friend, Mark Fahey, and I have exchanged some of our favorite spectrum recordings this way. I give him a hard drive chock-full of terabytes of recordings, and he reciprocates. Back home (or on the train or airplane) I open one of his recordings and, boom! there I am in his shack in Freeman’s Reach, Australia, tuning through Pacific stations that are not easily heard here in North America, maybe even turning up some gems Mark himself may have overlooked…just as he is doing with my recordings from the southeast US.

I’ve also acquired DXpedition spectrum recordings this way. It’s great fun to “be there” through the recordings and to enjoy some of the benefits of being on the DXpedition in times when I couldn’t actually make it there in person. For a DXer with a consuming job, busy family life, or maybe health problems that limit their travel, an SDR recording is the way to go.

Good Reason #5: Family time

Photo by David Straight

I’m a husband and father, and no matter how much I like to play radio when we’re on vacation, my family comes first, and our family activities take priority.

Having a field-portable SDR setup means that I can arrange a “set it and forget it” spectrum capture device. Before we head out the door for a family visit, tour of the area, or a hike, I simply set my SDR to record spectrum, then listen to what I “caught” after I return, or after I’m home from vacation.

This practice has allowed me to enjoy radio as much as I like, without interrupting our family adventures. Can’t beat it!

Past challenges

With all of these benefits, one might wonder why many other DXers  haven’t been using portable SDRs in the field for a while now? That’s a good question.

Power

The WinRadio G31DDC, like many SDRs of the era, has separate data and power ports

In prior years, DXers and listeners might have been reluctant to lug an SDR and its requisite apparatus out with them. After all, it’s only been in the past decade or so that SDRs haven’t required a separate custom power supply; some legacy SDRs either required an odd voltage, or as with my WinRadio Excalibur, have very tight voltage tolerances.

Originally, taking an SDR to the field––especially in places without grid mains power––usually meant you also had to take a pricey pure sine wave inverter as well as a battery with enough capacity to run the SDR for hours on end.

Having spent many months in an off-grid cabin on the east coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada, I can confidently say it’s an ideal spot for DXing: I can erect large wire antennas there, it’s on salt water, and there are literally no locally-generated man-man noises to spoil my fun.  Of course, anytime we go to the cottage, I record spectrum, too, as this is truly a honey of a listening spot.

The view from our off-grid cabin on PEI.

The first year I took an SDR to the cabin, I made a newbie mistake:  it never dawned on me until I arrived and began to put it to use that my Goal Zero portable battery pack didn’t have a pure sine wave inverter; rather, I found it had a modified sine wave inverter built into it. The inverter could easily power my SDR, sure, but it also injected incredibly strong, unavoidable broadband noise into the mix. It rendered my whole setup absolutely useless. I gave up on the SDR on that trip.

Both the Airspy HF+ (top) and FDM-S2 (bottom) use a USB connection for both data transfer and power. Photo by Guy Atkins.

Today, most SDRs actually derive their power from a computer or laptop through a USB cable, one that doubles as a data and power cable. This effectively eliminates the need for a separate power system and inverter.

Of course, your laptop or tablet will need a means of recharging in the field because the attached SDR will drain its battery a little faster. Nowadays it’s possible to find any number of portable power packs/banks and/or DC battery sources to power laptops or tablets, as long as one is cautious that the system doesn’t inject noise. This still requires a little trial and error, but it’s much easier to remedy than having two separate power sources.

Portable computers

Even a Raspberry Pi 3B has enough horsepower to run SDR applications.

An SDR is nothing without a software application to run it. These applications, of course, require some type of computer.

I the past, SDR applications needed some computing horsepower, not necessarily to run the application itself, but to make spectrum recordings.  In addition, they often required extra on-board storage space to make these recordings sufficiently long to be useful.  This almost always meant lugging a full-sized laptop to the field, or else investing in a very pricey tablet with a hefty amount of internal storage to take along.

Today we’re fortunate to have a number of more portable computing devices to run SDR applications in the field: not just laptops or tablets, but mobile phones and even mini computers, like the eminently affordable $46 Raspberry Pi. While you still have to be conscious of your device’s computing horsepower, many small devices are amply equipped to do the job.

Storage

64-128 GB USB flash/thumb drives are affordable, portable storage options.

If you’re making spectrum and audio recordings in the field, you’ll need to store them somehow. Wideband spectrum recordings can use upwards of 2GB of data per minute or two.

Fortunately, even a 64GB USB flash drive can be purchased for as little as $7-10 US. This makes for quick off-loading of spectrum recordings from a device’s internal memory.

My portable SDR setup

It wasn’t until this year that all of the pieces finally came together for me so that I could enjoy a capable (and affordable!) field-portable SDR setup. Two components, in particular, made my setup a reality overnight; here’s what made the difference.

The AirSpy HF+ Discovery

Last year, AirSpy sent me a sample of their new HF+ Discovery SDR to test and evaluate. To be fully transparent, this was at no cost to me.

I set about putting the HF+ Discovery through its paces. Very soon, I reached a conclusion:  the HF+ Discovery is simply one of the best mediumwave and HF SDRs I’ve ever tested. Certainly, it’s the new benchmark for sub-$500 SDRs.

In fact, I was blown away. The diminutive HF+ Discovery even gives some of my other benchmark SDRs a proper run for their money. Performance is DX-grade and uncompromising, sporting impressive dynamic range and superb sensitivity and selectivity. The noise floor is also incredibly low. And I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that you can purchase this SDR for just $169 US.

The HF+ Discovery compared in size to a DVD

In terms of portability, it’s in a class of its own. It’s tiny and incredibly lightweight. I evaluate and review SDRs all the time, but I’ve never known one that offers this performance in such a tiny package.

Are there any downsides to the HF+ Discovery? The only one I see––and it’s intentional––is that it has a smaller working bandwidth than many other similar SDRs at 768 kHz (although only recently, Airspy announced a firmware update that will increase bandwidth). Keep in mind, however, that the HF+ series SDRs were designed to prevent overload when in the presence of strong local signals. In fairness, that’s a compromise I’ll happily make.

Indeed, the HF+ Discovery maximum bandwidth isn’t a negative in my estimation unless I’m trying to grab the entire mediumwave band, all at once. For shortwave work, it’s fine because it can typically cover an entire broadcast band, allowing me to make useful spectrum recordings.

The HF+ Discovery is so remarkably tiny, that this little SDR, together with a passive loop antenna, can fit in one small travel pouch. Ideal.

The antennas

My homebrew NCPL antenna

Speaking of antennas, one of the primary reasons I’m evaluating the HF+ Discovery is because it has a very high dynamic range and can take advantage of simple antennas, in the form of passive wideband magnetic loop antennas, to achieve serious DX.

AirSpy president and engineer, Youssef Touil, experimented with several passive loop antenna designs and sizes until he found a few combinations ideally matched with the HF+ Discovery.

My good buddy, Vlado (N3CZ) helped me build such an antenna per Youssef’s specifications. Vlado had a length of Wireman Flexi 4XL that was ideal for this project (thanks, Vlad!). The only tricky part was penetrating the shielding and dielectric core at the bottom of the loop, then tapping into both sides of the center conductor for the balun connections.  Being Vlado, he used several lengths of heat shrink tubing to make a nice, clean, snag-free design. I’ll freely admit that, had I constructed this on my own, it wouldn’t have been nearly as elegant!

Click here for a step-by-step guide to building your own NCPL (Noise-Cancelling Passive Loop Antenna.

Youssef also sent me a (then) prototype Youloop passive loop antenna. It’s incredibly compact, made of high quality SMA-fitted coaxial cables. It can be set up in about 30 seconds and coiled to tuck into a jacket pocket.  The AirSpy-built loop has a lower loss transformer than the one in the homemade loop, which translates into a lower noise figure for the system.

Click here to read my review of the Youloop.

Let’s face it: SDR kit simply doesn’t get more portable than this.

The computer

My Microsoft Surface Go tablet on a hotel bed.

In the past, I used an inexpensive, circa 2013 mini Windows laptop with an internal SSD drive.  Everything worked beautifully, save the fact that it was challenging to power in the field and the internal capacity of the hard drive was so small (16GB less the operating system). In addition, it was a few years old, bought used, so the processor speed was quite slow.

This year, on the way back from the Huntsville Hamfest, I stopped by the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. This center has a wide variety of used portable electronics at discount prices. I felt pretty lucky when I discovered a like-new condition Microsoft Surface Go tablet and keyboard with original charger for $190. The catch? The only data port on the tablet is a USB-C. But I grabbed a small USB-C to standard USB 3.0 dongle (for $2!) and took a risk that it would work with the HF+ Discovery.

Fortunately, it did! Score!

While the Surface Go is no powerhouse, it’s fast enough to run any of my SDRs and make spectrum recordings up to 2 MHz in width without stuttering. The only noise it seems to inject into the mix is a little RFI when I touch the trackpad on the attached keyboard.

Power

One of my LiFePo batteries

The HF+ Discovery draws power from the Surface Go tablet via the USB port. With no additional power supply, the Surface Go may only power the HF+ Discovery for perhaps an hour at most. Since I like doing fully off-grid operations and needed to avoid RFI from inverters, I needed a portable power solution.

Fortunately, the Surface Go has a dedicated power port, so I immediately ordered a DC power cable with a standard car lighter plug.

At the Huntsville Hamfest I also purchased a small 12V 4.5 Ah Bioenno LiFePo battery and paired it with a compact Powerpole distribution panel kit I purchased in May at the 2019 Dayton Hamvention.

The LiFePo battery is small, lightweight, and can power the tablet /SDR combo for hours on end. Moreover, I have noticed no extra noise injected when the DC power is applied.

My HF+ Discovery-based portable SDR kit

My portable SDR kit on a hotel balcony.

Now I have this kit, I couldn’t be more pleased with it. When all of the components of my SDR system are assembled, they work harmoniously. The entire ensemble is also incredibly compact:  the loop antennas, SDR, Surface Go tablet, battery, and distribution panel all fit in a very small travel pack, perfect for the grab-and-go DX adventure.

The entire kit: SDR, cables, Youloop antenna, connectors and adapters all fit in my Red Oxx Lil’ Roy pack.

In November, I took the kit to the coast of South Carolina and had a blast doing a little mediumwave DXing from our hotel balcony. We were very fortunate in that I had two excellent spots to hang the homemade loop antenna: on the main balcony, and from the mini balcony off the master bedroom. Both spots yielded excellent results.

What impressed me most was the fact that the SDR# spectrum display and waterfall were absolutely chock-full of signals, and there was very little noise, even in the popular resort area where we were staying. I found that my portable radios struggled with some of the RFI emanating from the hotel, but the HF+ Discovery and passive loop combo did a much better job mitigating noise.

Check out the AM broadcast band on the spectrum display.

But no need to take my word for it.  If you would like to experience it first hand, why not download an actual spectrum recording I made using this setup?

All you’ll need to do is:

  1. Download the 1.7 GB (.wav formatted) spectrum file at this address
  2. Download a copy of SDR# if you don’t already have an SDR application that can read AirSpy spectrum files.
  3. Install SDR#, and run it.
  4. At the top left corner of the SDR# screen, choose “IQ File (.wav)” as the source, then point it to where you downloaded the file.
  5. Press the play button, and experience a little radio time travel!

This particular recording was made on the mediumwave band on November 17, 2019, starting at around 01:55 UTC.

My portable SDR kit capturing spectrum during a hike in Pisgah National Forest.

I’ve also taken this setup to several parks and remote outdoor locations, and truly enjoyed the freedom of taking spectrum recordings back home to dig through the signals.

Conclusion

I finally have a portable SDR system that allows me the flexibility to make spectrum recordings while travelling. The whole setup is compact and can easily be taken in a carry-on bag when flying.

The glory of this is, I can tune through my spectrum recordings in real time and DX when I’m back home, or even on the way back home, in the car, train, or airplane. It’s simply brilliant.

If you don’t already own an SDR, I can highly recommend the AirSpy HF+ Discovery if you’re primarily interested in HF and MW DXing. If you need a wideband SDR, I could also recommend the recently released SDRplay RSPdx, although it’s slightly heavier and larger than the AirSpy.

Thankfully, I am now an SDR enthusiast that can operate in the field, and this radio has had a lot to do with it. I’ll be logging many hours and miles with the AirSpy HF+ Discovery: its incredibly compact footprint, combined with its brilliant performance, is truly a winning combo.

Click here to check out the Airspy HF+ Discovery

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Christoph’s homebrew custom hotkey pad for SDR applications

Last week, I saw a fascinating post by Christoph Jahn on the SDRplay Facebook page.

Christoph created a custom hotkey pad for use with SDRuno.  The project is actually quite simple and his finished product looks amazing:

The steps involve downloading “LuaMacros” a freeware macros utility that allows you to map macros to an external USB device like a cheap numeric keypad. Christoph then designed the key templates and printed them on a strong adhesive vinyl foil.

I asked Christoph if I could post his project on the SWLing Post and he kindly sent me the followed PDF with step-by-step instructions.

Click here to download the instructions as a PDF (6.71MB).

Christoph also shared the macros file he used for his project (download .XML file 8.77 KB).

Thank you so much for sharing this, Christoph!  Your finished product is so professional, I would have thought it was produced by SDRplay!

This could be a useful tool for a radio friend who is visually-impaired and, of course, could be compatible with a wide range of SDR apps and rig control software that allow keyboard shortcuts.

Readers: Have you done a similar project? Please comment with your experience and any details–especially noting applications and programs you find are compatible with keyboard shortcut mapping. This could be very beneficial for radio enthusiasts with disabilities!

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Guest Post: KK5JY’s Porch Loop Receiving Antenna

Can you spot the antenna in this photo?

Many thanks to Matt Roberts (KK5JY) who has kindly given me permission to re-post the following article he recently published on his website KK5JY.net. Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Grayhat, for the tip!

 Note: The Porch Loop project below is a re-configured Small Receiving Loop (SRL) antenna. For SRL construction details, check out Matt’s primer.


The Porch Loop

by Matt Roberts (KK5JY)

The small receiving loop, or SRL, is a versatile, effective, and very space-efficient receive-optimized antenna for the HF bands.  They are easy to build, and can be made very inexpensively.  Most typical designs use symmetric shapes, like circles, diamonds, octagons, etc., and are mounted on some kind of mast.  This makes it easy(-ier) to install the antenna clear of nearby metal and electronics.  It also makes the antenna rotatable, so that the nulls can be pointed at RFI sources.

These aren’t the only options for the SRL, however.  These little loops can be made to fit in just about any available space.  In fact:

  • They are effective at any reasonable installation height, including very close to the ground.  The installation height doesn’t change the pattern shape, only the pattern strength.
  • They can be made nearly any shape.  The shape does not have to be symmetric about any axis or combination of axes.
  • They can be fed at just about any point on the loop.  A typical feed location is bottom-center, but off-center feeding has negligible effect on the pattern shape.
  • The wire can be bent out-of-plane; in other words, the loop doesn’t have to be “flat.”

There are a couple of requirements for obtaining predictable performance, however.  First, the antenna does need to be an electrical loop.  That is, it is a single wire connected between the conductors of the feedline, forming a complete circuit.  Also, the circumference of the loop wire should be electrically small (i.e., significantly less than ? / 4) on the bands where it is to be used.

Figure 1. The antenna location (click to enlarge)

As a personal challenge, I recently installed such a loop on my front porch.  Everything about this installation defies conventional wisdom — it was installed very close to the ground, it was an irregular shape, it was fed off-center, and the wire was wound in and around an irregular support structure, rather having all the wire in a single plane.

And the resulting antenna still performed very well.

Figure 2: Antenna Location Outlined in Red (click to enlarge)

The loop is essentially the same device as the one in the original SRL article.  See that article for more construction details.  This version is simply stretched and twisted to make it fit the space and supports available.  The wire was woven around the boards in the porch’s deck rail, and fed off to one side, so that the transformer housing could be “hidden” behind the trash cans.

Figure 3: Feedpoint Transformer (click to enlarge)

The wire was insulated with an off-white THHN, which made it blend in with the color of the trim of the house.

Figure 4: 40m Reception 10h Overnight (click to enlarge)

Even with its suboptimal installation details, the overnight 40m DX spots were numerous and well-distributed, as seen in Figure 4.  There were DX spots at nearly 10,000 miles, there were NVIS spots, and there were countless at all distances in between.  So the antenna was just as effective as its more ideally shaped brethren, despite it’s unconventional installation details.

Other ideas for possible locations of such a device could include:

  • In an attic.  The antenna could be nailed to a vertical panel, or strung like a spider’s web inside the frame of a truss or other open area.
  • Under a tree.  Taking another idea from the spiders, the antenna could be hung and pulled into shape using light guys or tree branches.
  • On a wooden fence.  If you have a wooden fence, the antenna could be installed against the fence panels.  This option could allow a wide range of circumference lengths.
  • Attached to an interior wall of an apartment.  The shape could be chosen to keep the loop clear of in-wall wiring, to help preserve its performance.

The original mast-mounted SRL antennas still have some advantages.  Perhaps the biggest advantage is that they can be easily rotated to null out a nearby strong noise source.  That said, if you are looking for an antenna with better receive performance than a large resonant vertical, the SRL can be stretched and squeezed into service just about anywhere.


Many thanks for sharing this project, Matt!  So many of our readers live in situations where they are forced to use stealthy and compromised antennas. What I love about your porch loop is that even though it breaks several loop antennas “rules,” it’s still amazingly effective. 

I encourage SWLing Post readers to check out Matt’s website as he has written articles covering a number of interesting radio and antenna projects.

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Build an SDR station and balcony antenna farm for less than 150 Euros

UPDATE 11 May 2020: We recently learned that the MSI.SDR software defined radio dongle in the following post and tutorial is a clone of the SDRplay RSP1 SDR. We did not realize this when the post was published. Grayhat had done research prior to purchase and believed it not to be a clone, but only using the same chipset as the RSP1 (hence the compatibility with SDRuno). We have confirmed that it is indeed a clone now via SDRplay (clear here to read more via the excellent RTL-SDR blog). What follows isn’t an SDR review. Indeed, Grahat’s post has little to do with the receiver and much, much more to do with building proper antennas! We’ve removed links to the MSI.SDR and would encourage you to invest in the excellent SDRplay RSP1a instead (click here to read our RSP1a review). Thank you for understanding!

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Grayhat, who shares the following guest post. He lives in Italy and has been in lock-down since the beginning of the pandemic. He pitched the idea of building an entire SDR setup from scratch–receiver and antennas–for less than 150 Euros (roughly $163 USD). I thought it was a brilliant idea and I believe he thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of sourcing the components and building a mini antenna farm on his balcony while in quarantine:


From Zero to SDR

by Grayhat

What follows doesn’t pretend to be some kind of “definitive guide” or “last word”, on the contrary, it’s aimed at people who have little or no experience with SDR but want to try putting together a decent station without paying an arm and a leg.

The idea of writing this came to me after reading a number of messages and discussions on various online groups/forums, in a lot of cases, someone bought an SDR (usually the ones coming with a telescopic whip antenna), and after connecting it was expecting it “just to work” or, better said, pretending that the SDR connected to that whip (usually placed on a table right near the computer) could receive ANY POSSIBLE signal, including transmissions coming from the “dark side of the moon.” 🙂 Those folks got scared by the fact that the SDR “didn’t work” and decided to give up; now, this short “guide”  should allow anyone to setup what’s needed to have a working SDR

My self-imposed limitations for this project/experiment were the following:

  1. The whole setup shouldn’t cost more than 150 Euros so that, if after trying the SDR one doesn’t like it, (s)he won’t have paid $$$, otherwise, if (s)he decides to keep it, the resulting station will allow for further expansion/improvement
  2. The available space was considered to be that of an apartment, that is, no large field to put up huge wire antennas or to raise towers, the limit was the one of a balcony (in my home) that is 8 meters (max antenna length) by 3 meters (available height) by 2 meters (balcony width)
  3. The whole setup should be simple and straightforward, no need to solder components or to build special types of antennas
  4. Given the current Covid-19 sheltering, most components should be available online, while for others one may arrange with whatever is locally available (e.g. duct tape)

With the above limitations in mind, I took pencil, paper and rubber eraser (high-tech instruments, indeed) and started writing down a list of the needed stuff, after some writing, wiping and second thought, I came out with the following list, available on Amazon:

Bill of materials

The above includes all the needed stuff to put together a number of wire antennas (random wire, random dipole, loop…) the coax to connect the SDR, a balun to match the coax to the antenna and the accessory parts needed to put up the antenna. The selected SDR isn’t the common “RTL SDR” type, not that they don’t work, but their 8 bit ADC is far from being a good performer, so I decided to pick a different SDR which offers a 12 bits ADC and which also “presents itself” to the system as an SDRplay RSP1.

[Please note: we’ve since learned from SDRplay that the MSI.SDR is indeed a clone of the SDRplay RSP1. Here’s a post from the RTL-SDR blog confirming this. We recommend purchasing the RSP1a as a better alternative.]

Anyhow; all I can say is that after some tests, the MSI.SDR is a quite good unit and offers quite a lot of bangs for the buck, so I believe it may be a good unit for people willing to get their feet wet with SDRs

The above being said, here’s a pic of the MSI.SDR unit with the included stuff:

The unit is very small and the box has two connectors, an SMA for the antenna and a micro-USB (like the ones used in cellphones) for the USB cable which is used to both power and control it; the other bits are the telescopic whip antenna (around 98cm fully extended) with a magnetic base and a short run of coax, and the USB cable.

Once I got the SDR I decided to give the included whip antenna a try… well, to be clear, while it will allow you to pick up some strong local FM stations and maybe a bit else, it will only be useful to test if the SDR unit is working (before putting together our antenna), so don’t expect to receive much with that whip, yet… don’t throw it away, it may become useful (more later).

The other important piece is the BalUn. I picked a NooElec “Nine to One” v2, since I’ve used their v1 model and I’ve found it to work well, I decided to pick the newest model which has a better antenna wire connector.  The BalUn, which is in effect a so-called “transformer balun” is really small and the junction box I bought is much bigger, but it isn’t a problem. All in all, the box may host a preamplifier in the future, but for the moment it’s fine for the balun. The following pic shows the balun “installed” inside the junction box:

The scissors are there to give you an idea of the sizes; to put together the whole thing, I started by preparing two pieces of wire (the 2.5mm one),  made a turn with each wire and locked them with a nylon cable tier. Those turns will prevent the wire from sliding out and putting a strain on the balun connector.  I did that since I didn’t have plastic washers at hand, otherwise you may just slide two plastic washers (or proper diameter) over the wires and use two nylon tiers to lock them. In either case, the idea is that the “loops” or the washers won’t slide through the box holes and will support that (little bit of) strain caused by the wire connection.

Next, I stripped some of the insulation from the ends and connected the wires to one of the balun connectors (I chose the one in the pic since I believe it’s the most suitable for this setup), at that point I continued cutting the smaller “ring” of the box insulation caps (the two at top and the bottom one). Then I placed a piece of carboard roll (from a kitchen-paper roll) at the bottom to serve as a support (you can see it below the balun). At that point, I slid the balun SMA connector through the bottom hole and used the SMA to BNC adapter to hold it, done so I slid the two wires (connected to the green wire connector) through the side hole and then inserted the connector into the balun. I then placed the other piece of paper roll above the balun and closed the box with its cap. As a note, to properly close it, start by inserting the screw into the cap holes till end, so that they’ll extrude from the bottom, then place the cap over the box and tighten the screws–you may need to use some force to properly tighten it.

Notice that the wire shown in the pic are SHORT, later on I replaced them with longer wires (outside the box) to be able to better connect the balun box to the antenna, but the remainder of the build is the same.

Now that I had my “balun box” ready, I measured the antenna wire and, using the paracord and some nylon tiers, I installed it. I also installed the “counterpoise” wire. For the latter, at first I tried just connecting the remainder of wire to the “gnd” of the balun, leaving the spool laying on the floor, but later on I decided to hang up the counterpoise and the final result was the following:

Click to enlarge

Not a work of art, but then since I was experimenting, I decided not to add PTFE and tape to allow me to quickly rearrange the antenna to run other configurations, yet, the whole setup worked quite well and stood fine to some wind and rain, the picture below shows the balun box with the antenna/counterpoise wires and the coax with the snap-on ferrite chokes.

Click to enlarge

Notice that to avoid putting strain on the balun wires, I used a wire clamp I had in my junkbox–the clamp is then tied to the paracord using a nylon tier and the paracord holds the assembly and keeps the antenna wire in position. The ferrite chokes aren’t properly seated, and I’m planning to remove and re-place them, but for the moment they’re okay. The balcony faces to south/south-west so the antenna has a free horizon of about 270 degrees ranging from the Adriatic coast to the Appennines (Mt. S.Vicino can be seen behind the paracord)–not bad. Here’s another pic showing the horizon to West, just to give you an idea:

Getting back to the antenna installation, the other end of the antenna wire is tied to the opposite side of the balcony as shown below (let aside the tent/awning, I raise them when using the SDR, also, the bowline knot isn’t correct, I’ll need to tie that again):

The counterpoise instead is supported by a lamp I’ve on the terrace, here’s it’s setup:

The “paracord” goes down to a plastic bottle filled with a water/chlorine mixture which serves to keep it in place. The remainder of the wire is just hanging down for about 1.5 meters (the counterpoise is shorter than the antenna wire, it’s about 2/3 of its length).

Ok, time to put the antenna and SDR to test, so I brought the coax inside home, connected the other SMA to BNC adapter to the SDR and connected the coax going to the antenna. Note that 15 meters of coax is enough for me, but if one wants a length of up to 25 mt, it won’t be a problem.

I already installed the SDR software, in my case since the unit identifies itself as an “SDR1” I downloaded the SDRPlay “SDRuno” software https://sdrplay.com/windl2.php and since I was at it I also downloaded the PDF manual https://www.sdrplay.com/downloads/ and the “CookBook” http://www.nn4f.com/SDRuno-cookbook.pdf and I heartly recommend reading and digesting them before starting the whole thing (while you wait for all the stuff to be delivered). An important note is that you MUST install the SDRuno software BEFORE connecting the SDR since that way, the SDRuno setup will install the proper drivers and you won’t have issues.

Anyhow, I connected the coax to the SDR and then it was time to fire up the whole thing and give it a spin; so I powered up the laptop (technically, a “transformable” laptop/tablet), started SDRuno, opened the “RX control” and “Main Spectrum” windows and then clicked the “play” button, clicked the “broadcast” band, and the “MW” one and got this:

Not exceptional maybe, but not bad, either; in particular if one considers that it’s from a quite short piece of wire which isn’t exactly placed in an ideal position.

Deutsche Welle

So I went on and explored the bands a bit. On ham bands the SDR picked up signals from the whole mediterranean basin (Cyprus, Lebanon, Spain and then some) and from north too (Russia, Germany, Denmark); then depending on time, I was able to clearly receive broadcasts from China, South America, Africa and more ham QSOs from a lot of places.

BBC Ascension Island 5/9+ and just a bit of QSB

I must admit I didn’ record the callsigns or stations identifiers (“guilty” your honor–!) but I was more focused on testing the SDR and antenna than running a “DX session” at any rate.  On the BCB bands I picked up WWV, BBC,  VoA, China Radio International, Radio Free Asia, Radio Romania and a bunch of others from Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America. While on the ham bands, I was able to pick up some quite interesting QSOs and then… well, I went hunting for higher frequencies signals!

I got Police, Ambulances, Air control…so even if that “piece of wire” isn’t optimized for VHF/UHF it seems to be working decently there too. By the way, when changing bands you may (and probably will) need to adjust the gain control, but that will be almost the only thing needed to pull in signals

At the end of the day, I can say that I’m quite pleased with the performance offered by this simple and cheap setup. For less than 150 euros you have everything you need, not just the SDR.

Sure, the setup may be improved, but then again you’ll have all of the basic parts, so you won’t need too much. For example, if you live in a really noisy environment, it would be a good idea to use a loop antenna. You would only need a “cross shaped” support (PVC pipes or wood will do). You could quickly put together the SRL (Small Receiving Loop) designed by Matt Roberts (KK5JY) http://www.kk5jy.net/rx-loop/ the balun will be the SAME (yes, no need to wind whatsoever!) so building it will just be a matter of assembling a cross shaped support for the wire (which we already have because it’s the same used for the wire antenna) and you’ll have it. While I already tried the SRL, I didn’t build one to test with this SDR, but I’ll probably do that as soon as SWMBO will start complaining about those “wires on the balcony.”

Also, at the beginning I wrote “more later” when writing about the telescopic whip included with the SDR. Here’s the idea–it requires soldering, so if you don’t want that, skip this: remove the adhesive sheet on the bottom of the antenna base to expose the bottom cap and then remove (extract) the bottom cap. You’ll see a magnetic ring and a “bell shaped” piece of metal (the “ground” for the whip). In the middle of the “bell” there will be the antenna connector which is soldered to the coax wire with a nut holding the connector (and the “bell”) in place. De-solder the coax, unscrew the antenna connector and extract it, at that point you’ll have the telescopic whip and its connector, now you may use them to build the active “whip” antenna described here:

http://www.techlib.com/electronics/antennas.html#Improved%20Active%20Antenna

Notice that it is NOT the “usual” active whip–the circuitry and idea behind it is totally different–yet it works fine and will serve you from VLF (not kidding) up to around 100MHz. It might be a good companion for the SDR. It won’t be as quiet as the loop, yet it may be a valid “all rounder.”

To conclude, I believe that the setup described above is something anyone can afford. You don’t need to be an engineer or to have special knowledge or abilities–it’s just a matter of putting together some bits and pieces.

Obviously, this setup doesn’t require a large space and offers good performance across the bands. Plus it’s so easy to improve since the 12bit SDR is a good starting point

All the best everyone and STAY HOME, STAY SAFE !


Thank you so much, Grayhat!

I love the fact that you invested (however modestly) in a proper antenna setup to better serve you rather than relying on the basic whip antenna that comes with the SDR. You’re right: too often, we invest a receiver, yet invest no money or time into building an appropriate antenna.  The antenna is the most important component in a proper radio setup and those included telescoping whip antennas simply don’t perform well on the HF bands.

Based on our correspondence, I know you had fun piecing together this little system using a simple bill of materials and items you had on hand during the Covid-19 quarantine. Thank you for sharing it here with your SWLing Post community! 

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Guest Post: Decoding WEFAX using an RSP SDR and SDRuno

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mike Ladd with SDRplay, who shares the following guest post:


Basics to decoding WEFAX using an RSP and SDRuno

by Mike Ladd

SDR I use:
RSPduo from SDRplay using the Hi-Z input. Any model RSP’s can tune WEFAX transmissions. https://www.sdrplay.com/rspduo/

Antenna I use: Megaloop FX from Bonito. In an Inverted delta loop configuration pointed N/E-S/W. Any good antenna placed outdoors should be fine. It’s all about the SNR, not your S-meter reading. https://www.bonito.net/hamradio/en/mega-loop-fx/

Software:

SDRuno v1.32
SDRuno is an advanced Software Defined Radio application platform which is optimized for use with SDRplay’s range of Radio Spectrum Processing receivers.
https://www.sdrplay.com/downloads/

VBcable (donationware) vPack43
Transfers audio, digitally from one application (SDRuno) to another (Black Cat HF weather Fax) with zero loss.
https://www.vb-audio.com/Cable/

VAC (paid for use) v4.60
Transfers audio, digitally from one application (SDRuno) to another (Black Cat HF weather Fax) with zero loss.
https://vac.muzychenko.net/en/
https://www.sdrplay.com/docs/SDRuno_VAC.pdf

Black Cat HF Weather Fax (paid for use) beta 19
Decodes and produces images from the WEFAX transmissions from the output of SDRuno using a virtual audio cable.

Use the discount link available here
http://blackcatsystems.com/register/black_cat_hf_weather_fax_sdrplay_promo.html
https://www.blackcatsystems.com/software/hf_weather_fax.html

Black Cat Uno UDP
UnoUDP allows you control SDRuno’s VFO frequency from within Black Cat HF Weather Fax scheduler. This is done over a virtual com port pair using a virtual com port emulator. http://blackcatsystems.com/download/UnoUDP.zip

VSPE or COM0COM
VSPE is a paid for use app. COM0COM is completely free. Either one of these applications will work. A virtual com port emulator allows you to create a virtual com port. The pair will internally link Black Cat Weather Fax decoder to SDRuno’s using UnoUDP as the transport protocol.

VSPE http://www.eterlogic.com/Products.VSPE.html
https://www.sdrplay.com/docs/SDRuno_VSPE.pdf

COM0COM http://com0com.sourceforge.net/
https://youtu.be/dZg7puQ9Ajk

Introduction:

(some text taken and edited from various website)

This document is not a definitive guide to the WEFAX protocol, the process of decoding WEFAX images or reading a synoptic weather chart https://youtu.be/kzfNSvQREu8. This is only a collection of information that I have found scatter throughout the internet and re-compiled into a document, this document. Expect typographical mistakes, inaccuracies, or omissions.

WEFAX is an analog mode for transmitting monochrome images. It was the predecessor to slow-scan television (SSTV). Prior to the advent of the commercial telephone line “fax” machine, it was known, more traditionally, by the term “radio facsimile”.

Facsimile machines were used in the 1950s to transmit weather charts across the United States via land-lines first and then internationally via HF radio. Radio transmission of weather charts provides an enormous amount of flexibility to marine and aviation users for they now have the latest weather information and forecasts at their fingertips to use in the planning of voyages.

Radio fax relies on facsimile technology where printed information is scanned line by line and encoded into an electrical signal which can then be transmitted via physical line or radio waves to remote locations. Since the amount of information transmitted per unit time is directly proportional to the bandwidth available, then the speed at which a weather chart can be transmitted will vary depending on the quality of the media used for the transmission.

Radio fax data is available from the web on sites such as the ones hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). https://tgftp.nws.noaa.gov/fax/marine.shtml Radio fax transmissions are also broadcasted by NOAA from multiple sites in the country at regular daily schedules https://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/marine/rfax.pdf. Radio weather fax transmissions are particularly useful to shipping, where there are limited facilities for accessing the Internet.

Black Cat HF Weather Fax is a program that decodes WEFAX (Weatherfax, HF-FAX, Radiofax, and Weather Facsimile) transmissions sent from fixed locations around the globe.

A fax is transmitted line by line, typically at a rate of 120 lines per minute, or half a second per line. For example, to send a weather chart, you would start in the upper left corner. You would send the value of that pixel (dot), black, white, or perhaps a shade of gray. Then you would move over one pixel to the right, and send that pixel, and so on, until you reach the edge of the chart. Then you’d move all the way back to the left edge, and move down slightly, one line, and repeat the process.

Each pixel is converted into a certain audio frequency or tone. By convention, a tone of 1500 Hz represents black, 2300 Hz represents white, and frequencies in-between represent shades of gray. So if you listen to a fax transmission, you’ll hear the different tones as each pixel is present. For example, listen to a chart with mostly white background being sent. You’ll hear mostly the high pitch 2300 Hz, and some lower (1500 Hz) blips as each black pixel is sent. When a horizontal line is sent, you’ll hear a long half second burst of 1500 Hz, since the line is all black.

The transmitting station frequency modulates the carrier. That is, when a black pixel is transmitted, the carrier shifts down 400 Hz. When a white pixel is transmitted, the carrier shifts up 400 Hz. For a medium gray pixel, it stays on the assigned frequency. This is how most fax transmissions are made. Since we’re tuning it in SSB, it sounds to us as if the station is transmitting a variable frequency audio tone. The two processes are identical. This accounts for the confusion regarding what frequency to tune the radio to in order to properly decode the fax transmission. Different stations list their frequency in different ways. It is important to remember that a black pixel produces a 1500 Hz tone, and a white pixel produces a 2300 Hz tone within the AUX SP.

The setup works as follows. SDRuno demodulates the received signal. The demodulated audio is piped from SDRuno using virtual audio cable and sends it to the HF weather fax decoder. HF weather fax decoder receives this audio from the virtual audio cable that was demodulated from SDRuno and processes it, producing a picture on the screen

HF weather fax decoder can also set the VFO (tune) frequency of the RSP in SDRuno. This is done over the virtual com port pair using the UnoUDP application as the transport.

SDRuno can internally emulate a Kenwood TS-480, UnoUDP sends the Kenwood TS-480 serial commands via UDP over the virtual com port pair in order to set the frequency selected from the HF Weather Fax Scheduler option over to SDRuno.

You will need to install and configure the following applications.

1: A virtual audio cable.

2: A virtual com port emulator (If you would like HF Weather fax to communicate with SDRuno).

3: UnoUDP (If you would like HF Weather fax to communicate with SDRuno using the virtual serial emulator).

4: HF Weather Fax.

5: A simple wire antenna placed outdoors.

Virtual Audio Cable:

A virtual audio cable allows you to pipe the audio from one application (SDRuno) into another application (a decoder like HF Weather Fax) digitally. I will assume SDRuno is already installed with your device attached and functioning properly.

You can now download a virtual audio cable package.  If you already have a virtual audio cable package installed, you can skip to the next section. If you don’t have a virtual audio cable application installed, you only need to choose one and install only one of the two that are available.

Close any running apps, install the virtual audio cable and reboot your computer. When your computer boots to your desktop, your computer will now have a virtual audio cable pair installed on the system.

You can verify it the installation by going to your Control Panel and double clicking the Sound icon. VB-Cable and Virtual Audio Cable will only install a single virtual audio cable pair, one is for the input (Recording) and one is for the output (Playback). A single pair is all that is needed (as shown below).

Virtual Serial Port:

A virtual com port emulator is only needed if you would like Black Cat HF Fax decoder the ability to tune the station in SDRuno when you double click a station name in the HF Fax Decoder scheduler.

Please use the links provided (additional PDF’s and YouTube videos) on Page 2 of this document for an installation / configuration walkthrough.

You can download my WEFAX frequency bank for use in SDRuno below should you choose not to use a virtual com port emulator. https://signalsacrossthepond.com/download/mike-kd2kog-sdrplay-complete/

Download Black Cat HF Weather Fax and UnoUDP:

Download the latest HF Weather Fax beta package and the UnoUDP application from the link provided on Page 2 of this document. I suggest making one main folder called HFfax and two subfolders within HFfax for each of the applications. One folder is for the HF Weather Fax Decoder and the other folder is for the UNO UDP transport application.

Double click the HF Weather Fax beta ZIP file you downloaded and extract the full contents of this ZIP into the folder you created on your local drive. Right click the “Black Cat Weather Fax” EXE file and send a shortcut to your Desktop.

Double click the UnoUDP zip file you downloaded and extract the full contents of this ZIP into the folder you created on your local drive. Right click the “UnoUDP” EXE file and send a shortcut to your Desktop.

You should have two shortcuts on your desktop, One for the decoder and one for the transport app.

Black Cat UnoUDP:

HF Weather Fax needs a way to communicate with SDRuno, this is done via UnoUDP and the virtual com port emulator.

Launch UnoUDP with the above configuration. Set your UDP Receive port to 58084 and your UDP send port to 58083. UnoUDP must be left running in the background, this will control SDRuno. You can minimize the application or right click the shortcut and have UnoUDP auto minizine on launch.

You should see a Firewall popup prompt asking permission to allow UnoUDP to pass data within the system. You must allow this traffic to pass or external control of SDRuno will not be possible from the HF Weather Fax decoder scheduler.

Assign 1 of the 2 com ports from the virtual com port emulator to UnoUDP (the 2nd com port will be assigned to SDRuno).  My com port pair is Com 1 and Com 2, SDRuno uses Com1 and UnoUDP uses Com 2.

Black Cat HF Weather Fax:

HF Weather Fax needs to be configured in order to communicate with UnoUDP, this is done via the UDP settings. Click “Edit” and “Preferences” Set the UDP Send port to 58084 and the UDP Receive port to 58083.

You should see a Firewall popup prompt asking permission for HF Weather Fax to pass data within your system. You must allow UDP traffic to pass or external control of SDRuno will not be possible from the HF Weather Fax decoder scheduler.

SDRuno:

SDRuno needs its Output assigned to the Virtual Audio Cable. The output can be changed via the RX CONTROL panel, clicking the SETT. button on the top left and clicking the OUT tab.

SDRuno needs a com port assigned so it can be externally controlled. The serial port is assigned via the RX CONTROL panel, clicking the SETT. button on the top left and clicking the CAT tab.

I recommend running the RSP in LOW-IF mode, this is selected via the MAIN panel. This reduces the need to track separation between the Tuned frequency and LO (local oscillator) https://youtu.be/Fsns4P3JxrM

LOW-IF mode also minizines the LO being placed outside of the desired preselect filter of the device in use, Remember the preselect filter is automatically enabled based on the LO frequency https://youtu.be/w-vkiVp7Q4E

I also recommend leaving the IF AGC enabled and placing the RF GAIN as high as possible without causing an ADC OVERLOAD warning within the MAIN panel. If an ADC OVERLOAD warning appears, back the RF GAIN down.

https://www.sdrplay.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Gain_and_AGC_in_SDRuno.pdf

Your first WEFAX decode (Using UnoUDP)

Launch UnoUDP and minimize it.

Launch Black Cat HF Weather FAX.

Launch SDRuno. Set the mode to USB and the filter width to 2.8k
HF weather fax will not set the mode or filter width at this time.

Click the Sked button in Black Systems HF Weather Fax. A current WEFAX transmission schedule will appear. Stations listed in White are either scheduled to transmit or about to transmit based on your computers clock. Stations show in Grey at the bottom of the list are currently off the air or not transmitting.

In the Freq Offset: box enter -1.9 and hit enter (Reason for this is on Page 5).

Click any of the stations listed in the Fax Transmission Schedule and it will automatically tune SDRuno to the correct frequency.

Black Cat HF Weather Fax folder will have a file named “Black Cat HF Weather Fax Docs” Please view this file to understand some of the advanced features available.

Your first decode (Without UnoUDP)

Launch Black Cat HF Weather FAX.

Launch SDRuno.

Navigate to the Memory Panel (MAIN panel and click the MEM PAN button)

Right click the Memory panel and select “Open bank”. Navigate you C drive telling SDRuno the location of WEFAX.s1b

Double click any of the frequencies shown within the WEFAX bank and SDRuno will set the correct mode and tune that station.  My WEFAX.s1b file defaults to the Hi-Z port. If your device lacks a HI-Z input, navigate to the port section within the memory panel, double click the stations port you want to edit and change it to the correct port that’s available or in use for your device. Right click the memory panel and “Save bank” to save the changes.

To use my SDRuno WEFAX frequency bank properly. The MCTR button must be enabled within the RX CONTROL panel, enabling this option allows you to double click and tune a station that is stored within the WEFAX bank. Make sure the LO is not locked in the MAIN panel (LO LOCK).

If a decoded WEFAX image looks blocky or skewed or possibly pixeled, I recommend that the lock output fractional resampler option is enabled in SDRuno. You can enable this from the RX CONTROL panel, clicking the SETT. button on the top left and clicking the OUT tab.

I hope this document helped guide you in getting started with decoding WEFAX transmissions from around the world. I am sure I missed some key features, remember this is only a primer/basics to decoding WEFAX. I do have an accompanying video located here

https://youtu.be/vAYGVimzNX8

Warmest of 73,
Mike-KD2KOG

Disclaimers

SDRPlay modules use a Mirics chipset and software. The information supplied hereunder is provided to you by SDRPlay under license from Mirics. Mirics hereby grants you a perpetual, worldwide, royalty free license to use the information herein for the purpose of designing software that utilizes SDRPlay modules, under the following conditions:

There are no express or implied copyright licenses granted hereunder to design or fabricate any integrated circuits or integrated circuits based on the information in this document. Mirics reserves the right to make changes without further notice to any of its products. Mirics makes no warranty, representation or guarantee regarding the suitability of its products for any particular purpose, nor does Mirics assume any liability arising out of the application or use of any product or circuit, and specifically disclaims any and all liability, including without limitation consequential or incidental damages. Typical parameters that may be provided in Mirics data sheets and/or specifications can and do vary in different applications and actual performance may vary over time. All operating parameters must be validated for each customer application by the buyer’s technical experts. SDRPlay and Mirics products are not designed, intended, or authorized for use as components in systems intended for surgical implant into the body, or other applications intended to support or sustain life, or for any other application in which the failure of the Mirics product could create a situation where personal injury or death may occur. Should Buyer purchase or use SDRPlay or Mirics products for any such unintended or unauthorized application, Buyer shall indemnify and hold both SDRPlay and Mirics and their officers, employees, subsidiaries, affiliates, and distributors harmless against all claims, costs, damages, and expenses, and reasonable attorney fees arising out of, directly or indirectly, any claim of personal injury or death associated with such unintended or unauthorized use, even if such claim alleges that either SDRPlay or Mirics were negligent regarding the design or manufacture of the part. Mirics FlexiRFTM, Mirics FlexiTVTM and MiricsTM are trademarks of Mirics .

SDRPlay is the trading name of SDRPlay Limited a company registered in England # 09035244.

Mirics is the trading name of Mirics Limited a company registered in England # 05046393


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Guest Post: Decoding Inmarsat L-Band AERO and STD-C messages using the SDRplay RSP SDR

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mike Ladd (KD2KOG), who shares the following guest post. Note that the following tutorial is also available as a PDF (click here to download).


Basics to decoding Inmarsat L-Band signals using the RSP SDR

by Mike Ladd

Note: CHECK WITH YOUR LOCAL LAWS BEFORE DECODIING ANY SIGNALS FROM THE INMARSAT SYSTEM

Hardware used

SDR: RSP1a SDR from SDRplay? https://www.sdrplay.com/rsp1a/

Antenna: Modified GPS patch antenna for L-Band from SDR-Kits, model A154.? https://www.sdr-kits.net/L-Band-Receive%20Antenna

Software used

SDRuno v1.32
https://www.sdrplay.com/downloads/

VBcable (Donationware) vPack43
https://www.vb-audio.com/Cable/

VAC (Paid for use) v4.60
https://vac.muzychenko.net/en/

JAERO (Free) v1.0.4.9
https://github.com/jontio/JAERO/releases

Tekmanoid STD-C Decoder (Paid for use) v1.5.1
Requires Java JRE, check your local laws before using this decoder.
http://www.tekmanoid.com/egc.shtml

https://www.java.com/en/download/

Introduction

(some text taken and edited from the RTL-SDR Blog website)

This document is not a definitive guide to Satcom, L-Band transmission or the Inmarsat system. This is a collection of information that I have found scatter throughout the internet and re-compiled into a document, this document. My aim is to help you get started and hopefully guide you in the right direction. Expect typographical mistakes, inaccuracies, or omissions

Inmarsat is a communications service provider with several geostationary satellites in orbit. Inmarsat provides services such as satellite phone communications, broadband internet, and short text and data messaging services. Geostationary means that the Inmarsat satellites are in a fixed position in the sky and do not move.

The Inmarsat 3-F(x) satellites have transponders transmitting data in L-Band (1.5 GHz) that can be decoded. 

The modes we will cover in this document are Aeronautical (Classic Aero or ACARS) and Inmarsat-C (STD-C) using an RSP1a, RSP2/2pro or RSPduo connected to the SDR-Kits modified L-Band patch antenna. The Inmarsat system is not limited to only these types of networks. We are limited to the decoders available.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inmarsat

Some regions that use the I-3 satellite services moved and migrated to the Inmarsat I-4 Satellites.  See the following document.  https://www.inmarsat.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/INM_C_I3_I4_migration_guide_V3.0.pdf

Two of the most popular decoding applications are JAERO used for ACARS and Tekmanoid STD-C Decoder used for decoding STD-C NCS transmissions on the Inmarsat 3-F(x) satellites

https://www.sigidwiki.com/wiki/Inmarsat_Aero

https://www.sigidwiki.com/wiki/Inmarsat-C_TDM

Software installation

Virtual Audio Cable: A virtual audio cable allows you to pipe audio from application (SDRuno) into another application (a decoder like JAERO) digitally. I will assume SDRuno is already installed with your device attached and functioning properly. 

You can now download a virtual audio cable package.  If you already have a virtual audio cable package installed, you can skip to the next section. If you don’t have a virtual audio cable application installed, you only need to choose one and only install one of the two, either one works fine

Close any running apps, install the virtual audio cable and reboot your computer. When your computer boots back to your desktop, your computer will now have a virtual audio cable pair installed on the system. 

You can verify by going to your Control Panel and double clicking the Sound icon. VB-Cable and Virtual Audio Cable will only install a single virtual audio cable pair, one is for the input (Recording) and one is for the output (Playback). A single pair is all that is needed (as shown below).

JAERO

(some text taken and edited from the JAERO website)

JAERO is a program that decodes ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) messages sent by satellites (in this case Inmarsat) to Airplanes (SatCom ACARS). This is commonly used when airplanes are well beyond VHF range. 

JAERO also allows for decoding and demodulation of voice calls, due to local laws and privacy, I will not show or discuss how to do this. You can find more information about that JAERO feature online.

JAERO can be downloaded from the link provided on the first page of this document. After downloading the installer, simply double click the setup file and install it on your primary drive.

Tekmanoid STD-C Decoder

(some text taken and edited from the USA-Satcoms website)

Inmarsat STD-C is a data or message-based system used mostly by maritime operators. An Inmarsat C terminal transmits and receives on L-Band to various geosynchronous satellites that service each major ocean region. 

The Tekmanoid STD-C decoder will decode STD-C Inmarsat EGC (enhanced group call) and LES (land earth station) messages. Some of these messages contain private information. Reception of these messages may not be legal in your country; therefore, your local laws should be checked.

The Enhanced Group Call (EGC) service is a message broadcast service with global coverage (except the poles) within the Inmarsat-C communications system. Two of the services provided are:

FleetNET and SafetyNET

FleetNET is used to send commercial messages to individuals or groups of subscribers (for example, individual companies communicating with their own Mobile Earth Stations (MES). SafetyNET is used for broadcasting Maritime Safety Information (MSI) such as Navigational warnings, meteorological warnings, meteorological forecasts and other safety related information (including Distress Alert Relays) from official sources.

The LES station acts as an interface (or gateway) between the Inmarsat space segment and the national/international telecommunications networks. 

The Tekmanoid STD-C decoder requires Java JRE in order to run. The link for the Java runtime environment is on page 2 of this document. For information contact the developer direct admin@tekmanoid.com

There are alternatives to using the Tekmanoid STD-C decoder, but in my opinion the other decoders available do not perform as well on low end systems or even work without needing “helper” applications to be installed. Tekmanoid STD-C decoder is very easy to use and works great on my low-end system using minimal system resources.

Putting all the pieces together

ACARS and STD-C messages will transmit via the Inmarsat satellite deployed within your coverage area/region, you will need to choose the Inmarsat satellite that is closest to your coverage area. 

Note that only different frequencies are used between ACARS transmissions and STD-C transmissions. You will only need to receive from one of the available 3-F(x) Inmarsat satellites. 

L-Band ACARS transmissions are in the 1.545 GHz range but STD-C messages are on fixed frequencies (shown on page 8)

Since STD-C transmissions are broadcasted on fixed frequencies, we want to monitor the TDM NCSC channel, again these are fixed for the following Ocean Regions. Choose the region closest to your location (page 9).

Again, some regions that use the I-3 satellite services moved and migrated to the Inmarsat I-4 Satellites.  See the following document.  https://www.inmarsat.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/INM_C_I3_I4_migration_guide_V3.0.pdf

STD-C transmissions are broadcasted on fixed frequencies, NCSC channel. The NCSC frequency per region is noted below.

Inmarsat satellite: Inmarsat-4 F3 (AOR-W)
Direction: 98° West
Frequency: 1.537.70 GHz

Inmarsat satellite: Inmarsat-3 F5 (AOR-E)
Direction: 54° West
Frequency: 1.541.45 GHz

Inmarsat satellite: Inmarsat-4 F1 (IOR)
Direction: 25° East
Frequency: 1.537.10 GHz

Inmarsat satellite: Inmarsat-4 F1 (POR)
Direction: 143.5° East
Frequency: 1.541.45 GHz

I will assume you have located the Inmarsat satellite that covers your region. I suggest using a compass on your mobile phone to pinpoint the general direction. The direction is in ° (degrees). I am referencing true north, not magnetitic north (traditional analog compass). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_declination

You can also download an app for your smartphone called Satellite AR (Android and IOS). After you locate the correct direction of the Inmarsat satellite, you will want to place the L-Band patch on a flat metal surface. I have read that the receive pattern of this patch antenna is z (about 85-90°, straight up). Point the top of the antenna facing the Inmarsat satellite. Using the roof of my car worked just fine, just remember to point the front of the antenna at the satellite.

https://www.u-blox.com/sites/default/files/products/documents/GPS-Antenna_AppNote_%28GPS-X-08014%29.pdf

Launch SDRuno and click the PLAY button, remember that if the RSP(x) is in ZERO IF mode, give frequency separation between the VFO (top frequency) and LO (bottom frequency). In LOW IF mode this is not needed. I suggest running a sample rate of 2 MHz, larger bandwidths are not needed. 

The SDR-Kits patch antenna requires that the RSP(x) Bias-T be enabled. The Bias-T option is enabled within the MAIN panel of SDRuno. See the SDRuno manual located here. https://www.sdrplay.com/docs/SDRplay_SDRuno_User_Manual.pdf view page 17.

With the Bias-T enabled. Set the RSP(x) RF GAIN to max. The RF GAIN slider is located on the MAIN panel. See the SDRuno manual located here. https://www.sdrplay.com/docs/SDRplay_SDRuno_User_Manual.pdf view page 17.

For more information about the RF GAIN settings of the RSP(x)
https://www.sdrplay.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Gain_and_AGC_in_SDRuno.pdf

Select the Virtual audio cable as the output in SDRuno, this is selected via the RX Control panel. SETT. button and clicking on the OUT tab.

Have SDRuno’s Volume slider (RX Control) at about 35-40%

Upper sideband is recommended but I found the best mode to use for L-Band ACARS or L-Band STD-C decoding is DIGITAL with a filter width of 3k. 

Be sure to set a proper step size (right click the RX Control frequency readout). The step size is not important for STD-C transmissions because these signals are only on one frequency for the satellite in your region but L-Band ACARS signals will be on many frequencies. Setting the proper step size will avoid issues when you point and click on signals you want to decode using the JAERO decoder.

You will want to center the signal with a little breathing room within the AUX SP filter passband. The filter slopes are very sharp. Keep the signal centered and away from the extreme edges (red markers). 

Select your virtual audio cable within the decoder’s audio input preferences.

The Tekmanoid STD-C decoder sound properties are located under Settings in the toolbar menu.

JAERO’s sound settings is located under the Tools menu and Settings.

For STD-C decoding use the frequency from page 8 of this document, remember we only want to monitor the TDM NCSC channel in the Tekmanoid STD-C decoder.

For JAERO decoding, I suggest you start in the 1.545 GHz portion and observe the constellation in the JAERO decoder. 

The signal to noise ratio (SNR) needed for successful decoding in these decoders will need to be greater than 7dB. When working with a weak satellite signasls, try decimating the signal using SDRuno’s decimation feature. (MAIN panel, DEC).

Click here to view on YouTube.

Additional resources

Videos:

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

Click here to view on YouTube.

SDRuno:

L-band frequency bank
https://mega.nz/#!jRFRiSaA!CcmRRRpjToxPzyGV9bf7MkDkKnqCYZCwwjC5curWj6g

PDFs:

https://www.inmarsat.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Aero_Service_External_Com_Kit_I3_to_I4_Transition_21AUG2018.pdf

http://seaworm.narod.ru/12/Inmarsat_Maritime_Handbook.pdf

Websites:

https://usa-satcom.com/

https://uhf-satcom.com/

I hope this document helps you get started decoding Inmarsat L-Band transmissions from the I3-F(x) satellites. I am sure I missed some key features, remember this is only a primer/basics to decoding these types of transmissions.

Warmest of 73,
Mike-KD2KOG


Many thanks for sharing your tutorial here on the SWLing Post, Mike! This looks like a fascinating activity that really requires little investment if one already owns an RSP or similar SDR. I’m certainly going to give L-Band a go!  Thank you again!


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SDR Academy presentation videos

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Alexander (DL4NO), who writes:

Parallel to the Hamradio fair in Friedrichshafen, Germany, there are talks and whole conferences. Over the last years, the “Software-Definded Radio Academy” (SDRA) was one of them.

You find the presentations on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL6D0CPBQoIVpMflpSZFqbkmr2Xt_10D_Z

At least most of them are in English.

Thank you for the tip, Alexander! These videos are amazing! Wow–now I just need to find the time to watch them all.

I’ve embedded the videos and links below, for your convenience:

Markus Heller, DL8RDS: SDR-Academy @ HAM-Radio 2019 – A Summary

 

Dr. Carles Fernandez: An Open Source Global Navigation Satellite Systems Software-Defined Receiver

Mario Lorenz, DL5MLO: The AMSAT-DL/QARS Ground Stations for Qatar-Oscar 100

Mack McCormick, W4AX: FlexRadio: SDR Technology that Will Change How you Operate HF

Christoph Mayer, DL1CH: KiwiSDR as a new GNURadio Source

Manolis Surligas, SV9SFC: SDR Makerspace, Exploid SDR technology for space communications

Michael Hartje, DK5HH: Digital signal processing for the detection of noise disturbances

Prof Dr Joe Taylor, K1JT: Welcome Address and Questions & Answers

DL1FY, DC9OE, DG8MG, DL8GM: Charly25 SDR Transceiver

Alex Csete, OZ9AEC: SDR-Makerspace: Evaluation of SDR boards and toolchains

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