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Hackaday Links: September 12, 2021

The last thing an astronaut or cosmonaut on the International Space Stations wants to hear from one of their crewmates is, “Do you smell plastic burning?” But that’s apparently what happened this week aboard the increasingly problematic spacecraft, as the burning smell and visible smoke spread from the Russian Zvezda module to the American side of town. The reports say it occurred while charging the station’s batteries, and we all know how dicey that can get. But apparently, the situation resolved itself somehow, as normal operations continued soon after the event. Between reports of cracks, air leaks, problems with attitude control, and even accusations of sabotage, the ISS is really starting to show its age.

Speaking of burning and batteries, normally a story about burning Tesla batteries wouldn’t raise our eyebrows much. But this story out of California introduces a potential failure mode for Tesla batteries that we hadn’t considered before. It seems a semi-truck with a load of Tesla batteries lost its brakes on Interstate 80 in the Sierra Nevada mountains and ended up flipping across the highway. Video from the scene shows the cargo, which looks like replacement batteries or perhaps batteries salvaged from wrecked cars, scattered across the highway on their shipping pallets. A fire was reported, but it’s not clear whether it was one of the batteries which had gotten compromised in the crash, or if it was something other than the batteries. Still, we hadn’t considered the potential for disaster while shipping batteries like that.

Attention all GNURadio fans — GRCon21 is rapidly approaching. Unlike most of the conferences over the last year and half, GRCon21 will actually be both live and online. We always love the post-conference dump of talks, which cover such a wide range of topics and really dive deeply into so many cool areas. We’re especially looking forward to the SETI talks, and we’re pleased to see our friend Hash, who was on the Hack Chat a while back, scheduled to talk about his smart-meter hacking efforts. The conference starts on September 20 and is being held in Charlotte, North Carolina, and virtually of course. If you attend, make sure to drop tips to your favorite talks in the tips line so we can share them with everyone.

We got a tip this week on a video about how 1/4-wave tuning stubs work. It’s a simple demonstration using a length of coax, a signal generator, and an oscilloscope to show how an unterminated feedline can reflect RF back to the transmitter, and how that can be used to build super-simple notch filters and impedance transformers. We love demos that make the mysteries of RF a little simpler — W2AEW’s videos come to mind, like this one on standing waves.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: September 12, 2021”

ESP8266 Adds WiFi To A 433 MHz Weather Station

There’s no shortage of cheap weather stations on the market that pull in data from several wireless sensors running in the 433 to 900 MHz range and present you with a slick little desktop display, but that’s usually where the flow of information stops. Looking to bridge the gap and bring all that local climate data onto the Internet, [Jonathan Diamond] decided to reverse engineer how his weather station worked.

The first phase of this project involved an RTL-SDR receiver, GNURadio, and a sprinkling of Python. [Jonathan] was able to lock onto the signal and piece together the data packets that reported variables such as temperature, wind speed, and rainfall. Each one of these was a small puzzle in itself, and in the end, there’s still a few bits which he hasn’t quite figured out. But he at least had enough to move onto the next step.

Tapping into the radio module.

Now at this point, he could have pulled the data right out of the air with his RTL-SDR. But looking to push his skills to the next level, [Jonathan] decided to open up the base station and isolate its receiver. Since he already decoded the packets on the RF side, he knew exactly what he was looking for with his oscilloscope and logic analyzer. Once he was tapped into the feed coming from the radio, the final step was writing some code for the ESP8266 that could listen on the line, interpret the data packets, and push the resulting variables out over the network.

In this case, [Jonathan] decided to funnel all the data into Weather Underground by way of the Personal Weather Station API. This not only let him view the data through their web interface and smartphone application, but brought their hyperlocal forecasting technology into the mix at no extra charge. If you’re not interested in sharing your info with the public, it would be a trivial matter to change the firmware so the data is published to a local MQTT broker, or whatever else floats your proverbial boat.

If you’re really lucky, your own weather station may already have an ESP8266 onboard and is dumping all its collected data to the serial port. But if not, projects like this one that break down how to reverse engineer a wireless signal can be a great source of inspiration and guidance should you decide to try and crack the code.

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.

Continue reading “Pluto Might Not Be A Planet, But It Is An SDR Transceiver”

LuaRadio Gives Insight Into SDR

In theory, you shouldn’t need any help to develop a software-defined radio (SDR) application. But in real life you really don’t want to roll your own code every time to read the IQ samples, perform various transformations on them, and then drive audio output. At worst, you’ll use some libraries (perhaps GNU Radio) but usually, you’ll use some higher-level construct such as GNU Radio Companion (GRC). GRC is a bit heavyweight, though, so if you’ve found it daunting before, you might check out some of the material on the LuaRadio website.

We’ve looked at LuaRadio several years ago, but it has undergone a lot of changes since then and has some excellent documentation. Like Lua itself, LuaRadio emphasizes fast scripting. It supports quite a few pieces of common hardware and nearly anything that feeds data through a soundcard.

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Probe The Galaxy On A Shoestring With This DIY Hydrogen-Line Telescope

Foil-lined foam insulation board, scraps of lumber, and a paint-thinner can hardly sound like the tools of a radio astronomer. But when coupled with an SDR, a couple of amplifiers, and a fair amount of trial-and-error tweaking, it’s possible to build your own hydrogen-line radio telescope and use it to image the galaxy.

As the wonderfully named [ArtichokeHeartAttack] explains in the remarkably thorough project documentation, the characteristic 1420.4-MHz signal emitted when the spins of a hydrogen atom’s proton and electron flip relative to each other is a vital tool for exploring the universe. It lets you see not only where the hydrogen is, but which way it’s moving if you analyze the Doppler shift of the signal.

But to do any of this, you need a receiver, and that starts with a horn antenna to collect the weak signal. In collaboration with a former student, high school teacher [ArtichokeHeartAttack] built a pyramidal horn antenna of insulation board and foil tape. This collects RF signals and directs them to the waveguide, built from a rectangular paint thinner can with a quarter-wavelength stub antenna protruding into it. The signal from the antenna is then piped into an inexpensive low-noise amplifier (LNA) specifically designed for the hydrogen line, some preamps, a bandpass filter, and finally into an AirSpy SDR. GNURadio was used to build the spectrometer needed to determine the galactic rotation curve, or the speed of rotation of the Milky Way galaxy relative to distance from its center.

We’ve seen other budget H-line SDR receiver builds before, but this one sets itself apart by the quality of the documentation alone, not to mention the infectious spirit that it captures. Here’s hoping that it finds its way into a STEM lesson plan and shows some students what’s possible on a limited budget.

RTL-SDR: Seven Years Later

Before swearing my fealty to the Jolly Wrencher, I wrote for several other sites, creating more or less the same sort of content I do now. In fact, the topical overlap was enough that occasionally those articles would get picked up here on Hackaday. One of those articles, which graced the pages of this site a little more than seven years ago, was Getting Started with RTL-SDR. The original linked article has long since disappeared, and the site it was hosted on is now apparently dedicated to Nintendo games, but you can probably get the gist of what it was about from the title alone.

An “Old School” RTL-SDR Receiver

When I wrote that article in 2012, the RTL-SDR project and its community were still in their infancy. It took some real digging to find out which TV tuners based on the Realtek RTL2832U were supported, what adapters you needed to connect more capable antennas, and how to compile all the software necessary to get them listening outside of their advertised frequency range. It wasn’t exactly the most user-friendly experience, and when it was all said and done, you were left largely to your own devices. If you didn’t know how to create your own receivers in GNU Radio, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do other than eavesdrop on hams or tune into local FM broadcasts.

Nearly a decade later, things have changed dramatically. The RTL-SDR hardware and software has itself improved enormously, but perhaps more importantly, the success of the project has kicked off something of a revolution in the software defined radio (SDR) world. Prior to 2012, SDRs were certainly not unobtainable, but they were considerably more expensive. Back then, the most comparable device on the market would have been the FUNcube dongle, a nearly $200 USD receiver that was actually designed for receiving data from CubeSats. Anything cheaper than that was likely to be a kit, and often operated within a narrower range of frequencies.

Today, we would argue that an RTL-SDR receiver is a must-have tool. For the cost of a cheap set of screwdrivers, you can gain access to a world that not so long ago would have been all but hidden to the amateur hacker. Let’s take a closer look at a few obvious ways that everyone’s favorite low-cost SDR has helped free the RF hacking genie from its bottle in the last few years.

Continue reading “RTL-SDR: Seven Years Later”

Friday Hack Chat: GNU Radio

Software defined radio picked up a lot of popularity when it was discovered that cheap USB TV tuners were functional bits of hardware that could become SDRs. It’s the software that makes this possible, and when it comes to SDR software, there’s no better tool than GNU Radio. For this week’s Hack Chat we’re going to sit down with some of the people behind this awesome software tool and pick their brains.

Our guests for this week’s Hack Chat will be Derek Kozel and Nate Temple, officers of the GNU Radio project. They’re also organizers of this year’s GNU Radio Conference. Also joining in on the Hack Chat will be Martin Braun, community manager, PyBOMBS maintainer, and GNU Radio Foundation officer.

GNU Radio is perhaps the most important bit of any software defined radio toolchain. This is the software that provides signal processing blocks to implement software defined radios. GNU radio is how you take a TV tuner USB dongle and pull images from satellites. You can use it for simulation, and GNU Radio is widely used by hobbyists, academics, and by people in industry.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about GNU Radio. What can you do with it? Was the interface really inspired by MaxMSP? All that and more in this week’s Hack Chat.

  • Various bits of hardware that make GNU Radio work
  • The core process of writing modules
  • Upcoming features of GNU Radio

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the GNU Radio Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, August 31st. Need a countdown timer? We should look into hosting these countdown timers on hackaday.io, actually.

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 Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.