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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PortableSDR Needs a Cinderella Story to Finish its Kickstarter

If you haven’t backed PortableSDR on Kickstarter, now’s the time to do it. [Michael Colton’s] project which frees a Software Defined Radio from being shackled to a computer is in the final three days and needs about $17,500 to make it.

We’d really like to see this one succeed, and not just because PortableSDR took 3rd place in the 2014 Hackaday Prize. Many a time we’ve heard people forecast the death of amateur radio (ham if you will). The ham community is special, it’s a great way to get mentorship in electronics, and deals in more than just digital circuitry. Plus, as [Greg] has pointed out, having a license and some know-how lets you build and operate really powerful stuff!

We see the PortableSDR as one way to renew interest in the hobby. We especially like it that you don’t need a license to operate the basic model — the transmitting circuits aren’t enabled when it arrives. This means you can learn about SDR, explore what’s going on over the airwaves, and only then take the leap by applying for your license and hack the unit to transmit. To be fair, the transmitter portion of the project hasn’t been published yet, which is about the only real concern we read in the Kickstarter comments. But we have faith that [Michael] will come through with that part of it. And if he needs help we’re sure he’ll have no problem finding it.

Now’s the time… let’s pull this one out in the final days!

HackRF Blue

For anyone getting into the world of Software Defined Radio, the first purchase should be an RTL-SDR TV tuner. With a cheap, $20 USB TV tuner, you can listen to just about anything between 50 and 1750 MHz. You can’t send, the sample rate isn’t that great, but this USB dongle gives you everything you need to begin your explorations of the radio spectrum.

Your second Software Defined Radio purchase is a matter of contention. There are a lot of options out there for expanding a rig, and the HackRF is a serious contender to expand an SDR rig. You get 10 MHz to 6 Gigahertz operating frequency, 20 million samples per second, and the ability to transmit. You have your license, right?

Unfortunately the HackRF is a little expensive and is unavailable everywhere. [Gareth] is leading the charge and producing the HackRF Blue, a cost-reduced version of the HackRF designed by [Michael Ossmann].

The HackRF Blue’s feature set is virtually identical, and the RF performance is basically the same: both the Blue and the HackRF One can get data from 125kHz RFID cards. All software and firmware is interchangeable. If you were waiting on another run of the HackRF, here ‘ya go.

[Gareth] and the HackRF Blue team are doing something rather interesting with their crowdfunding campaign: they’re giving away Blues to underprivileged hackerspaces, with hackerspaces from Togo, Bosnia, Iran, India, and Detroit slated to get a HackRF Blue if the campaign succeeds.

Thanks [Praetorian] and [Brendan] for sending this in.

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Open Sourcing Satellite Telemetry

Launched in 1978, the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 was sent on a mission to explore the Earth’s interaction with the sun. Several years later, the spacecraft changed its name to the International Cometary Explorer, sent off to explore orbiting ice balls, and return to Earth earlier this year. Talking to that spacecraft was a huge undertaking, with crowdfunding campaigns, excursions to Arecibo, and mountains of work from a team spanning the globe. Commanding the thrusters onboard the satellite didn’t work – there was no pressure in the tanks – but still the ICE mission continues, and one of the lead radio gurus on the team has put up the telemetry parser/display crafted for the reboot project up on Github.

The guy behind the backend for the ICE/ISEE reboot project should be well-known to Hackaday readers. He’s the guy who came up with a Software Defined Radio source block for a cheap USB TV tuner, waking everyone up to the SDR game. He’s also played air traffic controller by sitting out near an airport with a laptop, and has given talks at Black Hat and DEFCON.

The ICE/ISEE-3 telemetry parser/display allows anyone to listen to the recorded telemetry frames from the satellite, check out what was actually going on, and learn how to communicate with a device without a computer that’s rapidly approaching from millions of miles away. He’s even put some telemetry recordings up on the Internet to practice.

Although the ICE/ISEE-3 reboot project will have to wait another decade or two until the probe makes its way back to our neck of the woods, [Balint] is taking it in stride an organizing a few Software Defined Radio meetups in the San Fransisco area. He just had the first meetup (Video below) where talks ranging from creating a stereo FM transmitter in GNU radio, a visual introduction to DSP for SDR and SETI signals from the Allen Telescope Array were discussed. There will be another meetup in a few weeks at Noisbridge, with some very cool subjects on the roster.

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RTL SDR As A Spectrum Analyzer

RTL-SDR, the USB TV tuner turned software-defined radio is an amazing device, capable of listening to nearly anything from 25MHz to 1750MHz, fits in your pocket, and costs about $20. Even more astonishing is that it’s also a kinda-okay spectrum analyzer. [Kerry D. Wong] tested out one of these USB TV tuner, and the results are exactly what you would expect: it lacks a little precision, and sampling bandwidth is only a tiny bit terrible, but it does work.

A stock USB TV tuner doesn’t come with a connector that would normally be used for spectrum analysis. A BNC connector can be easily attached, as can a terminator to match the 75Ω impedance of the SDR. This isn’t really necessary; the frequencies being measured are low enough that you can get away without one.

As far as software goes, [Kerry] first pulled out the usual suspects of the SDR world; rtlsdr-scanner distorted the measured spectrum, as did a lot of other SDR receivers. Gqrx SDR was the first one that worked well, but the king of this repurposing of USB TV tuners was OSMOCOM. There’s a huge number of tools for spectrum analysis right out of the box with this package.

How did the RTL SDR fare as a spectrum analyzer? Feeding some stuff in from a signal generator, [Kerry] discovered the LO in the RTL SDR was off by a hair. Also, OSMOCOM only measures amplitude in dB, not the dBm found in every other spectrum analyzer ever made. By measuring a 0 dBm signal whatever value displayed can be shifted up or down.

So, does it work? Yes, it does. If, for some reason, you need a spectrum analyzer now, can you use this? Yep. Pretty cool.

Hackaday Prize Finalist: A Portable SDR

No other project to make it to The Hackaday Prize has people throwing money at their computer screen hoping something would happen than [Michael Colton]’s PortableSDR. It’s a software defined radio designed for coverage up to 30MHz. Amateur radio operators across the world are interested in this project, going so far as to call this the first Baofeng UV-5R killer. That’s extremely high praise.

[Michael] was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions about how his entry to The Hackaday Prize has gone. You can check that out below, along with the final round video of the project. Anyone who wants their own PortableSDR could really help [Michael] out by taking this survey.

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THP Hacker Bio: Michael R Colton

With many hackers out there realizing how much you can do with a few RF blocks connected to a computer, it’s no surprise software defined radio would make a showing in the semifinalists for The Hackaday Prize. [Michael]’s project is the PortableSDR, a small, self-contained unit that handles just about everything below 30MHz. No, [Michael] isn’t dealing with gigahertz accessible with fancier SDRs, but that’s not the point: PortableSDR is meant to do everything – vector analysis, a neat waterfall display, transmit and receive – in a small, portable package you can take anywhere. It’s also fairly cheap to build, and of course completely open source.

This isn’t [Michael]’s first rodeo; he’s built a number of equally cool projects before. He was kind enough to send in a short bio, available below.

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