Deep Dive – Node-RED QO-100 Satellite Ground Station Dashboard

Following on from my article about my QO-100 Satellite Ground Station Complete Build, this article goes into some detail on the Node-RED section of the build and how I put together my QO-100 Satellite Ground Station Dashboard web app.

The Node-RED project has grown organically as I used the QO-100 satellite over time. Initially this started out as a simple project to synchronise the transmit and receive VFO’s so that the SDR receiver always tracked the IC-705 transmitter.

Over time I added more and more functionality until the QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard became the beast it is today.

M0AWS QO-100 ground Station Control Dashboard built using Node-RED.
M0AWS QO-100 Ground Station Control Dashboard built using Node-RED.

Looking at the dashboard web app it looks relatively simple in that it reflects a lot of the functionality that the two radio devices already have in their own rights however, bringing this together is actually more complicated than it first appears.

Starting at the beginning I use FLRig to connect to the IC-705. The connection can be via USB or LAN/Wifi, it makes no difference. Node-RED gains CAT control of the IC-705 via XMLRPC on port 12345 to FLRig.

To control the SDR receiver I use GQRX SDR software and connect to it using RIGCTL on GQRX port 7356 from Node-RED. These two methods of connectivity work well and enables full control of the two radios.

M0AWS Node-RED QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard - 12/06/24
M0AWS Node-RED QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard Flow as of 12/06/24

The complete flow above looks rather daunting initially however, breaking it down into its constituent parts makes it much easier to understand.

There are two sections to the flow, the GQRX control which is the more complex of the two flows and the comparatively simple IC-705 section of the flow. These two flows could be broken down further into smaller flows and spread across multiple projects using inter-flow links however, I found it much easier from a debug point of view to have the entire flow in one Node-RED project.

Breaking down the flow further the GQRX startup section (shown below) establishes communication with the GQRX SDR software via TCP/IP and gets the initial mode and filter settings from the SDR software. This information is then used to populate the dashboard web app.

M0AWS - Node-RED QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard - GQRX Startup
M0AWS Node-RED QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard – GQRX Startup Flow

The startup triggers fire just once at initial startup of Node-RED so it’s important that the SDR device is plugged into the PC at boot time.

All the startup triggers feed information into the RIGCTL section of the GQRX flow. This section of the flow (shown below) passes all the commands onto the GQRX SDR software to control the SDR receiver.

M0AWS - QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard - GQRX RIGCTL flow
M0AWS Node-RED QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard – GQRX RIGCTL Flow

The TCP RIGCTL -> GQRX node is a standard TCP Request node that is configured to talk to the GQRX software on the defined IP Address and Port as configured in the GQRX setup. The output from this node then goes into the Filter RIGCTL Response node that processes the corresponding reply from GQRX for each message sent to it. Errors are trapped in the green Debug node and can be used for debugging.

The receive S Meter is also driven from the the output of the Filter RIGCTL Response node and passed onto the S Meter function for formatting before being passed through to the actual gauge on the dashboard.

Continuing down the left hand side of the flow we move into the section where all the GQRX controls are defined.

M0AWS - QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard - GQRX Controls
M0AWS Node-RED QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard – GQRX Controls Flow

In this section we have the VFO step buttons that move the VFO up/down in steps of 10Hz to 10Khz. Each button press generates a value that is passed onto the Set DeltaFreq change node and then on to the Calc new VFO Freq function. From here the new VFO frequency is stored and passed onto the communications channel to send the new VFO frequency to the GQRX software.

The Mode and Filter nodes are simple drop down menus with predefined values that are used to change the mode and receive filter width of the SDR receiver.

Below are the HAM band selector buttons, each of these will use a similar process as detailed above to change the VFO frequency to a preset value on each of the HAM HF Bands.

The QO-100 button puts the transmit and receive VFO’s into synchro-mode so that the receive VFO follows the transmit VFO. It also sets the correct frequency in the 739Mhz band for the downlink from the LNB in GQRX SDR software and sets the IC-705 to the correct frequency in the 2m VHF HAM band to drive the 2.4Ghz up-converter.

The Split button allows the receive VFO to be moved away from the transmit VFO for split operation when in QO-100 mode. This allows for the receive VFO to be moved away so that you can RIT into slightly off frequency stations or to work split when working DXpedition stations.

The bottom two Memory buttons allow you to store the current receive frequency into a memory for later recall.

At the top right of this section of the flow there is a Display Band Plan Info function, this displays the band plan information for the QO-100 satellite in a small display field on the Dashboard as you tune across the transponder. Currently it only displays information for the satellite, at some point in the future I will add the necessary code to display band plan information for the HF bands too.

The final section of the GQRX flow (shown below) sets the initial button colours and starts the Powermate USB VFO knob flow. I’ve already written a detailed article on how this works here but, for completeness it is triggered a few seconds after startup (to allow the USB device to be found) and then starts the BASH script that is used to communicate with the USB device. The output of this is processed and passed back into the VFO control part of the flow so that the receive VFO can be manually altered when in split mode or in non-QO-100 mode.

M0AWS - QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard - Powermate VFO section
M0AWS Node-RED QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard – Powermate VFO Flow

The bottom flows in the image above set some flow variables that are used throughout the flow and then calculates and sets the RIT value on the dashboard display.

The final section of the flow is the IC-705 control flow. This is a relatively simple flow that is used to both send and receive data to/from the IC-705, process it and pass it on to the other parts of the flow as required.

M0AWS - QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard - IC-705 control flow
M0AWS Node-RED QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard – IC-705 Control Flow

The IC-705 flow is started via the timestamp trigger at the top left. This node is nothing more than a trigger that fires every 0.5 seconds so that the dashboard display is updated in near realtime. The flow is pretty self explanatory, in that it collects the current frequency, transmit power, SWR reading, PTT on/off status and S Meter reading each time it is triggered. This information is then processed and used to keep the dashboard display up to date and to provide VFO tracking information to the GQRX receive flow.

On the left are the buttons to change band on the IC-705 along with a button to tune to the VOLEMT on the 60m band. Once again there two memory buttons to save and recall the IC-705 VFO frequency.

The Startup PTT Colour trigger node sets the PTT button to green on startup. The PTT button changes to red during transmit and is controlled via the Toggle PTT function.

At the very bottom of the flow is the set transverter IF Freq function, this sets the IC-705 to a preselected frequency in the 2m HAM band when the dashboard is switched into QO-100 mode by pressing the QO-100 button.

On the right of the flow there is a standard file write node that writes the 2.4Ghz QO-100 uplink frequency each time it changes into a file that is used by my own logging software to add the uplink frequency into my log entries automatically. (Yes I wrote my own logging software!)

The RX Audio Mute Control filter node is used to reduce the receive volume during transmit when in QO-100 full duplex mode otherwise, the operator can get tongue tied hearing their own voice 250ms after they’ve spoken coming back from the satellite. This uses the pulse audio system found on the Linux platform. The audio is reduced to a level whereby it makes it much easier to talk but, you can still hear enough of your audio to ensure that you have a good, clean signal on the satellite.

As I said at the beginning of this article, this flow has grown organically over the last 12 months and has been a fun project to put together. I’ve had many people ask me how I have created the dashboard and whether they could do the same for their ground station. The simple answer is yes, you can use this flow with any kind of radio as long as it has the ability to be controlled via CAT/USB or TCP/IP using XMLRPC or RIGCTL.

To this end I include below an export of the complete flow that can be imported into your own Node-RED flow editor. You may need to make changes to it for it to work with your radio/SDR but, it shouldn’t take too much to complete. If like me you are using an IC-705 and any kind of SDR controlled by GQRX SDR software then it’s ready to go without any changes at all.

More soon …

QO-100 Satellite Ground Station Complete Build

I get quite a few emails from readers of my blog asking how my QO-100 satellite station is put together and so, I thought perhaps now is a good time to put together an article detailing the complete build.

My QO-100 satellite ground station is built around my little Icom IC-705 QRP transceiver, it’s a great little rig and is ideal for the purpose of driving a 2.4Ghz transverter/up-converter.

Of course all the software used for the project is Opensource and freely available on the internet.

M0AWS QO-100 Ground Station Build Visual
M0AWS QO-100 Ground Station Build Visual (Click to Enlarge)

The station comprises of the following building blocks:

  • Icom IC-705 Transceiver
  • DXPatrol 28/144/433Mhz to 2.4Ghz Up-Converter
  • DXPatrol GPSDO Reference Oscillator
  • DXPatrol 2.4Ghz 5/12w Amplifier
  • Nolle Engineering 2.2 turn 2.4Ghz IceCone Helix Antenna
  • 1.1m (110cm) Off-set Dish
  • Bullseye 10Ghz LNB
  • Bias-T to feed 12v to LNB
  • NooElec SmartSDR Receiver
  • PC Running Kubuntu Linux Operating System
  • GQRX SDR Opensource Software
  • Griffin Powermate USB VFO Knob
  • QO-100 Ground Station Dashboard developed using Node-RED
  • LMR400-UF/RG58 Coax Cable
M0AWS QO-100 1.1m off-set Dish and IceCone Helix antenna ground station
M0AWS QO-100 1.1m (110cm) off-set Dish with IceCone Helix antenna and Bullseye LNB.

To get a good clear view of the QO-100 satellite I have the dish mount 3.2m above the ground. This keeps it well clear of anyone walking past in the garden and beams the signal up at an angle of 26.2 degrees keeping well clear of neighbouring gardens.

The waterproof enclosure below the dish houses all the 2.4Ghz equipment so that the distance between the feed point and the amplifier are kept to a minimum.

The DXPatrol amplifier is spec’d to run at 28v/12w or 12v/5w, I found that running it at 28v produced too much output for the satellite and would cause the LEILA alarm on the satellite to trip constantly. Running the amp at 12v with a maximum of 5w output (average 2.5-3.5w) is more than enough for me to have a 5/9+10 signal on the transponder.

The large 1.1m dish gives me quite an advantage on receive enabling me to hear the very weak stations with ease compared to other stations.

2.4Ghz ground station enclosure ready for testing
2.4Ghz ground station enclosure ready for testing

The photo above shows the 2.4Ghz equipment mounted in the waterproof enclosure below the dish. This photo was taken during the initial build phase before I rewired it so, the amplifier is shown connected to the 28v feed. To rewire the amp to 12v was just a matter of removing the 28v converter and connecting the amp directly to the 12v feed instead. This reduced the output from a maximum of 12w down to a maximum of 5w giving a much better (considerate) level on the satellite.

It’s important to keep all interconnects as short as possible as at 2.4Ghz it is very easy to build up a lot of loss between devices.

For the connection from the IC-705 to the 2.4Ghz Up-Converter I used a 7m run of
LMR-400 coax cable. The IC-705 is set to put out just 300mW on 144Mhz up to the 2.4Ghz converter and so it’s important to use a good quality coax cable.

Once again the output from the 2.4Ghz amplifier uses 1.5m of LMR-400-UF coax cable to feed up to the 2.2 turn Icecone Helix Antenna mounted on the dish. This keeps loss to a minimum and is well worth the investment.

Bullseye 10Khz High Stability Unversal Single LNB for 10.489-12.750Ghz
Bullseye 10Khz High Stability Unversal Single LNB for 10.489-12.750Ghz

The receive path starts with a Bullseye LNB, this is a high gain LNB that is probably one of the best you could use for QO-100 operations. It’s fairly stable frequency wise but, does drift a little in the summer months with the high temperature changes but, overall it really is a very good LNB.

The 12v feed to the LNB is via the coax and is injected by the Bias-T device that is in the radio shack. This 12v feed powers the LNA and associated electronics in the LNB to provide a gain of 50-60dB.

Bias-T to inject 12v feed into the coax for the Bullseye LNB
Bias-T to inject 12v feed into the coax for the Bullseye LNB

From the Bias-T the coax comes down to the NooElec SmartSDR receiver. This is a really cheap SDR device (<£35 on Amazon) based on the RTL-SDR device but, it works incredibly well. I originally used a Funcube Dongle Pro+ for the receive side however, it really didn’t handle large signals very well and there was a lot of signal ghosting so, I swapped it out for the NooElec SDR and haven’t looked back since.

The NooElec SmartSDR is controlled via the excellent Opensource software GQRX SDR. I’ve been using GQRX SDR for some years now and it’s proven itself to be extremely stable and reliable with support for a good number of SDR devices.

To enhance the operation of the SDR device I have added a Griffin Powermate VFO knob to the build. This is an old USB device that I originally purchased to control my Flex3000 transceiver but, since I sold that many moons ago I decided to use it as a VFO knob in my QO-100 ground station. Details on how I got it working with the station are detailed in this blog article.

Having the need for full duplex operation on the satellite this complicates things when it comes to VFO tracking and general control of the two radios involved in the solution and so I set about creating a QO-100 Dashboard using the great Node-RED graphical programming environment to create a web app that simplifies the management of the entire setup.

M0AWS QO-100 ground Station Control Dashboard built using Node-RED.
M0AWS QO-100 ground Station Control Dashboard built using Node-RED.

The QO-100 Dashboard synchronises the transmit and receive VFO’s, enables split operation so that you can transmit and receive on different frequencies at the same time and a whole host of other things using very little code. Most of the functionality is created using standard Node-RED nodes. More info on Node-RED can be found on the Wiki or from the menu’s above.

I’ll be publishing an article all about the QO-100 Dashboard in the very near future along with a downloadable flow file.

I’m extremely pleased with how well the ground station works and have had well in excess of 500 QSO’s on the QO-100 satellite over the last last year.

More soon …

Update to my NodeRed QO-100 Dashboard

Ever since my QO-100 ground station has been operational I’ve been using my NodeRed QO-100 Dashboard to control my IC-705 and GQRX SDR software to drive my NooElec SmartSDR receiver. This gives me a full duplex ground station with both transmit and receive VFO’s synchronised.

This solution has worked incredibly well from the outset and over time I’ve added extra functionality that I’ve found to be useful to enhance the overall setup.

The latest addition to the ground station solution is a Sennheiser Headset that I picked up for just £56 on Amazon (Much cheaper than the Heil equivalents at the HAM stores!) and have found it to be excellent. The audio quality from both the mic and the headphones is extremely good whilst being light and comfortable to wear for extended periods.

M0AWS - Sennheiser SC 165
M0AWS – Sennheiser SC 165 Headset

To incorporate this into the ground station the headset is connected to my Kubuntu PC and the audio chain to the IC-705 is sent wirelessly using the latest version of WFView. This works extremely well. The receive audio comes directly from the GQRX SDR software to the headphones so that I have a full duplex headset combination.

Audio routing is done via pulse audio on the Kubuntu PC and is very easy to setup.

Since I no longer have a mic connected to the IC-705 directly I found that I needed a way to operate the PTT wirelessly and this is where the latest addition to my NodeRed QO-100 Dashboard comes in.

Adding a little functionality to the NodeRed flow I was able to create a button that toggles the IC-705 PTT state on and off giving me the ability to easily switch between receive and transmit using a simple XMLRPC node without the need for a physical PTT button.

M0AWS - Additional NodeRed PTT Flow
M0AWS – Additional NodeRed PTT Flow

The PTT state and PTT button colour change is handled by the Toggle PTT function node shown in the above flow. The code to do this is relatively simple as shown below.

M0AWS - NodeRed Toggle PTT Function to change button colour
M0AWS – NodeRed Toggle PTT Function to change button colour

The entire QO-100 Dashboard flow has grown somewhat from it’s initial conception but, it provides all the functionality that I require to operate a full duplex station on the QO-100 satellite.

M0AWS - NodeRed QO-100 Dashboard complete flow
M0AWS – NodeRed QO-100 Dashboard complete flow

This simple but, effective PTT solution works great and leaves me hands free whilst talking on the satellite or the HF bands when using the IC-705. This also means that when using my IC-705 it only requires the coax to be connected, everything else is done via Wifi keeping things nice and tidy in the radio shack.

M0AWS - Updated NodeRed QO-100 Dashboard with PTT button
M0AWS – Updated NodeRed QO-100 Dashboard with PTT button

The image above shows the QO-100 ground station in receive cycle with the RX/TX VFO’s in split mode as the DX station was slightly off frequency to me. The PTT button goes red when in TX mode just like the split button shown above for visual reference.

As you can probably tell, I’m a huge fan of NodeRed and have put together quite a few projects using it, including my HF Bands Live Monitoring web page.

More soon …

Improving the antennas on Heltec ESP32 v3 Devices

The Heltec ESP32 v3 LORA devices have a coil type Bluetooth/Wifi antenna on the PCB from the factory. This antenna doesn’t work particularly well and has very limited range so, I decided to do something about it.

Getting out the calculator a quarter wave at 2400Mhz is 29.7mm. Looking at the coil antenna on the PCB I decided the best way to connect the new antenna would be to solder it to the coil of the existing antenna. This would short out the coil completely whilst creating a solid mount point for the new antenna.

After a little measuring I decided to use a 31mm long piece of 1.5mm hard core mains cable for the new antenna. I stripped back the insulation from one end of the wire so that the exposed copper wire was exactly the length to short across all the windings of the coil antenna on the PCB.

Attaching replacement Bluetooth Antenna to the Heltec ESP32 v3 Device
Attaching replacement Bluetooth Antenna to the Heltec ESP32 v3 Device

Attaching the the wire to the coil was easy enough to do but, it’s worth pointing out that you need to be quick so that the heat doesn’t transfer down onto the PCB desoldering the coil antenna from the device.

Whilst tinkering with the Bluetooth antenna I decided I would also make a neat little quarter wave 868Mhz vertical antenna for this device whilst I had it all apart. This is my Meshtastic node-2 and it’s sole purpose is to allow me to use my iPad to send/receive messages via bluetooth which are then forwarded on to my base node-1 in the house. Node-1 is connected to the house wifi and the Meshtastic MQTT server. This combination allows me to message people on the mesh even though there are no local nodes within RF range.

Running the numbers for the 868Mhz antenna the vertical will need to be around 82.1mm long with a radial of similar length. I had to hand a very nice SMA to N Type chassis mount socket that would be ideal to mount the antenna to the case. I drilled out the holes in the case, measured out the wires and attached it all to the case. Connecting the antenna to the N Type socket I connected my VNA and set about tuning the antenna to resonance.

M0AWS Hidden Radial for the 868Mhz Heltec Antenna
M0AWS Hidden Radial for the 868Mhz Heltec Antenna

Squeezing the radial and SMA connector into the case I realised I really could do with a 90 degree SMA connector so, I quickly ordered one from Amazon which will be delivered tomorrow. Connecting up my VNA, I had to trim the antenna down to get it to resonance. The SWR ended up at 1.2:1 which is ideal. I ended up cutting off more wire than I thought I would to get the antenna to resonance but, this is due to the extra capacitance caused by the insulation on the wire. If I had used bare copper wire then I wouldn’t of had to cut so much off. I eventually ended up with around 72.9mm of wire for both the antenna and radial.

M0AWS Heltec ESP32 v3 Device with replacement Bluetooth and 868Mhz Antennas
M0AWS Heltec ESP32 v3 Device with replacement Bluetooth and 868Mhz Antennas

Putting the device back into the case and connecting the USB battery the device fired up and immediately connected to my node in the house. Checking the signal strength of node-1 in the house I could see a 7dB increase in signal strength compared to the little wire antenna that comes with the device. This is a significant improvement for such a simple antenna and well worth the effort.

Next I had to drill a hole in the front of the Heltec case so that the Bluetooth antenna could poke out the front and be bent up vertically. This worked out really well and improved the Bluetooth range massively.

M0AWS Completed alterations to the Heltec ESP32 v3 antennas
M0AWS Completed alterations to the Heltec ESP32 v3 antennas

Putting the node back in the house and taking my iPad down to the end of the garden some 30m away I could instantly connect to the device via Bluetooth from my iPad, something I’d not been able to do prior to adding the new antennas. I can now use the Heltec device via Bluetooth from anywhere in the house or garden making it much more accessible.

It’s amazing the difference an hour and two little pieces of wire can make to these devices and is well worth the effort.

More soon …

Taking the Hiss out of QO-100

I’ve been on the QO-100 satellite for about 7 months now and I have to admit I love it!

Having a “Repeater In The Sky” that covers a third of the world really is a wonderful facility to have access to however, there is one thing that I find tiring and that is the high level of background noise that is always present.

Even though the signals are mostly 59-59+15dB the background “hiss” is very pronounced and gets very tiring after a while, especially if like me you have tinnitus.

Currently I’m using a NooElec Smart SDR for the receiver and GQRX SDR software on my Kubuntu Linux PC. This works great but, there is one short fall, there is no DSP Noise Reduction (NR) in the software or hardware.

To fix this I recently invested in a BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module. The unit itself is nicely put together and has a good combination of inputs and outputs making it easy to connect up to my MacBook Pro to record QSOs and connect my headphones at the same time.

M0AWS BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module
M0AWS BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module

At £189.95 plus postage from BHI direct it’s not cheap but, it is nicely put together and comes complete with a power lead and a couple of cheap audio cables. The quality of the knobs and mechanisms is good apart from the little grey DSP Filter Level knob that feels cheap and is very wobbly on the switch below. I’m not sure how long this is going to last with prolonged use and will most likely need replacing with something a little sturdier at some point in the future.

Overall noise reduction is good but, the audio amplifiers on the Audio Input Level and Line Out Level distort very early on in their range and you cannot get them much above level 5 before distortion starts to appear on the received signal. This is disappointing as my headphones are of reasonable quality and are let down by the distortion creeping in from the audio amplifier in the BHI unit.

I’ve tried altering the levels on the input from the IC-705 and no matter what I cannot get a good audio signal in my headphones without some distortion on the higher frequency ranges.

Overall the device does do what I want, it reduces the background “hash” considerably reducing the fatigue whilst chatting on the satellite. Below is a recording from a conversation on the satellite showing the noise reduction performance of the BHI module.

M0AWS Example BHI DSP NR Recording

The recording starts with the BHI DSP NR off, at 00:07 the DSP NR is switched on, you can clearly hear the difference. At 00:23 the DSP NR is turned off again and at 00:36 the DSP NR is turned on again. The BHI DSP NR Module is set with the DSP Filter Level set at 3 out of 8 which appears to be the best level to use. Switching to level 4 starts to introduce digital artefacts to the audio which only gets worse the higher the DSP Filter Level goes.

With a setting above level 3 there really isn’t much improvement in noise reduction and the audio becomes progressively more affected by the digital artefacts than it does from the background noise.

M0AWS BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module with Icom IC-705 QO-100 Ground Station
M0AWS BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module with Icom IC-705 QO-100 Ground Station

The only other problem I have with the BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module is that is comes in a plastic case. The case itself is solid and of good quality however, it offers no RF shielding whatsoever and the unit is extremely susceptible to RF getting into the audio chain and then being heard during transmit in the headphones and via the line out connections. For the money I would had expected the unit to come in a metal case that provides proper RF shielding. This is a real shame as it lets the unit down considerably.

As setup in the photo above I am using 300mW O/P on 144Mhz from the IC-705 into a perfect 1:1 SWR presented by the DX Patrol 2.4Ghz Upconverter via some very high quality LMR-400 Coaxial cable from Barenco but, I get terrible RF interference via the BHI unit during the transmit cycle. Considering I am only using 300mW I dread to think what it may be like if I was using a 100w HF radio. This is something I need to investigate further as it really is very annoying.

Moving the unit to a different location in the radio room does help a bit but, doesn’t solve the problem completely. At 300mW RF O/P I really didn’t expect there to be a problem with RF getting into the BHI unit.

Having a proper line-out facility on the BHI unit really is nice as it makes it very easy to connect to my MacBook Pro to obtain good quality recordings of signals on the QO-100 satellite as can be listened to above.

Overall I am happy with the BHI Dual In-Line Noise Eliminating Module but, do wish that more care had been taken over using a metal case instead of a plastic case to protect the unit from RF ingress and better audio amplifiers within the unit that don’t distort/clip so early on in their O/P levels.

Is this the perfect noise reduction unit?

No but, overall it is better than nothing and does help to reduce the background noise to a more acceptable level reducing the overall fatigue during prolonged conversations on the QO-100 satellite.

UPDATE: I tried the BHI unit with my FTDX10 on the HF bands and the RF interference is horrendous, even when using QRP power levels! This device clearly hasn’t been designed to work in an RF environment and the total lack of shielding or isolation lets it down terribly. If you are an SWL then this unit is fine but, if like me you like to monitor your transmitted audio whilst on air through headphones then this isn’t the unit for you. To prove the problem isn’t in the radio shack I put the BHI unit in the house some 30m away powered by 12v battery with nothing connected but a pair of headphones and still the unit suffered from RF interference even at QRP levels.

More soon …

Antenna Analysers – The New World

Many years ago I had an MFJ-259B antenna analyser that I used for all my HF antenna projects. It was a simple device with a couple of knobs, an LCD display and a meter but, it provided a great insight into the resonance of an antenna.

MFJ-259B Antenna Analyser
MFJ-259B Antenna Analyser

Today things have progressed somewhat and we now live in a world of Vector Network Analysers that not only display SWR but, can display a whole host of other information too.

Being an avid antenna builder I’ve wanted to buy an antenna analyser for some time but, now that I’m into the world of QO-100 satellite operations using frequencies at the dizzy heights of 2.4GHz I needed something more modern.

If you search online there are a multitude of Vector Network Analysers (VNAs) available from around the £50.00 mark right up to £1500 or more. Many of the VNAs you see on the likes of Amazon and Ebay come out of China and reading the reviews they aren’t particularly reliable or accurate.

After much research I settled on the JNCRadio VNA 3G, it gets really good reviews and is very sensibly priced. Putting a call into Gary at Martin Lynch and Sons (MLANDS) we had a long chat about various VNAs, the pros and cons of each model and the pricing structure. It was tempting to spend much more on a far more capable device however, my sensible head kicked in and decided many of the additional features on the more expensive models would never get used and so I went back to my original choice.

Gary and I also had a long chat about building a QO-100 ground station, using NodeRed to control it and how to align the dish antenna. The guys at MLANDS will soon have a satellite ground station on air and I look forward to talking to them on the QO-100 transponder.

Getting back to antenna analysers, I purchased the JNCRadio VNA 3G from MLANDS at £199.96 + postage and have been trying it out on a couple of antennas here at the M0AWS QTH.

Initially I wanted to check the SWR of my QO-100 2.4GHz IceCone Helix antenna on my satellite ground station to ensure it was resonant at the right frequency. Hooking the VNA up to the antenna feed was simple enough using one of the cables provided with the unit and I set about configuring the start and stop stimulus frequencies (2.4GHz to 2.450GHz) for the sweep to plot the curve.

The resulting SWR curve showed that the antenna was indeed resonant at 2.4GHz with an SWR of 1.16:1. The only issue I had was that in the bright sunshine it was hard to see the display and impossible to get a photo. Setting the screen on the brightest setting didn’t improve things much either so this is something to keep in mind if you plan on using the device outside in sunny climates.

(My understanding is that the Rig Expert AA-3000 Zoom is much easier to see outside on a sunny day however, it will cost you almost £1200 for the privilege.)

A couple of days later I decided to check the SWR of my 20m band EFHW vertical antenna. I’ve known for some time that this antenna has a point of resonance below 14MHz but, the SWR was still low enough at the bottom of the 20m band to make it useable.

Hooking up the VNA I could see immediately that the point of resonance was at 13.650Mhz, well low of the 20m band and so I set about shortening the wire until the point of resonance moved up into the band.

JNCRadio VNA3G showing 20m Band EFHW Resonance
JNCRadio VNA3G showing 20m Band EFHW Resonance

With a little folding back of wire I soon had the point of resonance nicely into the 20m band with a 1.35:1 SWR at 14.208Mhz. This provides a very useable SWR across the whole band but, I decided I’d prefer the point of resonance to be slightly lower as I tend to use the antenna mainly on the CW & FT4/8 part of the band with my Icom IC-705 QRP rig.

Popping out into the garden once more I lengthened the wire easily enough by reducing the fold back and brought the point of resonance down to 14.095Mhz.

JNCRadio VNA3G showing 20m Band EFHW Resonance 14Mhz to 14.35Mhz Sweep
JNCRadio VNA3G showing 20m Band EFHW Resonance 14Mhz to 14.35Mhz Sweep

The VNA automatically updated the display realtime to show the new point of resonance on the 4.3in colour screen. I also altered the granularity of the SWR reading on the Y axis to show a more detailed view of the curve and reduced the frequency range on the X axis so that it showed a 14Mhz to 14.35Mhz sweep. With an SWR of 1.34:1 at 14.095Mhz and a 50 Ohm impedance, the antenna is perfectly resonant where I want it.

It’s interesting to note that the antenna is actually useable between 13.5Mhz and 14.5Mhz with a reasonable SWR across the entire frequency spread. Setting 3 markers on the SWR curve I could see at a glance the SWR reading at 14Mhz (Marker 2) , 14.350Mhz (Marker 3) and the minimum SWR reading at 14.095Mhz (Marker 1).

I’ve yet to delve into the other functionality of the VNA but, I’m very happy with my initial experience with the device.

More soon …

Just one little rain drop is all it takes!

We’ve not had rain for over 6 weeks here in Eyke, Suffolk. The ground is incredibly dry and dusty. The farmers have been pulling vast quantities of water from their bore holes for weeks to keep the crops alive and we’ve been putting extra water out for the birds and animals that visit our garden daily.

Then one night we had about 30mins of light rain, not much at all and it was consumed by the dry earth is seconds. By morning you’d never of known it had rained however, strangely the next day when I fired up my QO-100 ground station I noticed that my signal into the satellite was way down from it’s normal S9+10dB level. Checking drive into the up-converter and SWR at the IC-705 everything looked fine. I then decided to check the SWR from the 2.4Ghz amplifier output only to find that it was off the scale.

I checked inside the enclosure for water ingress but, all was bone dry as normal. I disconnected the coax cable from the output of the amplifier and the IceCone Helix uplink antenna, tested with a multimeter and found everything was fine, no short and perfect continuity.

After scratching my head for a few minutes I decided to take both the N Type and SMA connectors apart to look for water ingress. Since the inside of the enclosure was dry I wasn’t expecting to find anything.

The N connector at the Helix antenna end on the dish LNB mount was perfectly dry, no water ingress at all. The layers of self amalgamating tape I’d put over the connector had done its job perfectly. Shame I had cut the tape off to remove the plug!

Upon removing the SMA connector at the amplifier end of the coax I noticed a tiny drop of water in the bottom of the housing where the pin goes through the white plastic insulator, not a good sign.

Sure enough upon further inspection I found that the white plastic disc that is situated above the pin on the centre conductor was wet and the coax braid felt damp. I knew immediately this wasn’t good.

At first I didn’t understand how there could possibly be water in the SMA connector when the rest of the enclosure was dry. Where the coax goes into the top of the enclosure there is a water tight junction that tightly grips the coax cable and seals it, supposedly stopping water ingress.

Since there was water in the SMA connector I feared that perhaps the water had gone further and entered into the amplifier so, I decided to remove the amp from the enclosure and remove the top cover to check.

2.4Ghz amplifier with top cover removed
2.4Ghz amplifier with top cover removed

After some close inspection I found the amp to be perfectly dry and free from water ingress, a relief for sure.

Before putting it all back together I decided solder on a pair of wires to the SWR and FWD-PWR pins on the amplifier and run them down into the radio room. This would then allow me to check the SWR and power output without having to get up to the enclosure with a multimeter.

Once this was done I then set about cutting 5cm of LMR-400-UF off at the SMA connector end so that I had a fully dry piece of coax cable to refit the SMA connector to. Having to do this outside and up a ladder wasn’t the easiest but, with a little perseverance and cooperation from the breeze I managed to get the pin soldered back onto the end of the coax and the connector back together.

I reconnected the amp to the 28v feed so that I could check the SWR and power output at full rating instead of the lower 12v setting that I had been using. Checking the voltage on the SWR pin I found that it fluctuated between 0.2v and 0.44v. This wasn’t what I was expecting as the PDF manual for the amplifier states that with a 1:1 SWR you should see 1.5v on the SWR pin.

DXPatrol 2.4Ghz Amplifier Manual Page for SWR/FWD-PWR voltages
DXPatrol 2.4Ghz Amplifier Manual Page for SWR/FWD-PWR voltages

After checking all the connections and retesting and getting the same voltage reading I emailed Antonio at DXPatrol detailing my findings and asking if he could advise on the voltages I was seeing. Sure enough in no time at all he came back to me saying that the manual was incorrect and that I should see between 0.2 and 0.5v on the SWR pin for a good SWR match. Being happy that the readings I was getting were fine I emailed back thanking him for his swift reply and then moved on to check the power output safely in the knowledge that the SWR reading was within tolerances.

Checking the FWD-PWR pin I found that on SSB the voltage was fluctuating between 2v and 3v, this equates to 6w and 9w output, about right for SSB. Switching to CW mode I found the full 4v was present on the FWD-PWR pin confirming I had the full 12w output from the amp. Of course this set off “Leila” on the satellite immediately as I was a huge signal on the bird with such high power output and was a reminder to reconnect the amp to the 12v supply instead to ensure I didn’t exceed 5w output and thus keeping to a considerate level on the transponder input.

After further investigation I came to the conclusion that the water ingress could only of come from the cable inlet on the top of the enclosure, it had then run down the coax cable into the SMA connector. Somewhat annoying as the inlet is supposed to be a water tight fixing. Once I had everything back in the enclosure and securely fitted, I covered the cable inlet and coax in self amalgamating tape in the hope that this would stop any further water ingress. I also re-taped the N connector at the antenna end as well to ensure it was also protected from water ingress in the future.

2.4Ghz ground station enclosure ready for testing
2.4Ghz ground station enclosure ready for testing

I’m hoping this will be the end of my water ingress issues and that I have a dry 2.4ghz future ahead of me.

More soon …

QO-100 Satellite Update

I’ve been active on QO-100 for a few days now and I have to admit that I’m really pleased with the way the ground station is performing. I’m getting a good strong, quality signal into the satellite along with excellent audio reports from my Icom IC-705 and the standard fist mic.

I’m very pleased with the performance of the NooElec v5 SDR receiver that I’m now using in place of the Funcube Dongle Pro+ SDR receiver. Being able to see the entire bandwidth of the satellite transponder on the waterfall in the GQRX SDR software is a huge plus too.

M0AWS QO-100 Satellite Log map showing contacts as of 23/06/23
M0AWS QO-100 Satellite Log map showing contacts as of 23/06/23

As can be seen on the map of contacts above, I’ve worked some interesting stations on some of the small islands in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The signals from these stations are incredibly strong on the satellite and an easy armchair copy.

DX of note are ZD7GWM on St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, PP2RON and PY2WDX in Brazil, 8Q7QC on Naifaru Island in the Maldives, VU2DPN in Chennai India, 5H3SE/P in Tanzania Africa and 3B8BBI/P in Mauritius.

There are many EU stations on the satellite too and quite a few regular nets of German and French stations. I’ve not plucked up the courage to call into the nets yet, perhaps in the future.

There are a lot of very experienced satellite operators on QO-100 with a wealth of information to share. I’ve learnt a lot just from chatting with people with some conversations lasting well over 30mins, a rarity on the HAM bands today.

We also had our first Matrix QO-100 Net this week, an enjoyable hour of chat about all things radio and more. We have a growing community of Amateur Radio enthusiasts from around the world on the Matrix Chat Network with a broad spectrum of interests. If you fancy joining a dynamic community of radio enthusiasts then just click the link to download a chat client and join group.

More soon …

First full power day on QO-100

The male to male SMA connector that Neil, G7UFO kindly posted to me arrived late this afternoon and I wasted no time getting it connected between the 2.4Ghz up-converter and the 12w amplifier.

Male to Male SMA connector for QO-100 Ground Station
Male to Male SMA connector for QO-100 Ground Station

Initially when I powered up the 12v to 28v converter board the output voltage was only showing 22v and so I had to adjust the onboard variable resistor to get the voltage closer to the recommended 28v for the amplifier. I decided to run the amplifier at 27v so that it wasn’t being pushed to it’s full and so readjusted the voltage converter back down to 27v. This seems to work very well with the amplifier not getting very warm at all during use.

M0AWS QO-100 2.4Ghz Uplink Hardware.
M0AWS QO-100 2.4Ghz Uplink Hardware.

Getting on air I was really impressed at how strong my signal was on the 10Ghz downlink. With my own signal peaking 5/9+10dB I was very happy with the performance of the ground station.

I made a few contacts very quickly with the first being OH5LK, Jussi from Helsinki Finland. Jussi was actually the first station I worked on CW too when I was running just 200mW, it was great to have him for both of my first contacts on QO-100.

I then went on to work a few stations from Wales, Germany, Poland and Belgium but, the one that I was totally shocked to get on my first real day of QO-100 operations was ZD7GWM, Garry (HuggyBear) on St. Helena Island, South Atlantic Ocean. This is an Island that I have never had a contact with before on any band and so I was extremely happy to get a new first especially on my first QO-100 day.

Garry and I chatted for some 25 minutes covering many topics, it was great to have an armchair copy over such a distance, something that would be impossible on the HF bands. What a great way to start my QO-100 satellite career!

One of the things I really like about the operators on QO-100 is that they have time to stop and chat, this is so refreshing and a rarity today. I’m really going to enjoy this satellite.

You can see all the details of my QO-100 contacts in my Online Satellite log.

More soon …

My First QO-100 Satellite QSO

I’ve been waiting for over a week so far for a male to male SMA connector to arrive from Amazon so that I can connect the 2.4Ghz up-converter to the 2.4Ghz amplifier. Since it still hasn’t arrived I decided to connect the up-converter directly to the IceCone Helix antenna to see if I could get a signal into the QO-100 satellite.

To my surprise I could easily hear my CW signal on QO-100 even though the total output from the up-converter is only 200mW.

I didn’t expect to be able to hear my signal since it’s a tiny amount of power that has to travel some 22500 miles to the satellite but, I could hear it and was amazed that it was peaking S8 on my SDR receiver.

2.4Ghz Up-COnverter connected directly to the antenna bypassing the 2.4Ghz Amplifier
2.4Ghz Up-Converter connected directly to the antenna bypassing the 2.4Ghz Amplifier

Being excited I put out a CQ call that was soon answered by OH5LK, Jussi in Finland. Jussi gave me a 579 report which I was extremely pleased with. He was of course much stronger at a 599+ at my end. We had a quick QSO and exchanged details without any problems at all. Its really nice to get a QRPp contact without any QSB or QRM.

M0AWS QO-100 1.1m off-set Dish and IceCone Helix antenna ground station
M0AWS QO-100 1.1m off-set Dish and IceCone Helix antenna ground station

Neil, G7UFO who I chat with regularly in the Matrix Amateur Radio Satellites room has posted a connector out to me so I’m hoping it will arrive on Monday and then I’ll be able to connect the amplifier and hopefully get a few SSB contacts.

UPDATE: I’ve since had 2 SSB contacts via QO-100 using just the 200mW O/P from the up-converter. Both times I got a 3/3 report not brilliant but, perfectly acceptable for the amount of power I’m putting out.

More soon …