Tapping into a Ham Radio’s Potential with SDRPlay

Software-defined radios are great tools for the amateur radio operator, allowing visualization of large swaths of spectrum and letting hams quickly home in on faint signals with the click of a mouse. High-end ham radios often have this function built in, but by tapping into the RF stage of a transceiver with an SDR, even budget-conscious hams can enjoy high-end features.

With both a rugged and reliable Yaesu FT-450D and the versatile SDRPlay in his shack, UK ham [Dave (G7IYK)] looked for the best way to link the two devices. Using two separate antennas was possible but inelegant, and switching the RF path between the two devices seemed clumsy. So he settled on tapping into the RF stage of the transceiver with a high-impedance low-noise amplifier (LNA) and feeding the output to the SDRPlay. The simple LNA was built on a milled PCB. A little sleuthing with the Yaesu manual — ham radio gear almost always includes schematics — led him to the right tap point in the RF path, just before the bandpass filter network. This lets the SDRPlay see the signal before the IF stage. He also identified likely points to source power for the LNA only when the radio is not transmitting. With the LNA inside the radio and the SDRPlay outside, he now has a waterfall display and thanks to Omni-Rig remote control software, he can tune the Yaesu at the click of a mouse.

If you need to learn more about SDRPlay, [Al Williams]’ guide to GNU Radio and SDRPlay is a great place to start.

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Radio Amateuring Like It’s 1975

It was a tweet from an online friend in the world of amateur radio, featuring a transmitter design published in Sprat, the journal of the G-QRP club for British enthusiasts of low-power radio. The transmitter was very simple, but seriously flawed: keying the power supply line would cause it to exhibit key clicks and frequency instability. It would probably have been far better leaving the oscillator connected full-time and keying the supply to the amplifier, with of course a suitable key click filter.

[M0CVO]'s Tweet that started it all
[M0CVO]’s Tweet that started it all
We’ve all probably made projects that get the job done at the expense of a bit of performance and economy, and from one angle this circuit is a fantastic example of that art. But it’s not the shortcomings of direct PSU keying a small transmitter that has brought it here, but observation instead of what it represents. Perhaps my social group of radio amateurs differs from the masses, but among them the universal lament is that there is nothing new in a simple transistor transmitter that could just as well have been published in 1977 as 2017.

To explain why this represents a problem, it’s worth giving some background. Any radio amateur will tell you that amateur radio is a wonderful and diverse pastime, in fact a multitude of pastimes rolled into one. Working DX? Got you covered. Contesting? UR 599 OM QRZ? Digital modes pushing the envelope of atmospheric propagation? Satellites? SDRs? GHz radio engineering? All these and many more can be yours for a modest fee and an examination pass. There was a time when radio was electronics, to all intents and purposes, and radio amateurs were at the vanguard of technology. And though electronics has moved on from those days of purely analogue communications and now stretches far beyond anything you’d need a licence and a callsign to investigate for yourself, there are still plenty of places in which an amateur can place themselves at the cutting edge. Software defined radio, for instance, or digital data transmission modes. With an inexpensive single board computer and a few components it is now possible to create a software-defined digital radio station with an extremely low power output, that can be copied on the other side of the world. That’s progress, it’s not so long ago that you would have required a lot of dollars and a lot of watts to do that. Continue reading “Radio Amateuring Like It’s 1975”

The Internet of Non-Electronic Things

The bill of materials for even the simplest IoT project is likely to include some kind of microcontroller with some kind of wireless module. But could the BOM for a useful IoT thing someday list only a single item? Quite possibly, if these electronics-less 3D-printed IoT devices are any indication.

While you may think that the silicon-free devices described in a paper (PDF link) by University of Washington students [Vikram Iyer] and [Justin Chan] stand no chance of getting online, they’ve actually built an array of useful IoT things, including an Amazon Dash-like button. The key to their system is backscatter, which modulates incident RF waves to encode data for a receiver. Some of the backscatter systems we’ve featured include a soil sensor network using commercial FM broadcasts and hybrid printable sensors using LoRa as the carrier. But both of these require at least some electronics, and consequently some kind of power. [Chan] and [Iyer] used conductive filament to print antennas that can be mechanically switched by rotating gears. Data can be encoded by the speed of the alternating reflection and absorption of the incident WiFi signals, or cams can encode data for buttons and similar widgets.

It’s a surprisingly simple system, and although the devices shown might need some mechanical tune-ups, the proof of concept has a lot of potential. Flowmeters, level sensors, alarm systems — what kind of sensors would you print? Sound off below.

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Grabbing Better Images From A Newer Russian Satellite

The Soviet Union took the world by surprise when it sent its Sputnik satellite into low earth orbit way back in 1957. The event triggered a space race between the Soviets and the United States and ushered in technologies that would go on to touch the lives of every human on earth. Today, several nations have a space program. And one of the more useful things to put in orbit are weather satellites.

In 2014, the Russians launched their Meteor N M-2 weather satellite into a polar orbit. The part that were most interested in is the fact that it transmits images at 137.1 MHz using the standard LRPT protocol. However, the newer Meteor N M-2 transmits images at twelve times the resolution of US NOAA satellites. No typo there –  that’s twelve (12!) times. Have we got your attention now?

We shouldn’t have to tell you to jump on over to [phasenoise’s] blog which gives you everything you need to start grabbing some of these awesome images.

Now, before you get your jumper wires in a bunch – we are well aware that receiving satellite images is nothing new.

Thanks to [Roy Tremblay] for the tip!



Slinky Walks Down Stairs and Picks up 80m Band

Originally intended as a way to stabilize sensitive instruments on ships during World War II, the Slinky is quite simply a helical spring with an unusually good sales pitch. But as millions of children have found out since the 1940’s, once you roll your Slinky down the stairs a few times, you’ve basically hit the wall in terms of entertainment value. So what if we told you there was yet another use for this classic toy that was also fun for a girl and a boy?

As it turns out, a cheap expandable metal coil just so happens to make for a pretty good antenna if you hook it up right. [Blake Hughes] recently took on this project and provided some detailed pictures and information for anyone else looking to hook a couple of Slinkies to their radio. [Blake] reports excellent results when paired to his RTL-SDR setup, but of course this will work with whatever kind of gear you might be using at these frequencies.

Before anyone gets out the pitchforks, admittedly this isn’t exactly a new idea. There are a few other write-ups online about people using a Slinky as a cheap antenna, such as this detailed analysis from a few years ago by [Frank Dörenberg]. There’s even rumors that soldiers used a Slinky from back home as a makeshift antenna during the Vietnam War. So this is something of an old school ham trick revived for the new generation of SDR enthusiasts.

Anyway, the setup is pretty simple. You simply solder the RF jack of your choice to two stretched out Slinkies: one to the center of the jack and one to outside. Then run a rope through them and stretch them out in opposite directions. The rope is required because the Slinky isn’t going to be strong enough when expanded to keep from laying on the ground.

One thing to keep in mind with a Slinky antenna is that these things are not exactly rated for outside use. Without some kind of treatment (like a spray on acrylic lacquer) , they’ll quickly corrode and fail. Though a better idea might simply to be to think of this as a temporary antenna that you put away when you’re done with. Thanks to the fact that the Slinky doesn’t get deformed even when stretching it out to maximum length, that’s relatively easy to accomplish.

If you’re looking for a good RTL-SDR to go along with your new Slinky antenna, check out this roundup of some of the options that are on the market as of 2017. You’ll probably need an upconverter to get down to the 80m band, so you might as well build that while you’re at it.

A TEMPEST in a Dongle

If a couple of generations of spy movies have taught us anything, it’s that secret agents get the best toys. And although it may not be as cool as a radar-equipped Aston Martin or a wire-flying rig for impossible vault heists, this DIY TEMPEST system lets you snoop on computers using secondary RF emissions.

If the term TEMPEST sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve covered it before. [Elliot Williams] gave an introduction to the many modalities that fall under the TEMPEST umbrella, the US National Security Agency’s catch-all codename for bridging air gaps by monitoring the unintended RF, light, or even audio emissions of computers. And more recently, [Brian Benchoff] discussed a TEMPEST hack that avoided the need for thousands of dollars of RF gear, reducing the rig down to an SDR dongle and a simple antenna. There’s even an app for that now: TempestSDR, a multiplatform Java app that lets you screen scrape a monitor based on its RF signature. Trouble is, getting the app running on Windows machines has been a challenge, but RTL-SDR.com reader [flatfishfly] solved some of the major problems and kindly shared the magic. The video below shows TempestSDR results; it’s clear that high-contrast images at easiest to snoop on, but it shows that a $20 dongle and some open-source software can bridge an air gap. Makes you wonder what’s possible with deeper pockets.

RF sniffing is only one of many ways to exfiltrate data from an air-gapped system. From power cords to security cameras, there seems to be no end to the ways to breach systems.

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Start Tracking Satellites with This Low-Cost Azimuth-Elevation Positioner

Tracking satellites and the ISS is pretty easy. All you really need is an SDR dongle or a handheld transceiver, a simple homebrew antenna, and a clear view of the sky. Point the antenna at the passing satellite and you’re ready to listen, or if you’re a licensed amateur, talk. But the tedious bit is the pointing. Standing in a field or on top of a tall building waving an antenna around gets tiring, and unless you’re looking for a good arm workout, limits the size of your antenna. Which is where this two-axis antenna positioner could come in handy.

While not quite up to the job it was originally intended for — positioning a 1.2-meter dish antenna — [Manuel] did manage to create a pretty capable azimuth-elevation positioner for lightweight antennas. What’s more, he did it on the cheap — only about €150. His design seemed like it was going in the right direction, with a sturdy aluminum extrusion frame and NEMA23 steppers. But the 3D-printed parts turned out to be the Achille’s heel. At the 1:40 mark in the video below (in German with English subtitles), the hefty dish antenna is putting way too much torque on the bearings, delaminating the bearing mount. But with a slender carbon-fiber Yagi, the positioner shines. The Arduino running the motion control talks GS232, so it can get tracking data directly from the web to control the antenna in real time.

Here’s hoping [Manuel] solves some of the mechanical issues with his build. Maybe he can check out this hefty dish positioner for weather satellite tracking for inspiration.

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