Building a Hardware Store Faraday Cage

Most Hackaday readers are no doubt familiar with the Faraday cage, at least in name, and nearly everyone owns one: if you’ve ever stood watching a bag of popcorn slowly revolve inside of a microwave, you’be seen Michael Faraday’s 1836 invention in action. Yet despite being such a well known device, the average hacker still doesn’t have one in their arsenal. But why?

It could be that there’s a certain mystique about Faraday cages, an assumption that their construction requires techniques or materials outside the realm of the home hacker. While it’s true that building a perfect Faraday cage for a given frequency involves math and careful attention to detail, putting together a simple model for general purpose use and experimentation turns out to be quick and easy.

As an exercise in minimalist hacking I recently built a basic Faraday cage out of materials sourced from Home Depot, and thought it would be interesting to not only describe its construction but give some ideas as to how one can put it to practical use in the home lab. While it’s hardly a perfect specimen, it clearly works, and it didn’t take anything that can’t be sourced locally pretty much anywhere in the world.

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Filter your Pi and be a Responsible Pirate

At this point it’s pretty well-known that you can tack a long wire to the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO, install some software, and you’ve got yourself the worlds easiest pirate FM radio station. We say that it’s a “pirate” station because, despite being ridiculously easy to do, broadcasting on these frequencies without a license is illegal. Even if you had a license, the Raspberry Pi with a dangling bit of wire will be spewing out all kinds of unintentional noise, making it a no-go for any legitimate purposes.

Unfiltered output of Pi broadcasting on 107.3 MHz

In an effort to address that issue, [Naich] has written up a couple posts on his blog which not only discuss why the Pi is such a poor transmitter, but shows how you can build a filter to help improve the situation. You’ll still be a lawless pirate if you’re transmitting on FM stations with your Pi, but you won’t be a filthy lawless pirate.

In the first post, [Naich] shows us exactly what’s coming out of the wire antenna when the Pi is broadcasting some tunes on the default 107.3 MHz, and it ain’t pretty. The Pi is blasting out signals up and down the spectrum from 50 MHz to 800 MHz, and incredibly, these harmonics are in some cases stronger than the intentional broadcast. Definitely not an ideal transmitter.

[Naich] then goes on to show how you can build a DIY filter “hat” for the Pi that not only cuts down a lot of the undesirable chatter, but even boosts the intended signal a bit. The design is surprisingly simple, only costs a few bucks in components, and conveniently is powered directly from the Pi’s GPIO. It even gives you a proper antenna jack instead of a bare wire wound around a header pin.

We’ve seen plenty of projects utilizing the Raspberry Pi FM transmission hack, and while this mod still doesn’t make it perfect, it’s always nice to see an awesome hack made even better.

Interference Scanner with Clear Instructions

Meticulous. Thorough. Exacting. These are all words we’d use to describe this video by [BrendaEM] about her Homemade 3D Optical Interference Scanner which can be seen after the break. The scanner uses 3D-printed parts and repurposed materials you might find lying around in your spare parts bin. An old optical drive tray acts to move the laser-wielding sled while a stripped-out webcam is an optical sensor. Links to relevant files such as 3D models and Arduino sketches will be found in the video’s author section.

The principle of operation is demonstrated with a water analog in the video at 2:00 with waves in a plastic container. By creating two small apertures between a light source and a sensor, it’s possible to measure the light waves which make it through. [BrendaEM] uses some powerful visualization software to convert her samples into 3D models which look really cool and simultaneously demonstrate the wave nature of light.

On the left side of her device are the control electronics which don’t need any special coatings since light won’t pass over this area. For the right side, where coherent light is measured, to borrow a Rolling Stones lyric: no colors anymore, I want them to turn black. Even the brass strips with apertures are chemically darkened.

Most of the laser hacks here use lasers rather than measure them, like this Laser Clock and a Laser Projector.

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Accidental Satellite Hijacks Can Rebroadcast Cell Towers

A lot of us will use satellite communications without thinking much about the satellite itself. It’s tempting to imagine that up there in orbit is a communications hub and distribution node of breathtaking complexity and ingenuity, but it might come as a surprise to some people that most communications satellites are simple transponders. They listen on one frequency band, and shift what they hear to another upon which they rebroadcast it.

This simplicity is not without weakness, for example the phenomenon of satellite hijacking has a history stretching back decades. In the 1980s for example there were stories abroad of illicit trans-atlantic serial links nestling as unobtrusive single carriers among the broad swathe of a broadcast satellite TX carrier.

Just sometimes, this phenomenon happens unintentionally. Our attention was drawn to a piece by [Harald Welte] on the unintended rebroadcast of GSM base station traffic over a satellite transponder, and of particular interest is the presentation from a conference in 2012 that it links to. The engineers show how they identified their interference as GSM by its timing frames, and then how they narrowed down its source to Nigeria. This didn’t give them the uplink in question though, for that they had to make a downconverter from an LNB, the output of which they coupled to an aged Nokia mobile phone with a wire antenna placed into an RF connector. The Nokia was able to decode the cell tower identification data, allowing them to home in on the culprit.

There was no fault on the part of the GSM operator, instead an unterminated port on the uplink equipment was enough to pick up the GSM signal and introduce it into the transponder as a parasitic signal for the whole of Europe and Africa to hear. Meanwhile the tale of how the engineers identified it contains enough detective work and outright hardware hacking that we’re sure the Hackaday readership will find it of interest.

If satellite hacks interest you, how about reading our thread of posts on the recapture of ISEE-3, or maybe you’d like to listen for a lost satellite from the 1960s.

Thanks [Kia] for the tip.

Ham Radio Trips Circuit Breakers

Arc-fault circuit breakers are a boon for household electrical safety. The garden-variety home electrical fire is usually started by the heat coming from a faulty wire arcing over. But as any radio enthusiast knows, sparks also give off broadband radio noise. Arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) are special circuit breakers that listen for this noise in the power line and trip when they hear it. The problem is that they can be so sensitive that they cut out needlessly. Check out the amusing video below the break.

Our friend [Martin] moved into a new house, and discovered that he could flip the breakers by transmitting on the 20-meter band. “All the lights in the place went out and my rig switched over to battery. I thought it was strange as I was certainly drawing less than 20 A. I reset the breakers and keyed up again. I reset the breakers again and did a [expletive] Google search.” Continue reading “Ham Radio Trips Circuit Breakers”

Fail of the Week: The Accidental FM Radio

[B Arnold] is hearing voices and needs help from the Hackaday community. But before any of you armchair psychiatrists run off to WebMD, rest assured that [B Arnold] suffers not from schizophrenia but rather has an RF coupling problem.

The project (which isn’t posted yet) is an attempt to turn a C.H.I.P into an Amazon Echo, for which [B Arnold] needed an audio amplifier. Turning to the junk bin, he unearthed an LM386, that venerable power amp chip that first appeared in the mid-70s. Dead simple and able to run off a 9-volt battery, the LM386 that has found its way into thousands of commercial products and countless hacks.

Shortly after applying power to the amp, [B Arnold] started hearing things – faint, far-off voices, scratchy but discernible. A bit of repositioning of wires and hands improved the signal enough for a station ID – an FM talk radio station on 97.1 MHz. [B Arnold] doesn’t mention the call sign, but it might have been KFTK out of St. Louis, Missouri; in any case, it would be helpful to know the range from the transmitter to the inadvertent receiver. Two low-fidelity audio clips are included below for your listening pleasure – you’ll want your headphones on, and Sample 2 is better than Sample 1 – as are photos of the offending circuit.

What do you think is going on here? We’ve heard of RF coupling of AM radio stations before, but how would FM signals be making it into this circuit and out of the speaker? Is there anything [B Arnold] did wrong to get this result? Sound off in the comments and let us know your horror stories of RF coupling.

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Navigation Thing: Four Days, Three Problems, and Fake Piezos

The Navigation Thing was designed and built by [Jan Mrázek] as part of a night game activity for high school students during week-long seminar. A night-time path through a forest had stations with simple tasks, and the Navigation Thing used GPS, digital compass, a beeper, and a ring of RGB LEDs to provide a bit of “Wow factor” while guiding a group of students from one station to the next. The devices had a clear design direction:

“I wanted to build a device which a participant would find, insert batteries, and follow the beeping to find the next stop. Imagine the strong feeling of straying in the middle of the night in an unknown terrain far away from civilization trusting only a beeping thing you found. That was the feeling I wanted to achieve.”

The Navigation Things (there are six in total) guide users to fixed waypoints with GPS, a digital compass, and a ring of WS2812 LEDs — but the primary means of feedback to the user is a beeping that gets faster as you approach the destination. [Jan] had only four days to make all six units, which was doable. But as most of us know, delivering on a tight deadline is often less about doing the work you know about, and more about effectively handling the unexpected obstacles that inevitably pop up in the process.

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