Portable Power For The GQRX Pi 4

I’ve been enjoying finding and listening to all kinds of stuff with the SDR, and since I got it working with the Pi 4 I’ve wanted to use it without needing an extension cord.

I had a lot of trouble finding a battery supply that would do the trick. I have a few of those USB power packs at home and tried them but the Pi kept reporting low voltage.

I then turned to putting a regulator on a 12V SLA battery. Unfortunately, even with capacitors and shielding, the switching regulator I tried put out a lot of noise that the SDR picked up. I knew a linear regulator would be quieter but as I suspected, it only took about a minute before the biggest heatsink I had was too hot to touch.

So… I went back to the USB battery packs.

There are a few problems with those packs. They can also be noisy (there’s switching circuitry in them too), they can sag under load, and most of the USB cables out there are cheap crap that use very thin wire.

I put a load (actually, a Pi 2) on each pack and watched what happened to the noise and voltage on the oscilloscope. The best of the lot turned out to be an older Anker Astro E4 13000mAh unit that held a pretty constant 4.92V and wasn’t too noisy. So I started there.

I don’t know how many USB cables (or pieces of USB cables) I have sitting around. Some came with phones, tablets, or other devices… some were bought separately… some looked good… some looked cheap. I started going through the cables to see what kind of voltage drop there was when there was a Pi 4 on the end (with a micro-USB to USB-C adapter).

None of them ran the Pi without triggering the low voltage warning, and some of them couldn’t run the Pi without triggering the voltage warning even when idle. Two of them were so bad that the Pi couldn’t finish booting. The voltage drop across the cables was as much as 0.62V!

With those results, I decided to make my own cable. Unfortunately, when I looked in my USB parts drawer, I only had micro-USB plugs and USB type A jacks.

Out came the snips and I started chopping up the cables, starting with the ones that looked the best. Turns out that how a cable looks doesn’t mean much when it comes to how heavy the wire inside it is.

Eventually I found one that had considerably heavier wire than what I’d seen up to that point, so I decided to use it instead of chopping up the rest of the cables. I cut it to 60cm, soldered on the plug end, and gave it a try.

It was a lot better, but the Pi was still reporting that there’d been a low voltage condition at some point. I cut the cable to 50cm.

Then 40cm.

Then 30cm.

Then 20cm.

20cm did the trick, and I couldn’t trigger the low voltage warning anymore, even with the SDR plugged in and running and the CPU pinned to 100% (I usually use cat /dev/urandom > gzip > /dev/null for that).

Here it is, the beautiful and reliable USB cable of portable GQRXing:

Yeah, that’s hot glue. Works well and it’s strong but doesn’t look all that great…

Since I only had the micro-USB plugs on hand, I still have to use the adapter, which could also be wasting a bit of power. I need to order some other stuff sometime soon so I may grab a couple of parts to make another good cable or two.

To test the cable and battery pack, I hooked it up to my SDR Pi, fired up GQRX, told it to record the audio, and checked in on it every half hour. It ran for six hours before the battery LEDs showed it was at less than 25% capacity. I don’t like running those packs flat so I stopped the test there.

Before I shut down the Pi, I hopped onto it (using VNC on my phone, heh) and checked whether any of the warning conditions had been triggered (voltage, temperature, etc). Here’s what I saw:

0x0, or no problems at all… after running for six hours straight. Not too shabby!

2 thoughts on “Portable Power For The GQRX Pi 4”

  1. Hey Mark, this makes me wonder… the only bit of metal in a USB plug is the contact. Why not print yourself the case. Then you can have the old car battery charger cable I have downstairs and use that for the power.
    Or, would it be possible to just use circuitboard itself to make a “plug” that can go straight into the battery from the pi? Kind of like a daughterboard, as part of the case or something?

    1. That might work… I’ve seen some pretty minimalist USB sticks that look like the connectors are just traces on a board. It would certainly be more elegant than what I’ve done. 🙂

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