Wireless Waffle - A whole spectrum of radio related rubbish
All-band Antennas for Skinflintssignal strength
Thursday 7 September, 2006, 08:44 - Amateur Radio
With apologies to anyone who may be offended: radio amateurs tend to be a tight-fisted bunch. Often this attitude perpetrates from having other priorities in life (family, holidays, beer etc); sometimes it stems from wishing to prove the age-old maxim 'any fool can do for a pound, what a good engineer can do for a penny'; sometimes it is as a result of having grown up scrimping and saving for the latest hi-spec transistor (which are now available for 5 pence from RadioShack); and sometimes, to be fair, it's just because they don't have much money.

However, it's equally fair to say that radio amateurs tend to be very ingenious. They have often been at the forefront of the development of new radio technologies, and even today, when technology has massively overtaken the capability of most amateurs, they still find clever solutions to a range of radio problems.

antennafarmOne problem which amateurs have been finding solutions to for years, is the problem of installing a single aerial which can cover the wide range of frequencies which hams are allocated, specifically the HF (high frequency) bands, sometimes called short-wave (SW). Prior to the World Administrative Radio Conference in 1979 (WARC-79), the amateur HF bands were at frequencies of 1.8, 3.5, 7, 14, 21 and 28 MHz. Having a single antenna which can work on all these bands would be great: (1) it would be really cheap compared to lots of individual antennas; and (2) it would save the back garden from looking like an antenna farm. But is such an antenna possible?

Now the scholars amongst you will notice that many of these bands are harmonically related, that is to say that they are multiples of each other: 1.8 times 2 equals 3.6. 7 times 2 equals 14. 7 times 3 equals 21. 14 times 2 equals 28 and so on. Indeed if you start with a frequency of 1.75 MHz (just below 1.8 MHz), there are harmonics at 3.5, 7, 14, 21 and 28 MHz, covering all the bands. Is this fact of any use? Yes it is! An antenna that is 1 wavelength long at 1.75 MHz, will be 2 wavelengths long at 3.5 MHz, 4 wavelengths long at 7 MHz and so on. And, the centre feed point impedance of an antenna that is an exact integer multiple of 1 wavelength is always the same, at around 5000 Ohms. So if we use a broadband transformer capable of converting a 5000 Ohm impedance to that of our transmitter (typically 50 Ohm) a 1 wavelength long antenna at 1.75 MHz will work perfectly well on all these bands. However… It would be 171 metres (or 562 feet) long – not exactly practical (a version with the lowest frequency of 3.5 MHz would still be 86 metres or 281 feet long). Nor is it that easy to produce a broadband transformer that can effect such a drastic change in impedance over such a wide range of frequencies.

feedimpedanceOne antenna which aims to address this problem using a little less wire is the G5RV. This is a centre-fed half-wave antenna which, by using an open-wire feeder manages to transform the feed impedance of the antenna on multiple bands to close to the 50 Ohms we require for our transmitter. A G5RV cut for operation on all (pre-WARC 79) bands from 3.5 to 28 MHz is just 31 metres (102 feet) long – a vast improvement in space on our theoretical antenna above.

Another multi-band antenna is the W3DZZ. This 33 metre (108 feet) long antenna uses the fact that a trap represents an inductor below its resonant frequency and a capacitor above it. By carefully choosing the value of the inductor and capacitor in the trap, the antenna can be made to resonate on a number of bands, being an odd multiple of a half wavelength on each (and thus having the same feed impedance).

But… this isn't the end of the problem as, in 1979, along come three new HF amateur bands – 10.1, 18.1 and 24.9 MHz – none of which are harmonically related to either 1.8 or 3.5 MHz. Whilst a good antenna tuning unit (ATU) used with a G5RV will allow a reasonable match on these new bands, and the W3DZZ covers 24.9 as well as 3.5, 7, 14, 21 and 28 MHz, the happy situation of being able to use a single antenna on all bands without an ATU was no longer with us. Or was it?

As I said before, radio amateurs are a tight-fisted bunch and not wanting to spend money on multiple antennas, they began to search for an all-band no-tuner antenna. The best attempt at this was the ZS6BKW/G0GSF antenna, which is a modified version of the G5RV. This antenna requires no tuner on the 7, 14, 18.1, 24.9 and 28 MHz bands for an antenna that is just 29 metres (93 feet) long – not bad, but still not quite there.

multibandWe turn our attention then, to the Windom antenna, which works on 3.5, 7, 10, 14, 18.1, 24.9 and 28 MHz (and rumours claim, 50 MHz too) with no tuner (some modifications can also make it work on 21 MHz too). What an astonishing feat of modern computer-aided design?! Nope – the Windom actually dates back to 1929.

Finally, there's the T2FD. This antenna uses a resistor to absorb some of the power when the antenna is not a particularly good match. It has a very wideband performance, however this is at the cost of low gain at some frequencies. Great for receiving, not so good for transmitting.

So there are some all-band, no-tune antennas, in particular a modified Windom. Which is great, because there’s no way I’m paying for anything more complex…
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2dBi or 2dBd, that is the questionsignal strength
Wednesday 30 August, 2006, 08:06 - Amateur Radio
gp3Something that I found confusing when first learning about the 'black art' of radio is that there seemed to be some argument about the gain figures quoted for antennas. Take a look at this example: The gain figure quoted for this Comet GP-3 dual-band 144/432 MHz antenna is shown as 4.5 and 7.2 dB respectively for the two bands. But any 11th grade physics student will tell you that dB or 'deciBel' is just a ratio between two numbers. So a figure of 4.5 dB is meaningless unless it is 4.5 dB with respect to some reference or other - and this is where the confusion arises...

To circumvent this confusion, an additional letter or letters is usually added after the dB to indicate what the reference point is. So 'dBuV' is 'dB relative to 1 microVolt (uV)', and 'dBm' is 'dB relative to 1 milliWatt (m)' and 'dBW' is 'dB relative to 1 Watt'. So what is the reference point for our antenna gain, and why is there potential for a mix-up?

Antenna gain can be measured in 2 different ways. In it's purest form, antenna gain calculations are made with reference to an 'isotropic source' - the measure being dBi. This theoretical antenna radiates signals equally in all directions, up and down, left and right, backwards and forwards. However an isotropic source is just that - theoretical - as if one could be constructed, the maths of antenna design tells us that it would have to be infinately small. So there is another reference point, a standard half-wave dipole (as this is the most basic form of antenna) - indicated by dBd. Now dBd is, in my mind, a more sensible measure as a simple dipole has a gain of... 0 dBd. However the same antenna could be said to also have a gain of 2.15 dBi as a dipole is somewhat larger than our theoretical isotropic source and thus radiates better.

All very straightforward you might think, so what's the problem? As long as I know that I need to subtract 2.15 dB to convert from dBi to dBd then everything's hunky dory isn't it? apple pairWell, no. Click again on the link to the antenna specification. It shows the gain as 4.5 and 7.2 dB... it doesn't say whether this is dBi or dBd so in fact, the antenna could have a gain of only 2.35 and 5.05 dBd, which doesn't sound quite so good. Indeed if we check the manufacturer's web-site we discover that the quoted gain figures are, indeed, in dBi.

The upshot of all this is that when comparing manufacturers' quoted gain figures to decide whether one antenna claims to be better than another, make sure you're not comparing apples and pears by making sure that you convert all the quoted gain figures to be relative to the same reference point. It doesn't matter whether it's dBi (which manufacturers prefer as it gives a bigger number) or dBd (which 'feels' more sensible) but always be careful if the gain figure is just quoted in dB.
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Mystery No. 29612 - Solved!signal strength
Wednesday 19 July, 2006, 15:56 - Amateur Radio
Tuning around the amateur bands during recent sporadic-E openings, I regularly stumbled across voice traffic in a slavic language on 29612.0 kHz USB (upper side band). The format of the traffic was clearly not amateur, and given this, and the fact that it is right in the middle of the relatively active 10 metre FM section of the band but was not FM made me wonder what it might be. Enjoying a mystery I managed to make a short recording of some of the traffic [304kB windows media file] at around 14:15 GMT on 17 July 2006.

PVONot speaking whatever language it is I posted a message on the Utility DXers Forum message board. What a great set of individuals! Within half a day I'd received a response that the most likely culprit of the signal I heard was the Russian Air Defence (the Protivovozdushnoy Oborony or PVO) who track all aircraft through their airspace giving a continuous read-out (quite literally!) of the sector quadrant and the corresponding coordinates of each aircraft.

It turns out that the PVO also run a morse code based variant of this service which has been given the designator 'M21' by covertmallEnigma 2000, the group who monitor 'number stations' such as the Lincolshire Poacher. Looking back through their records shows that a station called 'V21' was active on 30220 kHz in the past. I don't know whether V21 is the voice equivalent of M21 or not, but if it is, presumably they have now moved to 29612 kHz for the time being in a random attempt not to be intercepted. Bit of a silly exercise really given where they've plopped themselves. It makes you wonder whether military radio operators have any idea what goes on around them. To change frequency in order to maintain some kind of covertness is vaguely clever, but to have changed into the middle of a fairly active section of an amateur band is just a bit daft.

I also dropped a note to the UK representative of the IARU Region 1 Monitoring Service, who record and monitor all 'intruders' into the amateur bands. Don't know whether this will make their offender list or not, but it's nice to be on the discovery end of something rather than just following the lead of others!
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Sporadic-al-Esignal strength
Thursday 13 July, 2006, 08:36 - Licensed
Driving along the M4 motorway yesterday evening, I was trying to listen to the news on BBC Radio 4. As usual, the RDS Alternative Frequency (AF) service was doing a good job at re-tuning my radio to a new transmitter once I disappeared out of the coverage of the one I was tuned to. Not long into my journey I noticed that my radio was struggling to find a clear frequency and that even the best it could find was swamped by interference. Having experienced this before, I wondered whether there might be Sporadic-E propagation around. A quick tune to the low end of the FM band confirmed there was.

Sporadic-E propagation exists when the sun's radiation ionises layers of gas in the 'E'-layers of the ionosphere. These ionised layers refract radio signals, often up to high VHF frequencies, enabling signals from far afield to be easily received. Usually such ionisation forms in relatively small 'clouds' such that the signals which are refracted in any one area might differ significantly from those received in another. Often from any given point the signals received are from one specific area.

It can be fun tuning around the FM band at times when Sprodic-E is active as stations from typically 1,000 or more miles away can swamp local stations. With the advent of RDS it's also relatively easy to identify the location of the transmitter you are hearing. A good place to listen (in the UK) is the bottom end of the FM band (87.5 - 88.0 MHz) where, unless there is a local RSL station active, there tends to be nothing but static. This is also the frequency range that is first to respond when the Sporadic-E clouds are around. Yesterday, for example, the highest frequency on which I could hear foreign stations was around 90 MHz.

sporadic EOn my journey yesterday I logged the following stations (the location has been added in after a brief web-search). The map on the right shows the path between me and these stations - you can pretty much see that there must have been 2 'clouds' (one over the Bay of Biscay and the other somewhere near Austria) and how the areas where signals were received from are similar:

87.6 Radio Speranza (Pescara, Italy)
87.7 Antena 1 (Mendro, Portugal)
87.7 HRT HR-1 (Pljesvica, Croatia)
87.8 RNE-3 (Baza, Spain)
87.9 Canal Extremadura (Merida, Spain)
88.0 RNE-5 (probably Huelva, definitely Spain!)

There was also a very strong Spanish station on 88.5 MHz but it never quite registered its RDS and as such remains a mystery! There were also other stations fading in and out, many Spanish, some Italian and Portuguese and a few French, however none were receivable long enough to register their name or RDS.

None of this is particularly amazing. siberia2009Sproadic-E propagation is common, especially during the summer months. However, it is most common at the height of the sun's 11 year solar cycle. At the moment, though, the sun is at the lowest point of its 11 year cycle. And radio amateurs monitoring the 6 metre amateur band have also regularly experienced enhanced propagation over the past 2 months. This shouldn't really occur. It might be that the sun has been a bit more lively than it should have been - I'm useless at interpreting the complex solar data - but those that do can tell me that the recent conditions are not normal. So what is going on? My own theory, for what it's worth, is that propagation conditions are not just a function of the sun's activity but are also connected to weather conditions here on Earth. This year in the UK we've had at least 3 weeks of weather where temperatures were 10C above the seasonal norm. Could global warming also be playing havoc with radio propagation? If anyone has a few hundred thousand pounds to spare, I would be happy to investigate further!
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