What Makes A Good Antenna?

It sometimes seems as though antennas and RF design are portrayed as something of a Black Art, the exclusive preserve of an initiated group of RF mystics and beyond the reach of mere mortals. In fact though they have their difficult moments it’s possible to gain an understanding of the topic, and making that start is the subject of a video from [Andreas Speiss]. Entitled “How To Build A Good Antenna”, it uses the design and set-up of a simple quarter-wave groundplane antenna as a handle to introduce the viewer to the key topics.

What makes this video a good one is its focus on the practical rather than the theoretical. We get advice on connectors and antenna materials, and we’re introduced to the maths through online calculators rather than extensive formulae. Of course the full calculations are there to be learned by those with an interest, but for many constructors they can be somewhat daunting. We’re shown a NanoVNA as a useful tool in the antenna builder’s arsenal, one which gives a revolutionary window on performance compared to the trial-and-error of previous times. Even the ground plane gets the treatment, with its effect on impedance and gain explored and the emergence of its angle as a crucial factor in performance. We think this approach does an effective job of breaking the mystique surrounding antennas, and we hope it will encourage viewers to experiment further.

If your appetite has been whetted, how about taking a look at a Nano VNA in action?


A One-Transistor Ham Transmitter Anyone Can Build

What attracts a lot of people to amateur radio is that it gives you the ability to make your own gear. Scratch-building hams usually start by making their own antennas, but eventually, the itch to build one’s own radio must be scratched. And building this one-transistor transmitter is just about the simplest way to dive into the world of DIY radio.

Of course, limiting yourself to eight components in total entails making some sacrifices, and [Kostas (SV3ORA)]’s transmitter is clearly a study in compromise. For starters, it’s only a transmitter, so you’ll need to make other arrangements to have a meaningful conversation. You’ll also have to learn Morse code because the minimalist build only supports continuous-wave (CW) mode, although it can be modified for amplitude modulation (AM) voice work.

The circuit is flexible enough that almost any part can be substituted and the transmitter will still work. Most of the parts are junk-bin items, although the main transformer is something you’ll have to wind by hand. As described, the transformer not only provides feedback to the transistor oscillator, but also has a winding that powers an incandescent pilot lamp, and provides taps for attaching antennas of different impedances — no external tuner needed. [SV3ORA] provides detailed transformer-winding instructions and shows the final build, which looks very professional and tidy. The video below shows the rig in action with a separate receiver providing sidetone; there’s also the option of using one of the WebSDR receivers sprinkled around the globe to verify you’re getting out.

This little transmitter looks like a ton of fun to build, and we may just try it for our $50 Ham series if we can find all the parts. Honestly, the hardest to come by might be the variable capacitor, but there are ways around that too.


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The $50 Ham: A Cheap Antenna For The HF Bands

So far in the $50 Ham series, I’ve concentrated mainly on the VHF and UHF bands. The reason for this has to do mainly with FCC rules, which largely restrict Technician-level licensees to those bands. But there’s a financial component to it, too; high-frequency (HF) band privileges come both at the price of learning enough about radio to pass the General license test, as well as the need for gear that can be orders of magnitude more expensive than a $30 handy-talkie radio.

But while HF gear can be expensive, not everything needed to get on the air has to be so. And since it’s often the antenna that makes or breaks an amateur radio operator’s ability to make contacts, we’ll look at a simple but versatile antenna design that can be adapted to support everything from a big, powerful base station to portable QRP (low-power) activations in the field: the end-fed half-wave antenna.


Making a Match

There are plenty of hams out there for whom antenna building is the be-all and end-all of the hobby. I get that; there’s a non-zero amount of wizardry that goes into designing an antenna that will do what you want it to do electrically, and plenty of engineering involved in making sure it stands up to the elements. I think the latter aspect of antenna building is more attractive to me personally. Getting an antenna to survive wind, snow, sun, and rain is an interesting challenge, so I tend to spend more time thinking about the mechanical aspects of design that someone has already worked the RF bugs out of.

So I set out looking for an antenna that would work for my situation. Perhaps the easiest antenna to build is the classic half-wave dipole. These have two elements, each one-quarter of the design wavelength, radiating out from a central feed point, which is where the coaxial cable feedline attaches. There are elaborations and complications, of course, but the basic issue for me is the central feed point. My shack is located at the very back corner of my property, so it’s difficult to rig an antenna like that without a long feedline, which can introduce unacceptable signal losses. Plus, a dipole for the 80-meter band would be 40 meters end-to-end, and that would be hard to fit across my long, narrow suburban lot.

For my purposes, the end-fed half-wave (EFHW) antenna is a good choice. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a chunk of wire one-half of a wavelength long (in my case, 40 meters long so I can work the 80 meter band) that is fed from its end. But it’s not as simple as cutting a 40 meter long piece of wire and sticking it on your radio. The problem is that the impedance of an antenna varies as the feedpoint moves away from the center. The impedance increases all the way up to about 2,500 ohms when the feedpoint reaches the end of the wire, which would be a very bad match indeed for a transceiver expecting a 50 ohm load.

To fix this, EFHW antennas need a transformer to match impedances. When used to match impedance between a balanced antenna, like a dipole, and an unbalanced feedline, like coaxial cable, these are referred to as “baluns”. In this case, though, both the antenna and the coax feedline are unbalanced, so the transformer I built is technically an “unun”. Whatever you call it, it’s a pretty easy build.

My 49:1 matching transformer, mounted and ready to go outside. I considered potting the whole thing in epoxy, but decided against it.

I followed the excellent instructions provided by Steve Nichols (G0KYA) to wind my 49:1 autotransformer. It’s basically just big ferrite toroid core — I got mine from eBay, but there are plenty of options on Amazon — with a few windings of magnet wire. My core is an FT-240-61, which means its outside diameter is 2.4 inches and it’s made of type 61 material. I used 18 AWG magnet wire for the windings. While I was winding it, I noticed that the lacquer coating on the magnet wire was getting nicked by the edges of the ferrite core. I rewound it after covering the toroid with cloth friction tape to cushion the edges a bit — shorts would be no bueno in something designed to handle 100 Watts of transmitter output.

Like I said, a lot of the fussing I did with this transformer had to do with making it work mechanically. I mounted it into a sturdy plastic electrical enclosure and provided stainless steel fittings for connecting the antenna wire and the ground connection. I also installed an eye bolt to tether the antenna wire. A good-quality SO-239 socket for the feedline connection and a 100 pF high-voltage capacitor for better matching on the higher frequency bands completed the transformer. With luck, this antenna should cover 80 m to 10 m bands.

Pushing Rope

My method for placing a pulley up a tree from the ground. It would have work better on a tree with smoother bark.

As luck would have it, my lot is just about 150 feet deep, and I’m both blessed and cursed by a lot of very tall, very sturdy Ponderosa pines. The length of my lot and the location of the trees allows for a full 40-meter wire in a sort of “inverted-L” configuration. My plan was to slope the wire from the transformer up as far as possible in the first tree, then run it horizontally to an anchor point in a second tree.

This sounds far, far easier than it actually is. While many hams have had good luck suspending antennas from lines lofted over branches, my pine trees have all been pruned of their lower branches, with the first living branches more than 40′ (12 meters) above the ground. I opted for a “work smarter” approach and came up with an idea to basically push a loop of rope up the tree using PVC pipe as a push stick. Although the roughness of the Ponderosa bark constantly snagged the nylon rope and the PVC pipe flopped around as I added sections , it actually worked well enough to get the anchor point about 25′ (7.5 m) above the ground — not much higher than I could have gotten with my 24′ ladder, but with a whole lot less risk of falling to my death.

The anchor point was set in the other tree using a similar method, which drew a lot of attention from the neighbors. One should always seize such opportunities to do a little “ham goodwill” outreach, and I assured the neighbors that I wouldn’t be sterilizing their kids or interfering with their TV reception. In an example of karma, though, the tree I was working in decided to shed a dead branch the next day, which came down and damaged my neighbor’s Durango. It clearly came from much higher in the tree than I was working, but it still caused a little bit of the old stink eye.

Sway relief on the anchor end. Note the safety line that runs through the bore of the spring, just in case it breaks.

One of the most important parts of using trees as anchors for long-wire antennas is dealing with sway. Trees move around quite a bit, and if you anchor a wire tightly between two trees without allowing for them to move with the wind, sadness will ensue. And yet, you want your wire to stay more or less taut, since its shape affects its performance. There are a couple of ways to deal with this, and I chose to use clothesline pulleys at both my anchor points. At the midpoint, the wire runs through the pulley; at the end anchor, the wire is tied off to a length of strong nylon cord through a dogbone insulator. That cord runs through the pulley and down the trunk of the tree to an anchor point through a strong spring. When the trees sway, the antenna can extend or retract by several inches without sagging or snapping.

On the Air at Last

I have to admit that this installation isn’t actually complete yet. Antennas really should be properly grounded, and I’m keen to pound a ground rod in near the transformer. However, both the mains feeder for my house and the primary feeder for the entire neighborhood are buried directly under our back fence, making this a high-risk endeavor. As good as underground location services are, I’m not keen to test their precision with my precious self. So I’m going to wait for a decent ground.

Still, I couldn’t help but want to try this antenna out, so to keep RF out of the shack, I wound a 10-turn air-core choke on the feedline and hooked it up. I haven’t made any QSOs yet, but using WSPR, the Weak Signal Propagation Reporter system, I was able to reach four continents over a 24-hour period on the 80-, 40-, 30-, and 20-meter bands.

The world on one antenna: 24 hours of WSPR reports on 80, 40, 30, and 20 meters.

And speaking of WSPR, that and other digital modes are what we’ll be talking about in the next installment of the $50 Ham. Spoiler alert: despite my previous gripes, I think I’m falling in love with ham radio again.


Q Multiplier — Er… Multiplies Q

If you are below a certain age, you’ve probably never heard of a Q multiplier. This is a device that increases the “Q” of a radio receiver’s intermediate frequency and, thus, provide a higher selectivity. If you enjoy nostalgia, you can see inside a 1960s-era Heathkit QF-1 Q multiplier in [Jeff’s] informative video, below.

The Q multiplier was a regenerative amplifier that operated at just below the oscillation point. This provided very high amplification for the frequency of interest and less amplification for other frequencies. Some radios had a stage like this built-in, but the QF-1 was made to add into an external radio. For some Heathkit receivers, there was a direct plug to tap into the IF stage for this purpose. Othe radios would require some hacking to get it to work.


The QF-1 had several modes of operation where it could act as bandpass filter or a notch filter. You could also tune the frequency using the main knob. The circuit when revealed isn’t overly complex and there is no printed circuit board. The active device was a dual triode.

If you want a deeper discussion of the circuit, the Orange County Amateur Radio Club newletter a few years back had a great article on this device by [AF6C]. It explains how each mode works. It also mentions a few of the device’s offspring such as the HD-11 and GD-125, which was sold until 1971.

If you have plans of building a circuit like this, keep in mind that the intermediate frequency for most radios in those days was 455 kHz, which is what the QF-1 expects. Most communication receivers today use significantly higher IF for a variety of reasons (10.7 MHz, for example, is common).

We always enjoy [Jeff’s] videos of old receivers and gear. Not that he’s the only one doing things like that.


TV Detector Vans Once Prowled The Streets Of England

The United Kingdom is somewhat unique in the world for requiring those households which view broadcast television to purchase a licence for the privilege. Initially coming into being with the Wireless Telegraphy Act in 1923, the licence was required for anyone receiving broadcast radio, before being expanded to cover television in 1946. The funds generated from this endeavour are used as the primary funding for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

A typical TV licence invoice. Separate licences for black and white and color sets still exist, with 6000 B&W licences issued in 2019.

Of course, it’s all well and good to require a licence, but without some manner of enforcement, the measure doesn’t have any teeth. Among other measures, the BBC have gone as far as employing special vans to hunt down illegally operating televisions and protect its precious income.

The Van Is Coming For You

To ensure a regular income, the BBC runs enforcement operations under the TV Licencing trade name, the entity which is responsible for administering the system. Records are kept of licences and their expiry dates, and investigations are made into households suspected of owning a television who have not paid the requisite fees. To encourage compliance, TV Licencing regularly sends sternly worded letters to those who have let their licence lapse or have not purchased one. In the event this fails, they may arrange a visit from enforcement officers. These officers aren’t empowered to forcibly enter homes, so in the event a homeowner declines to cooperate with an investigation, TV Licencing will apply for a search warrant. This may be on the basis of evidence such as a satellite dish or antenna spotted on the roof of a dwelling, or a remote spied on a couch cushion through a window.

Alternatively, a search warrant may be granted on the basis of evidence gleaned from a TV detector van. Outfitted with equipment to detect a TV set in use, the vans roam the streets of the United Kingdom, often dispatched to addresses with lapsed or absent TV licences. If the van detects that a set may be operating and receiving broadcast signals, TV Licencing can apply to the court for the requisite warrant to take the investigation further. The vans are almost solely used to support warrant applications; the detection van evidence is rarely if ever used in court to prosecute a licence evader. With a warrant in hand, officers will use direct evidence such as a television found plugged into an aerial to bring an evader to justice through the courts.


Detecting Television Usage

An example of the original detector van design, as deployed in 1952. Note the three loop antennas – one front, two rear.

The vans were first deployed in 1952, with equipment designed to pick up the magnetic field from the horizontal deflection scanning of the picture tube, at 10.125 KHz. Loop antennas were used to detect the second harmonic of this signal at 20.25 KHz, which was mixed with a local beat frequency oscillator at 19.25 KHz to create a 1 KHz tone to indicate to the operator when a signal was picked up. Three antennas were used, one on the front of the van and two on the rear on the left and right sides. When the van was next to an operating television in a house, the signal between the front and side antenna would be roughly the same. Signal from the right and left antennas could then be compared to determine which side of the street the television was on.

The VHF era brought with it a new detector van design, this time built on a car such as to avoid clearance issues with the tall antenna.

Once ITV started broadcasting in 1963, this method of detection became impractical. The two television stations did not synchronise their line-scan signals, so neighbouring houses watching different channels would create confusing interference for the detector. To get around this, the vans switched to detecting the local oscillator of the TV set’s superheterodyne VHF receiver instead. With stations broadcasting on bands spanning 47 to 240 MHz, it was impractical at the time to build a tuner and antenna to cover this entire range. Instead, the equipment was designed to work from 110-250MHz tuning in the fundamental frequencies of the higher bands, or the harmonics of the lower frequency oscillators. A highly directional antenna was used to hone in on a set, and a periscope was installed to allow the operator to view the house the antenna was pointing at. If operating in the dark, the periscope could instead be used to shine a small dot of light in the direction of the antenna’s facing, to identify the relevant target. Results were cross-referenced with a list of houses with lapsed or absent licences to help hunt down evaders.

A pair of antennas was used to search for televisions in the UHF era, with the twin setup helping to improve directionality.

The introduction of UHF transmissions led to further redesigns. Engineers again leaned on harmonics to allow a single system to cover the full range from low VHF to higher UHF frequencies. A pair of 6′ long log-periodic spiral antennas were used, mounted on top of the van, which could be varied in spacing to effectively tune different frequencies. In practice, the antennas would be pointed towards a row of houses, while the van was slowly driven along the street. The beam pattern of the antenna pair would show seven distinct lobes on a CRT inside the van when a TV was detected. An operator would press a button to mark house boundaries on the CRT as the van moved, and when the lobe pattern centered on a particular house, the TVs location was clear. The hardware was further refined over the years, with various antenna rigs and detection equipment used as technology marched on.

Seeking Television in Modern Times

In the UHF era, pinning down a detected television set took some finesse, with the operator having to interpret signals received on a CRT display.

Modern efforts to detect licence evasion are shrouded in mystery. Modern flatscreen displays receiving digital television signals do not emit as much radio frequency interference as older designs, and any such signals detected are less easily correlated with broadcast television. An LCD television in the home can just as easily be displaying output from a video game console or an online streaming service, with both being usage cases that do not require the owner to pay a licence fee. Based on an alleged BBC submission for a search warrant in recent years, there may be optical methods used in which reflected light from a television in a viewer’s home is compared to a live broadcast signal. The BBC declined to answer the Freedom of Information request with any details of their methods, other than to say they have employed vehicles and handheld devices in enforcement efforts. However, given the multitude of broadcast, cable and satellite channels now available, the comparison effort would necessarily be much harder, leading some to suspect the days of the detector van are largely over.

While the TV licence may have its days numbered with the increased dominance of streaming content, it remains a quirky piece of legislation that spawned the development of a technical curiosity. If you fancy yourself a television sleuth, sound off in the comments with your chosen approach to hunting for televisions watching broadcast content illegally in this modern era. And be sure to look over your shoulder – you never know when TV Licencing might be knocking on your door!


Manual Antenna Tuner Shows How Homebrewing Is Done

If there’s anything about amateur radio that has more witchcraft in it than the design and implementation of antennas, we don’t know what it would be. On the face of it, hanging out a chunk of wire doesn’t seem like it should be complicated, but when you dive into the details, building effective antennas and matching them to the job at hand can be pretty complex.

That doesn’t mean antenna topics have to remain a total mystery, of course, especially once someone takes the time to explain things properly. [Charlie Morris (ZL2CTM)] recently did this with a simple antenna tuner, a device used to match impedances between a transmitter and an antenna. As he explains in the first video below, his tuner design is really just a Wheatstone bridge where the antenna forms half of one leg. A toroidal transformer with multiple taps and a variable capacitor forms an LC circuit that matches the high impedance antenna, in this case a multi-band end-fed halfwave, with the nominal 50-ohm load expected by the transceiver. A small meter and a diode detector indicate when the bridge is balanced, which means the transceiver is seeing the proper load.

The second video below shows the final implementation of the tuner; as a fan of QRP, or low-power operation, [Charlie] favors simple, lightweight homebrew gear that can be easily taken into the field, and this certainly fits the bill. A final video shows the tuner in use in the field, with a NanoVNA proving what it can do. As usual, [Charlie] protests that he not an expert and that he’s just documenting what he did, but he always does such a good job of presenting the calculations involved in component selection that any ham should be able to replicate his builds.


Bringing Modern Control To An Old Radio

The modern ham radio shack can take many forms. Some are shrines the “boat anchor” radios of old, named for their considerable weight. Others are simply a small, unassuming software-defined radio (SDR) hooked up to a laptop. Nowadays, many shacks fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not uncommon to find a sleek Icom IC-7300 sitting atop an ancient Hallicrafters SX-115 (which sounds suspiciously like the author’s setup). When a ham wants to work a digital mode such as FT-8, they will undoubtedly reach for a newer radio complete with USB (Universal Serial Bus in this case, not Upper Sideband) rig control — but what if the newest piece of equipment they have is a thirty-year-old Kenwood?

If that sounds like you, then fear not because [Steve Bossert] has you covered. He took his trusty Kenwood TS-50, a classic radio from 1993 whose most advanced feature is fuzzy logic, and upgraded it with USB (again, the serial bus) control.

When Kenwood designed the TS-50, they had computer control in mind. There’s a hidden port on the bottom of the unit which reveals a connector that mates with Kenwood’s proprietary (and expensive) set of serial control cables. Thankfully, the engineers over at Kenwood decided to use UART for PC communication, so slapping a USB port in the radio’s case isn’t as daunting as it may sound. [Steve] picked up a CP2104 USB-TTL UART Serial Adapter and wired it up to the radio’s control port. After a bit of drilling, screwing, and gluing, the radio had an upgraded (and non-proprietary!) interface compatible with the ever-popular hamlib. While this doesn’t cover all radio control functions, it gets you tuning, which is pretty important. For a fully modern radio experience, [Steve] suggests using the 8-pin mic connector along with an interface such as Rigblaster or Signalink. This adds PTT and audio signal routing.

If you want to try this for yourself, be sure to check out [Steve]’s extremely well-documented writeup. You could even take this a step further and control your TS-50 from your smartphone with this HTML5 interface we saw a few months back.