Swarm Of Tiny Pirate Transmitters Gets The Message Out In Syria

They say that the first casualty of war is the truth, and that’s probably only more the case in a civil war. When one side in a conflict controls the message, the other side is at a huge disadvantage. Technology can level the playing field, and in the case of the Syrian Civil War, a swarm of tiny Raspberry Pi transmitters is helping one side get their message out.

We won’t pretend to understand the complexities of this war, but it’s clear that the Syrian government controls broadcast media and access to the internet, and is using them for propaganda while denying the opposition access to the same. A decentralized medium can get the message out under these conditions, and that’s exactly what Pocket FM does. Built around a Raspberry Pi and a frequency-agile FM transmitter, a Pocket FM can take multiple audio feeds and transmit them out to a 5km radius. Small enough to be packed up and deployed quickly and able to be powered by batteries or solar panels, the pirate transmitters can be here one minute and gone the next, yielding a robust network resistant to takedown attempts.

The network built around Pocket FM in Syria is small but growing, and it appears to be making a difference in the conflict. We find the concept of a decentralized network intriguing and potentially empowering, at least in situations where the letter of the law regarding broadcasting is not a prime consideration. That’s where projects like Airchat seek to build an unsanctioned network. The same goes for Tweeting on the Amateur Radio Band in a project aptly named HamRadioTweets.

We wonder how a fleet of these Pi-based transmitters could aid in recovery from natural disasters?

[via r/amateurradio and TomHiggins]

76 thoughts on “Swarm Of Tiny Pirate Transmitters Gets The Message Out In Syria

    1. Unless it’s a disaster area in a civil war zone, it doesn’t make sense. Any disaster anywhere else, people could just tune into their radios and the idea is that everyone would be transmitting something helpful.

    1. Apparently fancy ajax and trendy artwork.

      Never have I seen such a complex website that was so completely devoid of any actual information. It’s like someone thought this should be marketed like an activity tracker wristband. The kind of people who want to buy this want details, like: yeah, it runs on 12v, but what voltage range does it tolerate? Who knows! We get a cute picture of a car battery!

      1. Even worse: There is no AJAX there, its just HTML with jQuery to help with the animations.

        I don’t blame them, knowing more about it will make it MUCH easier to combat and deter.

  1. Oooohhh, I know, lets make it run off a Raspberry Pi , and it will be cool, new and shiny , and just like the stuff we already have , only it will run off a Pi. That sounds like something the entire world is going to go ape shit over. Lets do it!! Whatever it is , lets do it, because Raspberry Pis are totally tubular peachy keen awesomeness. Lets make a Pi powered computer mouse, or a Pi powered paper shredder. Those would change the world…..forever.

    Seriously people……..We do not need to reinvent the wheel just to make it Pi or Arduino powered. Kind of sick of it really. Its completely nonconstructive.

    1. yeah, because using cheap and readily available platforms with lots of community support is like so last year. Wanna go to Starbucks and pretend to write a novel about it?

    2. Sounds like someone is a little butt-hurt. The thing is, these ecosystems have their advantages. The arduino is easy to gain access to for someone without an electronics degree, and the raspberry pi is a _cheap_ computer, compared to what was available before the pi came to market.

      1. A single purpose analog transmitter IC with a cheap monolithic amplifier will be easier to source, easier to get running if you use the datasheet and less likely to suffer from export restrictions.

        Also, a pirate transmitter in a civil war stricken country where the government sees the opposion as terrorists (and in a lot of the cases they have every right to) can lead to a bomb landing in the triangulated area…

        1. Probably any person with a basic understanding of *nix and electricity can, on their own in a war-torn desert with limited internet access, learn to build a radio transmitter using a PI.

          I don’t think the same can be said of your pi-less solution.

          1. Really? Its been done for decades. This is part of my argument. A new shiny device with a hip name comes along and all the sudden its what has made this stuff possible and as if it had never existed.

            Seriously, they could find an old laptop somewhere, or even a crappy phone , a small off the shelf FM transmitter with an audio input , that can be had for pennies in comparison ,a decent antenna from junk, and maybe build a basic amp for pennies if necessary. Honestly , I say someone in a war torn desert could pull it off for NOTHING , without a knowledge *nix, or electricity, or a Pi. Just as myself and many others have done in the past.

    3. Of course it is possible to accomplish this with other hardware. And it could probably be cheaper and smaller.
      But the power and flexibility of the raspberry pi is game changing when compared to other embed-able solutions. It’s not just respected because it is “new and shiny” it is respected because it works well, cheaply, and is _very_ easy to use.

      From the article: “One of the benefits of using Raspberry Pis is that it is relatively easy to add new components.
      Mr Hochleichter’s latest design includes a GSM module, which allows the small transmitters to be controlled remotely by text message.”

      GSM chips are not exactly “plug-and-play” when interfacing with a PIC or a single purpose FM transmitter. But they are essentially plug and play when working in the raspberry pi ecosystem. And the cost of entry to that ecosystem is heinously low.

    4. While I agree that a RPi does not need to be shoehorned into every project, in this case I believe it’s use is valid. Given the presence of a usb A port on this device I think it may be used to play a large variety of audio file formats off any usb drive. The raspberry pi provides this ability, being a full linux computer, as well as having the necessary gpio pins to control the transmitter and on top of all that it’s relatively cheap.

    5. Just remember not everyone is rolling in cash. Pi is inexpensive but powerful enough for a lot of these projects. Not everyone has to have a huge brand name bit of kit to get a job done. Besides the Pi was initially built to get kids programming again. Good on Ebden. Stop whining and do something just as useful instead of putting others efforts down. The world is full of knockers.. Show them you aren’t one of them.

    6. The PI and arduino lets non-technical people utilize complicated software stacks to complete an application. Notice I said complete an application, not optimize, not cost reduce, not extend battery life, etc.

    7. The PI and similar boards are just the most easily obtainable smaller computers useable for tinkering with the external world. Those people over there have much harder stuff to do than wasting their time and brains on other problems that technology already solved for them.

    1. Sadly, it’s more complex than that. Much, much more complex. And the Powers that Be (Russia, EU, US, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other fifteen I just forget) are all torn between “save lives!” and “i-want-outcome-x, lives be damned”.

      Not a good starting point to get things to calm down. And I’m convinced that each day less of war there is far more effective in reducing terrorism than the billions of dollars thrown at the NSA, Homeland and however those institutional monsters are called.

      Sorry. Offtopic. I’ll shut up now.

  2. I don’t have quite the same intentions with my build of a portable FM transmitter, however I’m curious to see if they’ve done any kind of testing with transmitters like this and battery life. To get 3km of reach with your signal you’d need a pretty beefy transmitter (and therefore fairly high power requirements), no?

    1. Depends, a few watts should do it assuming a reasonably sensitive receiver and a sufficiently high antenna. Also, for this usecase the signal does not have to be perfect without any drops. The user can easily move his radio to a place with good reception.

      1. With a good position and an antenna that actually radiates the signal instead of reflecting it back to the TX, a couple of hundred milliwatts should suffice, using excessive power is asking to be located and dealt with.

        1. I imagine they’re doing it the way pirate radio stations do. Have repeaters hidden around the place. In the case of pirate radio, sometimes on a high building, spliced into it’s mains supply. That’s the point of making these cheap, so you can hide them somewhere, then only come back when the batteries need changing. If you lose one, it doesn’t matter.

          The one in the pic says “SRC: SAT”, so if it’s picking up it’s audio from a satellite, the people doing the transmitting are well hidden, and difficult to find. It’s only the inexpensive repeaters that are at risk.

    2. Depends on the residual noise levels on your intended frequencies in a given area. In many populous parts of the world, the residual background noise on the FM band will mean that your transmitter will spend a certain amount of its RF budget just getting high enough above that noise for a receiver to be able to distinguish it. Then you scale up to gain range. In many parts of the world though, where FM broadcasting is sparse or where SFNs result in only parts of the band being used, a fairly small transmitter signal into a good antenna can get out surprisingly far. Go back to the post war years in the US when FM was largely experimental and receive distances were double (and sometimes much more) than what they are today, despite the relatively low-q receivers of the era. It will never get out as far as AM skywave, but in a quiet environment, a little FM can go a long way. I’m guessing Syria’s background noise in the FM band is fairly low at the moment, given their societal challenges.

      Granted, these mini transmitter nets need to be engineered with some degree of overhead to overcome selective jamming efforts that will, no doubt, follow along behind them shortly. It might be a slow-motion version of “better mousetrap” but it will still happen.

      I’d love to learn more about the specifics of these devices, see their layout, peruse their code, etc… but I’m guessing that’s reasonably well guarded given the nature of what their purpose is. I don’t blame their creators one bit for their relative silence on the technical aspects.

      That said, it wouldn’t be hard to rig up a device in the same size enclosure doing the same sort of thing, and start to innovate around it. There’s no reason more than one group can’t be working on this sort of thing at the same time, there’s certainly a need for it in a number of global hot spots!

      1. If it can change it’s broadcast frequency, and I think it can, then it’s going to be hard to jam without also interfering with “legitimate” broadcasts, particularly the government’s own. With the stuff inside it, it should be able to change frequency instantaneously, at any moment. Then it just takes a bit of gossip for people to find out the new one.

    1. I think the Pi is controlling and managing the actual transmitter circuit, allowing them to control these repeaters remotely. Makes them versatile and smart. Presumably the transmitter is a digitally-controllable chip, driving a fairly ordinary RF amp.

  3. This is going off the fact that it’s called PocketFM, vice PocketHF.

    While a honorary cause (disaster and war area relief), it just seems like the wrong technology. Ignoring the size of the unit, if you can send out RF to 5km and receive from a sat, then you can just as easily be jammed out of existence. Worse yet, be fed a directed signal from an ‘outside’ source. 12v is great since it runs everywhere and is easy to setup but eventually you find the limitations and power ceilings. Not to mention the fact that stealing one of these would essentially let you listen to an entire battlefield with a big enough antenna. I mean, if some force is controlling the broadcasting medium and censoring people, do you think they are going to just let you setup your own radio network without either A. Monitoring it, or B. Attacking the network somehow?

    At least they didn’t publish their RF specs, security via obscurity is always a good 2nd place.

    1. They also need to be heard from common people with common radios, so their transmitter is restricted to standard frequencies, which means the government doesn’t need any technical details, nor detect them, to jam them.
      A total different thing would be creating nodes for a network where only the endpoints would transmit to common radios while the nodes in the middle should use anything but FM, WiFi, CB and HAM bands, otherwise it would be too easy to render them inoffensive.

  4. Is there any evidence the syrian government won’t let the opposition talk? I know freaking ISIL is massively present on the internet, and I know many people and refugees have no issue contacting home.
    So uhm.. is that statement propaganda?

    And seriously, getting into the damn syrian crap now HaD? I mean sure it’s technology but seriously you can skip some stuff to keep a place pleasant.

    1. Wasn’t it a few years ago that they couldn’t stop gushing about what amazing tank and weaponry hacks these freedom fighters were producing? You’d almost expect them to have realized by now that a large percentage of those “hackers” want to murder us and our children.

      But anyway, stay tuned for the latest installment of “The Hacks of ISIS,” exclusively on HACKADAY ™

      1. Theoretically you could just focus on hacks and ignore the rest, like we sometimes do with NSA hacks and all that too.
        But it’s hard, and when we are talking about people dying it gets a bit nasty to try to do so. And when it’s gone all political due to the refugees flooding europe and terrorist groups organizing attacks in the west and russia’s involvement in the syrian conflict(s) which in turn sets off the US panic and all that song and dance, well, it becomes tricky to not have things turn unpleasant and get people polarized.

        .

      2. Those terrorists certainly did a good job of terrorising Americans. You’re still runnning round like headless chickens. The point of terrorism is to disrupt ordinary life. In the case of ISIS, they have a manual outlining the aim of all this: To alienate Muslim people from the West. So that the Muslims will then be forced, in ISIS-logic, to take up arms and destroy the West. A giant Islam vs everyone else war, that Islam will win.

        Most Muslims don’t actually fancy this, and would rather just live their lives like usual, wherever they live. ISIS intends for them not to have that choice, by provoking the West into treating Muslims intolerably.

        Every time a Western country starts talking about Muslim people like they were space invaders, every time ordinary life over here is interrupted by paranoid “security” regulations, ISIS pat themselves on the back, because they’ve achieved their aim.

  5. This article is mostly naive hot air, in a war a transmitter is a beacon that a missile can lock on to and if they don’t do that they can just overwhelm the band with a much bigger transmitter. See AGM-88 HARM for the basic idea, no doubt the Russians have something just as pointy.

    1. These Barrel-Bomb Magnets can work in your favor – if properly placed and in effective numbers. Naive people often assume big-ticket Electronic Warfare is a cure-all. In practice, many times they’re just wasting munitions and energy.

    2. You don’t send a quarter million dollar weapon after a few-watt FM transmitter operated by civilians. You use an RDF, your informants, and an couple of guys with guns in a pickup truck.

      Then you make an Example out of whoever owns the transmitter.

      I wonder if a small, cheap repeater would’ve been a better idea.

      1. I thought this WAS a cheap repeater. That’s why it’s automated, and deployable in lots of places.

        Syria isn’t a poor country. It’s just full of war. These units may well be affordable enough to use in large numbers, the effective way.

    3. Russia would not be interested in using expensive rockets against the opposition they feel is moderate enough.
      Those rockets don’t come cheap, you can buy a Lexus for the price of one of them.
      And of course you can run that transmitter without people being near it. And in fact you can put it under thick concrete and just have the antenna stick out.
      And then there’s the possibility that those running such a transmitter aren’t armed fighting units. Although that as we know from the past would not stop the US, so probably Russia neither, although the US and Russia don’t always have the same morals, and it’s certainly not always the US on the high road in the area of morals and keeping to international law.

  6. This is just propaganda, nothing more, nothing else. Made by some NGO, spinned by the media, distributed to the right people, etc etc. International opinion polls show that Syrians overwhelmingly support Assad. “Syrian observatory for human rights” – based in the UK, BTW, has been repeatedly exposed for posting fake videos and news. I am surprised that a tech website fell for this blatant BS

    1. What I noticed is that the syrian refugees are acting incredibly entitled, complaining the internet in the refugee centers isn’t fast enough, complaining they don’t get everything handed to them, etcetera.
      So when you see that you wonder how that fits with the ‘asad is such a common people abuser’ story we get told. I mean if the people under his reign can develop to be so entitled.. it doesn’t make sense to claim they are brutally suppressed 24/7.

      Not that I think asad is in any way a great nice guy, but then neither is obama and cameron and you name them. Nor is the egyptian dictator who is supported by everybody for some reason. Politics eh, the entertainment never stops – but the victims sometimes do.

  7. I really like this Idea, War always produces some great technology. I know this isn’t the revolutionary but it fixes a problem in a place with perhaps too many problems. I wonder if ISIS/ISIL is using this technology as well as the rebels? Once you have an idea out there it is normally adobted by both sides in war time as a good idea is a good idea.

  8. I was part of a research project that utilised swarm intelligence to distribute information in a secure manner, such that it did not saturate a network’s resources.

    I once saw it as the first reference on a US navy contract solicitation, perhaps someone here could make use of the algorithm?

    “Dependable and Secure Distributed Storage System for Ad Hoc Networks – Rudi Ball, James Grant, Jonathan So, Victoria Spurrett, and Rogério de Lemos”

    This link will hopefully work:
    http://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-3-540-74823-6_11.pdf

  9. Some of this discussion fails to take into account an important point. This is to be a low-power, limited-range FM transmitter that’s constantly moving around. It’s coverage will be limited to a few square miles and its frequency will need to change. By the time the local population finds the frequency, it’d be almost time to move. It sounds romantic, but it is hardly worth the hype or trouble. It’s broadcasting virtually devoid of listeners.

    Other options do make more sense, including using one the few remaining international broadcasting assets of the once mighty BBC, its station on Cyprus:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_East_Mediterranean_Relay_Station

    It can operate in the MW-AM band at 639 and 720 KHz. At night, anyone in Syria could pick up its signal. When I lived in Israel, it’s signal was noisy but listenable even in the daytime.

    There’s also U.S. National Guard C-130s that are specifically designed to fly high and broadcast radio and TV signals to a population spread over a wide area.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/193d_Special_Operations_Wing

    The real hitch isn’t broadcast capability. It’s that in the Middle East, apart from democratic Israel, it’s hard to find any group that’s worth supporting. Each, if given power, will attempt to crush their opponents. You’re merely choosing one that seems to be the lesser evil, and its hard to get motivated about that.

    Fortunately, with fracking now giving the U.S. an immense oil-production capacity, the rest of the world no longer needs to fret like it once did over solving problems in a region where the dominant culture means that stability can apparently only achieved by unpleasant authoritarian regimes.

    —–

    Interestingly, years ago, when I was working in Alaska, I visited KJNP, which is just outside Fairbanks.

    http://www.mosquitonet.com/~kjnp/KJNP%20AM.html

    A max-power, 50,000 watt station, the FCC requires them to use directional antennas at night to avoid interference with Canadian stations. During the Cold War, broadcasting away from Canada meant broadcasting toward Siberia, so in the wee hours of the night they broadcast Russia language programming to what was then a communist dictatorship.

    Notice at that link that today’s station has a Trapline Chatter program to broadcast personal messages to isolated villages. Something like that would be very useful in the Syria, since it would enable those separated by war to maintain contact. But of course that requires a station with a regional reach, not suitcase transmitters constantly on the move.

    Note too that in Alaska hams and the general (unlicensed) public share a channel at 5.1675 MHz (60 meter band) that can be used for emergency communication. As this website notes, it’d be great to do the same down here, particularly in large, lightly populated states that can have weather disasters such as blizzards.

    http://www.w5txr.net/Alaska-Emergency-Frequency.html

    –Mike Perry, KE7NV

    1. Changing frequency frequently, may not be such a big deal thanks to RDS which has a field to transmit alternative frequencies for the station tuned in. This is a useful feature if you drive a car and want to listen to the same station all the time (provided of course there is coverage).

    1. Germany also arms and supports some kurdish group.
      And yet this is run from turkey.
      I wonder how this is going to end…

      And talking of turkey, maybe the EU should fund such pirate radio to be run in turkey. Then turkey will declare the EU a terrorist org because they have broadcasts not run from erdogan’s office.

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