Back in the loop

My main project for at least the last 12 months has been building a solid magnetic loop antenna and its companion automatic loop controller. I’ve been roughly tracking its progress at my magnetic loop antenna project page on this blog.

As usual, life has got in the way, but I want to get back on track and complete the project. To start pumping some RF current through it again, over the weekend I spent a short time playing with the loop on WSPR on 40, 30 & 20m. The tests were too brief but they certainly confirm that the loop is capable of transmitting a signal in spite of the fact the loop is only half a metre above ground and surrounded by metal garden furniture, a steel framed awning and gutters.

I used the WSPR Beacon android app to control my transmitter. There was some discrepancy (tens of Hz) between the actual output frequencies on the app and those shown on WSPRnet. I also found that tuning the loop to each WSPR frequency using the iP30 antenna analyzer was easy and the KX2 gave lower SWR figures.

The brief test became an exercise in understanding theWSPRnet results taking into account propagation and loop orientation which was aligned north-south.

This map view combines all 20 spots of the 1W VK2RH transmissions from grid square QF56oc. The first test was logged at 2017-05-07 01:36 UTC. (I’ve trimmed repeated info from the chart below to improve its fit on the page.)

Time MHz SNR Drift Reporter RGrid km az
 05:24  14.097001  -15  1  VK4ALR  QG56fk  1151  356
 05:24  14.097016  -26  0  VK4TDI  QG62lm  733  14
 04:48  10.140109  -22  0  VK4TDI  QG62lm  733  14
 04:48  10.140094  -23  0  VK7TW  QE37pc  1057  198
 04:48  10.140091  -17  0  VK6XT  OF86td  3086  261
 04:40  10.140095  -27  0  VK7TW  QE37pc  1057  198
 04:40  10.140090  -4  0  VK3WE  QF32se  547  216
 04:40  10.140090  -22  0  ZL1RS  RF64vs  2069  101
 04:40  10.140092  -15  0  VK6XT  OF86td  3086  261
 04:40  10.140091  -16  0  ZL3GA  RE66ho  2130  126
 03:18  7.040121  -24  0  VK3BAL  QF22mc  711  230
 03:18  7.040134  -7  0  VK3AXF  QF33fn  516  235
 03:18  7.040135  -18  0  VK4MOB  QG62ol  734  16
 03:18  7.040130  -18  0  VK3DXE  QF21nv  720  228
 03:18  7.040128  -12  0  VK2TPM  QF56of  14  0
 03:18  7.040129  -14  0  VK7DIK  QE38cu  918  207
 01:36  7.040183  -16  -1  VK3AXF  QF33fn  516  235
 01:36  7.040177  -16  -1  VK2TPM  QF56of  14  0
 01:36  7.040184  -24  -1  VK4MOB  QG62ol  734  16
 01:36  7.040179  -21  0  VK3DXE  QF21nv  720  228

40 metres favoured north-south, while 30 metres was literally an all-rounder and 20 metres was too brief. These results probably say more about propagation than the loop, not to mention the heavy lifting done by all the reporter stations extracting my down to -26 or -27 dB signals from the noise! Impressive all round!

I wonder how many people are using the Sotabeams WSPRlite antenna tester device. Certainly looks tempting, especially for longer term antenna evaluation.

In any case, the main purpose of today’s exercise was to re-start the loop project. The To Do list includes

  • building & installing the SWR bridge into the loop controller,
  • deciding on the best way to couple the stepper motor shaft to the tuning capacitor shaft,
  • and wiring it all together with appropriate coax and control cables.

Success!

Great moment this afternoon when the Automatic Loop Controller fired up as it should. Happy days.

Automatic Loop Controller appears to be working as expected
The Automatic Loop Controller PCB and display

When I first fired it up, after loading up the Arduino program, all I could see was a dull green glow on the screen. It wasn’t until I remembered a comment from another builder about adjusting the potentiometer on the PCB that controls the LCD contrast.

It was a great relief that my slow and deliberate build – double checking all component values and joints – paid off. Next step is to build the SWR bridge and connect to the stepper motor on the loop.

Also finally managed to make a plate out of perspex to mount my stepper motor on to the supporting bracket on the magnetic loop after much mulling over how to achieve a suitable level of accuracy with my dremel drill press to get the stepper shaft as close to the centre as possible.

Mounting plate for stepper motor
The clear perspex mounting plate is sitting above the white plastic mounting bracket with holes for three support struts.

Not too bad for a cut with a straight baby hacksaw. The key tool turned out to be my old school compass which had scribing points fitted which were perfect for marking out the perspex. I figured that these ‘cross hairs’ would help orient and centre the piece and the shaft. After these shots I countersunk the holes. If it looks a little skewiff, that’s probably because it is!

Success – part 2

Also successful today getting this instance of the blog back online using AWS. Another steep but satisfying learning curve about the nitty gritty of DNS management! What’s in a CNAME? you might ask.

Antenna tuning by stealth

One of the most important documents for anyone who wants to know what makes a magnetic loop tick is Leigh Turner VK5KLT’s “An Overview of the Underestimated Magnetic Loop HF Antenna” which can be found on his club website.

Midway through building my version of Loftur Jónasson – TF3LJ / VE2LJX‘s Automatic Loop Controller, I came across Leigh Turner’s impassioned plea to consider this noise bridge antenna tuning design mentioned on page 32 of the “Overview”. As a concluding note VK5KLT states that he considers “The perceived need for a slick and salubrious auto-controller for properly tuning an MLA is oftentimes overrated and exaggerated, IMHO”.

He argued that elaborate microcontroller aided automatic loop tuning circuits are unnecessary and people should consider using this more covert and considerate approach. I think the bridge could be an excellent idea and a simpler way of staying in tune as you change frequency for all sorts of antennas. For a magnetic loop, it still requires a way to remotely adjust the tuning capacitor.

“The circuit goes inline between the rig and the antenna and sends a gated broadband noise signal to the antenna using a directional coupler and a noise bridge. You just listen on the desired operating frequency and watch your RX S-meter for a sharp dip whilst adjusting the loop tuning capacitor.

You simply remotely tune the loop with the aid of the receiver S-meter while you are on the wanted frequency without keying up and TX power output. This makes tuning a breeze without having to move off frequency and have the TX put out any RF power.”

VK5KLT mentioned the MFJ-212 Matchmaker that uses this same approach (and which is still on the MFJ catalog at US$99.95) and also referenced ZL3KB’s April 2001 RadCom article (pp17-21) as an easy and more economical way to replicate the same functionality.

“The distinguishing merit of the novel gated coupler/noise bridge loop tuning method is it’s completely passive and covert in operation; you don’t transmit any TX power whatsoever to attain an optimal loop tune setting. The technique makes for fast, QRM free, safe and easy QSY shifts and netting a frequency.” Leigh Turner adds that it’s even simpler if you use a pan adaptor or a modern SDR receiver as you can see the sharp null on the screen of the band scope display.

Kelvin Barnsdale ZL3KB’s RadCom article describes building and using the wide band noise bridge as a silent antenna tuning indicator. These four pages include circuit, PCB design and layout and full details of BOM and balun/transformer construction.

RadCom-200104-pp17-21

On 14 May 2001 ZL3KB published a 4-page follow-up pdf document “Instructions for Antenna tuning Noise Bridge” with info supplementary to the RadCom article about construction and operation. This article has an updated circuit and parts layout and refers to an issue B of the PCB. The new board includes places for the LED and dropping resistor R14, and pads for the two 100Ω load resistors and the two diodes D2 & D3.

This is the updated circuit with some updated values.

This indicates parts placement with the updated PCB.

Here is the foil side of the updated PCB

I contacted Kelvin Barnsdale and was lucky enough to obtain the PCB above.