Getting started with Outernet

Nov 12, 2016


Outernet provides a one-way, free and global data reception service on L-band frequencies (around 1.5 GHz).
Store is a one-stop-shop for a plug-n-joy solution called Deluxe Kit, containing a CHIP microcomputer, receiver, Low Noise Amplifier, antenna and power bank.
Equipment can be used for other signals in the L-band, such as EGC and ACARS - these are way beyond my interest at the moment, so won't be discussed.
Outernet kindly sent a Deluxe Kit with an E4000 tuner for evaluation and experimentation - thank you. The same kit is now only available with rtl-sdr.com blog's v.3 - that receiver is better for L-band signals as we'll see later on.



Before you start reading



If you contemplate receiving L-band frequencies, familiarize yourself with the technology, read rtl-sdr.com's tutorial, and most importantly, check line of sight to your local satellite. Easiest way is visiting dishpointer, enter your address, then select the corresponding satellite according to your geographical location from drop-down menu - you gonna need to scroll up or down, same satellites listed in Settings menu with Outernet software:

Africa - Europe - Middle East:


North and South America:



Dishpointer has no entry for Asia-Pacific (144E).

As a hint, at least in my neck of the woods in Europe, all satellite dishes seem to point in the right direction.
If the antenna can't see the satellite, it can't receive a signal. Simple as that, so for example in a flat, if your windows are facing the wrong way, you're wasting your time.


Availability and shipping



Visit the Outernet shop or Amazon, explore bundles for instant $10-15 savings.
If you're based outside of the States, shipping charges from the official store are brutal: for instance, the cheapest USPS to Ireland for dongle+LNA+antenna costs $22.50 (and if it gets lost Outernet is not responsible), so realistically, you're looking at a $28+ FedEx charge.




Got quality service in return, fast shipping and a delivered package. I'll happily pay an extra $10 for FedEx/DHL/USPS, so I won't get a coronary chasing elusive couriers.
All items were carefully packaged in a cardboard box, anti-static bags for sensitive equipment - unwrapping was, literally, Christmas come early.
One-page user guide detailed setup, assembly was kid's play, screwing components together and powering up a satellite signal receiving station took less time than brewing a cup of tea.
Really, getting signals from outer space takes a reasonable outlay of cash and not harder than finding the right box of tea. Unboxing to receiving signals took less than half an hour.
Note: This post contains affiliate links (you pay the same price as with a direct link) and feature review samples. Full disclosure by clicking here.

Battery bank



Manufactured by Ravpower, a known manufacturer selling reasonably priced power banks. Larger capacity, waterproof and multi-outlet models are also available on Amazon - Outernet charges same price, but Amazon has a wider selection.
Came in a separate box, properly packaged with a short USB to microUSB cable - happy days, same standard as most smartphones and tablets, but still usable with iPhones due to usual USB socket. Surprisingly heavy for its size, same dimensions as a Pi 3, or pack of cigarettes.
10,500 mAh capacity officially, came fully charged, powered kit for an evening easily, and refilled an 8" tablet with concurrent WiFi and Bluetooth use from 2% to 88% before blue bar started flashing. Requires no button presses, plug in device, have power.
Alternatives are larger capacity power banks from China for less money, but when I tested with available 5000, 10,000 and 20,000 mAh power banks, sometimes the CHIP failed to power up. Strange, yours might work.
Chargers: Raspberry Pi 2 or 3 chargers work, minimum amperage tried was 2A.


C.H.I.P microcumputer



I'll call it CHIP or Chip like everyone else does, half the size of a Raspberry Pi 3, came pre-loaded with official Outernet image. Plug and play - I was exuberant that I didn't have to find a microSD card, download and write image for RaspPi use. A microSD card is nearly the same price as a CHIP, and a new single board computer is so much more heart-warming for a nerd.
It does more than just running Outernet software, check out the official webpage for further information. Only one USB port, but that's all what's needed for Outernet use.
A user on FA Discussions reports that the Chip won't work for ADS-B or PiAware use.


Outernet E4000 dongle



Costs around $40 dollars, available on as a standalone product or as a bundle with LNA for $50. In the flesh, it looks, feels and touches (... long drooling and caressing in progress), silky smooth aluminum case, and just look at that beauty:



Manufactured by Nooelec, (but they don't sell it), exactly the same dimensions as a SMArt, same case and PCB and heatsink, genuine Elonics E4000 chipset.




Without heat transfer thermal pads. Why? Pads cost nearly nothing and essential for metal-cased dongles. Had a quick check, and it exhibits standard E4000 characteristics, I'll write a full review when I get over its idiosyncrasies such as an IR receiver inside the metal case.
It works for Outernet, but rtl-sdr.com v.3 works better: Deluxe Kit now comes with v.3. For a reason:




Receiver was the only variable. Any questions?


LNA with filter



The most important part of the kit, specifically built for L-band with 34 dB gain figure, also contains a bandpass filter. Costs $20 from Nooelec, if sold by Outernet, costs $5 more. Not that you can see anything of its innards, components are protected from prying fingers:



I've tried the following preamps with a v.3 once the station was up and running: LNA4ALL with and without bias-T, Janilab's LNA, Novakx5 LNA. LNA4ALLs licked into 2.1-2.2 dB numbers and momentarily achieved signal lock, but weren't usable on the long run. Other ones - not a hope.
Results reflect my location and setup, v.3 and Outernet antenna used. I'm not saying an LNA4ALL won't work (it does at Adam's home as demonstrated in his videos), simply that I couldn't get them to function.
At the end of the day, Outernet preamp was 100%.
Dear Outernet, before you open the champagne on a job well done, please aim the bottle towards the person who forgot to include external power pads, shake vigorously, then remove the cork. This oversight effectively reduces the number of compatible RTL-SDR dongles to 2 (two). SDRPlay also has no bias-T, and that's a large community.


L-band antenna


Patch with 8dBi gain, costs $30.




Three metal plates, the middle one has two opposite corners cut off, so when the cable is either coming out top or bottom, it will behave as a Right Hand Circularly Polarized antenna.
Built tough, finish is first-class, functions as an ADS-B antenna in an emergency.
4 inches / 10 cm cable with right-angled SMA Male connector. That's absolutely, grossly and totally inadequate, antennas should be outdoors, how you gonna route coax cable when routing is impossible due to short length? Outernet's shop doesn't even offer the choice of longer cable.
I've extended cable with RG 58 and RG 59 coax and still got good reception, read details later on.
Update Nov 24, 2016: Homebuilt antenna for $1 had equivalent performance, construction details here.

Do you need all this?



Depends on personal factors, items in the Deluxe Kit are reasonably priced - the fact is that good LNAs and quality antennas cost $20 - $30. Strangely, again, Outernet store does not offer an LNA + Antenna + Chip + Charger combo, which is all you need if you already own an rtl-sdr.com v.3.




Satellites, you guessed right, are far, far away, so the signal is extremely weak. Weak signals never stopped amateurs to receive signals from quickly moving objects like the ISS and weather satellites, and because Inmarsat satellites don't move, elaborate high-gain antennas can be used.
One way to increase signal strength is by using a satellite dish - that's not always feasible due to space constraints. Or cost. Or because the ready-made palm-sized antenna from Outernet does the job for $30.
L-band antennas have been built at home with good performance - Adam's design is available with a video for impatient enterprising souls, or those without $30. If you already have a preamp and ready to build an antenna, go for it.


It's easy



LEGO's Imperial Star Destroyer is aimed at Ages 9-14, has 1359 pieces, and costs $99.
Outernet L-band kit is aimed at Ages [unknown, 4 to grandparent age I guess], has 5 pieces, and costs $99.
Steps:
1. Screw pieces together.
2. Plug in power. Two lights come on, wait a few minutes.
3. Connect to open WiFi hotspot created by Chip with a smartphone/tablet/computer, type in details such as username and location.
4. Point antenna at satellite, receive signals.
The hardest part is finding the damned satellite, initial tries, as in which way should I look, were greatly helped by the Satellite AR app for Android and the dishpointer website. Trial and error then, battery bank enables you to circle around the garden, pointing the antenna in a vague and ultimately right direction, then doing fine adjustments.
Instant feedback on signal strength makes the job easier.


Permanent mounting and cable extension



After verifying that bits and pieces work together and I can get a signal lock despite trees in the signal path, I needed a permanent solution for antenna placement and pointing. This turned out to be my windowsill with a suction cup mount (from a Garmin SatNav) holding antenna in place with cable ties.



This type of mount is called "alt-azi mount", a fancy way of describing it goes left-to-right and up-and-down in small increments. After securing everything in place, I gently moved antenna around and monitored SNR ratio, then locked down final position with screws.
Extending the antenna cable was necessary: SMA female barrel connector and SMArt's 6 feet / 2m antenna cable, then splicing into 6 feet / 2m RG 59 coax with crimp F Male connector into a F female - SMA Male Nooelec pigtail into preamp. LNA and receiver lives at the end of 12 feet / 4m coax, and yes, I know it should be at the antenna, and yes, I will eliminate excess coax when that will be be the last of my worries, but right now, I get more than 4 dB SNR consistently.


User interface and support



Accessed with any web browser by connecting to the "Outernet" network and typing in my.outernet.is as webpage address. From here, you can view downloaded files, tinker with settings, or find out why it doesn't work in the official manual.


What's coming down



News, weather, Wikipedia articles:





Conclusion



All components work for their intended purpose, nicely integrated with understandable visual interface.
Battery bank is optional, but if you go for it, it's quality. Freedom to roam.
Chip microcomputer is a no-brainer, ten dollars for a plug-n-play back-end. No installation worries.
v.3 receiver is the best RTL-SDR dongle available, much better than Outernet's E4000.
Preamplifier is a must, if short on funds and have a v.3, get this and a Chip.
Antenna is well-made, but cable length is a joke. Extend with common coax, or build one from online guides.
Choice is yours, L-band satellite signal reception is no hassle for $100 with Outernet's Deluxe Kit.
Technological and human milestone not only for ease of use, but because it enables anyone free access to information.

5 comments:

  1. I live at 55N 12E also in Europe and tried Adams simple patch together with a LNA4ALL. I can see the correct channel in the waterfall but nothing audible. I suspect reception will be marginal at best from my location, but I havn't tried installing the outernet OS on a RPI yet, so I might be wrong. However I'm in the process of building a 12 turn RHCP Helical. Harder aiming, but stronger signal for sure with such a setup.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm currently building and testing RHCP helicals, two 6 turns will be better than one single 12 turn due to impedance matching, use equal lengths of cable. Aiming is a big pain :-) I got good results and well over 4dB SNR with single 4 turn helicals, but I'm using the official Outernet preamp. I tried double 20 turn (1m at 5cm spacing) helicals with an LNA4ALL and no luck, but it could be down to aiming error on my part.
      Get a 34 dB preamp.

      Delete
  2. Akos, you are doing something wrong. At the moment (heavy rain) I am downloading from the Outerent using only 1 turn Helix antenna, indoor (on my window) and a pair of LNA4ALL with L-band filter in between and old RTL-SDR dongle (V.2). The news are coming down now. The S/n is roughly 3dB but going up and down due to nasty weather. Frame lock is constant and solid.

    20 turns helix should give you 16dBi of the gain, and you should have S/n of 13db on the outerent signal with the single LNA4ALL and the dongle.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Many thanks for the comment, I'm also in the process of building helicals, but weather here is so bad I can't do any further outdoor testing with my homebuilt 20 turn helical, and I have no line of sight from indoors. I don't have your L-band filter either.

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  4. how you get the drivers for the cards outernet SDRX my pc couldn't recognize it

    ReplyDelete