Bench Testing HF Radios with a HackRF

This post describes how we implemented a HF channel simulator to bench test a digital HF radio using modern SDRs.

Yesterday Mark and I bench tested a HF radio with calibrated SNR over simulated AWGN and HF channels. We recorded the radios transmit signal with an AirSpy HF and GQRX, added calibrated noise and “CCIR Poor” fading, and replayed the signal using a HackRF.

For the FreeDV 700C and 700D work I have developed a utility called cohpsk_ch, that takes a real modem signal, adds channel impairments like noise and fading, and outputs another real signal. It has a built in Hilbert Transformer so it can do complex math cleverness like small frequency shifts and ITUT/CCIR HF fading channel models.

Set Up

The basic idea is to upconvert a 8 kHz real sample file to HF in real time. I have some utilities to help with this in codec2-dev:

$ svn co https://svn.code.sf.net/p/freetel/code/codec2-dev codec2-dev
$ cd codec2-dev/octave
$ octave --no-gui
octave:1> cohpsk_ch_fading("../raw/fast_fading_samples.float", 8000, 1.0, 8000*60)
octave:2> cohpsk_ch_fading("../raw/slow_fading_samples.float", 8000, 0.1, 8000*60)
$ exit
$ cd ..
$ cd codec2-dev && mkdir build_linux && cd build_linux
$ cmake -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Debug ..
$ make
$ cd unittest 

You also need GNU Octave to generate the HF fading files for cohpsk_ch, and you need to install the very useful CSDR tools.

Connect the HackRF to your SSB receiver, we put a 30dB attenuator in line. Tune the radio to 7.177 MHz LSB. First generate a carrier with your HackRF, offset so we get a 500Hz tone in the SSB radio in LSB mode:

$ hackrf_transfer -f 7176500 -s 8000000 -c 127

Now lets try some DSB audio:

$ cat ../../wav/ve9qrp.wav | csdr mono2stereo_s16 | ./tsrc - - 10 -c |
./tlininterp - - 100 -df | hackrf_transfer -f 5177000 -s 8000000  -t - 2>/dev/null

Don’t change the frequency, but try switching the mode between USB and LSB. Should sound about the same, with a slight frequency offset due to the HackRF. Note that HackRF is tuned to Fs/4 = 2MHz beneath 7.177MHz. “tlininterp” has a simple Fs/4 mixer that we use to shift the signal away from the HackRF DC spike. We up-sample from 8 kHz to 8 MHz in two steps to save MIPs.

The “csdr mono2stereo_s16” just repeats the real output samples, so we get a DSB signal at HF. A bit lazy I know, a better approach would be to modify cohpsk_ch to have a complex output option. Let me know if you want to modify cohpsk_ch – I can tell you how.

Checking Calibration

Now I’m pretty confident that cohpsk_ch works well at baseband on digital signals as I have used it extensively in my HF DV work. However I wanted to make sure the off air signal had the correct SNR.

To check the calibration, we generated a 1000 Hz sine wave Signal + Noise signal:

$ ./mksine - 1000 30  | ./../src/cohpsk_ch - - -30 --Fs 8000 --ssbfilt 0 | csdr mono2stereo_s16 | ./tsrc - - 10 -c | ./tlininterp - - 100 -df | hackrf_transfer -f 12177000 -s 8000000  -t - 2>/dev/null 

Then just a noise signal:

cat /dev/zero | ./../src/cohpsk_ch - - -30 --Fs 8000 --ssbfilt 0 | csdr mono2stereo_s16 | ./tsrc - - 10 -c | ./tlininterp - - 100 -df | hackrf_transfer -f 5177000 -s 8000000  -t - 2>/dev/null

With moderate SNRs (say 10dB), Signal + Noise power is roughly Signal power. So I measured the off air power of the above signals using my FT817 connected to a USB sound card, and an Octave script:

$ rec -t raw -r 8000 -s -2 -c 1 - -q | octave --no-gui -qf power_from_stdio.m

I used alsamixer and the plots from the script to make sure I wasn’t overloading the ADC. You need to turn your receiver AGC OFF, and adjust RF/AF gain to get the levels right.

However from the FT817 I was getting results a few dB off due to the crystal filter bandwidth and non-rectangular shape factor. Mark hooked up his AirSpy HF and GQRX, and we piped the received audio over the LAN to the script:

nc -ul 7355 | octave --no-gui -qf power_from_stdio.m

GQRX had a nice flat response from a few 100 Hz to 3kHz, the same bandwidth cohpsk_ch uses for SNR measurement. OK, so now we had sensible numbers, within 0.2dB of the SNR reported by cohpsk_ch. We moved the levels up and down 3dB, made sure everything was repeatable and linear. We went down to 0dB, where signal and noise power is the same, and Signal+Noise power should be 3dB more than Noise alone. Check.

Tests

Then we could play the HF tx signal at a variety of SNRS, by tweaking third (No) argument. In this case we set No to -100dB, so no noise:

cat tx_file_from_radio.wav | ./../src/cohpsk_ch - - -100 --Fs 8000 --ssbfilt 0 | csdr mono2stereo_s16 | ./tsrc - - 10 -c | ./tlininterp - - 100 -df | hackrf_transfer -f 5177000 -s 8000000  -t - 2>/dev/null

At the end of the cohpsk_ch run, it will print the SNR is has measured. So you read that and tweak No as required to get the SNR you need. In our case around -30 was 8dB SNR. You can also add fast (–fast) or slow (–slow) fading, here is a fast fading run at about 2dB SNR:

cat tx_file_from_radio.wav | ./../src/cohpsk_ch - - -24 --Fs 8000 --ssbfilt 0 --fast | csdr mono2stereo_s16 | ./tsrc - - 10 -c | ./tlininterp - - 100 -df | hackrf_transfer -f 5177000 -s 8000000  -t - 2>/dev/null

The “–ssbfilt 0” option switches off the 300-2600 Hz filter inside cohpsk_ch, that is used to simulate a SSB radio crystal filter. For out tests, the modem waveform was too wide for that filter.

Thoughts

I guess we could also have used the HackRF to sample the signal. The nice thing about SDRs is the frequency response is ‘flat”, no crystal filters messing things up.

The only thing we weren’t sure about was the sample rate and frequency offset accuracy of the HackRF, for example if the sample clock was a bit off that might upset modems.

The radio we tested delivered performance pretty much on it’s data sheet at the SNRs tested, giving us extra confidence in the bench testing system described here.

Reading Further

Measuring SDR Noise Figure in Real Time
High Speed Balloon Data Link, here we bench test a UHF FSK data radios
README_ofdm.txt, Lots of examples of using cohpsk_ch to test the latest and greatest OFDM modem.
PathSim is a very nice Windows GUI HF path simulator, that runs well on Linux using Wine.

Solar Boat

Two years ago when I bought my Hartley TS16 sail boat I dreamed of converting it to solar power. In January I installed a Torqueedo electric outboard and a 24V, 100AH Lithium battery back. That’s working really well. Next step was to work out a way to mount some surplus 200W solar panels on the boat. The idea is to (temporarily) detach the mast, and use the boat on the river Murray, a major river that passes within 100km of where I live in Adelaide, South Australia.

Over the last few weeks I worked with my friend Gary (VK5FGRY) to mount solar panels on the TS16. Gary designed and fabricated some legs from 40mm square aluminium:

With a matching rubber foot on each leg, the panels sit firmly on the gel coat of the boat, and are held down by ropes or octopus straps.

The panels maximum power point is at 28.5V (and 7.5A) which is close to the battery pack under charge (3.3*8 = 26.4V) so I decided to try a direct DC connection – no inverter or charger. I ran some tests in the back yard: each panel was delivering about 4A into the battery pack, and two in parallel delivered about 8A. I didn’t know solar panels could be connected in parallel, but happily this means I can keep my direct DC connection. Horizontal panels costs a few amps – a good example of why solar panels are usually angled at the sun. However the azimuth of the boat will be always changing so horizontal is the only choice. The panels are very sensitive to shadowing; a hand placed on a panel, or a small shadow is enough to drop the current to 0A. OK, so now I had a figure for panel output – about 4A from each panel.

This didn’t look promising. Based on my sea voyages with the Torqueedo, I estimated I would need 800W (about 30A) to maintain my target houseboat speed of 4 knots (7 km/hr); that’s 8 panels which won’t ft on my boat! However the current draw on the river might be different without tides, and waves, and I wasn’t sure exactly how many AH I would get over a day from the sun. Would trees on the river bank shadow the panels?

So it was off to Younghusband on the Murray, where our friend Chris (VK5CP) was hosting a bunch of Ham Radio guys for an extended Anzac day/holiday weekend. It’s Autumn here, with generally sunny days of about 23C. The sun is up from from 6:30am to 6pm.

Turns out that even with two panels – the solar boat was really practical! Over three days we made three trips of 2 hours each, at speeds of 3 to 4 knots, using only the panels for charging. Each day I took friends out, and they really loved it – so quiet and peaceful, and the river scenery is really nice.

After an afternoon cruise I would park the boat on the South side of the river to catch the morning sun, which in Autumn appears to the North here in Australia. I measured the panel current as 2A at 7am, 6A at 9am, 9A at 10am, and much to my surprise the pack was charged by 11am! In fact I had to disconnect the panels as the cell voltage was pushing over 4V.

On a typical run upriver we measured 700W = 4kt, 300W = 3.1kt, 150W = 2.5kt, and 8A into the panels in full sun. Panel current dropped to 2A with cloud which was a nasty surprise. We experienced no shadowing issues from trees. The best current we saw at about noon was 10A. We could boost the current by 2A by putting three guys on one side of the boat and tipping the entire boat (and solar panels) towards the sun!

Even partial input from solar can have a big impact. Lets say at 4 knots (30A) I can drive for 2 hours using 60% of my 100AH pack. If I back off the speed a little, so I’m drawing 20A, then 10A from the panels will extend my driving time to 6 hours.

I slept on the boat, and one night I found a paddle steamer (the Murray Princess) parked across the river from me, all lit up with fairy lights:

On our final adventure, my friend Darin (VK5IX) and I were entering Lake Carlet, when suddenly the prop hit something very hard, “crack crack crack”. My poor prop shaft was bent and my propeller is wobbling from side to side:

We gently e-motored back and actually recorded our best results – 3 knots on 300W, 10A from the panels, 10A to the motor.

With 4 panels I would have a very practical solar boat, capable of 4-6 hours cruising a day just on solar power. The 2 extra panels could be mounted as a canopy over the rear of the boat. I have an idea about an extended solar adventure of several days, for example 150km from Younghusband to Goolwa.

Reading Further

Engage the Silent Drive
Lithium Cell Amp Hour Tester and Electric Sailing

Lithium Cell Amp Hour Tester and Electric Sailing

I recently electrocuted my little sail boat. I built the battery pack using some second hand Lithium cells donated by my EV. However after 8 years of abuse from my kids and I those cells are of varying quality. So I set about developing an Amp-Hour tester to determine the capacity of the cells.

The system has a relay that switches a low value power resistor (OK some coat hanger wire) across the 3.2V cell terminals, loading it up at about 27A, roughly the cruise current for my e-boat. It’s about 0.12 ohms once it heats up. This gets too hot to touch but not red hot, it’s only 86W being dissipated along about 1m of wire. When I built my EV I used the coat hanger wire load trick to test 3kW loads, that was a bit more exciting!

The empty beer can in the background makes a useful insulated stand off. Might need to make more of those.

When I first installed Lithium cells in my EV I developed a charge controller for my EV. I borrowed a small part of that circuit; a two transistor flip flop and a Battery Management System (BMS) module:

Across the cell under test is a CM090 BMS module from EV Power. That’s the good looking red PCB in the photos, onto which I have tacked the circuit above. These modules have a switch than opens when the cell voltage drops beneath 2.5V.

Taking the base of either transistor to ground switches on the other transistor. In logic terms, it’s a “not set” and “not reset” operation. When power is applied, the BMS module switch is closed. The 10uF capacitor is discharged, so provides a momentary short to ground, turning Q1 off, and Q2 on. Current flows through the automotive relay, switching on the load to the battery.

After a few hours the cell discharges beneath 2.5V, the BMS switch opens and Q2 is switched off. The collector voltage on Q2 rises, switching on Q1. Due to the latching operation of the flip flip – it stays in this state. This is important, as when the relay opens, the cell will be unloaded and it’s voltage will rise again and the BMS module switch will close. In the initial design without a flip flop, this caused the relay to buzz as the cell voltage oscillated about 2.5V as the relay opened and closed! I need the test to stop and stay stopped – it will be operating unattended so I don’t want to damage the cell by completely discharging it.

The LED was inserted to ensure the base voltage on Q1 was low enough to switch Q1 off when Q2 was on (Vce of Q2 is not zero), and has the neat side effect of lighting the LED when the test is complete!

In operation, I point a cell phone taking time lapse video of the LED and some multi-meters, and start the test:

I wander back after 3 hours and jog-shuttle the time lapse video to determine the time when the LED came on:

The time lapse feature on this phone runs in 1/10 of real time. For example Cell #9 discharged in 12:12 on the time lapse video. So we convert that time to seconds, multiply by 10 to get “seconds of real time”, then divide by 3600 to get the run time in hours. Multiplying by the discharge current of 27(ish) Amps we get the cell capacity:

  12:12 time lapse, 27*(12*60+12)*10/3600 = 55AH

So this cells a bit low, and won’t be finding it’s way onto my boat!

Another alternative is a logging multimeter, one could even measure and integrate the discharge current over time. or I could have just bought or borrowed a proper discharge tester, but where’s the fun in that?

Results

It was fun to develop, a few Saturday afternoons of sitting in the driveway soldering, occasional burns from 86W of hot wire, and a little head scratching while I figured out how to take the design from an expensive buzzer to a working circuit. Nice to do some soldering after months of software based DSP. I’m also happy that I could develop a transistor circuit from first principles.

I’ve now tested 12 cells (I have 40 to work through), and measured capacities of 50 to 75AH (they are rated at 100AH new). Some cells have odd behavior under load; dipping beneath 3V right at the start of the test rather than holding 3.2V for a few hours – indicating high internal resistance.

My beloved sail e-boat is already doing better. Last weekend, using the best cells I had tested at that point, I e-motored all day on varying power levels.

One neat trick, explained to me by Matt, is motor-sailing. Using a little bit of outboard power, the boat overcomes hydrodynamic friction (it gets moving in the water) and the sail is moved out of stall (like an airplane wing moving to just above stall speed). This means to boat moves a lot faster than under motor or sail alone in light winds. For example the motor was registering just 80W, but we were doing 3 knots in light winds. This same trick can be done with a stink-motor and dinosaur juice, but the e-motor is completely silent, we forgot it was on for hours at a time!

Reading Further

Electric Car BMS Controller
New Lithium Battery Pack for my EV
Engage the Silent Drive
EV Bugs

Measuring SDR Noise Figure in Real Time

I’m building a sensitive receiver for FreeDV 2400A signals. As a first step I tried a HackRF with an external Low Noise Amplifier (LNA), and attempted to measure the Noise Figure (NF) using the system Mark and I developed two years ago.

However I was getting results that didn’t make sense and were not repeatable. So over the course of a few early morning sessions I came up with a real time NF measurement system, and wrinkled several bugs out of it. I also purchased a few Airspy SDRs, and managed to measure NF on them as well as the HackRF.

It’s a GNU Octave script called nf_from_stdio.m that accepts a sample stream from stdio. It assumes the signal contains a sine wave test tone from a calibrated signal generator, and noise from the receiver under test. By sampling the test tone it can establish the gain of the receiver, and by sampling the noise spectrum an estimate of the noise power.

The script can be driven from command line utilities like hackrf_transfer or airspy_rx or via software receivers like gqrx that can send SSB-demodaulted samples over UDP. Instructions are at the top of the script.

Equipment

I’m working from a home workbench, with rudimentary RF skills, a strong signal processing background and determination. I do have a good second hand signal generator (Marconi 2031), that cost AUD$1000 at a Hamfest, and a Rigol 815 Spec An (generously donated by Mel K0PFX, and Jim, N0OB) to support my FreeDV work. Both very useful and highly recommended. I cross-checked the sig-gen calibrated output using an oscilloscope and external attenuator (within 0.5dB). The Rigol is less accurate in amplitude (1.5dB on its specs), but useful for relative measurements, e.g. comparing cable attenuation.

For the NF test method I have used a calibrated signal source is required. I performed my tests at 435MHz using a -100dBm carrier generated from the Marconi 2031 sig-gen.

Usage and Results

The script accepts real samples from a SSB demod, or complex samples from an IQ source. Tune your receiver so that the sinusoidal test tone is in the 2000 to 4000 Hz range as displayed on Fig 2 of the script. In general for minimum NF turn all SDR gains up to maximum. Check Fig 1 to ensure the signal is not clipping, reduce the baseband gain if necessary.

Noise is measured between 5000 and 10000 Hz, so ensure the receiver passband is flat in that region. When using gqrx, I drag the filter bandwidth out to 12000 Hz.

The noise estimates are less stable than the tone power estimate, leading to some sample/sample variation in the NF estimate. I take the median of the last five estimates.

I tried supplying samples to nf_from_stdio using two methods:

  1. Using gqrx in UDP mode to supply samples over UDP. This allows easy tuning and the ability to adjust the SDR gains in real time, but requires a few steps to set up
  2. Using a “single” command line approach that consists of a chain of processing steps concatenated together. Once your signal is tuned you can start the NF measurements with a single step.

Instructions on how to use both methods are at the top of nf_from_stdio.m

Here are some results using both gqrx and command line methods, with and without an external (20dB gain/1dB NF) LNA. They were consistent across two laptops.

SDR Gqrx LNA Cmd Line LNA Cmd Line no LNA
AirSpy Mini 2.0 2.2 7.9
AirSpy R2 1.7 1.7 7.0
HackRF One 2.6 3.4 11.1

The results with LNA are what we would expect for system noise figures with a good LNA at the front end.

The “no LNA” Airspy NF results are curious – the Airspy specs state a NF of just 3.5dB. So we contacted Airspy via Twitter and email to see how they measured their stated NF. We haven’t received a response to date. I posted to the Airspy mailing list and one gentleman (Dave – WØLEV) kindly replied and has measured noise figures of 4dB using calibrated noise sources and attenuators.

Looking into the data sheets for the Airspy, it appears the R820T tuner at the front end of the Airspy has a NF of 3.5dB. However a system NF will always be worse than the first device, as other devices (e.g. the ADC) also inject noise.

Other possibilities for my figures are measurement error, ambient noise sources at my site, frequency dependent NF, or variations in individual R820T samples.

In our past work we have used Bit Error Rate (BER) results as an independent method of confirming system noise figure. We found a close match between theoretical and measured BER when testing with and without a LNA. I’ll be repeating similar low level BER tests with FreeDV 2400A soon.

Real Time Noise Figure

It’s really nice to read the system noise figure in real time. For example you can start it running, then experiment with grounding, tightening connectors, or moving the SDR away from the laptop, or connect/disconnect a LNA in real time and watch the results. Really helps catch little issues in these difficult to perform tests. After all – we are measuring thermal noise, a very weak signal.

Some of the NF problems I could find and remove with a real time measurement:

  • The Airspy mini is nearly 1dB worse on the front left USB port than the rear left USB port on my X220 Thinkpad!
  • The Airspy mini really likes USB extension cables with ferrite clamps – without the ferrite I found the LNA was ineffective in reducing the NF – being swamped by conducted laptop noise I guess.
  • Loose connectors can make the noise figure a few dB worse. Wiggle and tighten them all.
  • Position of SDR/LNA near the radio and other bench equipment.
  • My magic touch can decrease noise figure! Grounding effect I guess?

Development Bugs

I had to work through several problems before I started getting sensible numbers. This was quite discouraging for a while as the numbers were jumping all over the place. However its fair to say measuring NF is a tough problem. From what I can Google its an uncommon measurement for people in home workshops.

These bugs are worth mentioning as traps for anyone else attempting home NF measurements:

  1. Cable loss: I found a 1.5dB loss is some cable I was using between the sig gen and the SDR under test. I Measured the loss by comparing a few cables connected between my sig gen and spec an. While the 815 is not accurate in terms of absolute calibration (rated at 1.5dB), it can still be used for comparative measurements. The cable loss can be added to the calculations or just choose a low loss cable.
  2. Filter shape: I had initially placed the test tone under 1000Hz. However I noticed that the gqrx signal had a few dB of high pass filtering in this region (Fig 2 below). Not an issue for regular USB demodulation, but a few dB really matters for NF! So I moved the test tone to the 2-4kHz region where the gqrx output was nice and flat.
  3. A noisy USB port, especially without a clamp, on the Airspy Mini (photo below). Found by trying different SDRs and USB ports, and finally a clamp. Oh Boy, never expected that one. I was connecting the LNA and the NF was stuck at 4dB – swamped by noise from the USB Port I guess.
  4. Compression: Worth checking the SDR output is not clipped or in compression. I adjusted the sig gen output up and down 3dB, and checked the power estimate from the script changed by 3dB. Also worth monitoring Fig 1 from the script, make sure it’s not hitting the limits. The HackRF needed it’s baseband gain reduced, but the Airspys were OK.
  5. I used latest Airspy tools built from source (rather than Ubuntu 17 package) to get stdout piping working properly and not have other status information from printfs injected into the sample stream!

Credits

Thanks Mark, for the use of your RF hardware, and I’d also like to mention the awesome CSDR tools and fantastic gqrx software – both very handy for SDR work.

LilacSat-1 Codec 2 in Space!

On May 25th LilacSat-1 was launched from the ISS. The exiting news is that it contains an analog FM to Codec 2 repeater. I’ve been in touch with Wei Mingchuan, BG2BHC during the development phase, and it’s wonderful to see the satellite in orbit. He reports that some Hams have had preliminary contacts.

The LilacSat-1 team have developed their own waveform, that uses a convolutional code running over BPSK at 9600 bit/s. Wei reports a MDS of about -127 dBm on a USRP B210 SDR which is quite respectable and much better than analog FM. GNU radio modules are available to support reception. I think it’s great that Wei and team have used open source (including Codec 2) to develop their own novel systems, in this case a hybrid FM/digital system with custom FEC and modulation.

Now I need to get organised with some local hams and find out how to work this satellite myself!

Part 2 – Making a LilacSat-1 Contact

On Saturday 3 June 2017 Mark VK5QI, Andy VK5AKH and I just made our first LilacSat-1 contact at 12:36 local time on a lovely sunny winter day here in Adelaide! Mark did a fine job setting up a receive station in his car, and Andy put together the video below showing both ends of the conversation:

The VHF tx and UHF rx stations were only 20m apart but the path to LilacSat-1 was about 400km each way. Plenty of signal as you can see from the error free scatter diagram.

I’m fairly sure there is something wrong with the audio (perhaps levels into the codec), as the decoded Codec 2 1300 bit/s signal is quite distorted. I can also hear similar distortion on other LilicSat-1 contacts I have listened too.

Let me show you what I mean. Here is a sample of my voice from LilacSat-1, and another sample of my voice that I encoded locally using the Codec 2 c2enc/c2dec command line tools.

There is a clue in this QSO – one end of the contact is much clearer than the other:

I’ll take a closer look at the Codec 2 bit stream from the satellite over the next few days to see if I can spot any issues.

Well done to LilacSat-1 team – quite a thrill for me to send my own voice through my own codec into space and back!

Part 3 – Level Analysis

Sunday morning 4 June after a cup of coffee! I added a little bit of code to codec2.c:codec2_decode_1300() to dump the energy quantister levels:

    e_index = unpack_natural_or_gray(bits, &nbit, E_BITS, c2->gray);
    e[3] = decode_energy(e_index, E_BITS);
    fprintf(stderr, "%d %f\n", e_index, e[3]);

The energy of the current frame is encoded as a 5 bit binary number. It’s effectively the “AF gain” or “volume” of the current 40ms frame of speech. We unpack the bits and use a look up table to get the actual energy.

We can then run the Codec 2 command line decoder with the LilacSat-1 Codec 2 data Mark captured yesterday to extract a file of energies:

./c2dec 1300 ~/Desktop/LilacSat-1/lilacsat_dgr.c2 - 2>lilacsat1_energy.txt | play -t raw -r 8000 -s -2 - trim 30 6

The lilacsat1_energy.txt file contains the energy quantiser index and decoded energy in a table (matrix) that I can load into Octave and plot. I also ran the same text on the reference cq_freedv file used in Part 2 above:

So the top plot is the input speech “cq freedv ….”, and the middle plot the resulting energy quantiser index values. The energy bounces about with the level of the input speech. Now the bottom plot is from the LilacSat-1 sample. It is “red lined” – hard up against the upper limits of the quantiser. This could explain the audio distortion we are hearing.

Wei emailed me overnight and other Hams (e.g. Bob N6RFM) have discovered that reducing the Mic gain on the uplink FM radios indeed improves the audio quality. Wei is looking into in-flight adjustments of the gain between the FM rx and Codec 2 tx on LilacSat-1.

Note to self – I should look into quantiser ranges to make Codec 2 robust to people driving it with different levels.

Part 4 – Some Improvements

Sunday morning 4 June 11:36am pass: Mark set up his VHF tx in my car, and we played the cq_freedv canned wave file using a laptop and signalink so we could easily vary the tx drive:

Fortunately I have plenty of power available in my Electric Vehicle – we just tapped across 13.2V worth of Lithium cells in the rear pack:

We achieved better results, but not quite as good as using the source file directly without a journey through the VHF FM uplink:

LilacSat-1 3 June high mic gain

LilacSat-1 4 June low mic gain

encoded locally (no VHF FM uplink)

There is still quite a lot of noise on the decoded audio, probably from the VHF uplink. Codec 2 performs poorly in the presence of high levels of background noise. As we are under-deviating, the SNR of the FM uplink will be reduced, further increasing noise. However Wei has just emailed me that his team is reducing the “AF gain” between the VHF rx and Codec 2 on LilacSat-1 so we should hear some improvements on the next few passes.

Note to self #2 – add some noise reduction inside of Codec 2 to make it more robust to different input signal conditions.

Links

The LilacSat-1 page has links to GNU Radio modules that can be used to receive signals from the satellite.

Mark, VK5QI, describes he car’s exotic antennas system and how it was used on todays LilacSat-1 contact.

LilacSat-1 HowTo, Mark and I have documented the set up procedure for LilacSat-1, and written some scripts to help automate the process.

FreeDV 2017 Road Map

Half way through the year but I thought I better write down some plans anyway! Helps me organise my thoughts and minimise the tangential work. The main goal for 2017 is a FreeDV mode that is competitive with SSB at low SNRs on HF channels. But first, lets see what happened in 2016….

Achievements in 2016

Here is the 2016 Roadmap. Reviewing it, we actually made good progress on a bunch of the planned activities:

  • Brady O’Brien (KC9TPA) worked with me to develop the FreeDV 2400A and 2400B modes.
  • Fine progress on the SM2000 project, summarised nicely in my Gippstech 2016 SM2000 talk. Thanks in particular to Brady, Rick (KA8BMA) and Neil (VK5KA).
  • The open telemetry work provided some key components for the Wenet system for high speed SSDV images from High Altitude Balloons. This work spun out of FSK modem development by Brady and myself, combined with powerful LDPC FEC codes from VK5DSP, with lots of work by Mark VK5QI, and AREG club members. It operates close to the limits of physics: with a 100mW signals we transmit HD images over 100km at 100 kbit/s using a $20 SDR and a good LNA. Many AREG members have set up Wenet receive stations using $100 roadkill laptops refurbished with Linux. It leaves commercial telemetry chips-sets in the dust, about 10dB behind us in terms of performance.
  • Ongoing FreeDV outreach via AREG FreeDV broadcasts, attending conferences and Hamfests. Thank you to all those who promote and use FreeDV.

FreeDV 2017 Roadmap

Codec 2 700C is the breakthrough I have been waiting for. Communications quality, conversational speech at just 700 bit/s, and even on a rough first pass it outperforms MELPe at 600 bit/s. Having a viable codec at 700 bit/s lets us consider powerful LDPC FEC codes in the 2000Hz SSB type bandwidths I’m targeting, which has led to a new OFDM modem and the emerging FreeDV 700D mode. I now feel comfortable that I can reach the goal of sub zero dB SNR digital speech that exceeds SSB in quality.

So here is the 2017 roadmap. Partially shaded work packages are partially complete. The pink work packages are ongoing activities rather than project based:

Rather than push FreeDV 700D straight out, I have decided to have another iteration at Codec 2 quality, using the Codec 700C algorithms as a starting point. The FreeDV 700D work has suggested we can use latency to overcome the HF channel, which means frames of several hundred ms to several seconds. By exploring correlation over longer Codec 2 frames we can achieve lower bit rates (e.g. sub 400 bit/s) or get better voice quality at 700 bit/s and above.

I’ve been knocking myself out to get good results at low SNRs. However many HF and indeed VHF/UHF PTT radio conversions take place at SNRs of greater than 10dB. This allows us to support higher bit rate codecs, and achieve better speech quality. For example moving from 0dB to 10dB means 10 times the bit rate at the same Bit Error Rate (BER). The OFDM modem will allow us to pack up to 4000 bit/s into a 2000 Hz SSB channel.

The algorithms that work so well for Codec 2 700C can be used to increase the quality at higher bit rates. So the goal of the “Codec 2 Quality” work package is to (i) improve the quality at 700-ish bit/s, and (ii) come up with a Codec 2 mode that improves on the speech quality of Codec 2 1300 (as used in the FreeDV 1600 mode) at 2000-ish bit/s.

After the Codec 2 quality improvement I will port the new algorithms to C, release and tune on the FreeDV GUI program, then port to the SM1000. Fortunately the new OFDM modem is simpler in terms of memory and computation that the COHPSK modem used for FreeDV 700C. We have an option to use a short LDPC code (224 bits) which with a little work will run OK on the SM1000.

Putting it all Together

The outputs will be a low SNR mode competitive with SSB at low SNR, and (hopefully) a high SNR mode that sounds better than SSB at medium to high SNRs. It will be available as a free software download (FreeDV GUI program), an embedded stand-alone product (the SM1000), and as a gcc library (FreeDV API)

Then we can get back to VHF/UHF work and the SM2000 project.

Help Wanted

When will this all happen? Much sooner if you help!

I’m a busy guy, making steady progress in the field of open source digital radio. While I appreciate your ideas, and enjoy brainstorming as much as the next person, what I really want are your patches, and consistent week in/week out effort. If you can code in C and/or have/are willing to learn a little GNU Octave, there is plenty of work to be done in SM1000 maintenance, a port of the OFDM modem to C, SM1000 hardware/software maintenance, and FreeDV GUI program refactoring and maintenance. Email me.

Links

FreeDV 2016 Roadmap. Promises, promises……
FreeDV 2400A and 2400B modes
SM2000 – First post introducing the SM2000 project
Gippstech 2016 SM2000 talk – Good summary of SM2000 project to date
LowSNR site – from Bill (VK5DSP) modem guru and LDPC code-smith
Horus 39 – Fantastic High Speed SSDV Images – Good summary of Wenet blog posts and modem technology
SM1000 Digital Voice Adaptor
AREG FreeDV broadcasts

Horus 37 – High Speed SSTV Images

Today I was part of the AREG team that flew Horus 37 – a High Altitude Balloon flight. The payload included hardware sending Slow Scan TV (SSTV) images at 115 kbit/s, based on the work Mark and I documented in this blog post from earlier this year.

It worked! Using just 50mW of transmit power and open source software we managed to receive SSTV images at bit rates of up to 115 kbit/s:

More images here.

Here is a screen shot of the Python dashboard for the FSK demodulator that Mark and Brady have developed. It gives us some visibility into the demod state and signal quality:

(View-Image on your browser to get a larger version)

The Eb/No plot shows the signal strength moving up and down over time, probably due to motion of our car. The Tone Frequency Estimate shows a solid lock on the two FSK frequencies. The centre of the Eye Diagram looks good in this snapshot.

Octave and C LDPC Library

There were some errors in received packets, which appear as stripes in the images:

On the next flight we plan to add a LDPC FEC code to protect against these errors and allow the system to operate at signal levels about 8dB lower (more than doubling our range).

Bill, VK5DSP, has developed a rate 0.8 LDPC code designed for the packet length of our SSTV software (2064 bits/packet including checksum). This runs with the CML library – C software designed to be called from Matlab via the MEX file interface. I previously showed how the CML library can be used in GNU Octave.

I like to develop modem algorithms in GNU Octave, then port to C for real time operation. So I have put some time into developing Octave/C software to simulate the LDPC encoded FSK modem in Octave, then easily port exactly the same LDPC code to C. For example the write_code_to_C_include_file() Octave function generates a C header file with the code matrices and test vectors. There are test functions that use an Octave encoder and C decoder and compare the results to an Octave decoder. It’s carefully tested and bit exact to 64-bit double precision! Still a work in progress, but has been checked into codec2-dev SVN:

ldpc_fsk_lib.m Library of Octave functions to support LDPC over FSK modems
test_ldpc_fsk_lib.m Test and demo functions for Octave and C library code
mpdecode_core.c CML MpDecode.c LDPC decoder functions re-factored
H2064_516_sparse.h Sample C include file that describes Bill’s rate 0.8 code
ldpc_enc.c Command line LDPC encoder
ldpc_dec.c Command line LDPC decoder
drs232_ldpc.c Command line SSTV deframer and LDPC decoder

This software might be useful for others who want to use LDPC codes in their Matlab/Octave work, then run them in real time in C. With the (2064,512) code, the decoder runs at about 500 kbit/s on one core of my old laptop. I would also like to explore the use of these powerful codes in my HF Digital Voice work.

SSTV Hardware and Software

Mark did a fine job putting the system together and building the payload hardware and it’s enclosure:

It uses a Raspberry Pi, with a FSK modulator we drive from the Pi’s serial port. The camera aperture is just visible at the front. Mark has published the software here. The tx side is handled by a single Python script. Here is the impressive command line used to start the rx side running:

#!/bin/bash
# 
#	Start RX using a rtlsdr. 
# 
python rx_gui.py & 
rtl_sdr -s 1000000 -f 441000000 -g 35 - | csdr convert_u8_f | csdr bandpass_fir_fft_cc 0.1 0.4 0.05 | csdr fractional_decimator_ff 1.08331 | csdr realpart_cf | csdr convert_f_s16 | ./fsk_demod 2XS 8 923096 115387 - - S 2> >(python fskdemodgui.py --wide) | ./drs232_ldpc - - | python rx_ssdv.py --partialupdate 16

We have piped together a bunch of command line utilities on the Linux command line. A hardware analogy is a bunch of electronic boards on a work bench connected via coaxial jumper leads. It works quite well and allows us to easily prototype SDR radio systems on Linux machines from a laptop to a RPi. However down the track we need to get it all “in one box” – a single, cross platform executable anyone can run.

Next Steps

We did some initial tests with the LDPC decoder today but hit integration issues that flat lined our CPU. Next steps will be to investigate these issues and try LDPC encoded SSTV on the next flight, which is currently scheduled for the end of October. We would love to have some help with this work, e.g. optimizing and testing the software. Please let us know if you would like to help!

Links
Mark’s blog post on the flight
AREG blog post detailing the entire flight, including set up and recovery
High Speed Balloon Data Link – Development and Testing of the SSTV over FSK system
All your Modems are belong to Us – The origin of the “ideal” FSK demod used for this work.
FreeDV 2400A – The C version of this modem developed by Brady and used for VHF Digital Voice
LDPC using Octave and CML – using the CML library LDPC decoder in GNU Octave

SM2000 – Part 8 – Gippstech 2016 Presentation

Justin, VK7TW, has published a video of my SM2000 presentation at Gippstech, which was held in July 2016.

Brady O’Brien, KC9TPA, visited me in June. Together we brought the SM2000 up to the point where it is decoding FreeDV 2400A waveforms at 10.7MHz IF, which we demonstrate in this video. I’m currently busy with another project but will get back to the SM2000 (and other FreeDV projects) later this year.

Thanks Justin and Brady!

FreeDV and this video was also mentioned on this interesting Reddit post/debate from Gary KN4AQ on VHF/UHF Digital Voice – a peek into the future

SM2000 Part 7 – Prototype Ready for Manufacture

Rick, KA8BMA, has been working steadily on the CAD work for the SM2000 VHF Radio and the Rev A (prototype) PCB layout is now complete and ready for manufacture. Neil, VK5KA, an experienced RF Engineer, has been working with Rick on the PCB layout to ensure RF integrity. Thank you both for your fine work!

Here is the top layer of Rev A, which is 160mm x 160mm:

It’s a modular design, if you zoom in you can see the names of each module.

Edwin at Dragino is kindly assembling some prototypes for us, and I hope to start bringing up the board in early June.

Links

SM2000 Part 1 – Introducing the SM2000 project

SM2000 SVN – CAD Files for the project

Project Whack a Mole Part 2

I’ve been steadily working on this project so here is an update. You might like to review Part 1 which describes how this direction finding system works.

The good news is it works with real off-air radio signals! I could detect repeatable phase angles using two antennas with an RF signal, first in my office using a signal generator, then with a real signal from a local repeater. However the experimental set up was delicate and the software slow and cumbersome. So I’ve put some time into making the system easier to use and more robust.

New RF Head

I’ve built a new RF Head based on a NE602 active mixer:


The 32 kHz LO is on the RHS of the photo. Here is the saga of getting the 32kHz oscillator to run.

The mixer has an impedance of about 3000 ohms across it’s balanced inputs and outputs so I’ve coupled the 50 ohm signals with a single turn loop to make some sort of impedance match. The tuned circuits also give some selectivity. This is important as I am afraid the untuned HackRF front end will collapse with overload when I poke a real antenna up above the Adelaide Plains and it can see every signal on the VHF and UHF spectrum.

Antenna 1 (A1) is coupled using a tapped tuned circuit, and with the mixer output forms a 3 winding transformer. Overall gain for the A1 and A2 signals is about -6dB which is OK. The carrier feed through from the A2 mixer is 14dB down. Need to make sure this carrier feed through stays well down on A1 which is on the same frequency. Otherwise the DSP breaks – it assumes there is no carrier feed through. In practice the levels of A1 and A2 will bob about due to multipath, so some attenuation of A2 relative to A1 is a good idea.

Real Time-ish Software

I refactored the df_mixer.m Octave code to make it run faster and make repeated system calls to hackrf_transfer. So now it runs real time (ish); grabs a second of samples, does the DSP foo, plots, then repeats about once every 2 seconds. Much easier to see whats going on now, here it is working with a FM signal:

You can “view image” on your browser for a larger image. I really like my “propeller plot”. It’s a polar histogram of the angles the DSP comes up with. It has two “blades” due to the 180 degree ambiguity of the system. The propellor gets fatter with low SNR as there is more uncertainty, and thinner with higher SNR. It simultaneously tells me the angle and the quality of the angle. I think that’s a neat innovation.

Note the “Rx signal at SDR Input” plot. The signals we want are centered on 48kHz (A1), 16 and 80kHz (A2 mixer products). Above 80kHz you can see the higher order mixer products, more on that below.

Reflections

As per Part 1 the first step is a bench test. I used my sig gen to supply a test signal which I split and fed into A1 and A2. By adding a small length of transmission line (38mm of SMA adapters screwed together), I could induce known amounts of phase shift.

Only I was getting dud results, 10 degrees one way then 30 the other when I swapped the 38mm segment from A1 to A2. It should be symmetrical, same phase difference but opposite.

I thought about the A1 and A2 ports. It’s unlikely they are 50 ohms with my crude matching system. Maybe this is causing some mysterious reflections that are messing up the phase at each port? Wild guess but I inserted some 10dB SMA attenuators into A1 and A2 and it started working! I measured +/- 30 +/-1 degrees as I swapped the 38mm segment. Plugging 38mm into my spreadsheet the expected phase shift is 30.03 degrees. Yayyyyyyy…..

So I need to add some built-in termination impedance for each port, like a 6dB “pad”. Why are they called “pads” BTW?

The near-real time software and propeller plot made it really easy to see what was going on and I could see and avoid any silly errors. Visualisation helps.

Potential Problems

I can see some potential problems with this mixer based method for direction finding:

  1. If the spectrum is “busy” and other nearby channels are in use the mixer will plonk them right on top of our signals. Oh dear.
  2. The mixer has high order output products – at multiples of the LO (32, 64, 96 ….. kHz) away from the input frequency. So any strong signal some distance away could potentially be mixed into our pass band. A strong BPF and resonant antennas might help. Yet to see if this is a real problem.

Next Steps

Anyway, onward and upwards. I’ll add some “pads” to A1 and A2, then assemble the RF head with a couple of antennas so I can mount the whole thing outdoors on a mast.

Mark has given me a small beacon transmitter that I will use for local testing, before trying it on a repeater. If I get repeatable repeater-bearings (lol) I will take the system to mountain overlooking the city and see if it blows up with strong signals. Gold star if I can pull bearings off the repeater input as that’s where our elusive mole lives.