A Super-Simple Standalone WSPR Beacon

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: being able to build your own radios is the best thing about being an amateur radio operator. Especially low-power transmitters; there’s just something about having the know-how to put something on the air that’ll reach across the planet on a power budget measured in milliwatts.

This standalone WSPR beacon is a perfect example. If you haven’t been following along, WSPR stands for “weak-signal propagation reporter,” and it’s a digital mode geared for exploring propagation that uses special DSP algorithms to decode signals that are far, far down into the weeds; signal-to-noise ratios of -28 dBm are possible with WSPR.

Because of the digital nature of WSPR encoding and the low-power nature of the mode, [IgrikXD] chose to build a standalone WSPR beacon around an ATMega328. The indispensable Si5351 programmable clock generator forms the RF oscillator, the output of which is amplified by a single JFET transistor. Because timing is everything in the WSPR protocol, the beacon also sports a GPS receiver, ensuring that signals are sent only and exactly on the even-numbered minutes. This is a nice touch and one that our similar but simpler WSPR beacon lacked.

This beacon had us beat on performance, too. [IgrikXD] managed to hit Texas and Colorado from the edge of the North Sea on several bands, which isn’t too shabby at all with a fraction of a watt.

Thanks to [STR-Alorman] for the tip.

[via r/amateurradio]

Bluetooth As Proxy For Occupancy

During [Matt]’s first year of college, he found in a roundabout way that he could avoid crowds in the dining hall by accessing publicly available occupancy data that the dining hall collected. Presumably this was data for the dining hall to use internally, but with the right API calls anyone could use the information to figure out the best times to eat. But when the dining hall switched providers, this information feed disappeared. Instead of resigning himself to live in a world without real-time data on the state of the dining hall, he recreated the way the original provider counted occupancy: by using Bluetooth as a proxy for occupancy.

Bluetooth devices like smartphones, fitness sensors, and other peripherals often send out advertising packets into the aether, to alert other devices to their presence and help initiate connections between devices. By sniffing these advertising packets, it’s possible to get a rough estimate of the number of people in one particular place, assuming most people in the area will be carrying a smartphone or something of that nature. [Matt]’s Bluetooth-sniffing device is based on the ESP32 set up to simply count the number of unique devices it finds. He had some trouble with large crowds, though, as the first ESP32 device he chose didn’t have enough RAM to store more than a few hundred IDs and would crash once the memory filled. Switching to a more robust module seems to have solved that issue, and with a few rounds of testing he has a workable prototype that can run for long periods and log at least as many Bluetooth devices passing by as there are within its range.

While [Matt] hasn’t deployed this to the dining hall yet, with this framework in place most of the work has been done that, at least in theory, one of these modules could be easily placed anywhere someone was interested in collecting occupancy data. He has plans to submit his project to the university, to research the topic further, and potentially sell these to businesses interested in that kind of data. This isn’t an idea limited to the ESP32, either. We’ve seen similar projects built using the Raspberry Pi’s wireless capabilities that perform similar tasks as this one.

Thanks to [Adrian] for the tip!

How Does Your McDonald’s Burger Get To You?

Table service and McDonalds sound as though they should be mutually exclusive as a fundamental of the giant chain’s fast food business model, but in many restaurants there’s the option of keying in the number from a plastic beacon when you order, placing the beacon on the table, and waiting for a staff member to bring your food. How does the system work? [Whiterose Infosec] scored one of the beacons, and subjected it to a teardown and some probing.

The beacon in question has the look of being an older model judging by the 2009 date codes on its radio module and the evident corrosion on its battery terminals. Its Bluetooth 4 SoC is end-of-life, so it’s possible that this represents a previous version of the system. It has a few other hardware features, including a magnet and a sensor designed to power the board down when it is stacked upon another beacon.

Probing its various interfaces revealed nothing, as did connecting to the device via Bluetooth. However some further research as well as asking some McD’s employees revealed some of its secret. It does little more than advertise its MAC address, and an array of Bluetooth base stations in the restaurant use that to triangulate its approximate position.

If you’ve ever pondered how these beacons work while munching on your McFood, you might also like to read about McVulnerabilities elsewhere in the system.

Hams Watch For Meteors

After passing an exam and obtaining a license, an amateur radio operator will typically pick up a VHF ratio and start talking to other hams in their local community. From there a whole array of paths open up, and some will focus on interesting ways of bouncing signals around the atmosphere. There are all kinds of ways of propagating radio waves and bouncing them off of various reflective objects, such as the Moon, various layers of the ionosphere, or even the auroras, but none are quite as fleeting as bouncing a signal off of a meteor that’s just burned up in the atmosphere.

While they aren’t specifically focused on communicating via meteor bounce, The UK Meteor Beacon Project hopes to leverage amateur radio operators and amateur radio astronomers to research more about meteors as they interact with the atmosphere. A large radio beacon, which has already been placed into service, broadcasts a circularly-polarized signal in the six-meter band which is easily reflected back to Earth off of meteors. Specialized receivers can pick up these signals, and are coordinated among a network of other receivers which stream the data they recover over the internet back to a central server.

With this information, the project can determine where the meteor came from, some of the properties of the meteors, and compute their trajectories by listening for the radio echoes the meteors produce. While this is still in the beginning phases and information is relatively scarce, the receivers seem to be able to be built around RTL-SDR modules that we have seen be useful across a wide variety of radio projects for an absolute minimum of cost.

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Snooping On Starlink With An RTL-SDR

With an ever-growing constellation of Starlink satellites whizzing around over our heads, you might be getting the urge to start experimenting with the high-speed internet service. But at $100 or more a month plus hardware, the barrier to entry is just a little daunting for a lot of us. No worries, though — if all you’re interested in is tracking [Elon]’s birds, it’s actually a pretty simple job.

Now, we’re not claiming that you’ll be able to connect to Starlink and get internet service with this setup, of course, and neither is the delightfully named [saveitforparts]. Instead, his setup just receives the beacon signals from Starlink satellites, which is pretty interesting all by itself. The hardware consists of his “Picorder” mobile device, which sports a Raspberry Pi, a small LCD screen, and a host of sensors, including an RTL-SDR dongle. To pick up the satellite beacons, he used a dirt-cheap universal Ku-band LNB, or low-noise block downconverter. They’re normally found at the focal point of a satellite TV dish, but in this case no dish is needed — just power it up with a power injector and point it to the sky. The signals show up on the Picorder’s display in waterfall mode; curiously, the waterfall traces look quite similar to the patterns the satellites make in the night sky, much to the consternation of astronomers.

Of course, you don’t have to have a Picorder to snoop in on Starlink — any laptop and SDR should work, despite [saveitforparts]’ trouble in doing so. You shouldn’t have much trouble replicating the results by following the video below, which also has a few tips on powering an LNB for portable operations.

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Gathering Eclipse Data Via Ham Radio

A solar eclipse is coming up in just a few weeks, and although with its path of totality near the southern tip of South America means that not many people will be able to see it first-hand, there is an opportunity to get involved with it even at an extreme distance. PhD candidate [Kristina] and the organization HamSCI are trying to learn a little bit more about the effects of an eclipse on radio communications, and all that is required to help is a receiver capable of listening in the 10 MHz range during the time of the eclipse.

It’s well-known that certain radio waves can propagate further depending on the time of day due to changes in many factors such as the state of the ionosphere and the amount of solar activity. What is not known is specifically how the paths can vary over the course of the day. During the eclipse the sun’s interference is minimized, and its impact can be more directly measured in a more controlled experiment. By tuning into particular time stations and recording data during the eclipse, it’s possible to see how exactly the eclipse impacts propagation of these signals. [Kristina] hopes to take all of the data gathered during the event to observe the doppler effect that is expected to occur.

The project requires a large amount of volunteers to listen in to the time stations during the eclipse (even if it is not visible to them) and there are only a few more days before this eclipse happens. If you have the required hardware, which is essentially just a receiver capable of receiving upper-sideband signals in 10 MHz range, it may be worthwhile to give this a shot. If not, there may be some time to cobble together an SDR that can listen in (even an RTL-SDR set up for 10 MHz will work) provided you can use it to record the required samples. It’s definitely a time that ham radio could embrace the hacker community.

RESQ Hunts For Lost Hikers From The Air

When lost hiking out in the back country, a cell phone might not seem like the most useful tool. Absent a signal from the cellular network, it’s not possible to make outgoing calls for help. However, carrying your phone may just make it a lot easier for rescuers to find you, and [Eric] is making a tool to do the job.

The handheld version of ResQ features a directional Yagi antenna to help pinpoint the location of the signal.

[Eric]’s project is named ResQ, and aims to find lost hikers by detecting the beacon packets from a cellphone’s WiFi adapter. The project comes in two forms; a handheld unit with a directional Yagi antenna, and a drone-mounted unit that can overfly terrain to scan for signals.

ResQ is built around the ESP8266, which is a cheap and accessible way to build a custom WiFI scanner. Currently, the system is able to detect WiFi devices and log MAC addresses along with timestamps and GPS location data to an SD card to help rescuers locate lost individuals. Future plans involve adding a live downlink to the drone such that any pings can be reported live for rescuers to investigate.

Similar systems exist commercially, primarily working with cell signals rather than WiFi. Costs are prohibitively high for many organisations though, so we can see ResQ filling in gaps as a useful tool to have. We’ve featured other radio gear for search and rescue before, too. Video after the break.

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