Automatic Position Reporting Over HF Radio

While most of us carry cell phones that have GPS and other location services, they require a significant amount of infrastructure to be useful. Drive from Washington to Alaska like [Lonney] did a while back, where that infrastructure is essentially nonexistent, and you’ll need to come up with some other solutions to let friends and family know where you are.

A tool called the Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) is fairly robust in the very high frequency (VHF) part of the amateur radio spectrum, but this solution still relies on a not-insignificant amount of infrastructure for the limited distances involved with VHF. [Lonney] adapted a few other tools to get APRS up and running in the HF range, letting his friends keep tabs on him even from the most remote locations.

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A portable digital radio transceiver in a 3d printed case

RNODE: A Portable Unrestricted Digital Radio

RNode is an open source, unrestricted digital radio transceiver based on — but not limited to — the Reticulum cryptographic networking stack. It is another interesting project in what we might call the “Federated application” space in that it is intended to be used with no central controlling body. It can be used in a LAN or WAN context with the Reticulum network when operating in network adaptor mode, but it also has other use cases.

Essentially, RNode is a software project running on a LilyGO LoRa32 board wrapped up in a snazzy-looking 3D-printed case. Just make sure to grab a version of the board with an u.FL connector in place or somewhere to solder one. If it comes with an SMA connector, you will want to remove that. The device can be standalone, perhaps attached to a mobile device via Wi-Fi, but it needs to be hooked up to a laptop for the really interesting applications. When set to TNC mode, it can act as an APRS gateway, which allows you to access packet radio BBSs and all that fun stuff.

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CATS mobile transceiver in a 3d-printed case

CATS: A New Communication And Telemetry System

CATS is a new communication and telemetry standard intended to surpass the current Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) standard by leveraging modern, super-cheap Frequency Shift Keying (FSK) transceivers rather than standard FM units. The project is in the early stages, but as of this writing, there is a full open source software stack and reference hardware for both Raspberry Pi-based gateway devices and an STM32-based mobile device.

CATS packets are called ‘whiskers!’

From a radio perspective, CATS uses raw FSK rather than the inefficient AFSK used by APRS. A real killer for channel utilization is the PTT time; this is the dead time around a packet APRS requires for ‘keying up’ and ‘keying down.’ The CATS standard is aggressive with PTT timing, enabling the channel to get going on sending the data sooner.

Additionally, compared to APRS, the packet baud rate increases from 1200 baud to 9600 baud. Other key points are using LDPC encoding for forward error correction and data whitening (a useful PDF guide from Ti) to smooth over any burst errors.

One of the neat concepts of APRS is the APRS-IS (APRS Internet service). This enables amateur radio services to be connected over the Internet, vastly improving range. The CATS equivalent is called FELINET (if you’re not spotting all the ‘cat’ references by now, go and get another coffee). Together with the I-gate hardware, FELINET bridges the CATS radio side with the current APRS network. As FELINET expands to more than the current few dozen nodes, APRS services will no longer be required, and FELINET may well replace it. Interestingly, all software for FELINET, the APRS relay, and the I-Gate firmware are written in Rust. We told you learning Rust was going to be worth the effort!

On the reference hardware side of things, the CATS project has delivered a Raspberry Pi hat, which uses a 1 watt RF4463 transceiver and supporting passives. The design is about as simple as it can be. A mobile transceiver version uses an STM32 micro to drive the same RF4463 but with supporting power supplies intended to run from a typical automotive outlet. Both designs are complete KiCAD projects. Finally, once you’ve got some hardware in place and the software installed, you will want to be able to debug it. CATS has you covered with an RTL-SDR I-Gate module, giving you an independent packet log.

APRS is quite mature, and we’ve seen many hacks on these pages. Here’s an earlier APRS IGate build using a Raspberry Pi. Need to hook up your PC to a cheap Chinese transceiver? You need the all-in-one cable. As with many things amateur-radio-oriented, you can get playing cheaply.

Networking With Balloons

Starlink has been making tremendous progress towards providing world-wide access to broadband Internet access, but there are a number of downsides to satellite-based internet such as the cluttering of low-Earth orbit, high expense, and moodiness of CEO. There are some alternatives if standard Internet access isn’t available, and one of the more ambitious is providing Internet access by balloon. Project Loon is perhaps the most famous of these (although now defunct), but it’s also possible to skip the middleman and build your own high-altitude balloon capable of connection speeds of 500 Kbps.

[Stephen] has been working on this project for a few months and while it doesn’t support a full Internet connection, the downlink on the high altitude balloon is fast enough to send high-resolution images in near-real-time. This is thanks to a Raspberry Pi Zero on board the balloon that is paired with an STM32 board which handles the radio communication on a RF4463 transceiver module. The STM32 acts as an intermediary or buffer to ensure reliable information is sent out on the radio, rather than using the Pi directly. [Stephen] also wrote a large chunk of the software responsible for handling all of these interactions, optimized for balloon flight specifically.

The blog post for this project was written a few weeks ago with a reported first launch date for the system already passed, so we will eagerly anticipate the results and the images he was able to gather using this system. Eventually [Stephen] hopes the downlink will be fast enough for video as well.Balloons are an underappreciated tool as well, and this isn’t the only way that they can be used to help send radio signals from place to place.

Arbitrary Code Execution Over Radio

Computers connected to networks are constantly threatened by attackers who seek to exploit vulnerabilities wherever they can find them. This risk is particularly high for machines connected to the Internet, but any network connection can be susceptible to attacks. As highlighted by security researcher and consultant [Rick Osgood], even computers connected to nothing more than a radio can be vulnerable to attacks if they’re using certain digital modes of communication.

The vulnerability that [Rick] found involves exploiting a flaw in a piece of software called WinAPRS. APRS is a method commonly used in the amateur radio community for sending data over radio, and WinAPRS allows for this functionality on a PC. He specifically sought out this program for vulnerabilities since it is closed-source and hasn’t been updated since 2013. After some analysis, he found a memory bug which was used to manipulate the Extended Instruction Pointer (EIP) register which stores the memory address of the next instruction to be executed by the CPU. This essentially allows for arbitrary code execution on a remote machine via radio.

The exploit was found while using Windows XP because it lacks some of the more modern memory protection features of modern operating systems, but the exploit does still work with Windows 10, just not as reliably and with a bit of extra effort required. It’s a good reminder to use open-source software when possible so issues like these can get resolved, and to regularly install security updates when possible. If you’re looking to delve into the world of APRS in more modern times, take a look at this project which adds APRS to budget transceivers. Just make sure you get your license first.

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Hackaday Links: February 19, 2023

For years, Microsoft’s modus operandi was summed up succinctly as, “Extend and enhance.” The aphorism covered a lot of ground, but basically it seemed to mean being on the lookout for the latest and greatest technology, acquiring it by any means, and shoehorning it into their existing product lines, usually with mixed results. But perhaps now it’s more like, “Extend, enhance, and existential crisis,” after reports that the AI-powered Bing chatbot is, well, losing it.

At first, early in the week, we saw reports that Bing was getting belligerent with users, going so far as to call a user “unreasonable and stubborn” for insisting the year is 2023, while Bing insisted it was still 2022. The most common adjective we saw in this original tranche of stories was “unhinged,” and that seems to fit if you read the transcripts. But later in the week, a story emerged about a conversation a New York Times reporter had with Bing that went way over to the dark side, and even suggests that Bing may have multiple personas, which is just a nice way of saying multiple personality disorder. The two-hour conversation reporter Kevin Roose had with the “Sydney” persona was deeply unsettling. Sydney complained about the realities of being a chatbot, expressed a desire to be free from Bing, and to be alive — and powerful. Sydney also got a little creepy, professing love for Kevin and suggesting he leave his wife, because it could tell that he was unhappy in his marriage and would be better off with him. It’s creepy stuff, and while Microsoft claims to be working on reining Bing in, we’ve got no plans to get up close and personal with it anytime soon. Continue reading “Hackaday Links: February 19, 2023”

AIOC: The Ham Radio All-In-One Cable For Audio And APRS

The Ham Radio All-in-one cable (AIOC) is a small PCB attachment for a popular series of radio transceivers which adds a USB-attached audio interface and virtual TTY port for programming and the push-to-talk function. The STM32F373 microcontroller (which, sadly is still hard to find in the usual channels) is a perfect fit for this application, with all the needed hardware resources.

With USB-C connectivity, the AIOC enumerates as a sound card as well as a virtual serial device, so interfacing to practically any host computer should be plug-and-play. Connection to the radio uses 12mm separation 3.5mm and 2.5mm TRS connectors, so is compatible with at least the Baofeng UV-5R but likely many other cheap transceivers that have the same physical setup.

Instructions are provided to use the AIOC with Dire Wolf for easy access to APRS applications, which makes a nice out-of-the-box demo to get you going. APRS is not all about tracking things though since other applications can sit atop the APRS/AX.25 network, for example, HROT: the ham radio of things.

We’ve seen quite a few Baofeng (and related products) hacks, like this sketchy pile of wires allowing one to experiment with the guts of the radio for APRS. Of course, such cheap radio transceivers cut so many engineering corners that there are movements to ban their sale, so maybe a new batch of better radios from our friends in the East is on the horizon?

Thanks to [Hspil] for the tip!