Computing stuff tied to the physical world

RF12 communication

In Hardware on Jul 11, 2010 at 00:01

(This weblog post seems to accidentally have escaped into the wild a few days early…)

The RFM12(B) wireless radio modules from HopeRF, as used on the JeeNode, uses “Frequency Shift Keying” (FSK) as the way to get information across a wireless channel on the 433, 868, or 915 MHz band.

With wireless, there’s always a trade-off between speed and range. More speed, i.e. a higher data rate, lets you either get more data across in the same time or the same amount of data in less time, which might reduce battery consumption. But higher data rates require a larger frequency shift in the transmitter for the receiver to still be able to detect all the bit transitions reliably. A larger frequency shift wastes more power though (I think…). And a larger frequency shift means that the receiver has to accept more bandwidth to catch all the signal details.

Btw, another way to extend the range is to improve the antennas – see this discussion.

I’ll leave the narrow-band vs. wide-band details to the EE’s and amateur radio experts in this world, along with all the RF / HF calculations, because frankly I’m at the limit of my knowledge on these topics.

But what the above comes down to is that we’ve got essentially three parameters to fool around with when using RFM12B’s for wireless networking:

  • the data rate, which needs to be identical on both sides
  • the frequency shift on the transmitter side
  • the bandwidth on the receiver to filter out unwanted signals

Here are the relevant sections from the HopeRF RF12B datsheet:

Data rate

Screen Shot 2010 07 08 at 00.58.29

Frequency shift

Screen Shot 2010 07 08 at 01.00.43


Screen Shot 2010 07 08 at 01.01.15

Screen Shot 2010 07 08 at 01.01.37

The challenge is to find “good” settings, which really depends on what you’re after. The settings used in the RF12 v3 driver are as follows:

  • Data rate = 49.142 KHz (see this discussion)
  • Frequency shift is set to 90 Khz
  • Bandwidth is set to 134 KHz

This was chosen partly on what I found around the web, and partly by pushing the data rate up while verifying that the range in the home would be sufficient for my own purposes (i.e. to reach the office from the electricty meter: a few concrete walls and floors).

It can probably be improved, but since such changes affect all the node in a net group, I never bothered after the initial tests were “good enough”.

The RF12 library now includes a new rf12_control() function, which allows making changes to these parameters. It’s a low-level option, but you could easily add some wrappers and an API to adjust parameters in a more intuitive way.

As mentioned in the forum, there’s a (Windows-only) tool to do the conversion to hex parameter settings. That ought to make it fairly easy to tweak these things, if you want to push the envelope.

Some people will no doubt be quite interested in such optimizations, so if you’ve found an interesting new combination of parameters, please consider sharing your findings in this forum discussion.

Having said all this, please keep in mind that these settings will still lead to fairly low data rates. The default data rate corresponds to ≈ 6 Kbytes/second of one-way data, assuming perfect conditions and 100% utilization (“hogging”) of the frequency band. With the official ISM rules imposed on the 868 MHz frequency band in Europe, each node is allowed to use only 1% of that rate – i.e. about 60 bytes per second of throughput! (there are no such restrictions @ 433 and 915 MHz – but 915 is not allowed in Europe).

There are alternate bands in the 860’ish MHz range, but I’ve never quite figured out what works where, so for now I’m sticking to this simple 1% rule. For day-to-day sensing and signaling purposes around the house, it’s actually plenty.

To put things into perspective: the IEEE 802.15.4 standard used by XBee’s has up to 16 channels of 250 Kbaud each at its disposal, when operated at 2.4 GHz. It’s a whole different ball game. And a different range: 2.4 GHz gets absorbed far more by walls than the sub-GHz bands (which is why mesh networking becomes a lot more important, which requires more resources, making it harder to keep overall battery consumption low, etc).

So you see: speed, range, complexity, cost – lots of tradeoffs, as with everything in this world!

Update – just got an email with a lot more info about the 868 MHz regulations (for the Netherlands, but I assume it’ll be the same across Europe). Looks like cordless headphones get 40 channels to pick from with 100% utilization (in the 864..868 MHz range), so you could pick one of those channels to avoid the 1% rule.