Radio Receiver or Art? Why not Both?

We’ve heard it said before that you should build things twice. Once to learn how to build it and the second time to build it right. [AA7EE] must agree. He was happy with his homebrew regenerative receiver that he called Sproutie. But he also wanted to build one more and use what he learned to make an even better receiver. The Sproutie Mark II was born.

This isn’t some rip off of an old P-Box kit either. [AA7EE] used a four-device RF stage with FET isolation back to the antenna and a regulated power supply. Plug in coils allow reception on multiple bands ranging from about 3 to 13 MHz. There’s an audio stage with multiple selectable audio filters, and–the best part–a National HRO tuning dial that is a work of art all by itself.

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Design Diary: Varactor-Tuned Regen Receiver

[QRP Gaijin] likes to build regenerative receivers. If you’ve ever built a serious one, you know there are (at least) two problems: One is you need a variable capacitor (hard to find these days). The other annoyance is that if you cover a wide frequency range, you probably need more than one coil.

[QRP Gaijin’s] latest radio design doesn’t have either of these problems. He uses a coil with a single pole double throw switch to bandswitch a single coil. There is no traditional main tuning capacitor. Instead a 1SV149 varactor provides the radio’s main tuning capacity (the diode tunes between 35 to 500 pF).

The post provides a nice design and a neat looking build in a Tupperware container (well… the outside is neat, at least; the inside is… best left inside the Tupperware). Better still, [QRP Gaijin’s] post details how he got to the final design, starting with the idea, and detailing the original design and the changes he made along the way. He also used data from an earlier build to limit how much the regeneration control has to be changed over wide frequencies and details how that changed the design. The prototype actually lacks the planned bandswitch, but will cover 3 to 30 MHz with the right coil.

There are certainly simpler regenerative receivers out there. However, the sophistication of this design along with the details of the designer’s thought processes makes this an interesting intermediate weekend project.

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Vulcan 74: A Masterpiece of Retro Engineering

[Radical Brad] has played around with FPGAs, video signals, and already has a few astonishing projects of bitbanged VGA on his resume. Now he’s gone insane. He’s documenting a build over on the forums of a computer with Amiga-quality graphics built out of nothing but a 65C02, a few SRAM chips, and a whole pile of logic chips.

The design goals for this project are to build a video game system with circa 1980 parts and graphics a decade ahead of its time. The video output is VGA, with 400×300 resolution, in glorious eight-bit color. The only chips in this project more complex than a shift register are a single 65c02 and a few (modern) 15ns SRAMs. it’s not a build that would have been possible in the early 80s, but the only thing preventing that would be the slow RAM chips of the era.

So far, [Radical] has built a GPU entirely out of 74-series logic that reads a portion of RAM and translates that to XY positions, colors, pixels, and VGA signals. There’s support for alpha channels and multiple sprites. The plan is to add sound hardware with support for four independent digital channels and 1 Megabyte of sample memory. It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and becomes even more impressive when you realize he’s doing all of this on solderless breadboards.

[Brad] will keep updating the thread on until he’s done or dies trying. So far, it’s looking promising. He already has a bunch of Boing balls bouncing around a display. You can check out a video of that below.

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Millions of Satellite Receivers are Low-Hanging Fruit for Botnets

Satellite television is prevalent in Europe and Northern Africa. This is delivered through a Set Top Box (STB) which uses a card reader to decode the scrambled satellite signals. You need to buy a card if you want to watch. But you know how people like to get something for nothing. This is being exploited by hackers and the result is millions of these Set Top Boxes just waiting to form into botnets.

This was the topic of [Sofiane Talmat’s] talk at DEF CON 23. He also gave this talk earlier in the week at BlackHat and has published his slides (PDF).

stb-hardwareThe Hardware in Satellite receivers is running Linux. They use a card reader to pull in a Code Word (CW) which decodes the signal coming in through the satellite radio.

An entire black market has grown up around these Code Words. Instead of purchasing a valid card, people are installing plugins from the Internet which cause the system to phone into a server which will supply valid Code Words. This is known as “card sharing”.

On the user side of things this just works; the user watches TV for free. It might cause more crashes than normal, but the stock software is buggy anyway so this isn’t a major regression. The problem is that now these people have exposed a network-connected Linux box to the Internet and installed non-verified code from unreputable sources to run on the thing.

[Sofiane] demonstrated how little you need to know about this system to create a botnet:

  • Build a plugin in C/C++
  • Host a card-sharing server
  • Botnet victims come to you (profit)

It is literally that easy. The toolchain to compile the STLinux binaries (gcc) is available in the Linux repos. The STB will look for a “bin” directory on a USB thumb drive at boot time, the binary in that folder will be automatically installed. Since the user is getting free TV they voluntarily install this malware.

Click through for more on the STB Hacks.

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It Sucks to Pick Up the Pieces

Jigsaw puzzles are a fun and interactive way to spend an afternoon or twelve, depending on the piece count and your skill level. It’s exciting to find the pieces you need to complete a section or link two areas together, but if you have poor dexterity, excitement can turn to frustration when you move to pick them up. [thomasgruwez] had the disabled and otherwise fumble-fingered in mind when he created this pick and place jigsaw puzzle aid, which uses suction to pick up and transport puzzle pieces.

The suction comes from an aquarium pump running in reverse, a hack we’ve seen often which [thomasgruwez] explains in a separate Instructable. A large, inviting push button is wired in line to turn the pump on and off. An equally large and inviting momentary switch turns off the vacuum temporarily so the piece can be placed.

At the business end of this hack is the tiny suction-cupped tip from a cheap vacuum pen. To interface the pen head with the pump, [thomasgruwez] designed and printed a rigid straw to bridge the gap. With utility already in mind, [thomasgruwez] also designed a ring that can be bolted to the straw to house a steadying finger of your choice, like the pinkie hook on a pair of barbers’ shears.

Our favorite part of this hack has to be the optional accessory—a tiny platform for quickly flipping pieces without cutting the vacuum. Check it out after the break.

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Simple One-Chip Regenerative Receiver

Crystal radios may be the simplest kind to make, but regenerative receivers are more practical and only a little more complicated. A recent design by [Selenium] is super simple because it uses a single LM386 audio amplifier IC.

You might be surprised that you can convert an audio amplifier to a receiver using just a handful of components (a variable capacitor, a coil, a handful of capacitors, and a speaker). However, [Selenium] realized he could subvert the gain and bypass pins to cause regeneration and wound up with a very simple receiver.

If you haven’t looked at regenerative receivers before, the principle is simple (and dates back to 1912). An oscillator is an amplifier that gets (theoretically) an infinite amount of gain at one particular frequency. A regenerative receiver is just an amplifier that is almost (but not quite) at the point of oscillation. This gives it very high frequency-specific gain and a measure of selectivity. You can also nudge the receiver just into oscillation to receive CW or SSB signals.

[Selenium] built his prototype on an old receiver chassis because it had the IC and the variable capacitor already in place. However, others have built successful copies on breadboards ([Austin Heller] created several good looking breadboard versions) and on PCB material. [Selenium] also released some other unique LM386-based designs that use more parts (and, probably, have better performance). Looks like a simple way to build a practical receiver.

Robot Control Ties RC Receiver to Motor Controller

[Andrey Nechypurenko] has posted the second part of his robotics ground vehicle design guide. In his first post [Andrey] detailed the mechanical design decisions he faced. [Andrey] now begins covering the electrical components, starting with manual control using a standard radio control system. To accomplish this an RC system was used with an MD22 h-bridge driver and a picoUPS.

The MD22 is a neat motor control board which can take the PWM signals from the radio controller and use this to drive the DC motors. Optionally it can also use an I2C interface, giving a nice migration path to integrate with a microcontroller. Until that happens this can’t really be called a robot — its more of an RC vehicle. But the iterative design and build process he’s using is a good one!

The picoUPS provides on-board battery charging. Due to its UPS heritage it also allows the vehicle to be powered from an external supply, which has proved useful during development. Finally, a 5v regulator was required to supply the on-board digital logic. [Andrey] wanted a quick drop in solution with a budget large enough to allow for future expansion and went with the Pololu D15V35F5S3 which can supply 3.5 amps in a small and easy to use module.

After breadboarding the system [Andrey] fabricated a PCB to integrate all the components. The next step is to add sensors and and embedded computer to the platform.

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