Party Balloon Crosses Atlantic, Tours Europe & Phones Home

For the past few months, [David VE3KCL] has been launching balloons from his Canadian home fitted with radio transmitters. Nothing unusual there: quite a few people do this, including schools, hackerspaces, and individuals. What is remarkable is how far he has gotten. His S-4 flight in August of this year crossed the Atlantic, reached France and took a tour of Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway before finally landing in the Norwegian Sea. That’s over 10,000 kilometers (6200 miles): not bad for a couple of party balloons strung together.

The flight payload of one of the balloon flights.
The flight payload of one of the balloon flights.

Although the distance these balloons have travelled is quite remarkable, the interesting part is how [David] is tracking the balloons. Cell phones obviously won’t work over the Atlantic, and satellite transmitters are expensive, so he used a low-cost transmitter that was programmed to broadcast using a variety of Ham radio signals. The most effective seems to be WSPRnet (the Weak Signal Propagation Network), a system used by Hams to see how far low strength signals will go. This system relies on Hams leaving their receivers on and running software that uploads the received signals to a central server.

By cleverly encoding information such as height and position into this signal, he was able to turn this worldwide network into a tracking network that would report the balloon’s position pretty much anywhere on the globe. [David] is continuing to launch balloons: his latest went up on the 24th of September and travelled over 4300km (2600 miles) before the signal was lost over the Atlantic.

Reverse Engineering Traffic Lights with Software Defined Radio

Construction crews tearing up the street to lay new internet fiber optic cable created a unique opportunity for [Bastian Bloessl]. The workers brought two mobile traffic lights to help keep the road safe while they worked. [Bastian] had heard that these lights use the 2 meter band radios, so he grabbed his RTL-SDR USB stick and started hacking. Mobile traffic lights are becoming more common in Europe. They can be controlled by a clock, traffic volume via an on-board camera, wire or radio. They also transmit status data, which is what [Bastian] was hoping to receive.

A quick scan with GQRX revealed a strong signal on 170.760 MHz. Using baudline and audacity, [Bastian] was able to determine that Audio Frequency Shift Keying was used to modulate the data. He created a simple receiver chain in GNU radio, and was greeted with a solid data stream from the lights. By watching the lights and looking at the data frames, [Bastian] was able to determine which bits contained the current light status. A quickly knocked up web interface allowed him to display the traffic light status in real-time.

It’s a bit scary that the data was sent in plaintext, however this is just status data. We hope that any command data is sent encrypted through a more secure channel.

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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!

Pico Space Balloon Circumnavigates the Globe, Twice

We’ve reported on “space” balloons before. Heck, some of us have even launched a few. Usually they go way up in the air, take some cool pictures, and land within driving (and retrieving) distance the same afternoon. You get often amazing photos and bragging rights that you took them for the low, low price of a really big helium balloon and a fill.

But what if you shrunk everything down? Over the last few years, [Andy, VK3YT] has been launching ever smaller and lighter balloons with very low power ham radio payloads. So no camera and no photos, but the payback is that he’s launching payloads that weigh around thirteen grams complete with GPS, radio, solar cell, and batteries. They can stay up for weeks and go really far. We’d love to see some construction details beyond the minimalistic “Solar powered party balloon, 25mW TX”. But that about sums it up.

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The Biggest Day At Hamvention

We capped off day-2 of the Hamvention with an unexpected rain shower, and some arcing back in the hotel room.  Historically, Saturday is the best attended day of the show.  As normally, we spent most of the day outside in the flea market.  One of our friends allowed us to use his AN/GRC-9 army surplus radio to check into one of the nets.  The radio was powered by hand-crank.  Later, we attended a forum on the construction of HF antennas for camping trips, and obtained parts for our project back in the room. More about that later?  Overall, a great day.

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Hamvention 2015, Less Than One Week Away!

The largest amateur radio and electronics swap meet on the planet is less than one week away.  Will you be there?

The Dayton Hamvention has been an annual swap meet since 1952.  There were 24,873 attendees during last year’s hamvention alone, that is a huge number of radio enthusiasts in one place!

For those of you interested in using vintage and used test equipment you can find anything at Hamvention.  I built my entire laboratory form equipment purchased here.   It has often been said, ‘if you can’t find it at Hamvention you don’t need it.’

This year Scott Pastor (KC8KBK) and I will be covering Hamvention for Hackaday.  We plan to provide one update after each day of Hamvention summarizing the day’s events.  We hope to see you in Dayton next week!

Building a Horn Antenna for Radar

So you’ve built yourself an awesome radar system but it’s not performing as well as you had hoped. You assume this may have something to do with the tin cans you are using for antennas. The obvious next step is to design and build a horn antenna spec’d to work for your radar system. [Henrik] did exactly this as a way to improve upon his frequency modulated continuous wave radar system.

To start out, [Henrik] designed the antenna using CST software, an electromagnetic simulation program intended for this type of work. His final design consists of a horn shape with a 100mm x 85mm aperture and a length of 90mm. The software simulation showed an expected gain of 14.4dB and a beam width of 35 degrees. His old cantennas only had about 6dB with a width of around 100 degrees.

The two-dimensional components of the antenna were all cut from sheet metal. These pieces were then welded together. [Henrik] admits that his precision may be off by as much as 2mm in some cases, which will affect the performance of the antenna. A sheet of metal was also placed between the two horns in order to reduce coupling between the antennas.

[Henrik] tested his new antenna in a local football field. He found that his real life antenna did not perform quite as well as the simulation. He was able to achieve about 10dB gain with a field width of 44 degrees. It’s still a vast improvement over the cantenna design.

If you haven’t given Radar a whirl yet, check out [Greg Charvat’s] words of encouragement and then dive right in!