Hands On With Boondock Echo

Perhaps no words fill me with more dread than, “I hear there’s something going around.” In my experience, you hear this when some nasty bug has worked its way into the community and people start getting whatever it is. I’m always on my guard when I hear about something like this, especially when it’s something really unpleasant like norovirus. Forewarned is forearmed, after all.

Since I work from home and rarely get out, one of the principal ways I keep apprised of what’s going on with public health in my community is by listening to my scanner radio. I have the local fire rescue frequencies programmed in, and if “there’s something going around,” I usually find out about it there first; after a half-dozen or so calls for people complaining of nausea and vomiting, you get the idea it’s best to hunker down for a while.

I manage to stay reasonably well-informed in this way, but it’s not like I can listen to my scanner every minute of the day. That’s why I was really excited when my friend Mark Hughes started a project he called Boondock Echo, which aims to change the two-way radio communications user experience by enabling internet-backed recording and playback. It sounded like the perfect system for me — something that would let my scanner work for me, instead of the other way around. And so when Mark asked me to participate in the beta test, I jumped at the chance.

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Bringing A Baofeng Into The Cyberpunk 2077 Universe

You’ve got to love the aesthetics of dystopian cyberpunk video games, where all the technology looks like it’s cobbled together from cast-off bits of the old world’s remains. Kudos go to those who attempt to recreate these virtual props and bring them into the real world, but our highest praise goes to those who not only make a game-realistic version of a prop, but make it actually work.

Take the Nokota Manufacturing radio from Cyberpunk 2077, for instance. [Taylor] took one look at that and knew it would be the perfect vessel for a Baofeng UV-5R, the dual-band transceiver that amateur radio operators love to hate. The idea is to strip the PCB out of a Baofeng — no worries, the things cost like $25 — and install it in a game-accurate 3D printed case. But this is far from just a case mod, since [Taylor]’s goal is to replace the radio’s original controls with something closer to what’s in the game.

To that end, [Taylor] is spinning up an interface to the stock radio’s keypad using some 7400-series bilateral analog switches. Hooked to the keypad contacts and controlled by a Mini MEGA 2560 microcontroller, the interface is able to send macros that imitate the keypresses necessary to change frequencies and control the radio’s settings, plus display the results on the yellow OLED screen that seems a dead-ringer for the in-game display. The video below shows some early testing of the interface.

While very much still a work in progress, we’ve been following [Taylor]’s project for a week or so and he’s really gaining some ground. We’ve encouraged him to enter this one in the Cyberdeck Challenge we’ve got going on now; it might not have much “deck” going for it, but it sure does have a lot of “cyber.”

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Listening To The ISS On The Cheap

Like any hobby, amateur radio has no upper bounds on what you can spend getting geared up. Shacks worth tens of thousands of dollars are easy to come by, and we’ll venture a guess that there are hams out there pushing six figures with their investment in equipment. But hands down, the most expensive amateur radio station ever has to be the one aboard the  International Space Station.

So what do you need to talk to a $100 billion space station? As it turns out, about $60 worth of stuff will do, as [saveitforparts] shows us in the video below. The cross-band repeater on the ISS transmits in the 70-cm ham band, meaning all that’s needed to listen in on the proceedings is a simple “handy talkie” transceiver like the $25-ish Baofeng shown. Tuning it to the 437.800-MHz downlink frequency with even a simple whip antenna should get you some reception when the ISS passes over.

In our experience, the stock Baofeng antenna isn’t up to the job, so something better like the Nagoya shown in the video is needed. Better still is a three-element Yagi tuned down slightly with the help of a NanoVNA; coupled with data on when the ISS will be within line-of-sight, picking up the near-constant stream of retransmissions from the station as Earth-based hams work it should be a snap — even though [saveitforparts] only listened to the downlink frequency here, for just a bit more of an investment it’s also possible for licensed hams to uplink to the ISS on 145.900 MHz.

For those who want a slightly higher level of difficulty, [saveitforparts] also has some tips on automating tracking with an old motorized mount for CCTV cameras. Pitchfork notwithstanding, it’s not the best antenna tracker, but it has promise, and we’re eager to see how it pans out — sorry. But in general, the barrier to entry for getting into space communications is so low that you could easily make this a weekend project. We’ve been discussing this and other projects on the new #ham-shack channel over on the Hackaday Discord. You should pop over there and check it out — we’d be happy to see you there.

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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!

This Standalone Camera Gets The Picture Through With SSTV

These days, sending a picture to someone else is as simple as pulling out your smartphone and sending it by email or text message. It’s so simple a child can do it, but that simple user experience masks a huge amount of complexity, from the compression algorithms in the phones to the huge amount of distributed infrastructure needed to connect them together. As wonderful and enabling as all that infrastructure can be, sometimes it’s just too much for the job.

That seems to have been the case for [Dzl TheEvilGenius], who just wanted to send a low-resolution image from a remote location. It turns out that hams solved that problem about 70 years ago with slow-scan television, or SSTV. While most of the world was settling down in front of “I Love Lucy” on the regular tube, amateur radio operators were figuring out how to use their equipment to send pictures around the world. But where hams of yore had to throw a considerable amount of gear at the problem, [Dzl] just used an ESP-32 with a camera and some custom code to process the image. The output from one of the MCU’s GPIO pins is a PWM audio signal which can be fed directly into the microphone input of a cheap portable transceiver.

To decode the signal, [Dzl] used one of the many SSTV programs available. There’s no mention of the receiver, although it could be pretty much anything from another Baofeng to an SDR dongle. The code is available in the article, as is an audio file of an encoded image, if you just want to play around with the receiving and decoding side of the equation.

We could see something like this working for a remote security camera, or even for scouting hunting spots. If you want to replicate this, remember that you’ll need a license if you want to transmit on the ham bands — relax, it’s easy.

Getting To The Heart Of A Baofeng

In amateur radio circles, almost no single piece of equipment serves as more of a magnet for controversy than the humble Baofeng handheld transceiver. It’s understandable — the radio is a shining example of value engineering, with just enough parts to its job while staying just on the edge of FCC rules. And at about $25 a pop, the radios are cheap enough that experimentation is practically a requirement of ownership.

But stripped down as the Baofeng may be, it holds secrets inside that are even more tempting to play with than the radio itself. And who better than [HB9BLA], a guy who has a suspiciously familiar Swiss accent, to guide us through the RF module at the heart of the Baofeng, the SA818. For about $8 you can get one of these little marvels off AliExpress and have nearly all the important parts of a VHF or UHF radio — an SDR transceiver, a power amp, and all the glue logic to make it work.

In the video below, [Andreas] puts the SA818 module through its paces with the help of a board that pairs the module with a few accessories, like an audio amp and a low-pass RF filter. With a Raspberry Pi and a Python library to control the module, it’s a decent imitation of the functionality of a Baofeng. But that’s only the beginning. By adding a USB sound card to the Pi, the setup was able to get into every ham’s favorite packet radio system, APRS. There are a ton of other applications for the SA818 modules, some of which [Andreas] mentions at the end of the video. Pocket-sized repeaters, a ridiculously small EchoLink hotspot, and even an AllStar node in an Altoids tin.

Of course, if you want to get in on the fun, you’re going to need an amateur radio license. Don’t worry, it’s easy — we’ll help you get there.

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2022 Hackaday Prize: Boondock Echo Connects Your Radios With The Cloud

[Mark J Hughes] volunteers as a part of a local community fire watch which coordinates by radio. The La Habra Heights region of Los Angeles is an area of peaks and valleys, which makes direct radio connections challenging. Repeaters work well for range improvement, but in such areas, there is no good place to locate these. [Mark] says that during an emergency (such as a wildfire) the radio usage explodes, with him regularly tracking as many as eight radio frequencies and trying to make sense of it, whilst working out how to send the information on and to whom.

This led him together with collaborator [Kaushlesh Chandel] to create Project Boondock Echo, to help alleviate some of the stress of it all. The concept is to use a cheap Baofeng radio to feed into a gateway based around an ESP32 audio development kit. Mount this in a box with a LiPo based power supply, and you’ve got yourself a movable radio-to-cloud time-shift audio recorder.

By placing one or more of these units in the properties of several of the community group radio operators, all messages can be captured to an audio file, tagged with the radio frequency and time of transmission, and uploaded to a central server. From there they can be retrieved by anybody with access, no matter the physical location, only an internet connection is needed.

The next trick that can be performed, is to reverse the process and queue up previous recordings, and send it back over the cloud to remote locations for re-transmission via radio into the field. This is obviously a massive asset, because wherever there is some urbanization, there is likely an internet connection. With the addition of a Boondock Echo unit, anyone that has a receiver within a few miles can be fully connected with what’s going on outside the range of direct radio communications.

Source for the ESP32’s firmware as well as the web side of things can found on the project Boondock Echo GitHub, complete with some STLs for a 3D printed box to sit it in. Like always, there’s more than one way to solve a particular problem. Here’s an amateur radio repeater based using an RTL-SDR and a Raspberry Pi.