Which Wireless Tech is Right For You?

It seems these days all the electronics projects are wireless in some form. Whether you choose WiFi, Bluetooth Classic, Bluetooth Low Energy, ZigBee, Z-Wave, Thread, NFC, RFID, Cell, IR, or even semaphore or carrier pigeon depends a lot on the constraints of your project. There are a lot of variables to consider, so here is a guide to help you navigate the choices and come to a conclusion about which to use in your project.

We can really quickly reduce options down to the appropriate tech with just a few questions.

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Robotic Pets Test an Automatic Pet Door

Lots of people get a pet and then hack solutions that help them care for their new friend, like an automatic door to provide access to the great outdoors. Then again, some people build the pet door first and then build the pets to test it.

It’s actually not quite as weird as it sounds. [Amir Avni] and his wife attended a recent GeekCon and entered the GeekCon Pets event. GeekCon is a cooperative rather than competitive hackathon that encourages useless builds as a means to foster community and to just have some fun. [Amir] and his wife wanted to build a full-featured automatic pet door, and succeeded – with NFC and an ESP8266, the stepper-powered door worked exactly as planned. But without any actual animal companions to test the system, they had to hack up a few volunteers. They came up with a 3D-printed dog and cat perched atop wireless cars, and with NFC tags dangling from their collars, the door was able to differentiate between the wandering ersatz animals. The video below the break shows the adorable plastic pals in action.

It’s clear from all the pet doors and automatic waterers and feeders we’ve seen that hackers love their pets, but we’re pretty sure this is the first time the pet itself was replaced by a robot. That’s fine for the test environment, but we’d recommend the real thing for production.

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GuardBunny Active RFID Protection Going Open Hardware

There are two sides to every coin. Instead of swiping or using a chip reader with your credit card, some companies offer wireless cards that you hold up to a reader for just an instant. How convenient for you and for anyone who might what to read that data for their own use. The same goes for RFID enabled passports, and the now ubiquitous keycards used for door access at businesses and hotels. I’m sure you can opt-out of one of these credit cards, but Gerald in human resources isn’t going to issue you a metal key — you’re stuck hauling around that RFID card.

It is unlikely that someone surreptitiously reading your card will unlock your secrets. The contactless credit cards and the keylock cards are actually calculating a response based on a stored key pair. But you absolutely could be tracked by the unique IDs in your cards. Are you being logged when passing by an open reader? And other devices, like public transit cards, may have more information stored on them that could be harvested. It’s not entirely paranoid to want to silence these signals when you’re not using them.

One solution is to all of this is to protect your wallet from would-be RFID pirates. At this point all I’m sure everyone is thinking of a tin-foil card case. Sure, that might work unless the malicious reader is very powerful. But there’s a much more interesting way to protect against this: active RFID scrambling with a project called GuardBunny. It’s a card that you place next to whatever you want to protect. It’s not really RFID — I’ll get that in a moment — but is activated the same way and spews erroneous bits back at any card reader. Kristin Paget has been working on GuardBunny for several years now. As of late she’s had less time for active development, but is doing a great thing by letting version 1 out into the world for others to hack on. In her talk at Shmoocon 2016 she walked through the design, demonstrated its functionality, and shared some suggestions for further improvement.

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This Car Lets You Fistbump to Unlock

In the dark ages, you had to use a key to lock and unlock your car doors. Just about every car now has a remote control on the key that lets you unlock or lock with the push of a button. But many modern cars don’t even need that. They sense the key on your person and usually use a button to do the lock or unlock function. That button does nothing if the key isn’t nearby.

[Pierre Charlier] wanted that easy locking and unlocking, so he refitted his car with a Keyduino to allow entry with an NFC ring. What results is a very cool fistbump which convinces your car to unlock the door.

Keyduinio is [Pierre’s] NFC-enabled project, but you can also use a more conventional Arduino with an NFC and relay shield. The demo also works with a smartphone if you’re not one for wearing an NFC ring. Going this round, he even shows how to make it work with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

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Snooping on SIM Cards

[Nils Pipenbrinck] has been working on a very interesting problem. The SIM card in your cellphone talks to the contactless near-field communication (NFC) chip through a cool protocol that we’d never hear of until reading his blog: single wire protocol (SWP).

The SIM card in your cellphone has only a limited number of physical connections — and by the time NFC technology came on the scene all but one of them was in use. But the NFC controller and the SIM need full-duplex communications. So the SWP works bi-directionally on just one wire; one device modulates the voltage on the line, while the other modulates the current, essentially by switching a load in and out.

This signalling protocol makes snooping on this data line tricky. So to start off his explorations with SWP, [Nils] built his own transceiver. That lead [Nils] to some very sensitive analog sniffer circuit design that he’s just come up with.

If you get interested in SWP, you’ll find the slides from this fantastic presentation (PDF) helpful, and they propose a solution very similar to the one that [Nils] ended up implementing. That’s not taking anything away from [Nils]’s amazing work: with tricky high-speed analog circuitry like this, the implementation can be more than half of the battle! And we’ll surely be following [Nils]’s blog to see where he takes this.

Banner image: An old version and a new version of the transceiver prototype.

Thanks to [Tim Riemann] for the tip!

Emulating and Cloning Smart Cards

A few years ago, we saw a project from a few researchers in Germany who built a device to clone contactless smart cards. These contactless smart cards can be found in everything from subway cards to passports, and a tool to investigate and emulate these cards has exceptionally interesting implications. [David] and [Tino], the researchers behind the first iteration of this hardware have been working on an improved version for a few years, and they’re finally ready to release it. They’re behind a Kickstarter campaign for the ChameleonMini, a device for NFC security analysis that can also clone and emulate contactless cards.

While the original Chameleon smart card emulator could handle many of the contactless smart cards you could throw at it, there at a lot of different contactless protocols. The new card can emulate just about every contactless card that operates on 13.56 MHz.

The board itself is mostly a PCB antenna, with the electronics based on an ATXMega128A4U microcontroller. This micro has AES and DES encryption engines, meaning if your contactless card has encryption and you have the cryptographic key, you can emulate that card with this device. They’re also making a more expensive version that also has a built-in reader that makes the ChameleonMini a one-stop card cloning tool.

NFC Tags Add Old-School Functionality to New Phone

Back in the day, we had smartphones with physical buttons. Not just power, volume, and maybe another button on the front. Whole, slide-out QWERTY keyboards right on the underside of the phone. It was a lawless wasteland, but for those who yearn for the wild-west days of the late 2000s, [Liviu] has recreated the shortcut buttons that used to exist on the tops of these keyboards for modern-day smartphones.

There were lots of phones that had shortcut keys on their keyboards, but [Liviu] enjoyed using the ones that allowed him to switch between applications (or “apps” as the kids are saying these days) such as the calendar, the browser, or the mail client. To recreate this, he went with a few NFC tags. These devices are easily programmed via a number of apps from your app store of choice, and can be placed essentially anywhere. In order to make them visible to the phone at any time, though, he placed the tags inside a clear plastic case for his phone and can now use them anytime.

If you’ve never used or programmed an NFC tag, this would be a great project to get yourself acquainted with how they operate. Plus, you could easily upgrade this project to allow the tags to do any number of other things. You can take projects like this as far as you want.

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