So… How Do I Get Started With Radio Frequency (RF)?

Exploring the different options available for learning about RF

Almost all the 7.5 Billion people around the world rely on RF in some way, whether it be through their cell phones, an internet connection, or simply listening to the radio! Most people regularly use and rely on RF technology to go about their lives, however, only a very tiny percentage of these people are lucky enough to have an understanding in how RF works. From enjoying a fun and rewarding hobby, to simply figuring out why your Wi-Fi does not reach as far as the kitchen, an understanding of RF has many clear benefits. So for those of us who don’t have this understanding, how should we go about learning?

The Obvious Answer

While not the most exciting option, a good way to learn RF is by studying it. Whether it be taking an online class, or reading a book, these are both good ways to gain a deep understanding in the theoretical workings of RF. Unfortunately, this is not an option for most people. We don’t all have time to get an electrical engineering degree as a prerequisite  before diving into a few good books on the subject of RF. But if you already have a solid background understanding of electrical engineering, and are in pursuit of a complete theoretical understanding of RF, this is a pretty good solution. If this is something that interests you, both reddit and  quora agree that Microwave Engineering: 4th Edition by David M. Pozar is the book to read if you are interested in learning more about RF, and RF circuit building. 

Now that the obligatory “read a book” recommendation is out of the way, let’s move on to a few other more hands-on methods of learning RF. 

Hands-On Learning

We believe that the absolute best way to learn something is by doing it. This means that if you wish to learn about RF, then you must build a radio! That is easier said than done. While you could always jam components together on a breadboard until you inevitably happen upon something which resembles a radio (we do not recommend this approach as it might take you a couple hundred years), there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are tons of companies out there who’ve created excellent kits which should help you get started. Below are our recommendations for a few different kits which should help you progress your RF knowledge. We have organized them based on the skill level we believe is needed to build them. 

For The Absolute Beginner

If you are an absolute beginner, then these kits are for you. Whether you are trying to learn about RF for the first time, or are experienced in RF and want to share your knowledge with your children, both of these kits are a good place to start. 

The first kit we believe is perfect for the absolute beginner is the FM Radio Kit by Elenco. Only requiring basic soldering skills, this kit is perfect for anyone who wants to kick-start their adventure in RF. This kit is described as being for the absolute beginner, and the reviews certainly support this claim. Perfect for learning how to solder, and about the functioning of an FM radio, this kit will teach you a lot for its relatively low price, and you get a working radio out of it! 

Unlike many electronics kits available on the internet, this one has good instructions. Good enough to warrant several mentions in the review section of its amazon page. Not only do the instructions teach you how to build the radio, they also teach you the fundamental theory behind how the radio actually works. This kit is a perfect example of learning by doing. It is for anyone just getting started, and is even good for teaching kids! This Elenco kit is however not the only FM radio kit available. While a little more complicated, the AM/FM Radio Soldering Kit by VOGURTIME is another awesome kit for learning about RF.

This kit is definitely a little more complex than the Elenco kit, however it is still perfect for someone looking to learn. With this kit you will be building both an AM and FM radio in one, making it a little more useful if you plan on using the radio once it is built. Reviews indicate that this is clearly a well-designed kit, being easy to solder, and robust, holding up to a little resoldering which is inevitable when learning. It is certainly annoying when you solder in an electrolytic capacitor backwards and accidentally rip off the solder pad while trying to reverse it! With this kit, that won’t be a problem. 

For these reasons, we recommend this kit to anyone with a little soldering experience who wishes to learn about RF.

Bringing The Arduino Into The RF World

If you have been in the electronics hobbyist world for a while, you have almost certainly played with an Arduino at some point or another. The Arduino is an excellent platform for learning about microcontrollers and circuits, so why not use an Arduino to introduce yourself to the RF world?

There are many options out there for adding RF functionality to an Arduino. The simplest and cheapest would probably be these simple transmitter and receiver modules. Available under a plethora of different names, and pretty cheap, these are perfect for initial learning and simple RF projects. While they don’t have the best range, or any other sophisticated specifications, this is probably the simplest RF module available for use with an Arduino, and are absolutely perfect for learning. 

If you would like something a little more advanced, and with a slightly more impressive range, then these NRF24L01 modules are perfect for you. They are a step or two above the previously mentioned modules, and offer added functionality, such as an extended range, and better reliability.

If you feel like taking your RF adventure with Arduino even further, then modules based on the ESP8266 chipset is the way to go. While technically not an Arduino development board, the NodeMCU development board which is based around an ESP8266 chip is compatible with the Arduino environment. It is extremely easy to transfer over. The ESP8266 has tons of added RF functionality, being able to connect to the internet, or even set up its own network.

Adding RF functionality to your Arduino projects is a great way to learn about RF, and a great way to slowly introduce yourself to it. The only downside is typically when working with these modules and development boards, they will not help you understand the basics of RF circuitry, but rather how data is wirelessly transmitted, which is still a valuable thing to learn. If you are interested in learning about RF circuitry though, the other options on this list are probably better.

HAM Radio

Of course, this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning amateur radio. There truly is no better way to learn than connecting with people, and learning from them, and the best place to find people who you can learn RF from is in the HAM radio community. There are tons of resources online to learn about amateur radio, and there are groups of amateur radio enthusiasts who are always happy to share their knowledge and teach all around the world. Getting involved in a community like this will guarantee a successful learning experience in RF. 

To start operating your own amateur radio, you are going to need a license, so make sure you check with your local government for policies regarding amateur radios, and the process you have to go through to get a license. It is usually not very complicated, and testing is usually administered by members of the community. Nowadays, you can even find all the resources you need to study for a license on the internet, so you don’t even need to buy a book. Though it probably wouldn’t hurt.  Once you have a license, there are tons of kits available and other projects you can embark on to help you learn more about RF.  However, as a good introduction project, or as a good project if you are already an experienced amateur radio enthusiast, we recommend the Pixie QRP kit. While this kit is certainly not as easy to assemble as any of the other kits in this list, it definitely has a lot to offer.

Pixie QRP Kit

With this little kit you will be able to build your own mini 40 m transceiver which operates at around 7.02 MHz. While not the most functional radio, it definitely provides plenty of room for learning. The Pixie QRP is supported by a huge community of hackers, due to its low price, who have all found their own ways to upgrade it, and improve its performance.

If you do build this kit, we strongly recommend you upgrade yours, as through the upgrading process you’ll learn about what each component on the board does, and gain an understanding of RF circuitry. The kit is not perfect though, it lacks instructions, and is not always in English, so some experience in soldering and debugging is definitely required before attempting to build this one!

Summary

In conclusion, there are many different ways to learn about RF, and they certainly don’t stand in isolation. Perhaps the best way to learn is to start with a simple FM radio kit, before diving into a little Arduino, getting your HAM license, and then reading more into the theory. Or maybe you prefer to, do it the other way around.

However you choose to learn, there are many resources available, and many different ways to go about it. It is certainly not overly pricey, or too complicated, so there is no excuse not to start.

If you are currently, or have ever been interested in learning about RF, then we believe the best option for you is to start. Whether it be through one of the methods mentioned above, or your own unique lesson plan, the best thing you can do to help yourself learn is start learning!

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