Numerous wireless RF transmitter/receiver (Tx/Rx) options for locomotive control are available both in the US and abroad. My discussion is confined to wireless RF transmitter/receiver options that are DCC compatible, which means that the transmitter sends “logic-level” DCC packets, and the receiver converts the “logic-level” DCC packets back to “bipolar” DCC packets, as would be transmitted on tracks, that an onboard DCC decoder can “understand.”
Why am I limiting my discussion? Because DCC is a standard, and if you don’t go with solutions that have standards behind them, then you are likely to suffer “vendor lock” where a single vendor holds you “hostage” with “their” solution. Perhaps that attitude is a bit overblown, but vendors with proprietary solutions tend to lag in innovation for lack of competition, and what happens if the vendor goes out of business?
I know that the NMRA DCC standards have some problems including the following issues: pending issues under consideration for years; vendors ignoring some parts of the standards; some vagueness in places; and lack of standards for wireless. The DCC standard is imperfect, but it’s miles better than no standard at all. Plus, the DCC decoder market is competitive and feature-rich – you can almost assuredly find a DCC decoder that will satisfy your needs.
As a further limitation of this post, I will mostly confine my discussion on DCC-compatible wireless Tx/Rx options to the 902-928 MHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) band because this is where I have direct experience. There is significant and exciting activity in the DCC-compatible 2.4 GHz ISM band (using Bluetooth technology) band as well (see BlueRailDCC), but I have no personal experience with this band. Another advantage of the 902-928 MHz ISM band is that there is some interoperability between transmitters and receivers, although there is currently no firm standard behind this interoperability.
DCC-compatible Tx/Rx options are a very large topic that I cannot fully cover in this blog. These options are well-covered in the following links:
- Dead Rail Society: This should always be your first stop when looking at topics related to dead-rail. This site is the epicenter of dead-rail. In particular, this page discusses vendors for dead-rail Tx/Rx.
- Facebook Dead Rail page: This social media page is a valuable source for the latest announcements and discussions for dead-rail, including Tx/Rx options.
Below is my personal experience with 902-928 MHz ISM DCC-compatible receivers.
How each of these DCC compatible wireless receivers handles loss of valid RF signal from the transmitter is discussed here.
The company CVP manufactures and supports its Airwire series of products that include hand-held wireless DCC-compliant throttles (such as the T5000 and T1300) and receivers, such as the CONVRTR series that seamlessly connects to DCC decoders onboard the locomotive. As a general comment, CVP provides excellent, detailed installation and operation documentation, and that’s in part why they are dominant in some segments of wireless model railroad control. The CONVRTR receiver has some sophisticated features, such as setting its Airwire RF channel purely in software, that are described in its User Guide.
However, the CONVRTR interacts with the Airwire wireless throttles in ways that make it difficult to impossible to transmit just “garden variety” DCC wirelessly to the CONVRTR for proper operation. The Airwire throttles transmit numerous DCC “Idle” packets as a “keep-alive” message for the CONVRTR. A red LED on the CONVRTR board indicates received signal quality and flickers least when receiving a large number of DCC Idle packets. The brightness of the LED indicates the received RF power. Typical DCC throttles are not designed with these “keep-alive” concerns in mind, and do not output DCC Idle packets often enough to keep the CONVRTR “happy.”
Other than the CVP Airwire transmitters (the T5000 and T1300), the only currently-available (the no longer manufactured NCE GWire Cab was also Airwire-compatible) RF transmitter that I am aware of that is capable of communicating with the Airwire CONVRTR is the ProMini Air, whose open-source software (at GitHub AirMiniTransmitter) intercepts “garden variety” DCC from the throttle and interleaves a sufficient number of DCC Idle packets to communicate correctly with the CONVRTR. This “keep-alive” requirement for the Airwire CONVRTR is challenging to produce, so sometimes a reset of the DCC throttle or the ProMini Air is required to initially send enough DCC Idle packets to initiate communication with the CONVRTR.
Like the Gwire receiver below, the Airwire CONVRTR “X” versions have a U.FL connector for connecting a shielded antenna cable from the receiver to an externally-mounted antenna. An internal antenna option is available as well for CONVRTR mountings that are not surrounded by metal.
QSI Solutions Gwire
The Gwire receiver operates on Airwire RF channels 0-7 that the user must select from a dial on the device itself. A nice feature of this receiver is an onboard U.FL connector (see Figure above) that allows the user to connect a shielded antenna cable from the receiver to an externally-mounted antenna – useful when the antenna needs to be on the exterior of a metal locomotive or tender shell. See Blueridge Engineering’s website for details on how to interface the Gwire to any onboard DCC decoder. The Gwire presents no difficulties for wireless 902-914 MHz ISM band DCC-compatible transmitters, and you can find it on eBay at relatively low ($20 US or less) prices.
Tam Valley Depot DRS1, MkIII
The Tam Valley Depot DRS1, MkIII receiver operates only on Airwire RF channel 16 (actually 916.49 MHz, which is close enough to Airwire channel 16 at 916.37 MHz) and makes a suitable wireless DCC receiver. This receiver has a long, single-wire antenna that provides efficient RF reception (see the figure above). However, you must place this wire outside any metal shell, which may be inconvenient in some mounting applications. The DRS1, MkIII, presents no difficulties for the 902-914 MHz ISM DCC-compatible transmitters as long as they transmit near 916.49 MHz. The DRS1, MkIV described in the next section supersedes this receiver.
Tam Valley Depot DRS1, MkIV
The Tam Valley Depot DRS1, MkIV receiver is a significant upgrade from the DRS1, MkIII, and operates at the original Tam Valley 916.49 MHz frequency, Airwire Channels 0-16, and at 869.85 MHz (for European operation). The DRS1, MkIV presents no difficulties for the 902-928 MHz ISM DCC-compatible transmitters and is an interesting choice because it changes channels automatically until it finds a sufficient RF signal carrying DCC packets. See the figure above for the version that employs an internal antenna that is useful when the receiver is not mounted inside a metal shell.
The DRS1, MkIV with a U.FL antenna connector (and a heatsink update) is now available (see picture below), making it very useful for connecting to external antennas outside of metal shells. This version of the DRS1 makes it highly competitive in capability and quality with the Airwire CONVTR. Perhaps a future version will provide DC output to the onboard DCC decoder when no valid RF signals carrying DCC packets are available, making it possible to program the DCC decoder’s behavior when there is no DCC signal available.
Blueridge Engineering ProMini Air Receiver
The inexpensive ProMini Air receiver kit presents no issues when used with 902-928 MHz ISM DCC-compatible transmitters. It operates on Airwire RF channels 0–16 and requires a separate, low-cost amplifier (e.g., the Cytron MD13S) to convert the ProMini Air’s unipolar 5V DCC to bipolar DCC that provides sufficient power to the decoder. See the Blueridge Engineering web page for details on how to build the kit and properly connect the ProMini Air to the amplifier that is in turn connected to the onboard DCC decoder.
The ProMini Air’s open-source software is available for download at the GitHub site AirMiniTransmitter.
So far as I’m aware, there are four 902-928 MHz ISM DCC-compatible transmitters: the CVP Airwire T5000 and T1300, the Tam Valley Depot DRS1 transmitter, and the Blueridge Engineering ProMini Air transmitter.
CVP Airwire Transmitters
The CVP Airwire T5000 and T1300 transmitters are excellent choices for operating with 902-928 MHz ISM DCC-compatible receivers, all of which will properly-communicate with these two transmitters. When I am testing wireless receivers, the T5000 is my “go-to” because, in addition to serving as a DCC-compatible throttle, it can program onboard DCC decoders, via the wireless receiver, in either “OPS” (or Programing-on-the-Main, PoM) or “Service” mode. While the T1300 cannot program the onboard DCC decoders, it serves as a typical DCC throttle.
Of course, the Airwire transmitters send sufficient DCC “Idle” packets to keep the Airwire CONVRTR receivers “happy.”
Tam Valley Depot DRS1 Transmitter
The Tam Valley Depot DRS1 transmitter uses DCC packets produced by any DCC throttle or command station that outputs “bipolar” DCC to tracks. The DRS1 transmitter converts the “bipolar” DCC to “logic-level” DCC and transmits it at only 916.49 MHz, which is close enough to Airwire Channel 16 at 916.36 MHz to be received. This frequency limitation means that only the Tam Valley Depot DRS1, MkIII, and MKIV, and the Blueridge ProMini Air receivers can operate with this transmitter if they are receiving on 916.48 MHz or Airwire Channel 16.
While the Airwire CONVRTR can operate on Airwire Channel 16, the DRS1 transmitter is not designed to transmit sufficient “Idle” DCC packets to keep the CONVRTR “happy” since it passively sends along only the DCC packets it receives from the DCC throttle or command station.
Blueridge Engineering ProMini Air Transmitter
Blueridge Engineering provides the ProMiniAir transmitter/receiver kit that uses open-source software at the Github AirMiniTransmitter site. Like the DRS1 transmitter, it is designed to take inputs from any DCC throttle or command station’s “bipolar” DCC output to tracks (via a simple, low-cost optocoupler provided by Blueridge Engineering) and transmit the “logic-level” DCC on Airwire channels 0-16.
The ProMini Air transmitter inserts a sufficient number of DCC “Idle” packets into the original throttle-produced DCC to keep the Airwire CONVRTR “happy.” This keep-alive capability coupled with transmission on Airwire channels 0-16 ensures that the ProMini Air transmitter is capable of communicating with any of the 902-928 MHz ISM DCC-compatible receivers discussed in this blog.
This transmitter’s settings, like channel number and output power, can be controlled by the DCC throttle or command station in the “OPS” mode by setting the throttle address to that of the ProMini Air, which is 9000 by default. An optional LDC display can be attached to the ProMini Air transmitter for status display. More configuration information is available at the GitHub AirMiniTransmitter site.
Full disclosure here: I am one of the contributors to the AirMiniTransmitter open-source software, and I am heavily-involved with Blueridge Engineering with the design of the ProMini Air transmitter/receiver board.