Fail of the Week: Tracking Meteors with Weather Radio

It’s not hard to detect meteors: go outside on a clear night in a dark place and you’re bound to see one eventually. But visible light detection is limiting, and knowing that meteors leave a trail of ions means radio detection is possible. That’s what’s behind this attempt to map meteor trails using broadcast signals, which so far hasn’t yielded great results.

Passing jet’s Doppler signature

The fact that meteor trails reflect radio signals is well-known; hams use “meteor bounce” to make long-distance contacts all the time. And using commercial FM broadcast signals to map meteor activity isn’t new, either — we’ve covered the “forward scattering” technique before. The technique requires tuning into a frequency used by a distant station but not a local one and waiting for a passing meteor to bounce the distant signal back to your SDR dongle. Capturing the waterfall display for later analysis should show characteristic patterns and give you an idea of where and when the meteor passed.

[Dave Venne] is an amateur astronomer who turns his eyes and ears to the heavens just to see what he can find. [Dave]’s problem is that the commercial FM band in the Minneapolis area that he calls home is crowded, to say the least. He hit upon the idea of using the National Weather Service weather radio broadcasts at around 160 MHz as a substitute. Sadly, all he managed to capture were passing airplanes with their characteristic Doppler shift; pretty cool in its own right, but not the desired result.

The comments in the RTL-SDR.com post on [Dave]’s attempt had a few ideas on where this went wrong and how to improve it, including the intriguing idea of using 60-meter ham band propagation beacons. Now it’s Hackaday’s turn: any ideas on how to fix [Dave]’s problem? Sound off in the comments below.

Decoding NRSC-5 with SDR to Get In Your Car

NRSC-5 is a high-definition radio standard, used primarily in the United States. It allows for digital and analog transmissions to share the original FM bandwidth allocations. Theori are a cybersecurity research startup in the US, and have set out to build a receiver that can capture and decode these signals for research purposes, and documented it online.

Their research began on the NRSC website, where the NRSC-5 standard is documented, however the team notes that the audio compression details are conspicuously missing. They then step through the physical layer, multiplexing layer, and finally the application layer, taking apart the standard piece by piece. This all culminates in the group’s development of an open-source receiver for NRSC-5 that works with RTL-SDR – perhaps the most ubiquitous SDR platform in the world. 

The group’s primary interest in NRSC-5 is its presence in cars as a part of in-car entertainment systems. As NRSC-5 allows data to be transmitted in various formats, the group suspects there may be security implications for vehicles that do not securely process this data — getting inside your car through the entertainment system by sending bad ID3 tags, for instance. We look forward to seeing results of this ongoing research.

[Thanks to Gary McMaster for the tip!]

Backscatter Your Own FM Pirate Radio Station

If you live in a city, you’re constantly swimming in a thick soup of radio-frequency energy. FM radio stations put out hundreds of kilowatts each into the air. Students at the University of Washington, [Anran Wang] and [Vikram Iyer], asked themselves if they could harness this background radiation to transmit their own FM radio station, if only locally. The answer was an amazing yes.

The trailer video, embedded below, demos a couple of potential applications, but the paper (PDF) has more detail for the interested. Basically, they turn on and off an absorbing antenna at a frequency that’s picked so that it modulates a strong FM signal up to another adjacent channel. Frequency-modulating this backscatter carrier frequency adds audio (or data) to the product station.

One of the cooler tricks that they pull off with this system is to inject a second (stereo) channel into a mono FM station. Since FM radio is broadcast as a mono signal, with a left-minus-right signal sent alongside, they can make a two-channel stereo station by recreating the stereo pilot carrier and then adding in their own difference channel. Pretty slick. Of course, they could send data using this technique as well.

Why do this? A small radio station using backscatter doesn’t have to spend its power budget on the carrier. Instead, the device can operate on microwatts. Granted, it’s only for a few feet in any given direction, but the station broadcasts to existing FM radios, rather than requiring the purchase of an RFID reader or similar device. It’s a great hack that piggybacks on existing infrastructure in two ways. If this seems vaguely familiar, here’s a similar idea out of the very same lab that’s pulling off essentially the same trick indoors with WiFi signals.

So who’s up for local reflected pirate radio stations?

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Hacked Diamond Makes Two-Atom Radio

It used to be pretty keen to stuff a radio receiver into an Altoid’s tin, or to whip up a tiny crystal receiver from a razor blade and a pencil stub. But Harvard researchers have far surpassed those achievements in miniaturization with a nano-scale FM receiver built from a hacked diamond.

As with all such research, the experiments in [Marko Lončar]’s lab are nowhere near as simple as the press release makes things sound. While it’s true that a two-atom cell is the minimal BOM for a detector, the device heard belting out a seasonal favorite from [Andy Williams] in the video below uses billions of nitrogen-vacancy (N-V) centers. N-V centers replace carbon atoms in the diamond crystal with nitrogen atoms; this causes a “vacancy” in the crystal lattice and lends photoluminescent properties to the diamond that are sensitive to microwaves. When pumped by a green laser, incident FM radio waves in the 2.8 GHz range are transduced into AM fluorescent signals that can be detected with a photodiode and amplifier.

The full paper has all the details, shows that the radio can survive extreme pressure and temperature regimes, and describes potential applications for the system. It’s far from a home-gamer’s hack at this point, but it’s a neat trick and one to watch for future exploitation. In the meantime, here’s an accidental FM radio with a pretty small footprint.

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Build a Tiny (Unstable) Bugging Device

We don’t know who the [amgworkshop] wanted to listen in on, but they apparently went searching for a small FM wireless transmitter. There’s plenty of circuits around, but they wanted something smaller. The original circuit had a variable capacitor to tune the output frequency. The new design uses a fixed capacitor and a spring for an antenna. You can see the build steps in the video below, but don’t expect a lot of frequency stability or fidelity out of a single transistor transmitter.

The parts list is minimal. In addition to a coin cell holder (which serves as the construction base), you need a transistor, two resistors, three capacitors, a homemade inductor (very easy to make with some wire and a drill bit), and an electret microphone. Of course, you need a battery, too. The whole thing is potted with hot glue.

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Modular Drum Machine Creates Random Rhythms

Don’t worry, the rhythms themselves aren’t random! That would hardly make for a useful drum machine. [kbob]’s creation does have the ability to randomly generate functional rhythms, though, and it’s all done on a breadboard.

The core of this tiny drum machine is two Teensy dev boards. One is an FM synth tuned to sound like drums, and the other is a random rhythm generator with several controls. The algorithms are from Mutable Instruments’ open source Eurorack modules. The entire thing fits on a breadboard with JIGMOD modules for the user interface. The machine runs on lithium batteries in the form of USB cell phone chargers. The battery holders were designed in Fusion 360 and 3D printed.

The function of the drum machine is pretty interesting as well. There are a set of triggers tied to the buttons on the machine. When a button is pressed, the drum machine plays that sound at the appropriate time, ensuring there are no offbeat beats. The potentiometers are polled once every millisecond and the program updates the output as required. There’s also a “grid” of rhythms that are controlled with two other knobs (one to map the X coordinate and the other for the Y) and a “chaos” button which adds an element of randomness to this mapping.

The modular nature of this project would make this a great instrument to add to one’s musical repertoire.It’s easily customizable, and could fit in with any of a number of other synthesizer instruments.

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Swarm of Tiny Pirate Transmitters Gets the Message out in Syria

They say that the first casualty of war is the truth, and that’s probably only more the case in a civil war. When one side in a conflict controls the message, the other side is at a huge disadvantage. Technology can level the playing field, and in the case of the Syrian Civil War, a swarm of tiny Raspberry Pi transmitters is helping one side get their message out.

We won’t pretend to understand the complexities of this war, but it’s clear that the Syrian government controls broadcast media and access to the internet, and is using them for propaganda while denying the opposition access to the same. A decentralized medium can get the message out under these conditions, and that’s exactly what Pocket FM does. Built around a Raspberry Pi and a frequency-agile FM transmitter, a Pocket FM can take multiple audio feeds and transmit them out to a 5km radius. Small enough to be packed up and deployed quickly and able to be powered by batteries or solar panels, the pirate transmitters can be here one minute and gone the next, yielding a robust network resistant to takedown attempts.

The network built around Pocket FM in Syria is small but growing, and it appears to be making a difference in the conflict. We find the concept of a decentralized network intriguing and potentially empowering, at least in situations where the letter of the law regarding broadcasting is not a prime consideration. That’s where projects like Airchat seek to build an unsanctioned network. The same goes for Tweeting on the Amateur Radio Band in a project aptly named HamRadioTweets.

We wonder how a fleet of these Pi-based transmitters could aid in recovery from natural disasters?

[via r/amateurradio and TomHiggins]