Have you dipped your toe into the SDR ocean? While hacker software-defined radio has been a hot topic for years now, it can be a little daunting to try it out for the first time. Here’s your change to get your legs under you with the SDR overview workshop presented by Josh Conway during the 2020 Hackaday Remoticon.
Josh’s presentation starts with a straightforward definition of SDR before moving to an overview of the hardware and software that’s out there. Hardware designs for radios can be quite simple to build, but they’ll be limited to a single protocol — for instance, an FM radio can’t listen in on 433 Mhz wireless doorbell. SDR breaks out of that by moving to a piece of radio hardware that can be reconfigured to work with protocols merely by making changes to the software that controls it. This makes the radio hardware more expensive, but also means you can listen (and sometimes transmit) to a wide range of devices like that wireless doorbell or automotive tire pressure sensors, but also radio-based infrastructure like airplane transponders and weather satellites.
This is the quickstart you want since it explains a lot of topis at just the right depth. The hardware overview covers RTL-SDR, ADALM-PLUTO, HackRF, KerberosSDR, and BladeRF (which we just featured over the weekend used on the WiFi procotol). For software, Josh recaps GQRX, SDR#, SDRAngel, ShinySDR, Universal Radio Hacker, Inspectrum, SigDigger, RPITX, GnuRadio Companion, and REDHAWK. He also takes us through a wide swath of the antenna types that are out there before turning to questions from the workshop attendees.
If SDR is still absent in your toolbox, now’s a great time to give it another look. Once you’ve made it through the ‘hello world’ stage, there’s plenty to explore like those awesome RF Emissions testing tricks we as in another Remoticon talk.
When it comes to embedded engineering, toolchains are the worst. Getting a new toolchain up and running correctly is often hard, and often prone to breaking when the IDE or other software is upgraded. A plethora of different toolchains for different hardware makes things even more murky, and if you want to get into time-saving tricks like automated testing, you’re in for a wild ride.
Those pain points led to the creation of the Pigweed project. As Keir Mierle demonstrates in this workshop from the 2020 Hackaday Remoticon, Pigweed is a set of libraries to make working with embedded development more hacker-friendly. The collection is accessed via commandline, and coordinates work with existing libraries to deliver unit testing, linting, static analysis, logging, and handling key-value stores, all alongside more commonly called-for tasks like compiling and flashing.
Demonstrated on a Teensy microcontroller and an STM32 Discovery board, the presentation drives home the utility of Pigweed, a Google project that was released as open source back in March of 2020. Graphical IDEs for these platforms are nowhere in sight, yet test firmware is built and flashed to these devices with relative ease. Unit testing, traditionally a sticky subject for on-chip applications, is demonstrated both emulated on the computer side, and running on the boards themselves. As the capabilities of microcontrollers have ballooned in recent years, writing tests for existing functions and confirming them during new development is becoming a must-have in your skillset.
There’s much more shown off here, so grab the workshop repository to follow along. It’s still considered experimental, and the irony of having to learn the intricacies of the Pigweed toolchain to ease the pain of other toolchains is not lost on us. However, most people reading will have their own affinity for the ability to use unified tools and commandline automation; this is a fascinating way to deliver a number of powerful software development techniques to low-level hardware projects.
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.
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.
Very few people want to invent the universe before they blink their first LED. Sure, with enough interest a lot of folks will drill-down to the atomic level of technology and build their way back up. But there’s something magical about that first time you got your blinky to blink, and knowing how to write makefiles plays no part in that experienc). Now apply that to projects using smartphone as wireless interfaces… how simple can we make it for people?
Jose David Cuartas is working to answer that very question and gives us a guided tour of his progress in this Meta_Processing workshop held during the Hackaday Remoticon. Meta-Processing is an IDE based on — as you’ve probably guessed — Processing, the programming language that unlocked higher-level functionality to anyone who wanted to perform visually-interesting things without becoming software zen masters. The “Meta_” part here is that it can now be done with very limited typing and interchangeably between different spoken languages.
The approach is to take the best of text programming and block programming languages and mash them together. In that way, you don’t type new lines, you add them with a click of the mouse and select the instruction you want to use on that line from a list. It means you don’t need to have the instructions memorized, and avoids typos in your code. The docs for that instruction will be shown on the bottom bar of the IDE to help you with parameters. And the kicker is that since you’re selecting the instructions, choosing any of the IDE’s 14 available spoken languages will update your “code” with translations into the new language.
People learn in many different ways. Having options like this to help people get to blinky very quickly is a great way to break down barriers to understanding and using computers.
Hardware hacking can be extremely multidisciplinary. If you only know bits and bytes, but not solder and electrons, you’re limited in what you can build. The same is true for mechanical design, where the forces of stress and strain suddenly apply to your project and the pile of code and PCBs comes crashing to the ground.
In the second half of the workshop, Naman takes these concepts into computer simulation, and gives us good insight into the way that finite-element analysis simulation packages model these same forces on tiny chunks of your project’s geometry to see if it’ll hold up under real world load. The software he uses isn’t free by any definition — it’s not even cheap unless you have a student license — but it’s nonetheless illuminating to watch him work through the flow of roughly designing an object, putting simulated stresses and strains on it, and interpreting the results. If you’ve never used FEA tools before, or are looking for a compressed introduction to first-semester mechanical engineering, this talk might be right up your alley. Continue reading “Remoticon Video: The Mechanics Of Finite Element Analysis”→
Designing your own integrated circuits as a one-person operation from your home workshop sounds like science fiction. But 20 years ago, so did rolling your own circuit boards to host a 600 MHz microcontroller with firmware you wrote yourself. Turns out silicon design isn’t nearly as out of reach as it used to be and Matt Venn shows us the ropes in his Zero to ASIC workshop.
Held during the 2020 Hackaday Remoticon, this is a guided tour of the tools used in the Skywater PDK — the Process Design Kit that is an open-source ASIC toolkit produced in a partnership between Google and SkyWater Technology. We covered the news when first announced back in June, but this the most comprehensive look we’ve seen into the actual design process.
Matt builds up the demo starting from the very simple design of an N-channel MOSFET with click-and-drag tools similar to graphics editing software. The good news it that although you can draw your own structures like this, for digital designs you won’t have to. A wide variety of IP has been contributed to the open source project allowing basic building blocks to be pulled in using HDL. However, the power of drawing structures will certainly be the playground for those needing analog design as part of their projects.
As with EDA software used for circuit boards, the PDK includes design rule checks to ensure you aren’t violating the limits of the 130 nm chip fab. There’s some other black magic in there too, as Matt specifically mentions an antenna rules check to safeguard your design from being fried by induced current on “large” (microscopically so) metalized runs during the fabrication process.
The current workflow involves grinding through a large number of configuration files, something Matt admits took him a long time to wrap his head around. However, what’s available for proofing your design is very impressing. He demonstrates SPICE simulation to calculate timings, and shows numerous examples of verification drawings generated by the compilation process, either in the form of seeing the structures as they will be laid out, or as logical flow charts. This is crucial as a single run will take 2-3 months to come back from fab — you want to get things right before buttoning up the project. Incidentally, that’s know as “tapeout”, a term you’ve likely heard before and he says it comes from reels of magnetic tape containing the design being removed from the computer and sent to production. Who knew? (This tidbit in strikethrough appears to be incorrect).
But wait, there’s more to this than just designing the things. Part of the intrigue of the Skywater-PDK project is that Google bought into covering a group run about once per quarter so that open-source designs can be ganged onto a multi-project wafer free of charge to the people submitting them. That’s pretty awesome and we’re giddy to hear news of people getting their wafer-level chip scale devices — also known as flip chips — back for testing. Matt is planning a more in-depth paid course on the topic. For now, get a taste of what’s involved from this excellent workshop found after the break.
We seem to want our PCB design software to do everything these days, and it almost delivers. You can not only lay it all out, check electrical and design rules, and even spit out a bill of materials, but many PCB tools produce 3D models that are good enough to check parts clearance or are useful in designing enclosures. But when it comes to producing photorealistic output, whether for advertising or just for eye-candy, you might want to turn to 3D design tools.
If you don’t know Blender, maybe you don’t know how comprehensive a 3D modelling and animation tool it is. And with the incredible power comes a notoriously steep learning curve up a high mountain. Anool doesn’t even try to turn you into a Blender expert, but focuses on the tweaks and tricks that you’ll need to make good looking PCB renders. You’ll find general purpose Blender tutorials everywhere on the net, but if you want something PCB-specific, you’ve come to the right place.