All Quiet on the West Virginia Border: The National Radio Quiet Zone

Ask a hundred people why they like to escape to the forest and you’ll probably get a hundred reasons, but chances are good that more than a few will say they seek the peace and quiet of the woods. And while the woods can be a raucous place between the wildlife and the human visitors, it is indeed a world apart from a busy city street, at least in the audio frequencies. But on the EM spectrum, most forests are nearly as noisy as your average cube farm, and that turns out to be a huge problem if you happen to run exquisitely sensitive radio receivers.  That’s the reason for the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile electromagnetic safe-zone in the woods west of Washington DC. Who’s listening to what and why are a fascinating part of this story, as are the steps that are taken to keep this area as electromagnetically quiet as possible.

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Listen to Meteors Live

When the big annual meteor showers come around, you can often find us driving up to a mountaintop to escape light pollution and watching the skies for a while. But what to do when it’s cloudy? Or when you’re just too lazy to leave your computer monitor? One solution is to listen to meteors online! (Yeah, it’s not the same.)

Meteors leave a trail of ionized gas in their wake. That’s what you see when you’re watching the “shooting stars”. Besides glowing, this gas also reflects radio waves, so you could in principle listen for reflections of terrestrial broadcasts that bounce off of the meteors’ tails. This is the basis of the meteor burst communication mode.

[Ciprian Sufitchi, N2YO] set up his system using nothing more than a cheap RTL-SDR dongle and a Yagi antenna, which he describes in his writeup (PDF) on meteor echoes. The trick is to find a strong signal broadcast from the earth that’s in the 40-70 MHz region where the atmosphere is most transparent so that you get a good signal.

This used to be easy, because analog TV stations would put out hundreds of kilowatts in these bands. Now, with the transition to digital TV, things are a lot quieter. But there are still a few hold-outs. If you’re in the eastern half of the USA, for instance, there’s a transmitter in Ontario, Canada that’s still broadcasting analog on channel 2. Simply point your antenna at Ontario, aim it up into the ionosphere, and you’re all set.

We’re interested in anyone in Europe knows of similar powerful emitters in these bands.

As you’d expect, we’ve covered meteor burst before, but the ease of installation provided by the SDR + Yagi solution is ridiculous. And speaking of ridiculous, how about communicating by bouncing signals off of passing airplanes? What will those ham radio folks think of next?

Build Your Own GSM Base Station For Fun And Profit

Over the last few years, news that police, military, and intelligence organizations use portable cellular phone surveillance devices – colloquially known as the ‘Stingray’ – has gotten out, despite their best efforts to keep a lid on the practice. There are legitimate privacy and legal concerns, but there’s also some fun tech in mobile cell-phone stations.

Off-the-shelf Stingray devices cost somewhere between $16,000 and $125,000, far too rich for a poor hacker’s pocketbook. Of course, what the government can do for $100,000, anyone else can do for five hundred. Here’s how you build your own Stingray using off the shelf hardware.

[Simone] has been playing around with a brand new BladeRF x40, a USB 3.0 software defined radio that operates in full duplex. It costs $420. This, combined with two rubber duck antennas, a Raspberry Pi 3, and a USB power bank is all the hardware you need. Software is a little trickier, but [Simone] has all the instructions.

Of course, if you want to look at the less legitimate applications of this hardware, [Simone]’s build is only good at receiving/tapping/intercepting unencrypted GSM signals. It’s great if you want to set up a few base stations at Burning Man and hand out SIM cards like ecstasy, but GSM has encryption. You won’t be able to decrypt every GSM signal this system can see without a little bit of work.

Luckily, GSM is horribly, horribly broken. At CCCamp in 2007, [Steve Schear] and [David Hulton] started building a rainbow table of the A5 cyphers that is used on a GSM network between the handset and tower. GSM cracking is open source, and there are flaws in GPRS, the method GSM networks use to relay data transmissions to handsets. In case you haven’t noticed, GSM is completely broken.

Thanks [Justin] for the tip.

Getting Serious about Crystal Radios

The crystal radio is a timeless learning experience, often our first insight into how a radio works. For some of us that childhood fascination never dies. Take for example Jim Cushman, this guy loves to work on vintage scooters, motorcycles, and especially crystal radios (special thanks to fellow coil-winding enthusiast M. Rosen for providing the link). Digging more deeply we find an entire community devoted to crystal radio design. In this article we will get back to basics and study the fundamentals of radio receiver design.

How it works:

A crystal radio is basically a high Q resonator tied to an antenna and an envelope detector. These days the envelope detector is a point contact diode such as a 1N34 Germanium diode.

cs09-schematic

The resonant circuit passes a specific wavelength (or more specifically range of wavelengths depending on its Q). The diode detector provides the amplitude or envelope of the signal(s) within that wavelength. A high impedance or highly sensitive ear piece converts this envelope to an audible signal that you can listen to.

The neat thing about crystal radios is that no active RF amplification is used. The radio is powered by the incoming radio signal that it is tuned to. More sophisticated crystal sets might have more than one tuned stage, perhaps 3 or 4 to minimize receiver bandwidth for maximum sensitivity and selectivity.

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DVB-S From a Raspberry Pi with No Extra Hardware

An exciting aspect of the trend in single board computers towards ever faster processors has been the clever use of their digital I/O with DSP software to synthesize complex signals in the analogue and RF domains that would previously have required specialist hardware. When we use a Raspberry Pi to poll a sensor or flash an LED it’s easy to forget just how much raw processing power we have at our fingertips.

One of the more recent seemingly impossible feats of signal synthesis on a Raspberry Pi comes from [Evariste Courjaud, F5OEO]. He’s created a DVB-S digital TV transmitter that produces a usable output direct from a GPIO pin, with none of the external modulators that were a feature of previous efforts required. (It is worth pointing out though that for legal transmission a filter would be necessary.)

DVB is a collection of digital TV standards used in most of the world except China and the Americas. DVB-S is the satellite version of DVB, and differs from its terrestrial counterpart in the modulation scheme it employs. [Evariste] is using it because it has found favor as a digital mode in amateur radio.

This isn’t the first piece of [F5OEO] software creating useful radio modes from a GPIO pin. He’s also generated SSB, AM, and SSTV from his Pi, something which a lot of us in the amateur radio community have found very useful indeed.

We’ve covered digital TV creation quite a few times in the past on these pages, from the first achievement using a PC VGA card almost a decade ago to more recent Raspberry Pi transmitters using a USB dongle and a home-built modulator on the GPIO pins. Clever signal trickery from digital I/O doesn’t stop there though, we recently featured an astoundingly clever wired Ethernet hack on an ESP8266, and we’ve seen several VHF NTSC transmitters on platforms ranging from the ESP to even an ATtiny85.

Thanks [SopaXorzTaker] for the nudge to finally feature this one.

Co-Exist With Your Coax: Choose The Right Connector For The Job

Just a selection from the author's unholy assortment of adaptors.
Just a selection from the author’s unholy assortment of adaptors.

If you do any work with analogue signals at frequencies above the most basic audio, it’s probable that somewhere you’ll have a box of coax adaptors. You’ll need them, because the chances are your bench will feature instruments, devices, and modules with a bewildering variety of connectors. In making all these disparate devices talk to each other you probably have a guilty past: at some time you will have created an unholy monster of a coax interface by tying several adaptors together to achieve your desired combination of input and output connector. Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.

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Spark Gap and Coherer Meet Beagle Bone

Getting back to basics is a great way to teach yourself about a technology. We see it all the time with computers built from NAND gates or even discrete transistors. It’s the same for radio – stripping it back to the 19th century can really let you own the technology. But if an old-school wireless setup still needs a 21st-century twist to light your fire, try this spark gap transmitter and coherer receiver with a Beagle Bone Morse decoder.

At its heart, a spark gap transmitter is just a broadband RF noise generator, and as such is pretty illegal to operate these days. [Ashish Derhgawen]’s version, which lacks an LC tuning circuit, would be especially obnoxious if it had an antenna. But even without one, the 100% electromechanical transmitter is good for a couple of feet – more than enough for experimentation without incurring the wrath of local hams.

The receiver is based on a coherer, a device that conducts electricity only when a passing radio wave disturbs it. [Ashish]’s coherer is a slug of iron filings between two bolts in a plastic tube. To reset the coherer, [Ashish] added a decoherer built from an electromagnetic doorbell ringer to tap the tube and jostle the filings back into the nonconductive state. He also added an optoisolator to condition the receiver’s output for an IO pin on the Beagle, and a Python script to decode the incoming Morse. You can see it in action in the video below.

If this build looks familiar, it’s because we’ve covered [Ashish]’s efforts before. But this project keeps evolving, and it’s nice to see where he’s taken it and what he’s learned – like that MOSFETs don’t like inductive kickback much.

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