Improving A Cheap Frequency Counter With GPS

Frequency counters are useful tools for anyone that finds themselves regularly working with time-variant signals. There are a huge range available, from cheap eBay specials to expensive lab-grade hardware. [itakeyourphoto] had a counter on the lower end of the cost spectrum, and decided to make some improvements with the help of GPS (Youtube link, embedded below).

The fundamental weakness of a cheap frequency counter is usually the internal reference against which all other signals are measured. The more accurate this is, the more accurate the counter will be. [itakeyourphoto] determined that a great way to generate a reasonably good reference frequency was by using a uBlox GPS module. Once locked on to satellites, it can use a numerically controlled oscillator to output any frequency up to 15MHz with good accuracy.

The cheap frequency counter in question used a 13 MHz internal reference, so the uBlox module was programmed to match this. [itakeyourphoto] reports that it compares favorably to his higher-end GPS-disciplined oscillators, displaying very little drift or other aberrations.

We see plenty of clocks using GPS for its accurate time, but we’ve seen projects that attempt to go even further than that, too. Video after the break.

[Thanks to jafinch78 for the tip!]

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Tracking Stolen Bikes with Narrowband IoT

For his entry into the 2019 Hackaday Prize, [Marin Vukosav] is working on an ambitious project to create a small GPS tracking device which utilizes Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) for long range communications. Rather than using a GSM modem which would suck the batteries dry in short order, NB-IoT can theoretically maintain a connection within a 10 to 15 kilometer range while keeping the energy consumption low enough that the tracker could go up to a year before needing to be recharged.

At this point, the hardware is still in the proof of concept phase. [Marin] is using an Arduino with a GPS shield and a SIM7000 NB-IoT module to experiment with the concept, but ultimately says he wants to shrink the hardware down to the point it could fit inside of a bike light. Looking even farther ahead, he’d like to make deals with bike manufacturers so the module could be integrated into the frame itself, where a thief wouldn’t be able to access it at all.

Of course, nothing says this technology has to be limited to bikes. If [Marin] can get it small enough, and reach even half of his goal battery life, he’d have a very compelling product on his hands. Who wouldn’t want to add something like this to their long-range drone in case it gets lost?

There’s still a long way to go on this project, and it’s not all hardware. [Marin] will also have to create the software side of things, a site where you can register your tracker and be able to view its near real-time position on the map. It’s a lot of work, especially if you’re planning on turning it into a commercial product, and we’re very interested to follow along and see where the project goes throughout the year.

This GPS Speedometer Hangs Off Your Handlebars

If you can ride a bike with no handlebars, no handlebars, no handlebars, you can do just about anything. You can take apart a remote control, and you can almost put it back together. You can listen in on a two meter repeater and you can build a GPS module speedometer. That’s what [Jeremy Cook] did with just a few parts, a little 3D design, and some handy zip ties to hold it onto the handlebars, the handlebars.

The electronics for this build are relatively simple, based on an Arduino Pro Mini because that’s just about the smallest readily available development board you’ll be able to find. To this is a LiPo, a LiPo charging circuit, a GPS module, and a single RGB LED. The code gets some data from the GPS module and figures out a speed. This is then translated into a color — red, yellow, or green depending on whether you’re stationary, below 5 km/h, or above 5 km/h.

All these electronics are stuffed into a 3D-printed enclosure. The majority of the enclosure is printed in black, with a translucent top that serves as a great diffuser for the LED. Just two zip ties hold this GPS speedometer onto the handlebars, and from the video below, everything looks great. The GPS module does take some time to get data at first, but that’s a common problem with GPS units that have been powered off for a few days. If only someone made a GPS module that could keep time with no metronome, with no metronome.

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GPS Self-Adjusting Clock With An E-Ink Display

If you mention a clock that receives its time via radio, most people will think of one taking a long wave signal from a station such as WWVB, MSF, or DCF77. A more recent trend however has been for clocks that set themselves from orbiting navigation satellites, and an example comes to us from [KK99].  It’s a relatively simple hardware build in that it is simply an Arduino Nano, GPS module, and e-ink display module wired together, but it provides an interesting exercise in running through the code required for a GPS clock.

It does however give us a chance to remember the story from last year surrounding WWVB, as a budget proposal last year mooted the prospect of the closure of the Fort-Collins-based time signal transmitter. Were that to happen an estimated 50 million American clocks would lose their reference, and while their owners could always update them manually, there will always be time-based systems to which that won’t be applied for whatever reason.  Europeans meanwhile are safe in their time transmissions for now , but in case they think they have their mains grid to fall back on it’s worth remembering the time they lost six seconds.

GPS satellite image: USAF [Public domain].

Countdown to the GPS Timepocalypse

There’s a bug about to hit older GPS hardware that has echos of Y2K. Those old enough to have experienced the transition from the 1990s to the 2000s will no doubt recall the dreaded “Year 2000 Bug” that was supposed to spell the doom of civilization. Thanks to short-sighted software engineering that only recorded two digits for year, we were told that date calculations would fail en masse in software that ran everything from the power grid to digital watches. Massive remediation efforts were undertaken, companies rehired programmers whose outdated skills were suddenly back in demand, and in the end, pretty much nothing actually happened.

Yet another epoch is upon us, far less well-known but potentially deeper and more insidious. On Saturday April 6, 2019 — that’s tomorrow — GPS receivers may suffer from software issues due to rollover of their time counters. This could result in anything from minor inconvenience to major confusion, with an outside chance of chaos. Some alarmists are even stating that they won’t fly this weekend, for fear of the consequences.

So what are the real potential consequences, and what’s the problem with GPS in the first place? Unsurprisingly, it all boils down to basic math.

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High-Altitude Ballooning Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the high-altitude ballooning Hack Chat!

The Cope brothers are our hosts this week. Jeremy, a computer engineer, and Jason, a mechanical engineer, have recently caught the high-altitude ballooning (HAB) bug. In their initial flights they’ve racked up some successes and pushed the edge of space with interesting and varied missions. Their first flight just barely missed the 100,000 foot (30,000 meter) mark and carried a simple payload package of cameras and GPS instruments and allowed them to reach their goal of photographing the Earth’s curvature.

Flight 2 had a similar payload but managed to blow through the 100K foot altitude, capturing stunning video of the weather balloon breaking. Their most recent flight carried a more complex payload package, consisting of the usual camera and GPS but also a flight data recorder of their own devising, as well as a pair of particle detectors to measure the change in flux of subatomic particles with increasing altitude. That flight “only” reached 62,000 ft (19,000 meters) but managed to hitch a ride on the jet stream that nearly took the package out to sea.

The Cope brothers will be joining the Hack Chat to talk about the exciting field of DIY high-altitude ballooning and the challenges of getting a package halfway to space (depending on how that’s defined). Please join us as we discuss:

  • The basics of flight – balloons, rigging, payload protection, tracking, and recovery;
  • Getting started on the cheap;
  • Making a flight into a mission with interesting and innovative ideas for payload instrumentation;
  • Will hobbyist HABs ever break the Kármán Line? and
  • What’s in store for this year’s Global Space balloon Challenge?

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the High-Altitude Ballooning Hack Chat event page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.


Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 6, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

join-hack-chatClick that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on

You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Cheap Muon Detectors Go Aloft on High-Altitude Balloon Mission

There’s something compelling about high-altitude ballooning. For not very much money, you can release a helium-filled bag and let it carry a small payload aloft, and with any luck graze the edge of space. But once you retrieve your payload package – if you ever do – and look at the pretty pictures, you’ll probably be looking for the next challenge. In that case, adding a little science with this high-altitude muon detector might be a good mission for your next flight.

[Jeremy and Jason Cope] took their inspiration for their HAB mission from our coverage of a cheap muon detector intended exactly for this kind of citizen science. Muons constantly rain down upon the Earth from space with the atmosphere absorbing some of them, so the detection rate should increase with altitude. [The Cope brothers] flew two of the detectors, to do coincidence counting to distinguish muons from background radiation, along with the usual suite of gear, like a GPS tracker and their 2016 Hackaday prize entry flight data recorder for HABs.

The payload went upstairs on a leaky balloon starting from upstate New York and covered 364 miles (586 km) while managing to get to 62,000 feet (19,000 meters) over a five-hour trip. The [Copes] recovered their package in Maine with the help of a professional tree-climber, and their data showed the expected increase in muon flux with altitude. The GoPro died early in the flight, but the surviving footage makes a nice video of the trip.

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