The personal website of Scott W Harden

The New Age of QRSS

QRSS is an experimental radio mode that uses frequency-shift-keyed (FSK) continuous wave (CW) Morse code to transmit messages that can be decoded visually by inspecting the radio frequency spectrogram. The name "QRSS" is a derivation of the Q code "QRS", a phrase Morse code operators send to indicate the transmitter needs to slow down. The extra "S" means slow way, way down, and at the typical speed of 6 second dots and 18 second dashes most QRSS operators have just enough time to send their call sign once every ten minutes (as required by federal law). These slow Morse code messages can be decoded by visual inspection of spectrograms created by computer software processing the received audio. A QRSS grabber is a radio/computer setup configured to upload the latest radio spectrogram to the internet every 10 minutes. QRSS Plus is an automatically-updating list of active QRSS grabbers around the world, allowing the QRSS community to see QRSS transmitters being detected all over the world.

TLDR: Get Started with QRSS

  • Tune your radio to 10.140 MHz (10.1387 MHz USB)
  • Install spectrogram software like FSKview
  • Inspect the spectrogram to decode callsigns visually
  • Join the QRSS Knights mailing list to learn what's new
  • Go to QRSS Plus to see QRSS signals around the world
  • Design and build a circuit (or buy a kit) to transmit QRSS

What is QRSS?

QRSS allows miniscule amounts of power to send messages enormous distances. For example, 200 mW QRSS transmitters are routinely spotted on QRSS grabbers thousands of miles away. The key to this resilience lies in the fact that spectrograms can be designed which average several seconds of audio into each pixel. By averaging audio in this way, the level of the noise (which is random and averages toward zero) falls below the level of the signal, allowing visualization of signals on the spectrogram which are too deep in the noise to be heard by ear.

If you have a radio and a computer, you can view QRSS! Connect your radio to your computer's microphone, then run a spectrogram like FSKview to visualize that audio as a spectrogram. The most QRSS activity is on 30m within 100 Hz of 10.140 MHz, so set your radio to upper sideband (USB) mode and tune to 10.1387 MHz so QRSS audio will be captured as 1.4 kHz audio tones.

FSKview is radio frequency spectrogram software for viewing QRSS and WSPR simultaneously. I wrote FSKview to be simple and easy to use, but it's worth noting that Spectrum Lab, Argo, LOPORA, and QRSSpig are also popular spectrogram software projects used for QRSS, with the last two supporting Linux and suitable for use on the Raspberry Pi.

QRSS Transmitter Design

QRSS transmitters can be extraordinarily simple because they just transmit a single tone which shifts between two frequencies. The simplicity of QRSS transmitters makes them easy to assemble as a kits, or inexpensively designed and built by those first learning about RF circuit design. The simplest designs use a crystal oscillator (typically a Colpitts configuration) followed by a buffer stage and a final amplifier (often Class C configuration using a 2N7000 N-channel MOSFET or 2N2222 NPN transistor). Manual frequency adjustments are achieved using a variable capacitor, supplemented in this case with twisted wire to act as a simple but effective variable capacitor for fine frequency tuning within the 100 Hz QRSS band. Frequency shift keying to transmit call signs is typically achieved using a microcontroller to adjust voltage on a reverse-biased diode (acting as a varactor) to modulate capacitance and shift resonant frequency of the oscillator. Following a low-pass filter (typically a 3-pole Chebyshev design) the signal is then sent to an antenna.

QRP Labs is a great source for QRSS kits. The kit pictured above and below is one of their earliest kits (the 30/40/80/160m QRSS Kit), but they have created many impressive new products in the last several years. Some of their more advanced QRSS kits leverage things like direct digital synthesis (DDS), GPS time synchronization, and the ability to transmit additional digital modes like Hellschreiber and WSPR.

Radio Frequency Spectral Phenomena

Atmospheric phenomena and other special conditions can often be spotted in QRSS spectrograms. One of the most common special cases are radio frequency reflections off of airplanes resulting in the radio waves arriving at the receiver simultaneously via two different paths (a form of multipath propagation). Due to the Doppler shift from the airplane approaching the receiver the signal from the reflected path appears higher frequency than the direct path, and as the airplane flies over and begins heading away the signal from the reflected path decreases in frequency relative to the signal of the direct path. The image below is one of my favorites, captured by Andy (G0FTD) in the 10m QRSS band. QRSS de W4HBK is a website that has many blog posts about rare and special grabs, demonstrating effects of meteors and coronal mass ejections on QRSS signals.

QRSS Transmitters are Not Beacons

Radio beacons send continuous, automated, unattended, one-way transmissions without specific reception targets. In contrast, QRSS transmitters are only intended to be transmitting when the control operator is available to control them, and the recipients are known QRSS grabbers around the world. To highlight the distinction from radio beacons, QRSS transmitters are termed Manned Experimental Propagation Transmitters (MEPTs). Users in the United States will recall that the FCC (in Part 97.203) confines operation of radio beacons to specific regions of the radio spectrum and disallows operation of beacons below 28 MHz. Note that amateur radio beacons typically operate up to 100 W which is a power level multiple orders of magnitude greater than QRSS transmitters. MEPTs, in contrast, can transmit in any portion of the radio frequency spectrum where CW operation is permitted.

The New Age of QRSS

QRSS was first mentioned in epsisode 28 of The Soldersmoke Podcast on July 30, 2006. It was discussed in several episodes over the next few years, and a 2009 post about QRSS on Hack-A-Day brought it to my attention. In the early days of QRSS the only way to transmit QRSS was to design and build your own transmitter. David Hassall (WA5DJJ), Bill Houghton (W4HBK), Hans Summers (G0UPL), and others would post their designs on their personal websites along with notes about where their transmitters had been spotted. In the following years the act of creating QRSS grabbers became streamlined, and websites like I2NDT's QRSS Grabber Compendium and QRSS Plus made it easier to see QRSS signals around the world. Hans Summers (G0UPL) began selling QRSS transmitter kits at amateur radio conventions, then later through the QRP Labs website. As more people started selling and buying kits (and documenting their experiences) it became easier and easier to get started with QRSS. Before QRSS kits were easy to obtain the only way to participate in the hobby was to design and build a transmitter from scratch, representing a high barrier to entry for those potentially interested in this fascinating hobby. Now with the availability of high quality QRSS transmitter kits and the ubiquity of internet tools and software to facilitate QRSS reception, it's easier than ever to get involved in this exciting field! For these reasons I believe we have entered into a New Age of QRSS.

QRSS Frequency Bands

This table shows the QRSS frequency range for every major amateur radio band. Primary QRSS band windows are 100 Hz wide, although an extra 100 Hz above and below the band is typically included in grabber spectrograms to aid experimentation in these regions. WSPR bands are often just above the QRSS window, so WSPR transmissions frequently appear on QRSS grabs.

Band Lower Edge (Hz) Upper Edge (Hz) Dial Frequency (Hz)
160M 1,843,000 1,843,100 1,836,600
80M 3,500,800 3,500,900 3,568,600
40M 7,000,800 7,000,900 7,038,600
30M 10,140,000 10,140,100 10,138,700
20M 14,000,800 14,000,900 14,095,600
17M 18,068,800 18,068,900 18,104,600
15M 21,000,800 21,000,900 21,094,600
12M 24,860,800 24,860,900 24,924,600
10M 28,332,800 28,332,900 28,124,600

⚠️ WARNING: These frequencies sometimes change based upon community discussion. The latest frequencies can be found at https://groups.io/g/qrssknights/wiki/3964

When tuning your radio your dial frequency may be lower than the QRSS frequency. If you are using upper-sideband (USB) mode, you have to tune your radio dial 1.4 kHz below the QRSS band to hear QRSS signals as a 1.4 kHz tone. Recommended dial frequencies in the table above are suitable for receiving QRSS and WSPR.

QRSS Knights

The QRSS Knights is a group of QRSS enthusiasts who coordinate events and discuss experiments over email. The group is kind and welcoming to newcomers, and those interested in learning more about QRSS are encouraged to join the mailing list.

Resources

  • This page can be found at http://swharden.com/qrss

  • QRSS Plus is an automatically-updating active QRSS grabber list

  • What is QRSS by M0AYF is a classic summary of QRSS, with many links to detailed schematics and design consideration notes. Notably the sections for receiving QRSS and transmitting QRSS are great places to learn more.

  • QRSS and You by KA7OEI is another classic summary of QRSS.

  • Weak Signal Propagation Reporter (WSPR) is a low power radio protocol that typically operates adjacent to the QRSS bands and provides automated decoding of callsign, power, and location information. Read more at http://wsprnet.org

  • The QRSS Adventure by Dave Hassall (WA5DJJ) has circuit designs and commentary spanning far back into the early days of QRSS. His 1,164,000,000 Miles per Watt Test is extraordinary!

  • QRSS de W4HBK website by Bill Houghton (W4HBK) contains many useful blog posts about advanced QRSS topics. The website also has many examples of special grabs depicting rare events and atmospheric phenomena.

  • Hans Summers' website (the founder of QRP Labs) has many excellent resources related to RF design and early work in the QRSS space.

  • Simple QRP Equipment by Onno (PA2OHH) is a collection of fantastic resources related to QRSS transmission, reception, and software design.

  • Electronics & HAM Radio Blog by Eldon Brown (WA0UWH) has many fantastic articles about QRSS. Eldon's SMT band-edge transmitter inspired me to make a SMT QRSS transmitter many years later.

  • Dave Richards, AA7EE has a fantastic website documenting many amateur radio topics including QRSS. This website has the prettiest pictures of circuit boards you'll ever see.

  • My QRSS Hardware GitHub page collects notes and resources related to QRSS transmitter and receiver design.

Upgraded Amplifier

The design is similar (CMOS buffer driving an IRF510) but I used perfboard to make this one and placed it in an enclosure. There's no low-pass filter on the amplifier itself, but I put a 30m low-pass filter in-line the coax before the antenna. It's currently outputting 20PPV into 50 ohms (1 watt).

Old Amplifier

New Amplifier

Right after hooking it up I saw my signal looking nice on the air:

AJ4VD Spotted in Ontario, Canada (VA3ROM)

AJ4VD Spotted in the Canary Islands (EA8BVP1)

SMT QRSS Spots

This page documents interesting grabs of the signal from my SMT QRSS Transmitter

2019-07-29

Nova Scotia, Canada (VE1VDM)

I was really strong on VE1VDM's grabber last night, but I found it interesting to see such a strong signal in the middle of the day (11AM).

Stack (average of 13 grabs)

2019-07-30

I spotted my signal across the Atlantic. It's pretty weak, but you can just make out the unique shape on EA8BVP's grabber in the Canary Islands (4,000 miles away).

2019-08-03

I spotted my signal in Sweden. This hint of my transmitter was captured by SA6BSS in Slutarp, Sweden at 12:30AM last night.

2019-09-02

I spotted my signal in Switzerland

Bill (W4HBK) emailed the QRSS Knights a grab of my signal from a KIWI SDR captured at HB9EHO in Ittigen, Switzerland.

SMT QRSS Design

This page documents development of a voltage-controlled oscillator suitable for QRSS. Source code and PCB files are on https://github.com/swharden/QRSS-hardware

For QRSS it's convenient to have 2 frequency shift adjustments: a coarse one to set frequency (~200 Hz), and a fine one for FSK (5 Hz). I began with the design below allowing manual adjustment of coarse tuning, then an external input for fine tuning. Eventually I switched to a design where a single voltage controls tuning (coarse and fine). Many QRSS TX designs use a variable capacitor to set the coarse adjustment, but I don't like that design because it means you have to open your enclosure every time you want to shift frequency. If this is going to be ovenized, I'd love to close the box and do all the tuning electronically.

This design worked pretty well. Fixed capacitors (optionally populated) set the frequency so the crystal oscillates in the QRSS band. The coarse adjustment moves the signal around the QRSS band (100Hz). The fine adjustment is pulled high through a divider. Adjust R4 to control how wide the FSK can be.

Real varicap diodes definitely work better than reverse-biased LEDs. A reverse-biasd blue LED measured 60 Hz swing (with a lot of additional fixed capacitance in place to get near center frequency). Replacing this with a BB132 (I had to remove a 5pF cap to compensate) I got a swing of 159 Hz. That's more than double, and that's just one varicap. You can stack them in parallel. Real varicaps dont mind low voltage* I found out, so don't worry about avoiding that super low region like with the LED.

Eventually I stopped trying to separate fine and coarse frequency adjustments and just went with a single voltage for tuning. I can control voltage coarsely and finely using potentiometers, so I was happy to simplify the oscillator design by moving that complexity to the keyer/control system. This is the QRSS oscillator I came up with. It's just a Colpitts oscillator with an output buffer. Note that the buffer will self-oscillate if the oscillator stops, so on-off-keying should be achieved downstream of this circuit. These decisions are made with maximal frequency stability in mind.

I'm glad I used a SMA connector, but in hindsight I should have laid it out sideways because I couldn't close the lid.

Build Notes

  • I used BB132 for the varicap
  • I used 33P for C6
  • For C9 I used 33p (should be NP0)
  • For C11 I used 100p
  • For C10 and C12 I used NP0 120p caps

Ovenization

Ovenization is achieved using two power-resistors fixed to the metal enclosure. A thermistor fastened to the chassis provides temperature feedback. This chassis heater seems to be a winning design, as it is slow but stable. Having loose coupling between the PCB and the chassis is intentional. The whole thing is enclosed in a modestly insulative plastic enclosure. I'm very happy with this design!

Ovenization

QRSS Oscillators Need Ovens

My oscillator looks stable on time scales of minutes, but on time scales of hours it is obvious that it wobbles as my central air conditioning turns on and off. I could go nuts with Styrofoam, but a crystal oven (or chassis heater) is warranted.

Why I want a chassis heater (not a oven heater)

Some DIY QRSS ovens use resistors as the heater element and package the heater and temperature sensor against the crystal. While temperature stability of the crystal is good, I prefer to thermo-stabilize all frequency-determining components (capacitors and varactors) of the oscillator circuit. For this reason, I prefer a chassis heater.

Eventually I want a SMT PCB heater

When I get an oscillator I like using SMT parts, I'll try adding the temperature sensor and heater directly on the board. This is ideal for small PCBs. It would be cool if the board could thermo-regulate itself, then the oscillator would just need insulation, and the heater would require very low power.

Chassis Heater Design

This section documents my thoughts and experiments related to development of a chassis heater. Since I'll build the chassis heater inside an insulated container, I'll refer to it as a chassis oven.

Design

After running the numbers for a bunch of different power/resistor combinations, I decided to work with 50-Ohm power resistors. I'd love to have more 50-Ohm power resistors on hand to use for making dummy loads.

I settled on this part: 50 Ohm (+/- 1%) 12.5 watt resistor ($2.64)

Running 12V through a single resistor would burn 2.88W of power as heat. If we wanted more heat we could add additional resistors in parallel, but this should be okay.

Circuit

After the above considerations, this is what I came up with. I made it on a breadboard and it works well.

  • You can add multiple R4s in parallel for faster heating
  • I ended-up replacing the TIP122 (Darlington transistor) with an IRF510 (N-channel MOSEFET) for better linear operation (since the TIP122 has such high gain)
    • This works great and the IRF510 rests partially on once stabalized
    • The IRF510 gets hot! Maybe you can mount that to the chassis too?
  • You can supply it with dirty power and it doesn't seem to affect oscillator performance
  • I use a multi-turn potentiometer for RV1
  • R6 sets hysteresis
    • Large values promote squishy temperature control.
    • Small values will faster responses but may oscillate
    • Remove R6 for bang-bang operation
  • I suspect this design could be used as a crystal oven
    • Replace Q1 with a 2N2222
    • Replace R4 with a 680 Ohm 1/4-watt resistor (~17 mA, ~200 mW)

Photos

More Notes

I experimented more on 2019-08-31:

  • Switched to an LM335 (not a thermistor) super-glued to the chassis
  • I target 3.10 mV (310 Kelvin = 37C or 100F)
  • Can use LM7805 for op-amp and divider since we are using low voltages
  • A tip122 is cheaper than the IRF510 and works fine

Calculating power dissipation of a transistor heating a resistor

Consider a NPN with a collector tied to VCC (Vcc) and emitter dumping into a resistor (R) to ground. Let's say I'm driving a 50 Ohm resistor as a heater. How hot will the transistor get? Is my transistor beefy enough? To answer this I need to determine the peak power dissipation through a transistor into a resistive load.

We should assume the current flowing through the resistor (I) will be the same as the current flowing through the transistor.

// Ve is a function of R and I
Ve = R * I

// transistor voltage drop
Vce = Vcc - Ve

// power through the transistor
Pnpn = I * Vce

// substitute 
Pnpn = I * Vce
Pnpn = I * (Vcc - Ve)
Pnpn = I * (Vcc - (R * I))
Pnpn = (I * Vcc) - (I^2 * R)

// at peak power the first derivative of current is zero
Pnpn = (I * Vcc) - (I^2 * R)
d(Pnpn) = Vcc - (2 * I * R) = 0

// find the current through the resistor (= transistor) at peak power
Vcc - (2 * I * R) = 0
2 * I * R = VCC
Ipeak = VCC / (2 * R)

// substitute back into original equation
Pnpn = (Ipeak * Vcc) - (Ipeak^2 * R)
Pnpn = ((Vcc / (2 * R)) * Vcc) - ((Vcc / (2 * R))^2 * R)
Pnpn = (Vcc^2) / (2 * R) - (Vcc^2 * R) / (4 * R^2)
4 * R * Pnpn = 2 * Vcc^2 - Vcc^2
Pnpn = Vcc ^ 2 / (4 * R)
Pnpn = Vcc * Vcc / (4 * R)
Pnpn = Vcc * (I * R) / (4 * R)
Pnpn = Vcc * I / 4

// since the power through the resistor is
Pr = Vcc * I

// peak power through the NPN is 1/4 that through the resistor
Pnpn = Vcc * I / 4
  • If I drop 12V through a 330 Ohm resistor it passes 36.4 mA of current and dissipates 436.4 mW of power. This means the transistor will dissipate 109 mW of power at its max.

New QRSS Keyer

I'd like to use an interesting pattern that takes advantage of both FSK and OOK. I want it to be 5 Hz or less in bandwidth, and I want it to be unique and recognizable in cases where only a few seconds are spotted, but I don't want it to be so odd that it's annoying. I came up with something like:

Here's what it looks like on the air:

Microcontroller

ATTiny2313 programmed with C (source code)

GPS serial data parsing

To ensure the message transmits exactly at the 0:00 mark of every 10 minutes, the microcontroller is occasionally put into a "wait" mode where it continuously watches the GPS output (parsing the serial data that bursts out every second) and waits for the minutes digit to become zero before beginning a transmission.

Technical details: The output is 9600 baud serial data in NMEA format. A string buffer is filled as incoming characters are received. If the message starts with $GPRMC we know the 11th character is the ones digit of the minutes number in the time code. Waiting for the next ten minute rollover to occur is as easy as waiting until that character becomes zero.

$GPRMC,184130.00,...
^    ^     ^

The start of a time message looks like this. To identify $GPRMC we just need to match the $ and the C (indicated by the first two arrows above). We then know if we keep reading, we will arrive at the ones digit of the minutes number (the third arrow).

I have some notes on the Neo-6M here

FSK Circuit

I found this design very convenient. A potentiometer (RV1) sets center frequency to let me adjust where in the QRSS band I want to transmit.

The FSK input (which could be digital or analog) is 0-5V, expected to originate from a microcontroller pin. The keyer is programmed to transmits over the full 0-5V range.

The second potentiometer (RV2) sets the width of the FSK input. I adjust this to achieve a bandwidth of about 5 Hz.

The output is buffered, mixed, and sent to the oscillator module with coax.

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