Building An SDR Lab With Wheels

With the incredibly low cost of software defined radio (SDR) hardware, and the often zero cost of related software, there’s never been a better time to get into the world of radio. If you’ve got $30 burning a hole in your pocket, you’re good to go. But as with any engrossing hobby that’s cheap to get into, you run the risk of going overboard eventually.

For example, if the radio gear inside your car approaches parity with the Kelly Blue Book value of said vehicle, you may have been bitten by the radio bug. In the video after the break, [Corrosive] gives us a tour of his antenna festooned Hyundai Accent, that features everything he needs to receive and analyze a multitude of analog and digital radio signals on the go.

He starts with the roof of the car, which is home to five whip antennas (not counting the one from the factory installed AM/FM radio) and two GPS receivers. The ones on the rear of the car feed down into the trunk, where a bank of Nooelec NESDR RTL-SDR receivers will live in a USB hub. He’s only got one installed for test purposes, but he’ll need more for everything he’s got planned. Also riding in the back is a BCD780XLT scanner, which he got cheap on eBay thanks to the fact it had a dead display.

Luckily, where [Corrosive] is going, he won’t need displays. The SDR receivers and the scanner are all controlled from the driver’s seat by way of a Windows 10 tablet. This runs the ProScan software that provides a virtual interface to the BCD780XLT, as well as various SDR interfaces. He’s also got Gpredict for tracking satellites and ADS-B programs like Virtual Radar.

The car’s head unit has been replaced by a rooted Android entertainment system which supports USB host mode. [Corrosive] says it isn’t hooked up yet, but in the future the head unit is going to get its own SDR receiver so he can run programs like RF Analyzer right in the dashboard. We’re willing to bet that this will be the only car in the world that has both a waterfall display and the “Check Engine” light on at the same time.

Even if you aren’t ready to install it in your car, you might like to read up on using multiple SDR receivers for trunked radio or setting up your own ADS-B receiver to get a better idea of what [Corrosive] has in mind once everything is up and running.

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VCF East: SDR on the Altair 8800

You’d be forgiven if you thought software defined radio (SDR) was a relatively recent discovery. After all, few outside of the hardcore amateur radio circles were even familiar with the concept until it was discovered that cheap USB TV tuners could be used as fairly decent receivers from a few hundred MHz all the way up into the GHz range. The advent of the RTL-SDR project in 2012 brought the cost of entry level SDR hardware from hundreds of dollars to tens of dollars effectively overnight. Today there’s more hackers cruising the airwaves via software trickery than there’s ever been before.

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Classifying Crystals With An SDR Dongle

When it comes to radio frequency oscillators, crystal controlled is the way to go when you want frequency precision. But not every slab of quartz in a tiny silver case is created equal, so crystals need to be characterized before using them. That’s generally a job for an oscilloscope, but if you’re clever, an SDR dongle can make a dandy crystal checker too.

The back story on [OM0ET]’s little hack is interesting, and one we hope to follow up on. The Slovakian ham is building what looks to be a pretty sophisticated homebrew single-sideband transceiver for the HF bands. Needed for such a rig are good intermediate frequency (IF) filters, which require matched sets of crystals. He wanted a quick and easy way to go through his collection of crystals and get a precise reading of the resonant frequency, so he turned to his cheap little RTL-SDR dongle. Plugged into a PC with SDRSharp running, the dongle’s antenna input is connected to the output of a simple one-transistor crystal oscillator. No schematics are given, but a look at the layout in the video below suggests it’s just a Colpitts oscillator. With the crystal under test plugged in, the oscillator produces a huge spike on the SDRSharp spectrum analyzer display, and [OM0ET] can quickly determine the center frequency. We’d suggest an attenuator to change the clipped plateau into a sharper peak, but other than that it worked like a charm, and he even found a few dud crystals with it.

Fascinated by the electromechanics of quartz crystals? We are too, which is why [Jenny]’s crystal oscillator primer is a good first stop for the curious.

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Homebrew SDR Ham Radio in 9 Parts

It used to be homebrew ham gear meant something simple. A couple of active devices that could send CW. Maybe a receiver with a VFO. But only the most advanced builders could tackle a wide range SSB transceiver. Today, that goal is still not trivial, but it is way easier due to specialty ICs, ready access to high-speed digital signal processing, and advances in software-defined radio techniques. [Charlie Morris] decided to build an SSB rig that incorporated these technologies and he shared the whole process from design to operation in a series of nine videos. You can see the first one below.

The NE612 is a child of the popular NE602 chip, which contains a Gilbert-cell mixer, and an oscillator that makes building a receiver much easier than it has been in the past. The chips are set up as direct conversion receivers and feed a Teensy which does the digital signal processing on the recovered audio.

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Cheap Stuff To Hack: A Router With An SDR For $13

The history of consumer electronics is littered with devices that are relatively uninteresting at first, but become spectacular platforms for hardware exploitation once a few select people figure out how everything ticks. The Linksys WRT54G was just a router until someone figured out how to put a complete Linux system on them. Those RTL-SDR dongles were just for capturing over the air TV until someone realized they were actually a software-defined radio. The CueCat was just dot-com boom marketing garbage until… well, we picked up a lot of CueCats regardless.

Now there’s a new device sitting on the shelves at Walmart just waiting for some Linux hackers to have a go. It’s the Tzumi MagicTV, a device that allows you to watch over-the-air television on your phone. What’s inside? It’s a WiFi router, an RTL-SDR, and a battery pack in one tiny package. The best part? It costs $13, and apparently Walmart is just blowing them out.

Right now, there aren’t too many details on what’s going on inside the Tzumi MagicTV box, however, the discussion over on the RTLSDR subreddit has revealed enough to give us a good idea of what’s going on. The router inside the MagicTV is a TP-Link TL-WR703N, the exact same WiFi router that took the WRT54G’s place as the king of hackable routers a few years ago. The SDR chip is the same as the Astrometa DVB-T2, one of the common TV tuners on-a-stick. Other than that, there are TX and RX pins on the board, SSH is open, no one knows the password, but as of this writing, a few people are putting John the Ripper to work trying to break into this box.

What is the end goal of cracking this Linux box wide open? Well, it’s a WiFi router and an SDR, so if you want to make your own Flightaware ADS-B logger, that could be on the table. Of course, you could actually use it for its intended purpose and pull down over-the-air TV to your local network, but that seems so pedestrian after getting root on a $13 box from Walmart.

Thanks [Adam] for the tip!

A Classy SDR Chip, Decapped

If you are a regular searcher for exotic parts among the virtual pages of semiconductor supplies catalogs, you will have probably noticed that for a given function it is most often the part bearing the Analog Devices logo that is the most interesting. It may have more functionality, perhaps it will be of a higher specification, and it will certainly have a much higher price. [Zeptobars] has decapped and analyzed an AD chip that holds all three of those honors, the AD9361 SDR transceiver.

It’s placed under a slightly inflammatory title, “when microchips are more profitable than drugs“, but does make a good job of answering why a semiconductor device at the very cutting edge of what is possible at the time of release can be so expensive. The AD9361 is an all-in-one SDR transceiver with an astonishing bandwidth, and as such was a particularly special device when it reached the market in 2013. We see some particularly fine examples of on-chip inductors and PLL circuitry that must have consumed a significant design effort to preserve both bandwidth and noise characteristics. This is an item of physical beauty at a microscopic scale as well as one of technical achievement.

The financial analysis puts Analog Devices’s gross profit at about $103 of the $275 retail purchase price of an AD9361. The biggest slice at $105 goes to the distributor, and surprisingly the R&D and manufacturing costs are not as large as you might expect. How accurate these figures are is anybody’s guess, but they are derived from an R&D figure in the published financial report, so there is some credence to be given to them.

We’ve featured [Zeptobar’s] work before more than once. A look at fake Nordic Semi parts for example or a Soviet i8080 clone have received their treatment. Always a source to watch out for!

Dual SDR Receives Two Bands at Once

There was a time when experimenting with software defined radio (SDR) was exotic. But thanks to cheap USB-based hardware, this technology is now accessible to anyone. While it is fun to play with the little $20 USB sticks, you’ll eventually want to move up to something better and there are a lot of great options. One of these is SDRPlay, and they recently released a new piece of hardware — RSPduo — that incorporates dual tuners.

We’ve talked about using the SDRPlay before as an upgrade from the cheap dongles. The new device can tune either a single 10 MHz band over the range of 1 kHz to 2 GHz, or you can select two 2 MHz bands. This opens up a lot of applications where you need to pick up signals in different areas of the spectrum (e.g., monitoring both sides of a cross-band repeater).

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