Liquid Metal Changes Shape to Tune Antenna

Antennas can range from a few squiggles on a PCB to a gigantic Yagi on a tower. The basic laws of physics must be obeyed, though, and whatever form the antenna takes it all boils down to a conductor whose length resonates at a specific frequency. What works at one frequency is suboptimal at another, so an adjustable antenna would be a key component of a multi-band device. And a shape-shifting liquid metal antenna is just plain cool.

The first thing that pops into our head when we think of liquid metal is a silvery blob of mercury skittering inside the glass vial salvaged out of an old thermostat. The second image is a stern talking-to by the local HazMat team, so it’s probably best that North Carolina State University researchers [Michael Dickey] and [Jacob Adams] opted for gallium alloys for their experiments. Liquid at room temperature, these alloys have the useful property of oxidizing on contact with air and forming a skin. This allows the researchers to essentially extrude a conductor of any shape. What’s more, they can electrically manipulate the oxidative state of the metal and thereby the surface tension, allowing the conductor to change length on command. Bingo – an adjustable length antenna.

Radio frequency circuits aren’t the only application for gallium alloys. We’ve already seen liquid metal 3D printing with them. But we need to be careful, since controlling the surface tension of liquid metals might also bring us one step closer to this.

GoGo Starts Testing New In-Flight Internet Technology

GoGo, the largest provider of Internet above 30,000 feet, has announced they are now testing their next generation of in-flight Internet.

Of special interest in the new 2Ku system is the antennas strapped to the top of a GoGo-equipped plane’s fuselage. These antennas form a mechanically-phased-array that are more efficient than previous antennas and can provide more bandwidth for frequent fliers demanding better and faster Internet.

The Antenna Pod
The Antenna Pod

Currently, GoGo in-flight wireless uses terrestrial radio to bring the Internet up to 35,000 feet. Anyone who has flown recently will tell you this is okay, but you won’t be binging on Nexflix for your next cross country flight. The new system promises speeds up to 70Mbps, more than enough for a cabin full of passengers to be pacified by electronic toys. The 2Ku band does this with a satellite connection – much faster, but it does have a few drawbacks.

Because the 2Ku system provides Internet over a satellite connection, ping times will significantly increase. The satellites GoGo is using orbit at 22,000 miles above Earth, or about 0.1 light seconds away from the plane. Double that, and your ping times will increase by at least 200ms compared to a terrestrial radio connection.

While this is just fine for email and streaming, it does highlight the weaknesses and strengths of mobile Internet.

Spectrum Painting on 2.4 GHz

Give a software-defined radio (SDR) platform to a few thousand geeks, and it’s pretty predictable what will happen: hackers gotta hack. We’re only surprised that it’s happening so soon. Spectrum Painter is one of the first cool hacks to come out of the rad1o badge given out at the CCCamp 2015. It makes it dead-simple to send images in Hellschreiber mode on a few different SDR hardware platforms.

What we especially like about the project is its simplicity. Don’t get us wrong, we’re tremendous fans of GNURadio and the GNURadio Companion software radio hacking environment. But if you just want to do something simple, like send a picture of a smiley-face, the all-capable GNURadio suite is overkill.

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Decoding Satellite-based Text Messages with RTL-SDR and Hacked GPS Antenna

[Carl] just found a yet another use for the RTL-SDR. He’s been decoding Inmarsat STD-C EGC messages with it. Inmarsat is a British satellite telecommunications company. They provide communications all over the world to places that do not have a reliable terrestrial communications network. STD-C is a text message communications channel used mostly by maritime operators. This channel contains Enhanced Group Call (EGC) messages which include information such as search and rescue, coast guard, weather, and more.

Not much equipment is required for this, just the RTL-SDR dongle, an antenna, a computer, and the cables to hook them all up together. Once all of the gear was collected, [Carl] used an Android app called Satellite AR to locate his nearest Inmarsat satellite. Since these satellites are geostationary, he won’t have to move his antenna once it’s pointed in the right direction.

Hacked GPS antenna
Hacked GPS antenna

As far as antennas go, [Carl] recommends a dish or helix antenna. If you don’t want to fork over the money for something that fancy, he also explains how you can modify a $10 GPS antenna to work for this purpose. He admits that it’s not the best antenna for this, but it will get the job done. A typical GPS antenna will be tuned for 1575 MHz and will contain a band pass filter that prevents the antenna from picking up signals 1-2MHz away from that frequency.

To remove the filter, the plastic case must first be removed. Then a metal reflector needs to be removed from the bottom of the antenna using a soldering iron. The actual antenna circuit is hiding under the reflector. The filter is typically the largest component on the board. After desoldering, the IN and OUT pads are bridged together. The whole thing can then be put back together for use with this project.

Once everything was hooked up and the antenna was pointed in the right place, the audio output from the dongle was piped into the SDR# tuner software. After tuning to the correct frequency and setting all of the audio parameters, the audio was then decoded with another program called tdma-demo.exe. If everything is tuned just right, the software will be able to decode the audio signal and it will start to display messages. [Carl] posted some interesting examples including a couple of pirate warnings.

If you can’t get enough RTL-SDR hacks, be sure to check out some of the others we’ve featured in the past. And don’t forget to send in links to your own hacking!

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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Tricking a Car Stereo to Think Your Cellphone is a Tapedeck

When you have an older vehicle there’s not a lot of options in the stock stereo department, often a CD player and tape deck is what you get. When you want to play your tunes from your mobile what do you do? Buying an adapter, or a new head unit for that matter, isn’t any fun. So why not hack it? This isn’t just a mechanical marriage of a Bluetooth dongle and an elderly stereo. Some real work went into convincing the stereo that the BT receiver was the stock tape deck.

car-stereo-logic-analyzerAttacking the outdated Cassette deck [kolonelkadat] knew that inside the maze of gears and leavers, most of it is moving around actuating switches to let the radio know that there is a tape inside and that it can switch to that input and play. Tricking the radio into thinking there is a tape inserted is handled by an Arduino. Using a logic analyzer [kolonelkadat] figured out what logic signals the original unit put out and replicating that in his Arduino code.

Audio is handled by the guts of a bluetooth speaker with the output redirected into the radio where the signal coming off the tape head normally would have been directed. Join us after the break for a couple of videos with all of the details.

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DEF CON: The Proxy for ProxyHam

Two weeks ago, news broke of an incredible abuse of power from the National Security Agency. A DEF CON talk was cancelled, and speculation raged that information was not free. This was the ProxyHam, a device that puts you miles away from any agency hunting down your IP address.

Of course, as with just about every DEF CON talk picked up by the press, ProxyHam is an ill-conceived, terrible idea. You can replicate it with parts bought from newegg, and despite using a highly directional antenna the FCC – or any other government agency – can still track you down.

In lieu of a talk on using off-the-shelf networking hardware in the way it was intended, [Dave Maynor] and [Robert Graham] of Errata Security gave a talk at DEF CON that is the proxy to the ProxyHam. They completely debunked the outrageous speculation surrounding the cancellation of the DEF CON talk and managed to introduce a new version of Internet over radio that is actually useful for the security-minded individual.

The ‘debunking’ part of the Errata Security talk was exactly what anyone would expect; the talk was probably cancelled because the creator of ProxyHam exceeded radiated power limits, the FCC caught him, or simply because of ‘advice from counsel’. No big deal; someone was doing something illegal – encryption over ISM bands – and the things you would expect to happen in fact happened.

In the last two weeks, the guys replicated the ProxyHam build, but found a few major shortcomings. Even with a highly directional antenna, interested parties could still track you down. This led the guys at Errata Security to make this system better. They managed to do it in two weeks.

The Errata Security relies on JT65A – a radio mode made for very weak signals – to hide signals underneath the noise floor. By multiplexing data across multiple channels, this system has about the same bandwidth as a 56kbps modem from 1999. It’s not much, but it is possible to use this proxy for ProxyHam over 20 miles away from where you’re stealing WiFi from. That’s far better than ProxyHam could ever manage, and all the transmissions stay below the noise floor. The FCC and similarly equipped agencies might be able to find you, but no one with a $20 SDR dongle will.

There are no releases yet, but Errata Security plan to make the software that allows this multiplex transmissions available soon, and hope to have a Raspberry Pi-based hardware solution for this technique coming shortly. It’s a radio proxy solution that’s actually somewhat secure, and won’t immediately draw the ire of the FCC.