Shmoocon: Delightful Doppler Direction Finding With Software Defined Radio

When it comes to finding what direction a radio signal is coming from, the best and cheapest way to accomplish the task is usually a Yagi and getting dizzy. There are other methods, and at Shmoocon this last weekend, [Michael Ossmann] and [Schuyler St. Leger] demonstrated pseudo-doppler direction finding using cheap, off-the-shelf software defined radio hardware.

The hardware for this build is, of course, the HackRF, but this pseudo-doppler requires antenna switching. That means length-matched antennas, and switching antennas without interrupts or other CPU delays. This required an add-on board for the HackRF dubbed the Opera Cake. This board is effectively an eight-input antenna switcher using the state configurable timer found in the LPC43xx found on the HackRF.

The key technique for pseudo-doppler is basically switching between an array of antennas mounted in a circle. By switching through these antennas very, very quickly — on the order of hundreds of thousands of times per second — you can measure the Doppler shift of a transmitter.

However, teasing out a distinct signal from a bunch of antennas virtually whizzing about isn’t exactly easy. If you look at what the HackRF an Opera Cake receive on a waterfall display, you’ll find a big peak around where you expect, and copies of that signal trailing off, separated by whatever your antenna switching frequency is. This was initially a problem for [Schuyler] and [Ossmann]’s experiments. Spinning the antennas at 20 kHz meant there was only 20 kHz difference in these copies, resulting in a mess that can’t be decoded. The solution was to virtually spin these antennas much faster, resulting in more separation, and a clean signal.

There are significant challenges when it comes to finding the direction of modern radio targets. Internet of Things things sometimes have very short packet duration, modulation interferes with antenna rotation, and packet detection must maintain the phase. That said, is this technique actually able to find the direction of IoT garbage devices? Yes, the demo on stage was simply finding the direction of one of the wireless microphones for the talk. It mostly worked, but the guys have some ideas for the future that would make this technique work a little better. They’re going to try phase demodulation instead of only frequency-based demodulation. They’re also going to try asymmetric antenna arrays and pseudorandom antenna switching. With any luck, this is going to become an easy and cheap way to do pseudo-doppler direction finding, all enabled by a few dollars in hardware and a laser-cut jig to hold a few antennas.

A Modern Take on the Crystal Radio

We’ll admit that [3DSage] has a pretty standard design for a crystal radio. What we liked, though, was the 3D printed chassis with solderless connections. Of course, the working pieces aren’t 3D printed — you need an earphone, a diode, and some wire too. You can see the build and the finished product in the video below.

Winding the coil is going to take awhile, and the tuning is done with the coil and capacitance built into the tuning arrangement so you won’t have to find a variable capacitor for this build. There is a picture of the radio using a razor blade point contact with a pencil lead, so if you want to really scrimp on the diode, that works too, and you can see how at the end of the video.

We did like the use of cord ends from a sewing and craft supply store to serve as solderless springs. This would be a great item to print off a few dozen copies and use it for a school or youth group activity. You might want to pair it with an AM transmitter, though so the kids won’t be dismayed at what is playing on AM in most markets. [3DSage] uses a sink for ground — literally a kitchen sink. However, if you try this, make sure all the pipes are metal or you won’t get a good ground and you probably won’t pick up any stations.

We’d like to get some of those springs and make some other kind of starter projects with them like the kits many of us had as kids. This reminded us of the old foxhole radios, found during World War II.

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Long-Range RFID Leaflets

Pick a card, any card. [Andrew Quitmeyer] and [Madeline Schwartzman] make sure that any card you pick will match their NYC art installation. “Replantment” is an interactive art installation which invites guests to view full-size leaf molds casts from around the world.

A receipt file with leaf images is kept out of range in this art installation. When a viewer selects one, and carries it to the viewing area, an RFID reader tells an Arduino which tag has been detected. Solid-state relays control two recycled clothing conveyors draped with clear curtains. The simple units used to be back-and-forth control but through dead-reckoning, they can present any leaf mold cast front-and-center.

Clothing conveyors from the last century weren’t this smart before, and it begs the question about inventory automation in small businesses or businesses with limited space.

We haven’t seen much long-range RFID, probably because of cost. Ordinary tags have been read at a distance with this portable reader though, and NFC has been transmitted across a room, sort of.

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Recreating the Radio from Portal

If you’ve played Valve’s masterpiece Portal, there’s probably plenty of details that stick in your mind even a decade after its release. The song at the end, GLaDOS, “The cake is a lie”, and so on. Part of the reason people are still talking about Portal after all these years is because of the imaginative world building that went into it. One of these little nuggets of creativity has stuck with [Alexander Isakov] long enough that it became his personal mission to bring it into the real world. No, it wasn’t the iconic “portal gun” or even one of the oft-quoted robotic turrets. It’s that little clock that plays a jingle when you first start the game.

Alright, so perhaps it isn’t the part of the game that we would be obsessed with turning into a real-life object. But for whatever reason, [Alexander] simply had to have that radio. Of course, being the 21st century and all his version isn’t actually a radio, it’s a Bluetooth speaker. Though he did go through the trouble of adding a fake display showing the same frequency as the one in-game was tuned to.

The model he created of the Portal radio in Fusion 360 is very well done, and available on MyMiniFactory for anyone who might wish to create their own Aperture Science-themed home decor. Though fair warning, due to its size it does consume around 1 kg of plastic for all of the printed parts.

For the internal Bluetooth speaker, [Alexander] used a model which he got for free after eating three packages of potato chips. That sounds about the best possible way to source your components, and if anyone knows other ways we can eat snack food and have electronics sent to our door, please let us know. Even if you don’t have the same eat-for-gear promotion running in your neck of the woods, it looks like adapting the model to a different speaker shouldn’t be too difficult. There’s certainly enough space inside, at least.

Over the years we’ve seen some very impressive Portal builds, going all the way back to the infamous levitating portal gun [Caleb Kraft] built in 2012. Yes, we’ve even seen somebody do the radio before. At this point it’s probably safe to say that Valve can add “Create cultural touchstone” to their one-sheet.

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Confessions Of A Reformed Frequency Standard Nut

Do you remember your first instrument, the first device you used to measure something? Perhaps it was a ruler at primary school, and you were taught to see distance in terms of centimetres or inches. Before too long you learned that these units are only useful for the roughest of jobs, and graduated to millimetres, or sixteenths of an inch. Eventually as you grew older you would have been introduced to the Vernier caliper and the micrometer screw gauge, and suddenly fractions of a millimetre, or thousandths of an inch became your currency.  There is a seduction to measurement, something that draws you in until it becomes an obsession.

Every field has its obsessives, and maybe there are bakers seeking the perfect cup of flour somewhere out there, but those in our community will probably focus on quantities like time and frequency. You will know them by their benches surrounded by frequency standards and atomic clocks, and their constant talk of parts per billion, and of calibration. I can speak with authority on this matter, for I used to be one of them in a small way; I am a reformed frequency standard nut. Continue reading “Confessions Of A Reformed Frequency Standard Nut”

You’ll Really Want An “Undo” Button When You Accidentally Send A Ballistic Missile Warning

Hawaiians started their weekend with quite a fright, waking up Saturday morning to a ballistic missile alert that turned out to be a false alarm. In between the public anger, profuse apologies from officials, and geopolitical commentary, it might be hard to find some information for the more technical-minded. For this audience, The Atlantic has compiled a brief history of infrastructure behind emergency alerts.

As a system intended to announce life-critical information when seconds count, all information on the system is prepared ahead of time for immediate delivery. As a large hodgepodge linking together multiple government IT systems, there’s no surprise it is unwieldy to use. These two aspects collided Saturday morning: there was no prepared “Sorry, false alarm” retraction message so one had to be built from scratch using specialized equipment, uploaded across systems, and broadcast 38 minutes after the initial false alarm. In the context of government bureaucracy, that was really fast and must have required hacking through red tape behind the scenes.

However, a single person’s mistake causing such chaos and requiring that much time to correct is unacceptable. This episode has already prompted a lot of questions whose answers will hopefully improve the alert system for everyone’s benefit. At the very least, a retraction is now part of the list of prepared messages. But we’ve also attracted attention of malicious hackers to this system with obvious problems in design, in implementation, and also has access to emergency broadcast channels. The system needs to be fixed before any more chaotic false alarms – either accidental or malicious – erode its credibility.

We’ve covered both the cold-war era CONELRAD and the more recent Emergency Broadcast System. We’ve also seen Dallas’ tornado siren warning system hacked. They weren’t the first, they won’t be the last.

(Image: Test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III ICBM via US Air Force.)

Dust Off Those AM Radios, There’s Something Good On!

If you are into vintage electronics or restoring antique radio equipment you may be very disappointed with the content offerings on AM broadcast radio these days. Fortunately there is a way to get around this: build your own short-range AM broadcast station and transmit curated content to your radios (and possibly your neighbors). There are several options for creating your own short-range AM broadcast station, and this gives you something fun to tune into with your vintage radio gear.

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