Basics Of Remote Cellular Access: Connecting Via VPN

You’ve got a machine hooked up to the Internet via a shiny new cellular modem, which you plan to administer remotely. You do a quick check on the external IP, and try and log in from another PC. Try as you might, SSH simply won’t connect. What gives?

The reality of the modern internet is that most clients no longer get their own unique IPv4 address. There simply aren’t enough to go around anymore. Instead, most telecommunications operators use Carrier Grade Network Address Translation which allows a single external address to be shared by many customers. This can get in the way of direct connection attempts from the outside world. Even if that’s not the case, most cellular operators tend to block inbound connections by default. However, there is a way around this quandary – using a VPN. Continue reading “Basics Of Remote Cellular Access: Connecting Via VPN”

Starlink Satellite Dish X-Rayed To Unlock RF Magic Inside

When [Kenneth Keiter] took apart his Starlink dish back in November, he did his best to explain the high-level functionality of the incredibly complex device in a video posted to his YouTube channel. It was a fascinating look at the equipment, but by his own admission, he wasn’t the right person to try and explain the nuances of how the phased array actually functioned. But he knew who could do the technology justice, which is why he shipped the dismembered dish over to [Shahriar Shahramian] of The Signal Path.

Don’t be surprised if you can’t quite wrap your head around his detailed analysis after your first viewing. You’ll probably have a few lingering questions after the second re-watch as well. But that’s OK, as [Shahriar] still has a few of his own. Even after cutting out a section of the dish and putting it under an X-ray, it’s still not completely clear how the SpaceX engineers managed to cram everything into such a tidy package. Though there seems to be no question that the $500 price for the early-access hardware is an absolute steal, all things considered.

The layered antenna works on multiple frequencies.

Most of the video is spent examining the stacked honeycomb construction of the phased antenna array, which as expected, holds a number of RF secrets if you know what to look for. Put simply, there’s no such thing as an insignificant detail to the trained eye. From the carefully sized injection molded spacer sheet that keeps the upper array a specific distance from the RF4-like radome, to the almost microscopic holes that have been bored through each floating patch to maintain equalized air pressure through the stack up, [Shahriar] picks up on fascinating details which might otherwise seem like arbitrary design decisions.

But a visual inspection will only get you so far. Eventually [Shahriar] has to cut out a slice of the PCB so he can fit it into the X-ray machine, but don’t feel too bad, the dish was long dead before he got his hands on it. While he hasn’t yet completed his full analysis, an initial examination indicates that each large IC and the eight chips surrounding it make up a 16 channel beam forming module. Each channel is further split into two RX and TX pairs, which provides the necessary right and left hand polarization. That said, he admits there’s some room for interpretation and that further work would be necessary before any hard conclusions could be made.

Between this RF analysis and the initial overview provided by [Kenneth], we’ve already learned a lot more about this device than many might have expected considering how rare and expensive the hardware is. While we admit it’s not immediately clear what kind of hijinks hardware hackers could get into once this device is fully understood, we’re certainly eager to find out.

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Remoticon Video: Basics Of RF Emissions Debugging Workshop

These days we’re surrounded by high-speed electronics and it’s no small feat that they can all play nicely in near proximity to each other. We have RF emissions standards to thank, which ensure new products don’t spew forth errant signals that would interfere with the data signals traveling through the ether. It’s long been the stuff of uber-expensive emissions testing labs, and failure to pass can leave you scratching your head. But as Alex Whittimore shows in this workshop from the 2020 Hackaday Remoticon, you can do a lot of RF emissions debugging with simple and inexpensive tools.

Professionally-made probes in several sizes
Build your own probes from magnet wire
You can get a surprisingly clear picture of what kind of RF might be coming off of a product by probing it on your own workbench. Considering the cost of the labs performing FCC and other certifications, this is a necessary skill for anyone who is designing a product headed to market — and still damn interesting for everyone else. Here you can see two examples of the probes used in the process. Although one is a pack of professional tools and other is a bit of enameled wire (magnet wire), both are essentially the same: a loop of wire on which a magnetic field will induce a very small current. Add a Low-Noise Amplifier (LNA) and you’ll be up and measuring in no-time.
I really enjoyed how Alex started his demo with “The Right WayTM” of doing things — using a proper spectrum analyzer to visualize data from the probes. But the real interesting part is “The Hacker WayTM” which leverages an RTL-SDR dongle and some open-source software to get the same job done. Primarily that means using SDRAngel and QSpectrumAnalyzer which are both included in the DragonOS_LTS which can be run inside of a virtual machine.

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Making Smart Bulbs Smarter With The Power Of MQTT

What’s the point of smart home automation? To make every day tasks easier, of course! According to [Tomasz Cybulski], that wasn’t the case when he installed IKEA smart lights in his closet. It’s handy to have them in a common switch, in this case a remote control, but having to look for it every time he needed the lights could use some improvement. Enter his project to make smart bulbs smarter, through the use of a simple ESP8266.

While hooking a door switch to the lights’ power supply could provide a quick solution, [Tomasz]’s wife wanted to keep the functionality of the remote control, so he had to look elsewhere. These light bulbs use the simple Zigbee protocol, so arranging for other devices was rather trivial. A USB dongle to interface with the protocol was configured for his existing Raspberry Pi automation controller, while an ESP8266 served as the real-world sensor by connecting it to reed switches installed in the closet doors.

With all the hardware sorted out, it’s a simple matter of making it all talk to each other. The ESP8266, using the Tasmota firmware, sends a signal to an MQTT server running on the Raspberry Pi, which in turn translates it to a remote trigger on the Zigbee frequency with the dongle. The lights turn on when the door opens, and off again once it closes. And since there were no further modifications to the lights themselves, the original IKEA controller still works as expected, which we’re sure [Tomasz]’s wife appreciates!

MQTT can be an interesting piece of software that goes beyond just home automation though, and if you already have a server in your home you can use it to transfer your clipboard’s contents to another device. If you are using it for home automation though, here’s an inspiration for a rather unusual dashboard to keep things interesting. Check out this hack in action after the break.

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Basics Of Remote Cellular Access – Choosing A Modem

These days, we’re blessed with cellular data networks that span great swathes of the Earth. By and large, they’re used to watch TV shows and argue with strangers online. However, they’re also a great tool to use to interact with hardware in remote locations, particularly mobile ones where a wired connection is impractical.

In this series, we’re taking a look at tips and tricks for doing remote cellular admin the right way. First things first, you’ll need a data connection – so let’s look at choosing a modem.

Options Abound

When shopping around for cellular data modems, it can be difficult to wade through the variety of options out there and find something fit for purpose. Modems in this space are often marketed for very specific use cases; at the consumer level, many are designed to be a no-fuss home broadband solution, while in the commercial space, they’re aimed primarily to provide free WiFi for restaurants and cafes. For use in remote admin, the presence of certain features can be critical, so it pays to do your research before spending your hard earned money. We’ve laid out some of the common options below.

Consumer Models

The Sierra Aircard 320U is ancient now, with limited frequency bands available. Its flimsy flexible connector is also a drawback. However, its ease of configuration with Linux systems makes it a dream to use in remote access situations. Unlike many others, it acts as a Direct IP connection, not appearing as a separate router.

Many telecommunications providers around the world sell cheap USB dongles for connecting to the Internet, with these first becoming popular with the rise of 3G. They’re somewhat less common now in the 5G era, with the market shifting more towards WiFi-enabled devices that share internet among several users. These devices can often be had for under $50, and used on prepaid and contract data plans.

These devices are often the first stop for the budding enthusiast building a project that needs remote admin over the cellular network. However, they come with certain caveats that can make them less attractive for this use. Aimed at home users, they are often heavily locked down with firmware that provides minimal configuration options. They’re generally unable to be set up for port forwarding, even if you can convince your telco to give you a real IP instead of carrier-grade NAT. Worse, many appear to the host computer as a router themselves, adding another layer of NAT that can further complicate things. Perhaps most frustratingly, with these telco-delivered modems, the model number printed on the box is often not a great guide as to what you’re getting.

A perfect example is the Huawei E8327. This comes in a huge number of sub-models, with various versions of the modem operating in different routing modes, on different bands, and some even omitting major features like external antenna connectors.  Often, it’s impossible to know exactly what features the device has until you open the box and strip the cover off, at which point you’re unable to return the device for your money back.

All is not lost, however. The use of VPNs can help get around NAT issues, and for the more adventurous, some models even have custom firmware available on the deeper, darker forums on the web. For the truly cash strapped, they’re a viable option for those willing to deal with the inevitable headaches. There are generally some modems that stand out over others in this space for configurability and ease of use. This writer has had great success with a now-aging Sierra Aircard 320U, while others have found luck with the Huawei E3372-607. As per earlier warnings though, you don’t want to accidentally end up with an E3372-608 – thar be dragons.

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IRC Over LoRa, For When Things Really Go South

As a society, we’ve become accustomed to always-on high-speed data connections, whether we’re at home on the computer or out and about with a mobile device. But what happens if a natural disaster knocks out the local infrastructure? Sure some people will be able to fire up their radio if they need to reach out and touch someone, but even among hackers, hams are a minority. What we really need is a backup Internet.

The team behind the CellSol project hopes to show that building a volunteer-operated distributed communications network is not only within the capabilities of the hacker community but probably much easier and cheaper to do than you might think. Each node in the network, known as a Pylon in CellSol parlance, can shuttle data between the LoRa backbone and WiFi-enabled devices like smartphones and computers. Once the network is up and running, users don’t need any special hardware or software to use it.

Now to be clear, nobody is talking about surfing the web here. When a user connects to one of the ESP32 Pylons, they’ll be able to access a simplistic chat system through their browser. If the Pylon has an active Internet connection the chat can be bridged to an IRC channel. Without Internet connectivity, the pylon will simply give users on the CellSol network a means to communicate among each other. To keep things simple there’s no user names, private messages, or encryption. This is bare-bones, end-of-the-world style communication.

Want to join the CellSol revolution? All you really need is an ESP32, a LoRa radio, and the open-source firmware. If you get something like the Heltec LoRa 32 development board, you don’t even need to solder anything together. Just flash the board and go. Once you have a few Pylons going, you can also put together a cheap repeater node using a LoRa equipped Arduino. Both devices are small and energy efficient enough that they could easily be battery or solar powered. As you can see in the video after the break, the team even envisions a future where they could be dropped off in public areas via drone.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the ESP32 used to establish an off-grid LoRa communications network, and like those previous attempts, it’s usefulness will largely depend on how many people you can convince to set up their own nodes and repeaters. But if you’ve got some open minded friends who live relatively close by, this could be a great way to have a little chat.

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The Macro Keyboard Is On Deck

The idea of a reconfigurable macro keyboard is a concept that has been iterated on by many all the way from custom DIY keypads to the polarizing TouchBar on MacBooks. The continual rise of cheap powerful microcontrollers with Wi-Fi and 3D printers makes rolling your own macro keyboard easier every year. [Dustin Watts] has joined the proverbial club and built a beautiful macro pad called FreeTouchDeck.

We’ve seen macro keyboards that use rotary encoders to cycle through different mappings for the keys. FreeTouchDeck has taken the display approach and incorporates a touch screen to offer different buttons. [Dustin] was inspired by a similar project called FreeDeck, which offers six buttons each with a small screen. FreeTouchDeck is powered by an ESP32 and drives an ILI9488 touch screen with an XPT2046 touch controller. This means that FreeTouchDeck can offer six buttons with submenus and all sorts of bells and whistles. A connection to the computer is done by emulating a Bluetooth keyboard. By adding a configuration mode that starts a web server, FreeTouchDeck allows easy customization on the fly.

[Dustin] whipped up a quick PCB that makes it easy to solder the ESP32 and the TFT together, but a breadboard works just fine. Gerbers for that are available on GitHub. To wrap it all up, a nice 3D printed shell encloses the whole system in a clean, tidy way. The code, documentation, and case designs are all on his GitHub.

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