Wireless Data Links (Part 2): Transmitters and Antennas

If you built your own ham radio “back in the day,” you’ll recall the frustration of putting it together with components that were basic at best.

But as columnist George Novacek points out in the second installment of his series examining wireless data links: “Today you can purchase excellent, reasonably priced low-power gear for data communications off the shelf.”

Transmitter and receiver

Photo 1: SparkFun Electronics’s WRL-10524 transmitter and WRL-10532 receiver are low cost, basic, and work well.

Part 2 of Novacek’s series, appearing in the March issue, looks at transmitters and antennas.

In one section, Novacek expands upon the five basic data-transmitter modules—a data encoder, a modulator, a carrier frequency generator, an RF output amplifier, and an antenna:

Low-power data transmitters often integrate the modulator, the carrier frequency generator, and the amplifier into one circuit. A single transistor can do the job. I’ll discuss antennas later. When a transmitter and a receiver are combined into one unit, it’s called a transceiver.

Modulation may not be needed in some simple applications where the mere presence of a carrier is detected to initiate an action. A simple push button will suffice, but this is rarely used as it is subject to false triggering by other transmitters working in the area in the same frequency band.

Digital encoder and decoder ICs are available for simple devices (e.g., garage door openers) or keyless entry where just an on or off output is required from the receiver. These ICs generate a data packet for transmission. If the received packet matches the data stored in the decoder, an action is initiated. Typical examples include Holtek Semiconductor HT12E encoders and HT12D decoders and Freescale Semiconductor MC145026, MC145027, and MC145028 encoder and decoder pairs. For data communications a similar but more advanced scheme is used. I’ll address this when I discuss receivers (coming up in Part 3 of this series).

Novacek’s column goes on to explain modulation types, including OOK and ASK modulation:

OOK modulation is achieved by feeding the Data In line with a 0-to+V-level  datastream. ASK modulation can be achieved by the data varying the transistor biasing to swing the RF output between 100% and typically 30% to 50% amplitude. I prefer to add a separate modulator.

The advantage of ASK as opposed to OOK modulation is that the carrier is always present, thus the receiver is not required to repeatedly synchronize to it. Different manufacturers’ specifications claim substantially higher achievable data rates with ASK rather than OOK.

For instance, Photo 1 shows a SparkFun Electronics WRL-10534 transmitter and a WRL-10532 receiver set for 433.9 MHz (a 315-MHz set is also available), which costs less than $10. It is a bare-bones design, but it works well. When you build supporting circuits around it you can get excellent results. The set is a good starting point for experimentation.

The article also includes tips on a transceiver you can purchase to save time in developing ancillary circuits (XBee), while noting a variety of transceiver, receiver, and transmitter modules are available from manufacturers such as Maxim Integrated, Micrel, and RF Monolithics (RFM).  In addition, the article discusses design and optimization of the three forms of antennas: a straight conductor (monopole), a coil (helical), and a loop.

“These can be external, internal, or even etched onto the PCB (e.g., keyless entry fobs) to minimize the size,” Novacek says.

Do you need advice on what to consider when choosing an antenna for your design?  Find these tips and more in Novacek’s March issue article.

Wireless Product Regulations (EE Tip #123)

Are you working on a wireless design that you’d like to bring to market? If so, be sure to anticipate regulatory constraints right from the start. Planning upfront will save you a lot of time, money, and hassle.

Electrical engineer Robert Lacoste notes:

Unless you’re working on a prototype that won’t ever leave your lab, there is a high probability that you will need to comply with some regulations. FCC and CE are the most common, but you’ll also find local regulations as well as product-class requirements for a broad range of products, from toys to safety devices to motor-based machines. (Refer to my article “CE Marking in a Nutshell,” Circuit Cellar 257, for more information.CE Mark

Let’s say you design a wireless gizmo for the U.S. market and later find that your customers want to use it in Europe. This means you lose years of work, as well as profits, because you overlooked your customers’ needs and the regulations in place in different locales.

When designing a wireless gizmo that will be used outside the U.S., having adequate information from the start will help you make good decisions. An example would be selecting a worldwide-enabled band like the ubiquitous 2.4 GHz. Similarly, don’t forget that EMC/ESD regulations require that nearly all inputs and outputs should be protected against surge transients. If you forget this, your beautiful, expensive prototype may not survive its first day at the test lab.

Lacoste’s full article appeared in Circuit Cellar’s anniversary issue, CC25.

An Organized Space for Programming, Writing, and Soldering

AndersonPhoto1

Photo 1—This is Anderson’s desk when he is not working on any project. “I store all my ‘gear’ in a big plastic bin with several smaller bins inside, which keeps the mess down. I have a few other smaller storage bins as well hidden here and there,” Anderson explained.

AndersonPhoto2

Photo 2—Here is Anderson’s area set up for soldering and running his oscilloscope. “I use a soldering mat to protect my desk surface,” he says. “The biggest issue I have is the power cords from different things getting in my way.”

Al Anderson’s den is the location for a variety of ongoing projects—from programming to writing to soldering. He uses several plastic bins to keep his equipment neatly organized.

Anderson is the IT Director for Salish Kootenai College, a small tribal college based in Pablo, MT. He described some of his workspace features via e-mail:

I work on many different projects. Lately I have been doing more programming. I am getting ready to write a book on the Xojo development system.

Another project I have in the works is using a Raspberry Pi to control my hot tub. The hot tub is about 20 years old, and I want to have better control over what it is doing. Plus I want it to have several features. One feature is a wireless interface that would be accessible from inside the house. The other is a web control of the hot tub so I can turn it on when we are still driving back from skiing to soak my tired old bones.

I am also working on a home yard sprinkler system. I laid some of the pipe last fall and have been working on and off with the controller. This spring I will put in the sprinkler heads and rest of the pipe. I tend to like working with small controllers (e.g., the Raspberry Pi, BeagleBoard’s BeagleBone, and Arduino) and I have a lot of those boards in various states.

Anderson’s article about a Raspberry Pi-based monitoring device will appear in Circuit Cellar’s April issue. You can follow him on Twitter at @skcalanderson.

Wireless Data Links (Part 1)

In Circuit Cellar’s February issue, the Consummate Engineer column launches a multi-part series on wireless data links.

“Over the last two decades, wireless data communication devices have been entering the realm of embedded control,” columnist George Novacek says in Part 1 of the series. “The technology to produce reasonably priced, reliable, wireless data links is now available off the shelf and no longer requires specialized knowledge, experience, and exotic, expensive test equipment. Nevertheless, to use wireless devices effectively, an engineer should understand the principles involved.”

Radio communicationsPart 1 focuses on radio communications, in particular low-power, data-carrying wireless links used in control systems.

“Even with this limitation, it is a vast subject, the surface of which can merely be scratched,” Novacek says. “Today, we can purchase ready-made, low-power, reliable radio interface modules with excellent performance for an incredibly low price. These devices were originally developed for noncritical applications (e.g., garage door openers, security systems, keyless entry, etc.). Now they are making inroads into control systems, mostly for remote sensing and computer network data exchange. Wireless devices are already present in safety-related systems (e.g., remote tire pressure monitoring), to say nothing about their bigger and older siblings in remote control of space and military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).”

An engineering audience will find Novacek’s article a helpful overview of fundamental wireless communications principles and topics, including RF circuitry (e.g., inductor/capacitor, or LC, circuits), ceramic surface acoustic wave (SAW) resonators, frequency response, bandwidth, sensitivity, noise issues, and more.

Here is an article excerpt about bandwidth and achieving its ideal, rectangular shape:

“The bandwidth affects receiver selectivity and/or a transmitter output spectral purity. The selectivity is the ability of a radio receiver to reject all but the desired signal. Narrowing the bandwidth makes it possible to place more transmitters within the available frequency band. It also lowers the received noise level and increases the selectivity due to its higher Q. On the other hand, transmission of every signal but a non-modulated, pure sinusoid carrier—which, therefore, contains no information—requires a certain minimum bandwidth. The required bandwidth is determined by the type of modulation and the maximum modulating frequency.

“For example, AM radios carry maximum 5-kHz audio and, consequently, need 10-kHz bandwidth to accommodate the carrier with its two 5-kHz sidebands. Therefore, AM broadcast stations have to be spaced a minimum of 20 kHz apart. However, narrowing the bandwidth will lead to the loss of parts of the transmitted information. In a data-carrying systems, it will cause a gradual increase of the bit error rate (BER) until the data becomes useless. At that point, the bandwidth must be increased or the baud rate must be decreased to maintain reliable communications.

“An ideal bandwidth would have a shape of a rectangle, as shown in Figure 1 by the blue trace. Achieving this to a high degree with LC circuits can get quite complicated, but ceramic resonators used in modern receivers can deliver excellent, near ideal results.”

Figure 1: This is the frequency response and bandwidth of a parallel resonant LC circuit. A series circuit graph would be inverted.

Figure 1: This is the frequency response and bandwidth of a parallel resonant LC circuit. A series circuit graph would be inverted.

To learn more about control-system wireless links, check out the February issue now available for membership download or single-issue purchase. Part 2 in Novacek’s series discusses transmitters and antennas and will appear in our March issue.

Build an Inexpensive Wireless Water Alarm

The best DIY electrical engineering projects are effective, simple, and inexpensive. Devlin Gualtieri’s design of a wireless water alarm, which he describes in Circuit Cellar’s February issue, meets all those requirements.

Like most homeowners, Gualtieri has discovered water leaks in his northern New Jersey home after the damage has already started.

“In all cases, an early warning about water on the floor would have prevented a lot of the resulting damage,” he says.

You can certainly buy water alarm systems that will alert you to everything from a leak in a well-water storage tank to moisture from a cracked boiler. But they typically work with proprietary and expensive home-alarm systems that also charge a monthly “monitoring” fee.

“As an advocate of free and open-source software, it’s not surprising that I object to such schemes,” Gualtieri says.

In February’s Circuit Cellar magazine, now available for membership download or single-issue purchase, Gualtieri describes his battery-operated water alarm. The system, which includes a number of wireless units that signal a single receiver, includes a wireless receiver, audible alarm, and battery monitor to indicate low power.

Photo 1: An interdigital water detection sensor is shown. Alternate rows are lengths of AWG 22 copper wire, which is either bare or has its insulation removed. The sensor is shown mounted to the bottom of the box containing the water alarm circuitry. I attached it with double-stick foam tape, but silicone adhesive should also work.

Photo 1: An interdigital water detection sensor is shown. Alternate rows are lengths of AWG 22 copper wire, which is either bare or has its insulation removed. The sensor is shown mounted to the bottom of the box containing the water alarm circuitry. I attached it with double-stick foam tape, but silicone adhesive should also work.

Because water conducts electricity, Gualtieri sensors are DIY interdigital electrodes that can lie flat on a surface to detect the first presence of water. And their design couldn’t be easier.

“You can simply wind two parallel coils of 22 AWG wire on a perforated board about 2″ by 4″, he says. (See Photo 1.)

He also shares a number of design “tricks,” including one he used to make his low-battery alert work:

“A battery monitor is an important feature of any battery-powered alarm circuit. The Microchip Technology PIC12F675 microcontroller I used in my alarm circuit has 10-bit ADCs that can be optionally assigned to the I/O pins. However, the problem is that the reference voltage for this conversion comes from the battery itself. As the battery drains from 100% downward, so does the voltage reference, so no voltage change would be registered.

Figure 1: This is the portion of the water alarm circuit used for the battery monitor. The series diodes offer a 1.33-V total  drop, which offers a reference voltage so the ADC can see changes in the battery voltage.

Figure 1: This is the portion of the water alarm circuit used for the battery monitor. The series diodes offer a 1.33-V total drop, which offers a reference voltage so the ADC can see changes in the battery voltage.

“I used a simple mathematical trick to enable battery monitoring. Figure 1 shows a portion of the schematic diagram. As you can see, the analog input pin connects to an output pin, which is at the battery voltage when it’s high through a series connection of four small signal diodes (1N4148). The 1-MΩ resistor in series with the diodes limits their current to a few microamps when the output pin is energized. At such low current, the voltage drop across each diode is about 0.35 V. An actual measurement showed the total voltage drop across the four diodes to be 1.33 V.

“This voltage actually presents a new reference value for my analog conversion. The analog conversion now provides the following digital values:

EQ1Table 1 shows the digital values as a function of battery voltage. The nominal voltage of three alkaline cells is 4.75 V. The nominal voltage of three lithium cells is 5.4 V. The PIC12F675 functions from approximately 2 to 6.5 V, but the wireless transmitter needs as much voltage as possible to generate a reliable signal. I arbitrarily coded the battery alarm at 685, or a little above 4 V. That way, there’s still enough power to energize the wireless transmitter at a useful power level.”

Table 1
Battery Voltage ADC Value
5 751
4.75 737
4.5 721
4.24 704
4 683
3.75 661

 

Gaultieri’s wireless transmitter, utilizing lower-frequency bands, is also straightforward.

Photo 2 shows one of the transmitter modules I used in my system,” he says. “The round device is a surface acoustic wave (SAW) resonator. It just takes a few components to transform this into a low-power transmitter operable over a wide supply voltage range, up to 12 V. The companion receiver module is also shown. My alarm has a 916.5-MHz operating frequency, but 433 MHz is a more popular alarm frequency with many similar modules.”

These transmitter and receiver modules are used in the water alarm. The modules operate at 916.5 MHz, but 433 MHz is a more common alarm frequency with similar modules. The scale is inches.

Photo 2: These transmitter and receiver modules are used in the water alarm. The modules operate at 916.5 MHz, but 433 MHz is a more common alarm frequency with similar modules. The scale is inches.

Gualtieri goes on to describe the alarm circuitry (see Photo 3) and receiver circuit (see Photo 4.)

For more details on this easy and affordable early-warning water alarm, check out the February issue.

Photo 3: This is the water alarm’s interior. The transmitter module with its antenna can be seen in the upper right. The battery holder was harvested from a $1 LED flashlight. The box is 2.25“ × 3.5“, excluding the tabs.

Photo 3: This is the water alarm’s interior. The transmitter module with its antenna can be seen in the upper right. The battery holder was harvested from a $1 LED flashlight. The box is 2.25“ × 3.5“, excluding the tabs.

Photo 4: Here is my receiver circuit. One connector was used to monitor the signal strength voltage during development. The other connector feeds an input on a home alarm system. The short antenna reveals its 916.5-MHz operating frequency. Modules with a 433-MHz frequency will have a longer antenna.

Photo 4: Here is my receiver circuit. One connector was used to monitor the signal strength voltage during development. The other connector feeds an input on a home alarm system. The short antenna reveals its 916.5-MHz operating frequency. Modules with a 433-MHz frequency will have a longer antenna.