An FM Transceiver From An Unexpected Chip

The Si47xx series of integrated circuits from Silicon Labs is a fascinating series of consumer broadcast radio products, chips that apply SDR technologies to deliver a range of functions that were once significantly more complex, with minimal external components and RF design trickery.  [Kodera2t] was attracted to one of them, the Si4720, which boasts the unusual function of containing both a receiver and a transmitter for the FM broadcast band and is aimed at mobile phones and similar devices that send audio to an FM car radio. The result is a PCB with a complete transceiver controlled by an ATmega328 and sporting an OLED display, and an interesting introduction to these devices.

The Si4720 internal block diagram, from its data sheet.
The Si4720 internal block diagram, from its data sheet.

A look at the block diagram from the Si4720 reveals why it and its siblings are such intriguing devices. On-chip is an SDR complete in all respects including an antenna, which might set the radio enthusiasts among the Hackaday readership salivating were it not that the onboard DSP is not reprogrammable for any other purpose than the mode for which the chip is designed. The local oscillator also holds a disappointment, being limited only to the worldwide FM broadcast bands and not some of the more useful or interesting frequencies. There are however a host of other similar Silicon Labs receiver chips covering every conceivable broadcast band, so the experimenter at least has a good choice of receivers to work with.

If you need a small FM transmitter and have a cavalier attitude to spectral purity then it’s easy enough to use a Raspberry Pi or just build an FM bug. But this project opens up another option and gives a chance to experiment with a fascinating chip.

An Especially Tiny And Perfectly Formed FM Bug

It used to be something of an electronic rite of passage, the construction of an FM bug. Many of us will have taken a single RF transistor and a tiny coil of stiff wire, and with the help of a few passive components made an oscillator somewhere in the FM broadcast band. Connect up a microphone and you were a broadcaster, a prankster, and probably set upon a course towards a life in electronics. Back in the day such a bug might have been made from components robbed from a piece of scrap consumer gear such as a TV or VCR, and perhaps constructed spider-web style on a bit of tinplate. It wouldn’t have been stable and it certainly wouldn’t have been legal in many countries but the sense of achievement was huge.

As you might expect with a few decades of technological advancement, the science of FM bugs has moved with the times. Though you can still buy the single transistor bugs as kits there is a whole range of fancy chips designed for MP3 players that provide stable miniature transmitters with useful features such as stereo encoders. That’s not to say there isn’t scope for an updated simple bug too though, and here [James] delivers the goods with his tiny FM transmitter.

Gone is the transistor, and in its place is a MAX2606 voltage-controlled oscillator. The on-chip varicap and buffer provided by this device alleviate some of the stability issues suffered by the transistor circuits, and to improve performance further he’s added an AP2210 low-dropout regulator to catch any power-related drift. If it were ours we’d put in some kind of output network to use both sides of the differential output, but his single-ended solution at least offers simplicity. The whole is put on a board so tiny as to be dwarfed by a CR2032 cell, and we can see that a bug that size could provide hours of fun.

This may be a small and simple project, but it has found its way here for being an extremely well-executed one. It’s by no means the first FM bug we’ve shown you here, just a few are this one using scavenged SMD cellphone parts, or this more traditional circuit built on a piece of stripboard.

Fail of the Week: Tracking Meteors with Weather Radio

It’s not hard to detect meteors: go outside on a clear night in a dark place and you’re bound to see one eventually. But visible light detection is limiting, and knowing that meteors leave a trail of ions means radio detection is possible. That’s what’s behind this attempt to map meteor trails using broadcast signals, which so far hasn’t yielded great results.

Passing jet’s Doppler signature

The fact that meteor trails reflect radio signals is well-known; hams use “meteor bounce” to make long-distance contacts all the time. And using commercial FM broadcast signals to map meteor activity isn’t new, either — we’ve covered the “forward scattering” technique before. The technique requires tuning into a frequency used by a distant station but not a local one and waiting for a passing meteor to bounce the distant signal back to your SDR dongle. Capturing the waterfall display for later analysis should show characteristic patterns and give you an idea of where and when the meteor passed.

[Dave Venne] is an amateur astronomer who turns his eyes and ears to the heavens just to see what he can find. [Dave]’s problem is that the commercial FM band in the Minneapolis area that he calls home is crowded, to say the least. He hit upon the idea of using the National Weather Service weather radio broadcasts at around 160 MHz as a substitute. Sadly, all he managed to capture were passing airplanes with their characteristic Doppler shift; pretty cool in its own right, but not the desired result.

The comments in the RTL-SDR.com post on [Dave]’s attempt had a few ideas on where this went wrong and how to improve it, including the intriguing idea of using 60-meter ham band propagation beacons. Now it’s Hackaday’s turn: any ideas on how to fix [Dave]’s problem? Sound off in the comments below.

Decoding NRSC-5 with SDR to Get In Your Car

NRSC-5 is a high-definition radio standard, used primarily in the United States. It allows for digital and analog transmissions to share the original FM bandwidth allocations. Theori are a cybersecurity research startup in the US, and have set out to build a receiver that can capture and decode these signals for research purposes, and documented it online.

Their research began on the NRSC website, where the NRSC-5 standard is documented, however the team notes that the audio compression details are conspicuously missing. They then step through the physical layer, multiplexing layer, and finally the application layer, taking apart the standard piece by piece. This all culminates in the group’s development of an open-source receiver for NRSC-5 that works with RTL-SDR – perhaps the most ubiquitous SDR platform in the world. 

The group’s primary interest in NRSC-5 is its presence in cars as a part of in-car entertainment systems. As NRSC-5 allows data to be transmitted in various formats, the group suspects there may be security implications for vehicles that do not securely process this data — getting inside your car through the entertainment system by sending bad ID3 tags, for instance. We look forward to seeing results of this ongoing research.

[Thanks to Gary McMaster for the tip!]

Backscatter Your Own FM Pirate Radio Station

If you live in a city, you’re constantly swimming in a thick soup of radio-frequency energy. FM radio stations put out hundreds of kilowatts each into the air. Students at the University of Washington, [Anran Wang] and [Vikram Iyer], asked themselves if they could harness this background radiation to transmit their own FM radio station, if only locally. The answer was an amazing yes.

The trailer video, embedded below, demos a couple of potential applications, but the paper (PDF) has more detail for the interested. Basically, they turn on and off an absorbing antenna at a frequency that’s picked so that it modulates a strong FM signal up to another adjacent channel. Frequency-modulating this backscatter carrier frequency adds audio (or data) to the product station.

One of the cooler tricks that they pull off with this system is to inject a second (stereo) channel into a mono FM station. Since FM radio is broadcast as a mono signal, with a left-minus-right signal sent alongside, they can make a two-channel stereo station by recreating the stereo pilot carrier and then adding in their own difference channel. Pretty slick. Of course, they could send data using this technique as well.

Why do this? A small radio station using backscatter doesn’t have to spend its power budget on the carrier. Instead, the device can operate on microwatts. Granted, it’s only for a few feet in any given direction, but the station broadcasts to existing FM radios, rather than requiring the purchase of an RFID reader or similar device. It’s a great hack that piggybacks on existing infrastructure in two ways. If this seems vaguely familiar, here’s a similar idea out of the very same lab that’s pulling off essentially the same trick indoors with WiFi signals.

So who’s up for local reflected pirate radio stations?

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Hacked Diamond Makes Two-Atom Radio

It used to be pretty keen to stuff a radio receiver into an Altoid’s tin, or to whip up a tiny crystal receiver from a razor blade and a pencil stub. But Harvard researchers have far surpassed those achievements in miniaturization with a nano-scale FM receiver built from a hacked diamond.

As with all such research, the experiments in [Marko Lončar]’s lab are nowhere near as simple as the press release makes things sound. While it’s true that a two-atom cell is the minimal BOM for a detector, the device heard belting out a seasonal favorite from [Andy Williams] in the video below uses billions of nitrogen-vacancy (N-V) centers. N-V centers replace carbon atoms in the diamond crystal with nitrogen atoms; this causes a “vacancy” in the crystal lattice and lends photoluminescent properties to the diamond that are sensitive to microwaves. When pumped by a green laser, incident FM radio waves in the 2.8 GHz range are transduced into AM fluorescent signals that can be detected with a photodiode and amplifier.

The full paper has all the details, shows that the radio can survive extreme pressure and temperature regimes, and describes potential applications for the system. It’s far from a home-gamer’s hack at this point, but it’s a neat trick and one to watch for future exploitation. In the meantime, here’s an accidental FM radio with a pretty small footprint.

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Build a Tiny (Unstable) Bugging Device

We don’t know who the [amgworkshop] wanted to listen in on, but they apparently went searching for a small FM wireless transmitter. There’s plenty of circuits around, but they wanted something smaller. The original circuit had a variable capacitor to tune the output frequency. The new design uses a fixed capacitor and a spring for an antenna. You can see the build steps in the video below, but don’t expect a lot of frequency stability or fidelity out of a single transistor transmitter.

The parts list is minimal. In addition to a coin cell holder (which serves as the construction base), you need a transistor, two resistors, three capacitors, a homemade inductor (very easy to make with some wire and a drill bit), and an electret microphone. Of course, you need a battery, too. The whole thing is potted with hot glue.

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