A Comparison of Hacker Friendly SDRs

3 SDRs

In the market for a software defined radio? [Taylor Killian] wrote a comprehensive comparison of several models that are within the price range of amateurs and hobbyists.

You can get started with SDR using a $20 TV tuner card, but there’s a lot of limitations. These cards only work as receivers, are limited to a small chunk of the radio spectrum, and have limited bandwidth and sample rates. The new SDRs on the market, including the bladeRF, HackRF, and USRP offerings are purpose built for SDR experimentation. You might want an SDR to set up a cellular base station at Burning Man, scan Police and Fire radio channels, or to track ships.

[Taylor] breaks down the various specifications of each radio, and discusses the components used in each SDR in depth. In the end, the choice depends on what you want to do and how much you’re willing to spend. This breakdown should help you choose a hacker friendly SDR.

HackRF, or playing from 30 MHz to 6 GHz

hackrf

Up on Kickstarter, [Michael Ossmann] is launching the HackRF, an inordinately cheap, exceedingly capable software defined radio tool that’s small enough to lose in your laptop bag.

The HackRF was the subject of a lot of interest last time it was on Hackaday - the ability to receive up to 6GHz allows the HackRF to do a lot of very interesting things, including listening in on Bluetooth, WiFi, and 4G networks. Also, the ability to transmit on these frequencies means a lot of very interesting, and quite possibly slightly evil applications are open to anyone with a HackRF. Like the RTL-SDR dongles, the HackRF works with GNU Radio out of the box, meaning all those cool SDR hacks we’ve seen so far will work with this new, more powerful board.

Compared to the USB TV tuner cards that were so popular a year ago, the HackRF has 10 times the bandwidth, is able to receive up to 6GHz, and is also able to transmit. It’s only half-duplex, so to receive and transmit simultaneously you’ll need two HackRFs, or maybe wait for a hardware revision that will hopefully come sooner rather than later.

Below you can check out [Michael]‘s presentation at Toorcon where the HackRF was unleashed to the world.

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[Travis Goodspeed] starts a space agency in Southern Appalachia

travis-goodspeed-space-tracker

His space agency hardware might be in Southern Appalachia, but he can control it from anywhere in the world. That’s right, [Travis Goodspeed] started his own space agency — well kinda. The first piece of hardware operated by the organization is this dish for tracking moving targets in near space.

The main part of the build is a Felcom 82B dish which  was designed to be a satellite link for naval vessels. The image showing the back side of it exposes all of the extras he built into the system. Don’t worry though, a dome goes over the top to keep the weather out without encumbering its operation.He uses an SDR dongle to handle the radio communications. That connects to a BeagleBone which pipes the data to his handheld over the Internet.

It’s amazing to see this type of hobby project. It wasn’t that long ago that you needed an entire room of hardware to communicate with satellites.

Pager message sniffing with RPi and SDR

rpi-pager-message-sniffing

The 1990′s called, they want you to use modern technology to listen in on your friends’ pager messages. Seriously, how many people are still using pagers these days? We guess you can find out by building your own Software-Define Radio pager message decoder.

[Sonny_Jim] bought an RTL2832 based USB dongle to listen in on ADS-B airplane communications only to find out the hardware wasn’t capable of communicating in that bandwidth range. So he set out to find a project the hardware was suited for and ended up exploring the POCSAG protocol used by paging devices. It turns out it’s not just used for person-to-person communications. There are still many automated systems that use the technology.

Setting things up is not all that hard. Reading the comments on the project log show some folks are having dependency issues, but these sound rather banal and will be a good chance for you to brush up on your Linux-fu. Once all the packages are installed you’re simply working with text which can be displayed in a myriad of ways. [Sonny] set up a text files on the Pi’s webserver so that he can check out the latest captures from a smartphone.

[Image Source]

Detecting galactic rotation with software defined radio

dish

Last summer in the heyday of software defined radio via USB TV tuners we asked hackaday readers a question: Is anyone using everyone’s favorite method of SDR for radio astronomy? It took nearly a year, but finally there’s an awesome project to turn a USB TV tuner into a radio telescope. It’s from the fruitful mind of [Marcus Leech] (PDF warning), and is good enough to detect the rotation of the galaxy with a three-foot satellite dish.

News of [Marcus]‘ work comes to us from [Carl] over at RTL-SDR.com who has been keeping tabs on the advances of building a radio telescope in a backyard. He’s been collecting a lot of interesting tidbits including this gif showing an arm of the galaxy entering and leaving [Marcus]‘ telescope’s field of view over the course of a few hours.

Not only can [Marcus]‘ telescope record continium measurements – basically, a single-pixel camera sensitive to only one frequency – it can also produce spectral plots of the sky. Combine the ability to measure multiple frequencies at the same time with the Doppler effect, and [Marcus] can measure the rotation of the galaxy with a USB TV tuner. That’s just awesome in our humble opinion.

If you already have an RTL-SDR TV tuner and a largish satellite dish, [Marcus]‘ project should be fairly inexpensive to replicate; the feed assembly is made out of a coffee can, the amplifiers are repurposed satellite television equipment, and all the software – [Marcus]‘ own simple_ra tool for GNU Radio – is open source. Of course with a 3 foot diameter dish, it will be impossible to replicate the data from huge radio telescopes. Still, it’s an impressive piece of work that leaves us searching craigslist for an old C-band dish.

Listening to aircraft transponders with a Raspberry Pi

flight

Last year’s big hack was software-defined radio; a small USB TV tuner that could listen in on radio broadcasts anywhere between 64 and 1200 MHz. This year, it’s all about the Raspberry Pi, so it’s surprising we’re only just now seeing a mashup of these two pieces of hardware. [Corq] is using a Raspi and RTLSDR TV tuner to listen in on aircraft transponders, and getting a whole bunch of data from aircraft flying overhead.

Even though the ADS-B decoder [Corq] is using is written for OS X, he’s reading the data coming from the USB TV tuner over the network with a program called Dump1090. This program allows [Corq] to attach his SDR to a Raspbery Pi and put it somewhere the antenna will get good reception – an attic, or an outdoor weatherproof case – and stream data to his desktop over a WiFi or network connection.

With a USB TV tuner and a Raspberry Pi, [Corq] is able read the tail numbers, altitude, latitude, longitude, speed, heading, and even the type of aircraft currently flying over his house. That’s cool enough, but the fact that he can effectively do this over the Internet makes it a brilliant hardware mashup.

Tracking ships using software-defined radio (SDR)

tracking-ships-using-sdr

When we first started hearing about software-defined radio hacks (which often use USB dongles that ring it at under $20) we didn’t fully grasp the scope of that flexibility. But now we’ve seen several real-life examples that drive the concept home. For instance, did you know that SDR can be used to track ships? Ships large and small are required by may countries to use an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder. The protocol was originally developed to prevent collisions on large ships, but when the cost of the hardware became affordable the system was also brought to smaller vessels.

[Carl] wrote in to share his project (which is linked above). Just like the police scanner project from April this makes use of RTL-SDR in the form of a TV tuner dongle. He uses the SDRSharp software along with a Yagi-UDA. The captured data is then decoded and plotted on a map using ShipPlotter.