At the time the AM broadcast band had (relatively) recently been expanded up to 1705 kHz but very few stations occupied the new 1605-1705 kHz segment. In perusing the FCC rules I noted that part 15 section 219 had been modified to allow low-power experimental operation in this new segment of the AM broadcast band and I decided that with the lack of activity in this frequency range that it was a good time to put up a "MedFER" (Medium Frequency Experimental Radio) beacon.
The "Balanced Modulator" (Baseband) version of the PSK31
transmitter/exciter. Built to test a concept, it has a few flaws,
but it did work.
Click on the image for a larger version.
The balanced modulator method
Upon investigating various methods of producing a PSK31 signal I experimented with the generation of a bipolar baseband signal that could be applied directly to a balanced mixer. While this method worked well it had the problem than it required that all following stages be linear.
A diagram of the prototype of that transmitter may be seen in Figure 1. For this transmitter a crystal-controlled oscillator is constructed using two transistors (Q1, Q2) and the output is buffered by U3, a 74HC00 quad NAND gate. The frequency used for this circuit was unimportant as it was a "proof of concept" and I (think that I) used a 4.9152 MHz crystal which, although not in any amateur band, still allowed an "across the room" reception with a short length of wire as an antenna. Following the first U3 NAND buffer the remaining sections are used to provide a two phase signal with the output split 180 degrees which fed a very simple balanced modulator consisting of just two diodes, a few capacitors and some resistors.
To provide modulation, a PIC16C84 was used to provide a 32-step staircase modulation using PWM techniques. This PWM output, done using "bit-bang" software uses a frequency of 1 kHz which is exactly 32 times that of PSK31's 31.25 Hz baseband frequency, and is then filtered with a two stage R/C low-pass filter network consisting first of a 4.7k resistor and 0.1uF capacitor followed by a second stage with a much higher impedance consisting of a 150k resistor and 0.033uF capacitor providing around 3dB of roll-off at the 31.25Hz baseband frequency and about 40dB of attenuation at the 1 kHz PWM rate and an acceptable amount of Inter-Symbol Interference ("ISI"). The result of this filtering is that the vast majority of the 1kHz energy is removed, leaving a pretty clean 31.25 Hz baseband signal.
Phase diagram of balanced modulator
circuit in Figure 1. The propagation
delay of the gates result in a rather
imprecise 180 degree phase shift
causing the upside-down "Vee"
in the phase diagram.
While it worked to prove a concept, this signal has a few shortcomings. First, the RF signal from the oscillator and buffer is not likely to have a precise 50% duty cycle which means that a bit more RF energy would be available in one phase than the other, resulting in a somewhat "lopsided" BPSK amplitude envelope that only minimally affects demodulation. The other problem has to do with a NAND gate being used to provide the 180 degree phase shift (e.g. signal inversion) in that the addition of the inverting gate has a few 10s of nanoseconds of propagation delay. While this doesn't sound like much, it does amount to a significant number of degrees of phase even at low HF frequencies and the end result is that the "Phase Diagram" (see Figure 2) is slightly distorted and produces the inverted "vee" pattern.
While I could have gotten this method to work (e.g. used a bandpass/lowpass filter to get a nice, clean sine wave and a transformer to get the 180 degree phase shift) it does hove a down side: All subsequent stages would need to be linear. While not a great technical problem, it did mean that for the MedFER transmitter, which has a 100 milliwatt input power limit, a linear final amplifier would have at best around 70% efficiency which would mean that I'd lose a bit more than 1dB of signal over an amplifier that was 100% efficient. While this may not sound like much I figured that I could do better with a more efficient amplifier scheme.
The Amplitude Modulator Method
Having proven the ability to produce a reasonable quality PSK31 waveform with a lowly PIC I decided to try a different approach: Apply high-level modulation to the output amplifier stage. What's more, this amplifier stage need not be linear at all: It could be a conventional Class C stage which would boost the efficiency to something around 80%, but I decided on going a step farther and use a Class-E amplifier.
While the maths behind the derivation of the operation of a Class-E amplifier can be somewhat involved, the concept is quite simple: When the drive signal to the transistor - typically a power MOSFET at LowFER frequencies - goes low, the transistor shuts off and it does this quickly so that transistor spends as little time as possible "partially" conducting in between "on" and "off". When the transistor turns off the voltage on the drain rises and is pulled up by the choke in the drain circuit, but then falls again due the "ringing" of a resonant circuit on the output tank. Because this tank circuit is tuned appropriately, precisely at the time that the drain voltage hits zero the output transistor is switched back on. The result of these two events is that the FET is either completely on or off which means that little or no power is dissipated in it and when it is turned back on, it does so just when the voltage swings to zero, practically eliminating any losses that would occur at that instant due to the intrinsic resistance of the FET absorbing the current and from other losses of components from tank circuit being "shorted out".
The constructed MedFER beacon transmitter, built on the bottom
of a weather resistant outdoor enclosure to be mounted at the base
of the antenna.
The obvious problem with a Class-E amplifier is that the drive signal must be a square-shaped wave which means that amplitude modulation of that drive signal is not easily managed if efficiency is to be maintained. What one can do is to modulate the power supply feeding the amplifier instead.
Remembering that a PSK31 signal consists of two parts - the amplitude modulation and the phase shift - we can split these two signals in the modulator. The first part, amplitude modulation, may be done by modulating the supply voltage of the output amplifier stage. The second part, phase modulation, may also be done early in the path of the drive signal simply by flipping the phase of the RF signal under computer control. In order to keep the signal "clean" all we really need to do is to time the flipping of the phase with the amplitude being brought to zero so that we don't transmit the broadband "click" that would otherwise occur when we did this abrupt phase shift. The schematic of the transmitter is depicted in Figure 3.
The phase diagram of the signal
produced by the "Amplitude
Modulator" MedFER PSK31
beacon transmitter. The phase
shift is precise and the intermodulation
products are well within the tolernaces
dictated by good operating practice.
The PWM signal was generated using simple R/C filtering in the same way as it was for the balanced modulator circuit, but this time op amps were used to set the offset and gain (or "span") so that the baseband waveform could be precisely adjusted in both amplitude and so that when the baseband signal went to zero, the output power from the Class-E circuit would as well, compensating for the voltage offset of the series modulating transistor, emitter-follower Q4. The output transistor, Q3, is a low-power MOSFET wired into a simple L/C "tank" circuit that is tuned to result on the coincidence of the zero crossing of the drain voltage and the transistor being turned back on by the 25% duty cycle drive signal. Multiple taps are provided on the tank coil making it easy to set both the output power and match it appropriately to the load presented by the resistance seen at the loading coil.
Loading coil used to match the transmitter output to the
feedpoint impedance. This coil is wound using 3/8"
copper tubing and uses a variometer inside the coil
to provide a low-loss means of adjusting the inductance.
For modulation the PIC produces a semi-sine waveform that looks very similar to one "cycle" on the double-frequency output of a full-wave diode rectifier and when this waveform amplitude is taken to "zero" another output of the PIC causes a phase switch to occur. It is in this way that the BPSK modulation is broken into two parts - the phase change and the modulation envelope - and we are able to use a highly efficient, non-linear amplifier for the output.
After constructing this I later learned that a similar scheme was applied to some of the earlier OSCAR amateur satellites. In order conserve precious power, the linear transponders were constructed using the "HELAPS" (High Efficiency Linear Amplifier using Parametric Synthesis) system where the amplitude and phase components of multiple signals in the satellite's passband were converted into their phase an amplitude components allowing both energy-saving class-C RF amplifiers and DC-DC switching converters to be used, the end result being a faithful, amplified reproduction of the input signal with a lower power budget that would have otherwise been required.
Where is it now?
This beacon was mounted in its enclosure on the roof of my house in 1999, using a rather large loading coil (see Figure 6) to match its output impedance to the top-hatted 3 meter vertical antenna - and it is there to this day. While not regularly used, it still works, provided that the tuning of the loading coil is checked before use! Since the beacon was constructed more stations have taken to the air in the "new" AM segement, but its operating frequency - nominally 1704.965 kHz - is just below the top edge of the band, as far away from any QRM as is possible.
In the past the BPSK31 signal from this beacon was copied during the daylight hours at a distance of 75 air miles (approx. 120km) and it had been copied in various places in the western U.S. at night. This beacon has since been modified to so that it may be externally on-off keyed so that "QRSS3" (low-speed Morse with a 3 second "dit") could be sent in addition to PSK31 allowing even greater distances to be spanned under more diverse conditions.
I haven't done much with the code for this transmitter other than add a few features when it was ported to the (then) newer PIC16F84. Needless to say, there are more modern devices available that contain hardware that would have simplified the design such as that to generate a much higher frequency and higher resolution PWM signal and perhaps one day I'll investigate their use.
For more information on this and related projects - including schematics, various applications, more pictures and some source code, visit the "CT Medfer Beacon" web page - link and related pages linked from there.