A Hackers guide to NCE`s Radio Cab System

A Hackers guide to NCE`s Radio Cab System
A Hackers guide to NCE’s
Radio Cab System
Mark Gurries
Revision 1.1
• This document was not written by or in anyway
officially supported by Jim Scorse or NCE
• Content accuracy is the sole responsibility of the
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Wireless Radio
A new way to run a layout!
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Table Of Contents
Radio Basics……………………………………………………. 5
1/4 Wave versus 1/2 Wave Antenna……………..…..………… 17
Make a 1/4 Wave Ground Plane……………………………….. 21
Antenna Radiation Patterns…………………………………….. 23
Conclusions…………………………………………………….. 28
Cab Radio Upgrade Kit………………………………………… 31
Cab Radio Improvements………………………………………. 37
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
The Radio System
• Consist of two parts:
– Base Station
– Cab (Throttle)
Pro Cab
Base Station
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio “Base Station”
• Connects to cab bus.
– Looks like a cab to the command station.
– Draws power from Cab Bus.
– Load is about 50mA or the same as two Engineer Cabs.
• Polls cabs
– Keeps track of up to 48 active radio cabs.
– Prevents (hides) poor radio communication from effecting
performance on wired Cab bus.
– Command station has NO IDEA it is talking to a Radio Cab.
– Layout ID:
• Will only respond to cabs with proper ID.
• Feature NOT IMPLEMENTED in V 1.0 of Base Station.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Base Station Notes
• Two types of Antenna can be found)
– Old base shipped with a off the shelf antenna that is
called 1/4 wave.
• Only good for small layouts.
– New base shipped (after May 2003) with come with
new custom made high performance 1/2 Wave
• Good for ANY size Layouts.
• RECOMMENDATION: Upgrade your 1/4
Wave to 1/2 Wave antenna for all layouts
regardless of size.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Antenna Mounting: Base Station
• MUST screw Antenna ALL THE WAY DOWN.
• #1 cause of poor Radio Performance for Base Station
AND Cab.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Base Station Installation
• Two positions are recommended.
– Upside Down Ceiling Mount…Best for long range.
– Right Side up Floor Placement…Small Layouts
• Side mounting (on wall) is not efficient use of radiation
• Base stations shown with optional “Ground Plane”
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Cab
• A Standard Cab with extra Radio Board installed
• Radio Board
– Adds a battery power supply circuit to run entire cab.
– Allows seamless switchover from radio to wire operation when
plugged into cab panel.
– Manages communication with the base station.
• Hides radio system. The cab itself has no idea it is using radio.
• Translates Radio Signal into standard internal “Local” Cab Bus signals.
• “Layout ID”: Can talk to a specific base station on a given layout when
in the presence of multiple layouts with active base station.
– Implements Local Radio Setup Menu.
• Accessed via “EXPN” Key.
• Radio Shutdown
• Setup: Auto-shutdown time, Low Bat Alarm, Special Radio modes, ect.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Operation: Usage
• General:
– Pushing Buttons: Press with slow deliberate (not hard) motion.
– Best to avoid programming and stick to loco operation only.
• Power
– TURN ON: Press Emergency Stop button leaning (tilting
button) on the 3 o’clock side.
– ProCab Backlight: Keypress turns it on. Stays on for 3
seconds after last key press.
– Auto Power Off: Turn off delay from last cab action.
• Range is 1 to 9 Minutes. 0 disables Auto Shutdown.
• Default is 5 minutes. Adjustable up to 9 minutes on ProCab.
• TRICK, Intermediate Cab Adjustment: Momentarily install
intermediate cab radio board into ProCab, set Auto Shutdown time to
desired value, then move radio board back to Intermediate Cab.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Operation: Battery Life (1)
• Master (Pro) Cab
– LED Backlight draws 66% of the cab power.
– Requires 4 AAA Batteries.
– 30 to 40 hour life using 2 to 3 hour operating sessions.
• Intermediate Cab
– No display saves a lot of power.
– Requires 2 AAA Batteries.
– 60 hour life using 2 to 3 hour operating sessions.
• Any battery chemistry will work
– Rechargeable best for very high usage.
– Alkaline for long life medium to light usage.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Operation: Battery Life (2)
• Radio Kits
– NCE offered a “kit” for early radio adopters.
– Problem with Kits: Draw a constant but small amount
of power even when power is off.
• Will drain batteries in about two months!
– Battery life experience will vary a lot with your usage
• People who use the radio cab very little will see battery life
• People who use the radio cab almost every day will
experience good battery life.
– Factory radio cabs have fix at the expense of low
battery warning.
– Bottom Line: Your Mileage will vary!!
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Operation: Addresses
• Address is the same on both wire and wireless operation.
– The command station sees a radio cab address the same as wire
cab address.
• Radio Cabs use a sub range of the total cab address
– Maximum number of radios that can be used is 48.
• Radios are limited to 48 of the 63 total cab addresses.
– ProCabs are limited to addresses 3 to 18. (16)
• ProCabs require memory in the Base Station to cache display data.
• Display will not work in address range >18.
– Intermediate Cabs limited to addresses 19 to 50 (32)
• You can use ProCab address range but performance will suffer.
• You must manage the ALL addresses accordingly.
– A Good Address strategy would be to start cab radios at high
addresses and work down. Normal Cabs work up.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Operation: Frequency
• NCE uses public domain low power 916.5 MHz Radio
• Compatibility with other railroad radio systems/products
– 900MHz cordless phones. Spread Spectrum versions are OK.
– EasyDCC, Not OK.
• Uses up to 8 different frequencies (in MHz)
– 903.37, 906.37, 907.87, 909.37, 912.37, 915.37, 919.87, 921.37
• Can coexist if you set up the EasyDCC system to avoid this frequency.
Digitrax: ~915MHz, Not OK.
Train Cam: 916MHz, Not OK.
LGB(USA version): 916.5MHz, Not OK
Lionel TMCC Wireless: 26.75MHz, OK
AristoCraft CREST System 27MHz, OK
LocoLink: 75.410MHz, OK
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Ordering Information
• Base Station: RB01
• Intermediate Cabs
– Factory: CAB04PR, CAB04ER, CAB05R
– Upgrade Kit: RU-4/5
• ProCabs
– Factory: ProCab-R
– Upgrade Kit: RU-P
• Version 1.2 Cab will need to special order a new “battery”
replacement back piece.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Antennas: 1/4 Wave vs. 1/2 wave
1/4 Wave
1/2 Wave
1/2 Wave is twice as long as 1/4 Wave.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Antenna Range Comparisons
% Change
% Change
24 Ft
(0% Ref)
60 Ft
(0% Ref)
1/4 + Gnd
26 Ft
84 Ft
1/4 + Gnd
51 Ft
137 Ft
35 Ft
135 Ft
61 Ft
164 Ft
All test done in an outside using line of site paths.
1/4 + Gnd: 1/4 Wave Antenna + Ground Plane (Tin Plate).
Body Distance: Distance with human body between cab and base.
Max Distance: Maximum distance with no obstruction.
All distance measurements are average values of multiple repeated test.
Cab Activity used in test: Changing direction back and forth.
Test #1 represents original shipping configuration.
Test #4 represents current shipping configuration.
Test Performed by Don Fiehmann 5/26/03
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
1/4 Wave Antenna
• Original Antenna shipped with base station and cabs.
– Key physical Feature: About 3” tall.
– Radio Range: Short to Medium
• Due to ergonomic reasons, the antenna implementation
is less than optimal on Cab and Base Station.
– Efficiency is low.
– Radiation pattern is very narrow. OK for small layouts.
• Simple low cost improvement available for base Station.
– Add a 6” or larger diameter “Ground Plane” using disposable
Tin Pie or Cake Plate.
– Improves radiation pattern, range and Efficiency.
– Practical for base station only. Plate will not ergonomically
work well on a cab.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
1/2 Wave Antenna
• New standard Antenna for Base station.
– Key physical feature: About 6” tall.
– Radio Range: Medium to Large
• Improved performance
Reclaims lost RF power relative to 1/4 Wave.
RF Power is spread over a larger area.
Reception sensitivity improves the same amount.
Transmission power feeding the antenna remains the same.
Does not require a ground plane.
• Installing one does not hurt anything.
• You can upgrade old 1/4 Wave to 1/2Wave
– Cost $16.95 US
– Works on both Base Station and Cab.
– Simply remove old antenna and install new one.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Making A 1/4 Wave Ground Plane
• Definition: A Ground Plane is an electrical conductive surface
that provides a ground reference for the antenna.
• It can be round, square or any size as long at the you can achieve
a minimum diameter that is 2 times or greater relative to the
height of the Antenna.
• A simple plane can be made out of a tin pie cooking plate or pan.
The thin-ness of the tin allows good connection.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Making A 1/4 wave Ground Plane
• Drill a hole ~1/4” (0.2455”) Diameter in exact center of
ground plane.
• The ground hole MUST have a good connection to the
antenna’s coaxial connector “screw” ground.
– A good fit would need the plane to be “spun” down on the
screw threads to get it all the way down.
Note: Conductive black paint was
used in the construction of this
ground plane. Not required.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Reading Antenna Patterns
– This works BOTH ways. Receiving and Transmitting.
– There is no radiation at the end of the antenna, DEAD SPOT, “Cone of silence”.
Weak Signal Outside
Weak Signal Outside
Strong Signal
No Signal
On End!
Strong Signal
Side View
(only 1/2 (right side) of pattern shown)
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Antenna Radiation Patterns: 1/4 Wave
3D Picture: Think of a slightly
smashed oval donut cut in half
length wise. No radiation comes out
of the rear of the Antenna. It all on
the front.
3D Picture: Think of a normal donut cut in half
length wise. No radiation comes out of the rear of
the Antenna
Stock 1/4 Wave
Oval “Deformed” Donut
1/4 Wave + Ground Plane
Full 360 Half Donut Radiation
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Antenna Radiation Patterns: 1/2 Wave
3D Picture: Think of a
normal donut. Radiation
comes out in BOTH front
and rear directions of
antenna. No ground plane
The 1/2 Wave antenna is
more efficient than the 1/4
Wave, however, it must
spread the power gain over
a larger area. But it is also Rear
more sensitive in picking up
1/2 Wave, No Ground Plane
cab signals.
Full 360 Donut Radiation
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
1/2 Wave
No Signal
Antenna Radiation Patterns: (Side View)
1/2 Wave
1/4 Wave +
No Signal
1/4 Wave
1/4 Wave +
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
1/4 Wave
Antenna Radiation Patterns: (Top View)
Metal Object
Through Body Radiation
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
• Antenna Upgrades
– When using a 1/4 Wave base Station:
• Cheapest Upgrade: Install a Ground Plane
• Value Upgrade for multiple Radio Cabs (club): Install a 1/2 Wave
Antenna on Base Station. Best for ProCabs for faster Display Updates.
• Performance Upgrade with a few Radio Cabs: Install 1/2 Wave on
Cabs. Best for Intermediate Cabs for fast button/control response.
• Top Performance: Use 1/2 wave on everything.
– 1/2 Wave antenna creates “omni-directional” transmission pattern allowing
more alternative RF paths to be found.
– Although most people will experience radio performance
improvements with Antenna upgrades, some will not.
• As antenna efficiency, range and sensitivity improves, so does it’s
susceptibility to external noise sources.
• As they say, Your Mileage Will Vary.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
• Successful Radio Cab Usage
– Keep your body out of the radio beam line of site back to the base station.
• The weakest link in the radio system is the cab transmission back to the base
• The human body easily absorbs a lot of the cab transmitted RF power coming
from the cab.
• LED on top of cab will give you a sense of signal strength.
– Constant flash = Strong Signal. Erratic flash = Weak Signal
– Do not point antenna at base station.
• There is no radio signal out the end of the Antenna.
• Orient you body at right angles (90 Degrees) to the base station.
– Do not get closer than 3 to 4 feet to the base station.
• To strong of a signal will kill communications.
• Led on cab will stop blinking!
– Avoid doing any function other than train control on the ProCab.
• Treat it like a intermediate Cab.
• Ignore the display. A slow display update will make operation frustrating.
– Turn off the Low Battery Alarm.
• Get rid of the “LESS 1.0” display.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
• Best Base Station Placement
– Placement would maximize line of sight coverage over operation area.
– Place it at the geographical center of the room.
– Keep any metal material such as ventilation duct work or wire mesh away
from base station. Plastic or wood will not hurt radio signal.
• Will block radio signal.
– 1/4 Base
• Place upside down above the highest radio cab elevation to be encountered.
Typically on the ceiling of the layout room.
– 1/2 Base
• 1/4 placement will work.
• If your layout is multilevel, consider placement at a height from the ground that
is 1/2 way between upper and lower levels. Optimize height from a cab held
elevation point of view. This technique takes advantage of the forward and
backward antenna radiation patterns.
• You can also try mounting the base station at shoulder level on the layout itself
as opposed to the ceiling. Hide it in a tall building or mountain. This places the
base station even closer to the user.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Upgrade Kit (ProCab)
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Installed (ProCab)
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
• Status
Radio Kit for Cabs
– Radio Upgrade Kits have been officially discontinued.
• You may still find them by checking with various NCE dealers.
• Upgrade Limitations
– Will only work with NCE “Radio Ready” Cabs.
– Intermediate (Engineer) Cab:
• Remove battery cover and look inside for white 9 pin connector on
back of PCB.
– ProCab: Will only work with V1.2 or V1.3 (current) cabs.
• V1.3 They have a battery slot on the back.
• V1.2 Cab: Says V1.2 on startup Display & No battery slot on back.
– Can’t read ID? Go to Cab Setup Menu.
– Must order new replacement cab back with battery slot.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Upgrade Kit for Cabs(2)
• Kit Notes
– Two Kits: Engineer and ProCab.
• Same radio board but different battery wiring. Order correct kit!
– Requires user to open cab, drill and mount radio board. No soldering
Signal Strength LED
To Antenna
Radio Controller
Radio Transceiver
To Cab Board
Battery Connector
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Upgrade Kit: Antenna Mounting
• Problem: Antenna cannot screw all the way down.
– Does NOT allow proper internal center pin contact.
– Antenna does NOT get the full signal to transmit and receive.
• Cause: An improperly drilled Antenna hole.
– Hole is to small to allow shoulder of the coaxial Antenna
connector to pass through the plastic wall.
Exposed Connector
Shoulder Ring
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Radio Upgrade Kit: Antenna Mounting(2)
passes through
plastic wall!
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Cab Radio Improvements
• Battery Drain
– Problem: The cab radio has a low battery “Low Bat” monitor
circuit. However, this circuit also drains the battery (slowly).
If you use your radio once a month or less, you will find these
changes useful.
– Fix #1: NCE modification of Radio Board Circuit
• Change two resistors
• Minimizes battery drain.
• Permanently disables “Low Battery” detection.
– Fix #2: Add a power switch (SPST) in series with one of the
battery leads.
• Best solution that ELIMINATES battery drain.
• Your will have to find, drill and install switch yourself.
– You can do one or the other or both!
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Cab Radio Improvements(2)
• Hard to Power On (even when pressing 3:00 position)
Problem: Insufficient power up interlock drive.
Fix#3: One resistor change on Radio Board.
Problem: LCD Backlight draws to much power.
Fix#4: One resistor change on Cab Board.
Fix#5: Check back of LCD Board for Resistors. If exist,
• “LESS 1.0” stuck in Clock Display Area
– Problem: Software “Low Bat” Alarm Mode is On. Radio
software reserves clock display space to show low battery
warning when it occurs.
– Fix: Go to radio menu and turn off Low Bat Mode.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Cab Radio Improvements(3)
Do not use a large
high power
soldering Iron.
These parts are
small and delicate.
Excessive heat can
damage the parts
and boards.
Fix #1
If you are unsure
about making these
changes, find
someone else to do
the work for you.
Fix #3
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Cab Radio Improvements(4)
Fix #1
“332” resistor
new position.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Cab Radio Improvements(5)
Fix #2: Front
of Throttle
Picture of switch showing
Part Number from Digikey.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Cab Radio Improvements(6)
Fix #2: Switch
Fix. SPDT or
DPDT switch
Switch Installed. Use both
nuts. Use one inside to act
as spacer.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Completed Wiring
Cab Radio Improvements(7)
Fix #4: LED
power reduction.
Change 10 Ohm
(100 marking)
resistor to 47 Ohm
Fix #5: LCD Resistors.
Remove any found in
these 3 locations. Only
applies to PHICO
boards EXCEPT model
P113-2A. You must
return the cab to NCE if
you have a 2A board.
“470” 47 Ohm
resistor position.
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
• Antenna Information
– http://www.qsl.net/w4sat/antenna.htm
– http://www.virtualtechnologiesltd.com/FAQs/Antenna%20FAQ.htm
– http://www.tmeg.com/tutorials/antennas/antennas.htm
NCE Radio Hackers Guide
Was this manual useful for you? yes no
Thank you for your participation!

* Your assessment is very important for improving the work of artificial intelligence, which forms the content of this project

Download PDF