Easy Modifications For Inexpensive Radios

Over the past decade or so, amateur radio operators have benefited from an influx of inexpensive radios based around a much simpler design than what was typically commercially available, bringing the price of handheld dual-band or GMRS radios to around $20. This makes the hobby much more accessible, but they have generated some controversy as they tend to not perform as well and can generate spurious emissions and other RF interference that a higher quality radio might not create. But one major benefit besides cost is that they’re great for tinkering around, as their simplified design is excellent for modifying. This experimental firmware upgrade changes a lot about this Quansheng model.

With the obligatory warning out of the way that modifying a radio may violate various laws or regulations of some localities, it looks like this modified firmware really expands the capabilities of the radio. The chip that is the basis of the radio, the BK4819, has a frequency range of 18-660 MHz and 840-1300 MHz but not all of these frequencies will be allowed with a standard firmware in order to comply with various regulations. However, there’s typically no technical reason that a radio can’t operate on any arbitrary frequency within this range, so opening up the firmware can add a lot of functionality to a radio that might not otherwise be capable.

Some of the other capabilities this modified firmware opens up is the ability to receive in various other modes, such as FM and AM within the range of allowable frequencies. To take a more deep dive on what this firmware allows be sure to check out the original GitHub project page as well, and if you’re curious as to why these inexpensive radios often run afoul of radio purists and regulators alike, take a look at some of the problems others have had in Europe.


The Voice Of GPS

Tuning into a GPS satellite is nothing new. Your phone and your car probably do that multiple times a day. But [dereksgc] has been listening to GPS voice traffic. The traffic originates from COSPAS-SARSAT, which is a decades-old international cooperative of 45 nations and agencies that operates a worldwide search and rescue program. You can watch a video about it below.

Nominally, a person in trouble activates a 406 MHz beacon, and any of the 66 satellites that host COSPAS-SARSAT receivers can pick it up and relay information to the appropriate authorities. These beacons are often attached to aircraft or ships, but there are an increasing number of personal beacons used by campers, hikers, and others who might be in danger and out of reach of a cell phone. The first rescue from this system was in 1982. By 2021, 3,632 people were rescued thanks to the system.

The satellites that listen to the beacon frequencies don’t process the signals. They use a transponder that re-transmits anything it hears on a much higher downlink frequency. These transponders are always payloads on other satellites like navigation or weather satellites. But because the transponder doesn’t care what it hears, it sometimes rebroadcasts signals from things other than beacons. We were unclear if these were rogue radios or radios with spurious emissions in the translator’s input range.

The video has practical tips on how to tune in several of the satellites that carry these transponders. Might be a fun weekend project with a software-defined radio.

We’ve seen homebrew satellite devices, but none for an emergency beacon — we aren’t sure what the legal aspects of that would be. There are other satellites that unknowingly host pirate radio stations, too.



NASA Team Sets New Space-to-Ground Laser Communication Record

TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD)

[NASA] and a team of partners has demonstrated a space-to-ground laser communication system operating at a record breaking 200 gigabit per second (Gbps) data rate. The TeraByte InfraRed Delivery (TBIRD) satellite payload was designed and built by [MIT Lincoln Laboratory]. The record of the highest data rate ever achieved by a space-to-Earth optical communication link surpasses the 100 Gbps record set by the same team in June 2022.

TBIRD makes passes over an ground station having a duration of about six-minutes. During that period, multiple terabytes of data can be downlinked. Each terabyte contains the equivalent of about 500 hours of high-definition video. The TBIRD communication system transmits information using modulated laser light waves. Traditionally, radio waves have been the medium of choice for space communications. Radio waves transmit data through space using similar circuits and systems to those employed by terrestrial radio systems such as WiFi, broadcast radio, and cellular telephony. Optical communication systems can generally achieve higher data rates, lower loses, and operate with higher efficiency than radio frequency systems.

TBIRD is a 3U sized satellite payload, meaning it is approximately the size of box of tissues. The TBIRD payload is carried aboard NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator 3 (PTD-3) satellite. PTD-3 is a CubeSat measuring about the size of two cereal boxes stacked together. The satellite is synchronized to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun such that it passes over the same ground station at the same times, twice each day.

Achieving the record breaking TBIRD data transmissions truly takes a village. The TBIRD space payload was designed and built by [MIT Lincoln Laboratory]. The payload flies aboard the PTD-3 satellite built and operated by [Terran Orbital]. The PTD-3 satellite was carried into orbit by a [SpaceX] Transporter-5 rideshare mission launched from the [NASA Kennedy Space Center]. The TBIRD mission and concept was developed at the [NASA Goddard Space Flight Center] while the PTD-3 program and mission is managed by the [NASA Ames Research Center]. Finally, the ground station for the data link is part of the Optical Communications Test Laboratory at the [NASA Jet Propulsion Lab].

Of course, future space missions can embed the record breaking optical communication technology demonstrated by TBIRD. Downlinking massive amounts of data from space to Earth is imperative to evolving scientific missions. For example, we expect to enjoy live 4K ultra-high-definition video streaming from the Moon thanks to the Orion Artemis II Optical Communications System (O2O).

Low-Cost RF Power Sensor Gets All The Details Right

Dirty little secret time: although amateur radio operators talk a good game about relishing the technical challenge of building their own radio equipment, what’s really behind all the DIY gear is the fact that the really good stuff is just too expensive to buy.

A case in point is this super-low-cost RF power sensor that [Tech Minds (M0DQW)] recently built. It’s based on a design by [DL5NEG] that uses a single Schottky diode and a handful of passive components. The design is simple, but as with all things RF, details count. Chief among these details is the physical layout of the PCB, which features a stripline of precise dimensions to keep the input impedance at the expected 50 ohms. Also important are the number and locations of the vias that stitch the ground planes together on the double-sided PCB.

While [Tech Minds]’ first pass at the sensor hewed closely to the original design and used a homebrew PCB, the sensor seemed like a great candidate for translating to a commercial PCB. This version proved to be just as effective as the original, with the voltage output lining up nicely with the original calibration curves generated by [DL5NEG]. The addition of a nice extruded aluminum case and an N-type RF input made for a very professional-looking tool, not to mention a useful one.

[Tech Minds] is lucky enough to live within view of QO-100, ham radio’s first geosynchronous satellite, so this sensor will be teamed up with an ADC and a Raspberry Pi to create a wattmeter with a graphical display for his 2.4-GHz satellite operations.



Mag Loop Antenna Has A Brain

Magnetic loop antennas are great if you are limited on space since they are just a potentially small loop of wire. The problem is, they are sharply tuned. You normally have an adjustment capacitor to tune the antenna to different frequencies. [TekMakerUK] built one with a motor and an Arduino that he can tune from an Android phone. You can see more about the project in the video below.

If you want to transmit, the capacitor is often the weak part of the system. Luckily, some old gear yielded a capacitor with multiple sections and enough plate distance to handle the 5W desired. Of course, motor driving a capacitor isn’t a new idea, but this setup is nice since it uses a stepper motor and a rotary encoder.


For now, the control just moves the stepper to a particular position, but long term, there are plans to have presets for each band that the Arduino can set from a single command. You might wonder how the stepper knows where it is since there are no limit switches. It turns out he just stalls the motor and assumes it is at the far limit and then moves it to the other limit (see initMotor) in the GitHub source code.

Loops are easy to hide. This isn’t, of course, the first remote loop antenna we’ve covered.


Russia’s New Mystery Shortwave Station

The Buzzer, also known as UVB-76 or UZB-76, has been a constant companion to anyone with a shortwave radio tuned to 4625 kHz. However, [Ringway Manchester] notes that there is now a second buzzer operating near in frequency to the original. Of course, like all mysterious stations, people try to track their origin. [Ringway] shows some older sites for the Buzzer and the current speculation on the current transmitter locations.

Of course, the real question is why? The buzzing isn’t quite nonstop. There are occasional voice messages. There are also jamming attempts, including one, apparently, by Pac Man.

Some people think the new buzzer is an image, but it doesn’t seem to be the same signal. The theory is that the buzzing is just to keep the frequency clear in case it is needed. However, we wonder if it isn’t something else. Compressed data would sound like noise.  Other theories are that the buzzing studies the ionosphere or that it is part of a doomsday system that would launch nuclear missiles. Given that the signal has broken down numerous times, this doesn’t seem likely.

What’s even stranger is that occasional background voices are audible on the signal. That implies that buzzing noise isn’t generated directly into the transmitter but is a device in front of a microphone.

We’ve speculated on the buzzer and the jamming efforts around it before. Not exactly a numbers station, but the same sort of appeal.



Reactivating A Harris RF-130 URT-23 Transmitter

If you enjoy old military hardware, you probably know that Harris made quite a few heavy-duty pieces of radio gear. [K6YIC] picked up a nice example: the Harris RF-130 URT-23. These were frequently used in the Navy and some other service branches to communicate in a variety of modes on HF. The entire set included an exciter, an amplifier, an antenna tuner, and a power supply and, in its usual configuration, can output up to a kilowatt. The transmitter needs some work, and he’s done three videos on the transmitter already. He’s planning on several more, but there’s already a lot to see if you enjoy this older gear. You can see the first three below and you’ll probably want to watch them all, but if you want to jump right to the tear down, you can start with the second video.

You can find the Navy manual for the unit online, dated back to 1975. It’s hard to imagine how much things have changed in 50 years. These radios use light bulbs and weigh almost 500 pounds. [Daniel] had to get his shop wired for 220 V just to run the beast.

It is amusing that some of this old tube equipment had a counter to tell you how many hours the tubes inside had been operating so you could replace them before they were expected to fail. To keep things cool, there’s a very noisy 11,000 RPM fan. The two ceramic final amplifier tubes weigh over 1.5 pounds each!

The third video shows the initial power up. Like computers, if you remember when equipment was like this, today’s lightweight machines seem like toys. Of course, everything works better these days, so we won’t complain. But there’s something about having a big substantial piece of gear with all the requisite knobs, switches, meters, and everything else.

We can’t wait to see the rest of the restoration and to hear this noble radio on the air again. You can tell that [Daniel] loves this kind of gear and you can pick up a lot of tips and lingo watching the videos.



Two-Tube Spy Transmitter Fits In The Palm Of Your Hand

It’s been a long time since vacuum tubes were cutting-edge technology, but that doesn’t mean they don’t show up around here once in a while. And when they do, we like to feature them, because there’s still something charming, nay, romantic about a circuit built around hot glass and metal. To wit, we present this compact two-tube “spy radio” transmitter.

From the look around his shack — which we love, by the way — [Helge Fykse (LA6NCA)] really has a thing for old technology. The typewriter, the rotary phones, the boat-anchor receiver — they all contribute to the retro feel of the space, as well as the circuit he’s working on. The transmitter’s design is about as simple as can be: one tube serves as a crystal-controlled oscillator, while the other tube acts as a power amplifier to boost the output. The tiny transmitter is built into a small metal box, which is stuffed with the resistors, capacitors, and homebrew inductors needed to complete the circuit. Almost every component used has a vintage look; we especially love those color-coded mica caps. Aside from PCB backplane, the only real nod to modernity in the build is the use of 3D printed forms for the coils.

But does it work? Of course it does! The video below shows [Helge] making a contact on the 80-meter band over a distance of 200 or so kilometers with just over a watt of power. The whole project is an excellent demonstration of just how simple radio communications can be, as well as how continuous wave (CW) modulation really optimizes QRP setups like this.


Thanks to [Stephen Walters] for the tip.


Long-Distance Gaming Over Packet Radio

The amateur radio community often gets stereotyped as a hobby with a minimum age requirement around 70, gatekeeping airwaves from those with less experience or simply ignoring unfamiliar beginners. While there is a small amount of truth to this on some local repeaters or specific frequencies, the spectrum is big enough to easily ignore those types and explore the hobby without worry (provided you are properly licensed). One of the best examples of this we’ve seen recently of esoteric radio use is this method of using packet radio to play a game of Colossal Cave Adventure.

Packet radio is a method by which digital information can be sent out over the air to nodes, which are programmed to receive these transmissions and act on them. Typically this involves something like email or SMS messaging, so playing a text-based game over the air is not too much different than its intended use. For this build, [GlassTTY] aka [G6AML] is using a Kenwood TH-D72 which receives the packets from a Mac computer. It broadcasts these packets to his node, which receives these packets and sends them to a PDP-11 running the game. Information is then sent back to the Kenwood and attached Mac in much the same way as a standard Internet connection.

The unique features of packet radio make it both an interesting and useful niche within the ham radio community, allowing for all kinds of uses where data transmission might otherwise be infeasible or impossible. A common use case is APRS, which is often used on VHF bands to send weather and position information out, but there are plenty of other uses for it as well.



Hams Watch For Meteors

After passing an exam and obtaining a license, an amateur radio operator will typically pick up a VHF ratio and start talking to other hams in their local community. From there a whole array of paths open up, and some will focus on interesting ways of bouncing signals around the atmosphere. There are all kinds of ways of propagating radio waves and bouncing them off of various reflective objects, such as the Moon, various layers of the ionosphere, or even the auroras, but none are quite as fleeting as bouncing a signal off of a meteor that’s just burned up in the atmosphere.

While they aren’t specifically focused on communicating via meteor bounce, The UK Meteor Beacon Project hopes to leverage amateur radio operators and amateur radio astronomers to research more about meteors as they interact with the atmosphere. A large radio beacon, which has already been placed into service, broadcasts a circularly-polarized signal in the six-meter band which is easily reflected back to Earth off of meteors. Specialized receivers can pick up these signals, and are coordinated among a network of other receivers which stream the data they recover over the internet back to a central server.

With this information, the project can determine where the meteor came from, some of the properties of the meteors, and compute their trajectories by listening for the radio echoes the meteors produce. While this is still in the beginning phases and information is relatively scarce, the receivers seem to be able to be built around RTL-SDR modules that we have seen be useful across a wide variety of radio projects for an absolute minimum of cost.