Match & Diplex

This is a bump update from some research for the Radio Project.

I’ve gotten some more clarity on the desired end game for the antenna array. Here’s what I’m looking at:

  • I’m working on an optimized discone for reception in FM broadcast (88-108 MHz), air operations (118-137 MHz), all of VHF and UHF. By, “all,” I mean everything that’s worthwhile listening to and isn’t going to cause any issues. I’m not supposed to — and I have no interest in — snooping in any bands where I have no business. This gives me a wide receive bandwidth of (in round numbers) 80 MHz to 450 MHz. Discone antennas are supposed to have a 10:1 bandwidth so I figure I can squeeze out 80 MHz to 800 MHz and not use all of it..
  • The same discone antenna will be my VHF transmit antenna for 2-meter amateur bands. Discone antennas are advertised (colloquially, on the Internet) as having an, “about 5:1,” transmit bandwidth so with a low end in the 80 MHz range, I should be able to do 2-meter relatively easily. If I design it right, tuning it to 88 MHz instead of 80 MHz as the lowest frequency, I may be able to get it to do a decent job of transmitting on 70-cm amateur bands. Either way, using the discone as a transmitter is mostly a stop-gap bridge to get me on the air and DXing enough to figure out what more I’d want to build.
  • For HF bands, I’m going to build something bigger, along the lines of a dipole. I’m vague about that because I’m not building a 160-meter dipole. There’s got to be something that’ll get me good performance given sufficient ground planes and what not in all the HF bands I want to work in. This will be a transmit and receive antenna and it’ll probably go through several iterations.
  • Once I figure out my VHF and UHF transmit needs in more detail, I’m going to put appropriate dipoles together with the HF antenna. Other than matching, they should be able to coexist if I get the physical configuration right for phasing and what not.
  • Down the road, when I’m comfortable that I have a working and stable platform, I’m going to build some lower-frequency experimental stuff. I’m leaving an empty, “slot,” for a third antenna system that is yet to be determined. That slot may be used for other experimental things as well but having the infrastructure to pop up another antenna — feed lines, a cleared pad, etc. — will be nice. By then, I’ll have experience, I’ll probably have better tools to figure out the electrical characteristics of my experimental antennas and I may very well work towards an upgrade from the FCC.

All of this together means I’m going to have three feed lines into the shack with several wide-band antennas. Those lines will feed several radios:

  • My main ham rig. I’ve got a bunch of equipment but some of it is yet to be determined.
  • The scanner I have right now. I’m not going to build anything for this because I don’t want to mess with any regulatory stuff outside bands I’m allowed to use. I’m pretty sure a scanner out of the box won’t mess with anyone else’s reception of whatever they’re receiving.
  • Hopefully there will be an upgrade to a desktop scanner at some point. Same deal as the current scanner, just a bigger and badder version of the same thing.
  • An FM broadcast radio. The regular deal, listen to music and what not. No reason to tinker with any of that since I can probably get everything I ever wanted and more from Goodwill.
  • Whatever experimental stuff I’m going to cook up. I think there may be an SDR in my future but that’s probably a long way off. It’s nice to have the headroom.

This means that I will have five radios sharing three feed lines. I need to split lots of things. I need to diplex — maybe more — to some of the feed lines as well.

This article (PDF, 718 KB) shows how to build some simple DIY splitters. For some background, this article (PDF, 348 KB) also gives great information. I haven’t processed much of it yet but it looks like splitters are similar to impedance matchers in that they’re mostly LC circuits. In the simplest sense, they’re LC filters, which means I can tune them to the correct impedance with careful work.

Over time, I’d like to design some more isolation and possibly active splitting as well. No definite plans or even feasibility thoughts in the area yet.

This does however give me hope that I can get everything I want, engineered the way I want it, and that I can probably build most or all of it myself. I’m going to have to learn how to wind coils and transformers but I’m not sure how much radio work I can do myself without that anyway. That’ll also be really useful to know for PWM-based work, like power supplies, class D amplifiers, SDRs, etc. so learning that is going to be an important next step.

The Practical UHF/VHF Discone Antenna

I hope this will be an evolving topic and that this will be a part of my final antenna array.

In the short term, I want to pick up better signals in the VHF range with my scanner. Primarily, I’m trying to receive aircraft frequencies. These are around 108-130 MHz, just above FM broadcast radio and just below the bands for amateur and public service use. I’d like to be able to pick up public service broadcasts too (police, fire, EMS, etc.) and FM broadcast radio would be nice. If I have to pick between the two, FM broadcast will probably be more interesting over the long term but public service, amateur and open-use (FRS/GMRS) are much more interesting in the short term. This means that right now I want a good VHF receiving antenna.

Over the longer term, in addition to the short-term goals, I’d like to be able to receive and transmit on amateur channels in the VHF (2-meter) and UHF (70cm) range. Getting better reception in the public service band may be useful, especially if I end up volunteering with the local fire department. I’m not going to be doing any transmission on those channels or FRS/GMRS channels using this antenna; it’s much easier (and possibly against regulation) to use a pre-packaged radio and antenna in those bands. The same pretty much holds true for aircraft frequencies: if I have a need to transmit on those frequencies it’ll be in an airplane that has a radio and antenna just for that. My desire in the aircraft frequencies is local for an airport about 50 miles away so getting better reception than that isn’t really important to me. I have no interest in transmitting on FM broadcast channels — if I want to do very low-power transmission there it’ll be for a different project entirely — but having an antenna that can pick up decent broadcast radio from 120 to 350 miles away would be a fantastic add-on in my geographic location.

Transmission Power

Although not in the short-term goals, I would like to keep an eye out for being able to eventually transmit in amateur VHF and UHF bands. The maximum ERP without any evaluation according to FCC Part 97 looks like it’s 50W in VHF and 70W in UHF. Intuitively, that may be a good deal more power than I want to transmit on given the cost and complexity of equipment and cost of power.

On the other hand, I don’t want to build an antenna that I can’t easily get 10W of ERP out of on 70cm.

Concerns & Goals

Cheap is the first concern. I’d like to transcycle parts from things I have around the compound. That’s a good amount of material although I’m more likely to buy certain kinds of stock — like machined metal — than make it myself, especially if it’s cost effective or provides relatively little gain.

This is one antenna that’s going to be used for several purposes so splitting it properly is a concern. I’d like to avoid switches, which is probably going to present an interesting electronics problem. Having a jack that I can plug into a broadcast radio receiver along with separate jacks for a scanner and an amateur rig, for simultaneous use, is a target.

Physical location is another big concern. I’ve got a very clear, high-strength post that I can mount anything on. It’s about 30 feet up on what’s probably my highest ground. That’s also the largest possibility of a colossal eyesore if it’s not done right, which I wouldn’t be keen on. Building something shorter and on lower ground is possible but there are some 40-foot (and taller) trees that I don’t want to cut down. There’s much less eyesore concern for shorter antennas, which may end up directly competing against the RF constraints.

Projects

At the outset, I’ve got several things I need to figure out. They’re all somewhat correlated but I’ve broken them down into specific problems I’d like to tackle.

I’m going to need to build the antenna itself so I’ve got the discone antenna design project. This is everything between the ether and a jack for the feeder line that runs to my shack. It includes the antenna itself and the feed line down the mast.

Mounting the antenna in a weatherproof and safe way leads to the antenna site selection project. I expect that this one will be the longest-running of all of these projects because it’s the most exposed to the elements. It’s also very important for any other antennas I’m going to have because they all have to play nice together.

Feed line can be expensive and I don’t want to spend more than I have to. This gives rise to the cheap feeder project. I could easily go buy a lot of LM400 but that would cost too much. Ideally, I’d like to get closer to the performance of LM400 with something like RG11. Obviously, I’m bucking engineering here so I’m going to have to figure out a lot to optimize what I can get cheaply and figure out where the sweet spot is in how much needs to be spent for the results I want.

Since there’s going to be rework to get things closer to ideal, I need an antenna system benchmarking project. In short, this is something I can plug into the jack on the wall instead of a receiver or transceiver and get reasonable figures of system performance from the jack to ether. Figuring out what I need to measure is the first step, then I’ll need to be able to measure it so I can record how rework changes things.

I want to split one antenna for multiple uses to I have a feeder splitting project. There are many ways I may be able to tackle this problem and some are more desirable than others.

Introduction: The Radio Project

I’ve had a general-class amateur radio license for a while and I’ve never really used it too much. Now I’m in a better (physical) place where I can experiment so I’m embarking on a new project.

What Changed & What Didn’t

First and foremost, I have space. Previously I was limited to what I could wire up in an apartment. Antennas can get dangerous and between visitors and the cat there was too much work preventing RF burns, tripping over things and just plain ugly.

Also along the lines of space, I have space to experiment. I made a promise of limiting, “dirty,” work like greasy truck parts and that which generates milled metal dust. Electronics work is, “clean,” in that keeping your breadboard neat is a good habit and no one (who I’m likely to have around) can see in the RF spectrum. I’ve got space for tools, leaving projects unfinished and testing away from the cat.

Still on that track, I don’t have many external restrictions. There’s space to put up antenna masts and I can punch holes through walls for feeders to my heart’s content.

On the negative side, I’m now mired in what’s likely to be ten years’ worth of construction projects. It could all probably be done in two years but I’m expanding the schedule to accommodate work, budget and interesting projects. Before I may have been able to find an hour a day to work on this. Now it’s more likely an hour a week over the stretch.

The place I moved into came with lots of materials as well. I’ve got a functionally unlimited supply of some things (sand, glass and aluminum) and good supplies of other things (steel, rocks, electrical wattage). Further, time spent looking will afford the ability to get lots of used and transcyclable parts from scrapped fixtures like cars, electronics and machinery.

Goals

Fast, cheap and good… pick two. I’m picking cheap and good. Those constraints truly limit just about every choice in the project. Along those lines, most of the choices are for either common parts (like feeder cable) and focus on taking the time to build something that may be difficult (like matching circuits).

I’d like to be able to cover several frequency bands with three or fewer antennas. My intuition says I’ll need one good VHF/UHF antenna, a good HF antenna and something that’ll do well on some lower frequencies (I’d like to experiment with MF and LF or even ULF/VLF based on regulation and availability). I’d like to be able to transmit using reasonable power levels. “Reasonable,” here definitely means within regulation but also what can be attained using reasonable parts. High-power transmission is expensive.

Where possible I want to transcycle as much as possible. I assume this means I’ll be reworking quite a number of component parts as I come up with new ideas. This also means that I’m probably going to have to develop (build or buy) solid tooling and measurement for a great many things. I’m an electrical engineer — not a mechanical engineer — so I’ll probably do more guestimation on weight bearing or wind profiling and build better systems to measure things like VSWR and connector loss.

Personal interest will play into everything. I really don’t care much about the history of the Yagi-Uda antenna. Lowering reactive loss per foot of coax and impedance matching is interesting to me. This probably isn’t the same for everyone but it’s my project.