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QubeCast Max

QubeCast Max is a high powered radio module for PocketQube Satellites, HAB payloads, or anything that needs a small radio transciever.

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I'm in the process of building Australia's first PocketQube Satellite - OzQube-1. As PocketQube's are a new form factor, there isn't much COTS hardware or electronics designed specifically for them. A small community of people worldwide have collaborated to develop a quasi "standard" for the PCB's and internal components of a PocketQube. This is called PQ60.
The QubeCast Max is a high powered radio communications board based on the PQ60 form factor. I'm making the board to test one of the radio module options I had come across. The high output will allow me to transmit the satellite's telemetry and image data to anyone with a computer, SDR Dongle and a low cost antenna.
The PQ60 form factor doesn't have to be limited to Satellites. It can be used anywhere you need a microcontroller integrated with other electronics, such as environment sensors, cameras or even robotics. The high power of this module means a longer range.

A PQ60 standard board looks something like this:

The QubeCast Max is a radio board based on a NiceRF RF4463F30 radio module.

This module is based on the Silicon Labs Si4463 RF chip. This is an integrated ISM band transceiver IC, normally used in devices such as Smart Meters,  The Si4463 has a maximum RF output of +20dBm. (100mW) The RF4463F30 module adds a power amplifier to boost the output to +30dBm (1W). 

The module communicates via SPI to a host MCU, along with several control pins. It can be configured using the same commands as used by the Si4463. 

PocketQube Background

The first PocketQube's were launched in November 2013. My blog has links to public information from each of the satellites. The most notable is $50Sat . It has been operating continuously since launch, and was also made from regular low-cost hardware. For instance, the radio in $50Sat is the RFM22B. It is another low cost radio module, and the power output is only 100mW (20dBm). Yet the telemetry can be received with a SDR dongle and a basic antenna. The microcontroller at the heart of $50Sat is a PicAxe, which is based on a PIC microcontroller. It's similar to what an Arduino is to an Atmel Atmega328p. Despite the provocative name, the satellite actually cost around $250, including the solar cells.

Since then, an online store has opened for PocketQube parts, there have been a couple of PocketQube Workshops in USA in 2014, and around the world, people have started building PocketQube's.

QubeCast Max

Despite the success of the RFM22B in $50Sat, it is only transmitting telemetry, which doesn't have a particularly high data rate. In order to increase the data rate, a better connection is needed. One solution is have a more sensitive receiver / antenna on the ground. The problem is that this requirement rapidly increases the cost and complexity of the equipment. One of my aims for OzQube-1 is to make the ability to receive telemetry and data easy, low cost and fun. This means that I have to move the data rate problem to the satellite. One of the problems with such a small satellite is the limited amount of power that can be generated. I need to validate the concept of using a higher powered radio on such a small craft.

To assist with the development of my satellite, I wanted to build this radio board in the same form factor that the satellite will be in. The PQ60 standard is a community developed standard for the stacking connector and associated mechanical dimensions and electrical specifications for the PCB's inside a typical 1 Unit PocketQube. By testing in this form factor, and by using antenna designs similar to those used for the flight model, I'll be able to validate the module's performance and better understand the power and control requirements.

Which brings us back to the name of the project - "Qube" as in PocketQube, "Cast" as in broadcast, and "Max" because it is a high powered radio. :-)

  • 2 × custom PCBs One board is for the radio module, the other is the adapter for the Arduino Pro Mini
  • 1 × NiceRF RF4463F30 Radio Module
  • 1 × Hirose FX8C connector (top) The exact part depends on the height and spacing required above the board
  • 1 × Hirose FX8C connector (bottom) The exact part depends on the height and spacing required above the board
  • 1 × Right Angle SMA Male connector To connect the module to an antenna, I've chosen an SMA connector

View all 7 components

  • Hedging Bets - Basic PocketQube Power Supply

    OzQube02/22/2015 at 16:02 0 comments

    A couple of project logs ago, I said that I had a couple of options with respect to powering QubeCast Max. One was a power supply connected to the breakout board (ProtoQube), and the other was using an alternative Arduino module.

    The previous log showed the alternative Arduino and corresponding adapter that I designed. This might be fine for what I need, but I wanted to explore the other option using my ProtoQube board.

    So finally the parts arrived! I've written a blog post about the power supply, but here's the cliffnotes.

    Rather than connect a breadboard power supply to the ProtoQube board, why didn't I just build the power supply on the board! It's a dual output, dual voltage power supply, using only PTH components. 3.3V and 5V output @ 800mA. Here's the schematic:

    Nothing fancy here. The only thing to note is that it needs about 7-12V input to ensure the 5V output isn't too low. Between the voltage drop of the protection diode and the LDO itself, a 6V input ( 4 x AA's) isn't quite high enough.

    If anyone's interested, I've put the power supply parts as an option for the ProtoQube board on Tindie

  • PCB's, PCB's, PCB's!

    OzQube02/16/2015 at 13:24 0 comments

    Hello to all the new followers of the project!

    The previous project log I had mentioned a couple of options that would make powering both the Arduino board and the QubeCast Max board alot easier. One option was to make a new arduino adapter based on a version of the Pro Mini that I found on AliExpress - the Beestore Mini.

    You'll notice that the LDO voltage regulator is a bit bigger than usual. That's because instead of the usual 150ma rated SOT23-5 piece, it's a 1A capable AMS1117 LDO. This is plenty to power the arduino itself and the radio module, which, according to the datasheet, draws 540mA @ 5V. I'll be testing at 3.3V, which is the minimum rated voltage, plus the data lines are still 3.3V, even if the modules VCC line is 5V.

    The postman arrived today with the Beestore Mini adapter boards!!!! I used the Dangerous Prototypes DirtyPCB service, in case the stickers weren't clear enough!!!

    These adapter boards have the option to solder in a screw terminal for power input, and there's a solder jumper to bridge the power input into the Battery Voltage Bus of the PQ60 backplane if required. The 3.3V rail from the output of the LDO feeds the 3.3V Bus pins of the backplane connector, which is where the radio module will be getting its power from.

    Stay tuned for some assembled pictures!

  • Still working on it!

    OzQube12/26/2014 at 14:23 0 comments

    I just thought I'd post an update, for all those following the project.

    Since creating the first round of PCBs, the PocketQube form factor - PQ60, underwent a few changes. These changes included the PCB size, the hole location and diameters, and the backplane connector pinout.

    So rather than push on with the original layout, I decided to update QubeCast Max to match the PQ60 version 1.0 specification, as well as update the Arduino Pro mini adapter board. These are both a work in progress, but it has meant that I've needed to change the SMA connector to a UFL connector, amongst other things.

    I also had concerns about powering the board sufficiently. I'm going with 2 approaches for this.

    1. Use an additional breakout board connected to the stack to power both the radio and the Arduino

    2. I found a version of the Arduino Pro Mini that has an LM1117 LDO with 800mA output

    Option 1 is possible because I've created a breakout board, called ProtoQube! I'm even selling it on Tindie. This will let me plug in a breadboard power adapter straight into the power bus of the stack, which will let me run everything.

    Option 2 will need a slightly different arduino adapter, because it seems to be different to the regular Pro Mini, plus they haven't arrived from China yet!

    I'll post more once I've finalised designs etc

  • Almost there

    OzQube10/09/2014 at 15:21 0 comments

    So I bit the bullet and bought a few more of the backplane connectors in various sizes. More importantly, I got the really tall one that will allow the radio board to clear the arduino board! And the result:

    Now if I can only remember exactly how I was going to power the board..... That may be a job for the weekend.

  • PCB #2

    OzQube08/28/2014 at 14:15 0 comments

    Even though this project didn't make the top 50, I thought I'd update it as I progress anyway. 

    The PCB's for the Arduino adapter board have finally arrived!!

    Seeing as I rushed trying to get them made in time, I didn't do any proper silkscreen or labelling. I had to think about why I'd put the extra pairs of holes!! Pin headers for different power sources is the reason behind them.

    And that doesn't help when this board is the base of a stack....So I'll be using right angle headers.

    The other issue is that when the Arduino is attached, the height of this board is quite high, so I'll need to source the taller 5mm connector for the backplane. Otherwise QubeCast Max won't be able to attach to it at all!

    So now that the boards are here - more parts need to be ordered before I can get it all up and running ( and yes, I could much around with a breadboard and solder wires direct to the radio module, but that would't look nice and neat, would it?)

  • Details, Details....

    OzQube08/20/2014 at 12:23 0 comments

    So I need a system design document to meet the entry requirements. In case the design isn't clear from the description, the project logs and the video, here's a basic diagram:

    All the software/coding is done on the arduino.

    And an actual update - the Arduino Adapter board still hasn't arrived :-( 

    I've been considering alternatives for powering the test board. The following are some options:

    1. A TI TPS63001 Buck/Boost regulator on the Rev2 Arduino Adapter, which will allow the setup to run from a LiPo battery

    2. One of the Linear Tech charging IC's that has a built-in regulator....but that may be more expensive. It'll let me run from USB and charge the battery in a single IC though.

    3. Find something in the SeeedStudio Open parts library that I just received.

    Open to suggestions, so feel free to comment :-)

  • Shipping Notification!!

    OzQube08/06/2014 at 13:07 0 comments

    Just received an email with shipping notification for the PQ60 Arduino adapter boards, so it looks like I may be able to have something good to show for the video! Just in time too. 

  • Still waiting....

    OzQube08/03/2014 at 15:59 0 comments

    The PCB's from Itead haven't arrived yet, but I thought I'd add a new update.

    I tried hand soldering the Hirose FX8C connector to one of the first boards, mainly just to try out the process, rather than to create the working version. 

    Turns out .6mm pitch is a bit of a challenge, especially when I don't have any really thin solder! It's easier to put a solder blob over the whole lot, then use some solder wick to remove the excess. Probably not the best way, but it seems to work.

    The pinout for the PQ60 standard is still in a bit of limbo, as there are some changes being proposed. I may hold off from creating a final version of the radio board until the final pinout is known.

  • More PCB's ordered

    OzQube07/22/2014 at 15:13 0 comments

    In order to actually operate the radio, I need to connect it to an Arduino. I've made an adapter board for a 3.3V Arduino Pro Mini, which connects it to the PQ60 format board. I've added a couple of jumpers to select the power source, as the onboard 3.3V regulator won't power the QubeCast Max!

    I'll probably just use a breadboard power supply to feed 3.3V into the Vcc pin or the Arduino, and the 3.3V Bus pins on the PQ60 Connector.

    The local new PCB manufacturer isn't accepting orders at the moment :-( so I'm going to try out Itead this time. Just to get the feel of the process :-)

  • Parts have arrived!

    OzQube07/16/2014 at 15:29 0 comments

    Version 0.1 PCB's have arrived from Seeedstudio today, along with the RF modules themselves. There a few more than the five I ordered, so thanks Seeed!

    Considering these are the first PCB's I've had manufactured, I didn't expect them to be perfect, from a design perspective. First thing I noticed was that the holes for the locating pins on the 60 pin connector are missing. My footprint in Eagle had the holes in the holes layer. Not sure if it was how I generated the Gerbers, but maybe I should just put them in the drills layer to be safe? If anyone has a better way, please let me know in the comments.

    I drilled some slightly oversize holes to allow the connector to sit correctly. A quick dummy assembly followed. To give an indication of size - the board is sitting on a matchbox!

    The silkscreen is missing some of the additional text that I included in the files in the Dropbox, but it also doesn't name the components correctly. Something to fix for the next rev.

    Before the boards arrived, I had reviewed the design and found a few issues. 

    1. I had not followed the correct process for passing through signals from the bottom connector to the top connector. 

    2. Vcc trace is too narrow for full power

    3. Need a capacitor on the Vcc line. 

    4. Vias for power pins on backplane need to be larger, or more than 1 via for the power bus passthrough pins

    Just in time for Rev 0.2, a new local ( in Australia anyway) PCB manufacturing company (Breadboard Killer) has advertised on Twitter a great deal on PCB's - $2.50 per sq inch! So that's 3 of these boards for $7.50!!! 

    I'd better get moving!

View all 14 project logs

  • 1
    Step 1

    Parts Shopping!

    Get all the parts together that you'll need. This includes making the PCB.

    As the completed  radio board is designed to be in a stack with other boards, you need to think about the height of the connectors for the top and bottom of the board. The connectors come in several height options.You'll need to look at the datasheet, and work out what height is right for you.

  • 2
    Step 2

    Assembly

    All the parts need to be soldered to the board. You may want to reflow the backplane connector, then solder the radio module and SMA connector by hand. Or just hand solder it all. Up to you.

  • 3
    Step 3

    Connect Antenna

    Some radios can be damaged if they are operated without an antenna. Make sure that you have either connected an antenna, or connected a dummy load to simulate an antenna

View all 6 instructions

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Discussions

Pinski1 wrote 03/10/2015 at 19:52 point

This would work quite well with my PQ60 - EPS http://hackaday.io/project/4591-pq60-eps

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Austin Marandos wrote 02/18/2015 at 01:37 point

how's this project going?

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Pixel Pirate wrote 07/04/2014 at 22:16 point
Oh wow, that transceiver is just the thing I've been looking for, up to 1000 kbps at 1 watt? Perfect, I may just be able to send 128kbps MP3's from space!

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OzQube wrote 07/05/2014 at 01:10 point
Takes Airplay to a whole new level! Although the losses from space mean that the full data rate of the radio won't necessarily be achieved. But this is why I'm testing it - to see the best data rate I can get.

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Adam Fabio wrote 07/03/2014 at 05:19 point
Talking to micro satellite in space! A great project that might just take YOU to space! Thanks for entering The Hackaday Prize, OzQube! Be sure to upload more project logs and information about your project (Schematics, documents) as you move forward!

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