Testing the Outernet Dreamcatcher SDR

What do you get when you cross an ARM-based Linux PC and an RTL-SDR? Sounds like the start of a joke, but the answer is Outernet’s Dreamcatcher. It is a single PCB with an RTL-SDR software defined radio, an L-band LNA, and an Allwinner A13 processor with 512MB of RAM and a 1 GHz clock speed. The rtl-sdr site recently posted a good review of the $99 board.

We’ll let you read the review for yourself, but the conclusion was that despite some bugs, the board was no more expensive than pulling the parts together separately. On the other hand, if you uses, for example, a Raspberry Pi 3, you might expect more support and more performance.

Despite the L-band hardware, there is a bypass antenna jack that allows you to receive other frequencies. There’s also two SD slots, one to boot from and another for storage. Several pieces of software had trouble running on the somewhat sluggish CPU, although some software that is optimized for the particular processor used fared better. You can read the details in the review.

The board is interesting, although unless you have a special packaging problem, you are probably as well off to combine a Pi and a dongle, as we have seen so many times before. If you have more horsepower you can even make the Pi transmit, although we’d suggest some filtering if you were going to do that for real.

Why No Plane Parachutes? And Other Questions.

This week I was approached with a question. Why don’t passenger aircraft have emergency parachutes? Whole plane emergency parachutes are available for light aircraft, and have been used to great effect in many light aircraft engine failures and accidents.

But the truth is that while parachutes may be effective for light aircraft, they don’t scale. There are a series of great answers on Quora which run the numbers of the size a parachute would need to be for a full size passenger jet. I recommend reading the full thread, but suffice it to say a ballpark estimate would require a million square feet (92903 square meters) of material. This clearly isn’t very feasible, and the added weight and complexity would no doubt bring its own risks.

Continue reading “Why No Plane Parachutes? And Other Questions.”

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!

Why You Should Care About Software Defined Radio

It hasn’t become a household term yet, but Software-Defined Radio (SDR) is a major player on the developing technology front. Whether you’re building products for mass consumption, or just playing around for fun, SDR is worth knowing something about and I’ll prove it to you.

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[Balint]’s GNU Radio Tutorials


[Balint] has a bit of history in dealing with software defined radios and cheap USB TV tuners turned into what would have been very expensive hardware a few years ago. Now [Balint] is finally posting a few really great GNU Radio tutorials, aimed at getting software defined radio beginners up and running with some of the coolest hardware around today.

[Balint] is well-known around these parts for being the first person to create a GNU Radio source block for the implausibly inexpensive USB TV tuners, allowing anyone with $20 and enough patience to wait for a package from China to listen in on everything from 22 to 2200 MHz. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in that band, including the ACARS messages between airliners and traffic control, something that allowed [Balint] to play air traffic controller with a minimal amount of hardware.

Right now the tutorials are geared towards the absolute beginner, starting at the beginning with getting GNU Radio up and running. From there the tutorials continue to receiving FM radio, and with a small hardware investment, even transmitting over multiple frequencies.

It’s not much of an understatement to say software defined radio is one of the most versatile and fun projects out there. [Balint] even demonstrated triggering restaurant pagers with a simple SDR project, a fun project that is sure to annoy his coworkers.

Continue reading “[Balint]’s GNU Radio Tutorials”

Listening to Electromagnetic Interference with a RTLSDR Dongle

Being curious by nature, [Marios] decided to see what kind of radio-frequency emissions may be generated by an Arduino connected to a simple breadboard wire, and more importantly try to pick them up using a RTLSDR dongle. Electromagnetic interferences are disturbances that affect electrical circuits due to either electromagnetic induction or electromagnetic radiation. Before going into the market, all electrical devices are thoroughly checked for unwanted electromagnetic emissions so they usually aren’t obvious suspects when such problems arise.

Using the Arduino embedded PWM controller in fast PWM mode and by manipulating the duty cycle, he actually managed to create a primitive form of amplitude modulation and was able to transfer a very simple audible signal at several frequencies up to 1.75GHz. Embedded after the break here is video of the system at work.

As a side note, did you know that during the solar storm of 1859 the EMI were so strong that the telegraph operators received several shocks? Pipelines maintenance systems also have to be aware of such events, that can lead sensors to provide inaccurate results.

Continue reading “Listening to Electromagnetic Interference with a RTLSDR Dongle”

Using SDR to Read Your Smart Meter

[BeMasher] was dissatisfied with the cost of other solutions to read his smart meter, so he made a project to read it himself using an rtl-sdr dongle.

Using his hacking and reverse engineering skills along with a $20 RTL-SDR dongle, [BeMasher] wrote rtlamr to automatically detect and report the consumption information reported by smart meters within range. Though designed for his Itron C1SR, [BeMasher] claims that any electronic receiver transmitter (ERT) capable smart meter should work.

[BeMasher]’s Itron C1SR smart meter broadcasts both interval data and standard consumption in the 915MHz ISM band using a Manchester encoded, frequency hopping spread spectrum protocol. [BeMasher] used the RTL-SDR dongle to do the signal capture and analysed the resulting signal in software afterwards. [BeMasher] did a great job of going through the theory and implementation of analysing the resulting data capture, so be sure to check it for an in-depth analysis.

If the RTL-SDR dongles are too limited for you taste, you might want to check out some hacker friendly SDRs with a little more punch.