Learning SDR And DSP Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, November 11th at noon Pacific for Learning SDR and DSP Hack Chat with Marc Lichtman!

“Revolution” is a term thrown about with a lot less care than it probably should be, especially in fields like electronics. It’s understandable, though — the changes to society that have resulted from the “Transistor Revolution” or the “PC Revolution” or more recently, the “AI Revolution” have been transformative, often for good and sometimes for ill. The common thread, though, is that once these revolutions came about, nothing was ever the same afterward.

Such is the case with software-defined radio (SDR) and digital signal processing (DSP). These two related fields may not seem as transformative as some of the other electronic revolutions, but when you think about it, they really have transformed the world of radio communications. SDR means that complex radio transmitters and receivers, no longer have to be implemented strictly in hardware as a collection of filters, mixers, detectors, and amplifiers; instead, they can be reduced to a series of algorithms running on a computer.

Teamed with DSP, SDR has resulted in massive shifts in the RF field, with powerful, high-bandwidth radio links being built into devices almost as an afterthought. But the concepts can be difficult to wrap one’s head around, at least when digging beyond the basics and really trying to learn how SDR and DSP work. Thankfully, Dr. Marc Lichtman, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland, literally wrote the book on the subject. “PySDR: A Guide to SDR and DSP using Python” is a fantastic introduction to SDR and DSP that’s geared toward those looking to learn how to put SDR and DSP to work in practical systems. Dr. Lichtman will stop by the Hack Chat to talk about his textbook, to answer your questions on how best to learn about SDR and DSP, and to discuss what the next steps are once you conquer the basics.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, November 11 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones baffle you as much as us, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

[Banner image credit: Dsimic, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

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Software Defined Radio Academy Goes Virtual

They say every cloud has a silver lining. It’s hard to find a positive among all the bad news about the current global pandemic, but it has pushed more conferences and events to allow online participation either live or after the fact. A case in point: The Software Defined Radio Academy’s annual event is all on a YouTube channel so you can attend virtually.

Not all the videos are there yet, but the keynote along with some very technical talks about techniques ranging from FPGAs to spectrum monitoring and spectral correlation density — you can see that video, below. We presume you’ll eventually be able to watch all the presentations listed in the program.

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Pulling Data From News Feed Telemetry

We are used to seeing shots from TV news helicopters every day, they are part of the backdrop to life in the 21st century. But so often we hear them overlaid with studio commentary, so it’s interesting to hear that their raw audio contains telemetry. It caught the attention of [proto17], who took some audio pulled from a news helicopter video and subjected it to a thorough investigation to retrieve the data.

The write-up is at a very in-depth level, and while there’s an admission that some of the steps could have been performed more easily with ready-made tools, its point is to go through all steps at a low level. So the action largely takes place in GNU Radio, in which we see the process of identifying the signal and shifting it downwards in frequency before deducing its baud rate to retrieve its contents. The story’s not over though, because we then delve into some ASCII tricks to identify the packet frames, before finally retrieving the data itself. It still doesn’t tell you what the data contains, but it’s a fascinating process getting there nonetheless.

It’s easy to forget that GNU Radio has signal processing capabilities far beyond radio, but it was the subject of a fascinating Superconference talk. We even jumped on the bandwagon in the non-foolish part of our April Fool this year.

TEMPEST Comes To GNU Radio

As we use our computers, to watch YouTube videos of trucks hitting bridges, to have a Zoom call with our mothers, or even for some of us to write Hackaday articles, we’re unknowingly sharing a lot of what we are doing with the world. The RF emissions from our monitors, keyboards, and other peripherals can be harvested and reconstructed to give a third party a view into your work, and potentially have access to all your darkest secrets.  It’s a technique with origins in Government agencies that would no doubt prefer to remain anonymous, but for a while now it has been available to all through the magic of software defined radio. Now it has reached the popular GNU Radio platform, with [Federico La Rocca]’s gr-tempest package.

He describes it as a re-implementation of [Martin Marinov]’s TempestSDR, which has a reputation as not being for the faint-hearted. The current version requires GNU Radio 3.7, but he promises a 3.8-compatible version in the works. A YouTube video that we’ve placed below the break has a range of examples running, though there seems to be little information on the type of antenna employed. Perhaps a log-periodic design would be most appropriate.

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Pluto Might Not Be A Planet, But It Is An SDR Transceiver

Many of the SDR projects we see use a cheap USB dongle. They are great, but sometimes you want more and — especially — sometimes you want to transmit. The Analog Devices ADALM-Pluto SDR is easily available for $200 and sometimes as low as $100 and it both transmits and receives using an Analog AD9363 and a Zynq FPGA. Although you normally use the device to pipe IQ signals to a host computer, you can run SDR applications on the device itself. That requires you to dig into the Zynq tools, which is fun but a topic for another time. In this post, I’m going to show you how you can use GNU Radio to make a simple Morse code beacon in the 2m ham band.

I’ve had one on my bench for quite a while and I’ve played with it a bit. There are several ways to use it with GNU Radio and it seems to work very well. You have to hack it to get the frequency range down a bit. Sure, it might not be “to spec” once you broaden the frequency range, but it seems to work fine. Instead of working from 325 MHz to 3,800 MHz with a 20 MHz bandwidth, the hacked device transceives 70 MHz to 6,000 MHz with 56 MHz bandwidth. It is a simple hack you only have to do once. It tells the device that it has a slightly better chip onboard and our guess is the chips are the same but sorted by performance. So while the specs might be a little off, you probably won’t notice.

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Gold Cables Really Do Work The Best

As a writer, I have long harboured a dream that one day an editor will buy me a top-of-the-range audio analyser, and I can set up an audio test lab and write pieces debunking the spurious claims made by audiophiles, HiFi journalists, and the high-end audio industry about the quality of their products. Does that amp really lend an incisive sibilance to the broader soundstage, and can we back that up with some measurable figures rather than purple prose?

An Audio Playground You Didn’t Know You Had

An Audio Precision APx525 audio analyser.
An Audio Precision APx525 audio analyser. Bradp723 (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Sadly Hackaday is not an audio magazine, and if Mike bought me an Audio Precision he’d have to satisfy all the other writers’ test equipment desires too, and who knows where that would end! So there will be no Hackaday audio lab — for now. But that doesn’t mean I can’t play around with audio analysis.

Last month we carried a write-up of a Supercon talk from Kate Temkin and Michael Ossmann, in which they reminded us that we have a cracking general purpose DSP playground right under our noses; GNU Radio isn’t just for radio. Once I’d seen the talk my audio analysis horizons were opened up considerably. Maybe that audio analyser wouldn’t be mine, but I could do some of the same job with GNU Radio.

It’s important to stress at this point that anything I can do on my bench will not remotely approach the quality of a professional audio analyser. But even if I can’t measure infinitesimal differences between very high-end audio circuitry, I can still measure enough to tell a good audio product from a bad one.

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Software Defined Everything With Mike Ossmann And Kate Temkin

Software defined radio has become a staple of the RF tinkerer, but it’s likely that very few of us have ever taken their software defined toolchain outside the bounds of radio. It’s an area explored by Mike Ossmann and Kate Temkin in their newly published Supercon talk as they use GNU Radio to do some things that you might find unexpected.

For most people, a software defined radio is a device. An RTL-SDR dongle perhaps, or the HackRF that a popular multi-tool for working in the radio frequency realm. But as they explain, the SDR hardware can be considered merely as the analogue front end, being just the minimal analogue circuitry coupled with a digitiser. The real software-defined part comes — as you might expect — in the software

Kate and Mike introduce GNU Radio Companion — the graphical UI for GNU Radio — as their tool of choice and praise it’s use as a general purpose digital signal processing system whether or not that includes radio. Taking their own Great Scott Gadgets GreatFET One USB hackers toolkit peripheral as an input device they demonstrate this by analysing the output from a light sensor. Instantly they can analyse the mains frequency in a frequency-domain plot, and the pulse frequency of the LEDs. But their bag of tricks goes much deeper, exploring multiple “atypical use cases” that unlock a whole new world through creative digital signal processing (DSP).

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