Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The software-defined radio board (an old post)

Two years after my first attempt, I am working on a new board for software-defined radio. In the past, I pursued this as a political agenda, but that made me rush, and ultimately design a crummy board that didn't work. I've split the design into two pieces and this board is the first piece. It has an 8-bit processor with USB slave capability, and it has a Xilinx XC3S400 FPGA with 400K gates, lots of on-chip RAM, and 16 hardware multipliers, each 18-bit by 18-bit. The USB channel can get data to or from your laptop at over 50 megabytes per second. The board has 46 general purpose I/O pins and six dedicated pins. Not counting assembly, which you can do cheaply at home, the board costs about $70, so it's a pretty good deal for a hobbyist.

The second piece of the radio is a board with fast digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital converters, to translate the signals between the digital domain and the world of radio electronics. A receiver would use an ADC, a transmitter would use a DAC. I'd like to design a receiver board first, but I want to get the USB/FPGA board up and running before that.

If you had this thing connected to your laptop, you'd install GNU Radio and you could transmit and receive radio signals. Depending on the analog hardware you had, you could do this on any of several radio bands, and with the USB bandwidth and a fast ADC, you could pull in whole television signals, maybe even HDTV signals. And that's when things get interesting politically, because that's the battleground for fighting the Broadcast Flag battle.

The USB/FPGA board is a remarkable example of what a low-budget electronics hobbyist can do these days. A couple years ago I spent some money on a license for CadSoft Eagle to do four-layer boards but I expect it to fill my hobbyist needs for a long time. Now I can send my Gerber files to PCB fab outfits in China like this one and get boards for ridiculously low prices. As a result, my electronics projects cost very little more than the price of the parts. It's cool, and it calls for a renaissance of electronics hobby activity. To us oldtimers it seemed like the 1970s was the peak for that kind of thing, but it can come back stronger than ever.

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