QMESH: LoRa Mesh Networked Voice Communications

LoRa is great for sending short data packets over long ranges but is not normally suitable for voice communications. [Dan Fay] is looking to change this with QMesh, a synchronized, flooded mesh network protocol for ham radio applications.

In a flooded mesh network every node repeats every message it receives. This has the theoretical advantage of making the network self-healing if a single node stops working, but often just means that the nodes will interfere with each other. Thanks to some characteristics of LoRa, [Dan] is using several tricks to get around this packet collision problem. LoRa network can make use of the “capture effect”, which allows a receiver to differentiate between two packets if the power level difference is large enough. This is further improved by adding forward error correction and slightly changing the frequency and timing of the LoRa chirps. QMesh also implements TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) by splitting transmission into time slots, and only transmitting every third slot. This means it is operating on a 33% duty cycle, which is much higher than the 0.1%-10% allowed on license-free ISM-bands, which legally limits it to the ham bands.

On the hardware side, [Dan] has been using the STM32 NUCLEO-144 development boards with F4/L4/F7/H7 microcontrollers and a custom shield with a 1 W LoRa module and OLED screen. While [Dan] wants to eventually build handheld radios, he plans to first develop small FM repeaters that encode voice as codec2 and use QMesh as a backhaul. QMesh is still under development, but we would love to see the results of some long-range testing, and we are excited to see how it matures.

If your interested in a more basic LoRa-based human-to-human messaging system, take a look at Meshtastic. It’s been going very rapidly over the past year. To learn more about LoRa and other digital modulation schemes, check out the crash course we did with an SDR a while back.

PSA: Amazon Sidewalk Rolls Out June 8th

Whether you own any Amazon surveillance devices or not, we know how much you value your privacy. So consider this your friendly reminder that Amazon Sidewalk is going live in a few weeks, on June 8th. A rather long list of devices have this setting enabled by default, so if you haven’t done so already, here’s how to turn it off.

Don’t know what we’re talking about? Our own Jenny List covered the topic quite concretely a few months back. The idea behind it seems innocent enough on the surface — extend notoriously spotty Wi-Fi connectivity to devices on the outer bounds of the router’s reach, using Bluetooth and LoRa to talk between devices and share bandwidth. Essentially, when Amazon flips the switch in a few weeks, their entire fleet of opt-in-by-default devices will assume a kind of Borg hive-mind in that they’ll be able to share connectivity.

A comprehensive list of Sidewalk devices includes: Ring Floodlight Cam (2019), Ring Spotlight Cam Wired (2019), Ring Spotlight Cam Mount (2019), Echo (3rd Gen), Echo (4th Gen), Echo Dot (3rd Gen), Echo Dot (4th Gen), Echo Dot (3rd Gen) for Kids, Echo Dot (4th Gen) for Kids, Echo Dot with Clock (3rd Gen), Echo Dot with Clock (4th Gen), Echo Plus (1st Gen), Echo Plus (2nd Gen), Echo Show (1st Gen), Echo Show (2nd Gen), Echo Show 5, Echo Show 8, Echo Show 10, Echo Spot, Echo Studio, Echo Input, Echo Flex. — Amazon Sidewalk FAQ

Now this isn’t a private mesh network in your castle, it’s every device in the kingdom. So don’t hesitate, don’t wait, or it will be too late. Grab all your Things and opt-out if you don’t want your doorbell cam or Alexa machine on the party line. If you have the Alexa app, you can allegedly opt out on all your devices at once.

Worried that Alexa is listening to you more often than she lets on? You’re probably right.

Uplink System For High-Altitude Balloons

Most uses of high-altitude balloons are fairly simple: send balloon up, have it beam down measurements and images. While this is indeed straightforward, it is also very limiting. This is why [Dave Akerman] has been working on adding to the HAB balloons he regularly flies. This builds on the work [Dave] did back in 2015 with adding LoRa transceiver RF communication.

Since LoRa transceivers are by definition capable of bidirectional communication, this was very useful for adding simple but essential features such as retransmission of data in case e.g. part of some image or telemetry data is missing. Other interesting things one can do with bidirectional transmission include controlling individual balloons, and having them transmit or relay information between balloons.

A tricky thing which [Dave] describes in the blog post is making sure that both ends of the connection are actually listening using timing settings. The use of encryption is also strongly recommended, unless you want to risk someone hijacking your balloons. This has now all been implemented in the HAB Explora app for Android, as well as the application for Windows.

Header image: Antonino Vara, CC BY 4.0.

LoRa Messenger Does Its Best BlackBerry Impression

While the de facto smartphone design ultimately went in a different direction, there’s no denying the classic BlackBerry layout offered some compelling advantages. It was a gadget primarily designed to send and receive emails and text messages, and it showed. So is it really any wonder [MSG] would build his pocket-sized LoRa messengers in its image?

Of course, he did have some help. The communicators use the Keyboard FeatherWing by [arturo182], which puts a surplus BlackBerry Q10 keyboard on a custom PCB designed to accept a board from Adafruit’s Feather collection. [MSG] ended up pairing his with a Feather M4 because he wanted to work with CircuitPython, with a 900 MHz LoRa FeatherWing along for the ride. He notes that switching his code over to Arduino-flavored C would allow him to use the Feather M0 that features integrated LoRa; a change that would allow him to make the gadget a bit thinner.

Inside the 3D printed enclosure, He’s made room for a 3.7 V 1800 mAh pouch battery that should provide plenty of runtime. There’s also an external antenna with a uFL pigtail for connecting to the radio. The case is held together with heat-set inserts, which should make it more than robust enough to handle a few adventures.

[MSG] says slight variations in hardware versions means his STLs might need a little tweaking to fit your components, and warns that his code is basically just a mashup of examples he found online, but he’s still sharing the goods for anyone who wants to reach out and touch someone without all that pesky infrastructure in the way.

Continue reading “LoRa Messenger Does Its Best BlackBerry Impression”

ExpressLRS: Open Source, Low Latency, Long Range RC Protocol

One of the major choices a newcomer to the RC flying hobby must make is on the RC link protocol. To add the list of choices (or confusion) there is now a new open-source, low latency, and long-range protocol named ExpressLRS.

ExpressLRS’s claim to fame is high packet rates of up to 500 Hz, with plans for 1000 Hz, and latency as low as 5 ms. Long-range testing has pushed it out to 30 km with a flying wing (video below), but this is not unheard of for other protocols. Most modern RC protocols run either in the 2.4 GHz or 915/868 MHz bands, with the latter having a definite advantage in terms of range.

ExpressLRS has options to run on either band, using Semtech SX127x (915/868 MHz) or SX1280 (2.4 GHz) LoRa transceivers, connected to STM32, ESP32, or ESP8285 microcontrollers. The ESP microcontrollers also allow software updates over Wi-Fi.

We’re excited to see an open-source competitor to the proprietary protocols currently dominating the market, but several open-source protocols have come and gone over the years. Hardware availability and compatibility is a deciding factor for a new protocol’s success, and ExpressLRS already has an advantage in this regard. Existing Frsky R9 transmitters and receivers, and Immersion RC Ghost receivers are compatible with the firmware. There are also DIY options available, and the GitHub page claims that several manufacturers are working on official ExpressLRS hardware.

If you’re already into the RC hobby, and you have compatible hardware lying around, be sure to give it a try and give some feedback to the developers! One scenario we would like to see tested is high interference and congested band conditions, like at RC flying events.

All the source code and hardware designs are available on GitHub, and there are active community discussions on Discord. Continue reading “ExpressLRS: Open Source, Low Latency, Long Range RC Protocol”

IRC Over LoRa, For When Things Really Go South

As a society, we’ve become accustomed to always-on high-speed data connections, whether we’re at home on the computer or out and about with a mobile device. But what happens if a natural disaster knocks out the local infrastructure? Sure some people will be able to fire up their radio if they need to reach out and touch someone, but even among hackers, hams are a minority. What we really need is a backup Internet.

The team behind the CellSol project hopes to show that building a volunteer-operated distributed communications network is not only within the capabilities of the hacker community but probably much easier and cheaper to do than you might think. Each node in the network, known as a Pylon in CellSol parlance, can shuttle data between the LoRa backbone and WiFi-enabled devices like smartphones and computers. Once the network is up and running, users don’t need any special hardware or software to use it.

Now to be clear, nobody is talking about surfing the web here. When a user connects to one of the ESP32 Pylons, they’ll be able to access a simplistic chat system through their browser. If the Pylon has an active Internet connection the chat can be bridged to an IRC channel. Without Internet connectivity, the pylon will simply give users on the CellSol network a means to communicate among each other. To keep things simple there’s no user names, private messages, or encryption. This is bare-bones, end-of-the-world style communication.

Want to join the CellSol revolution? All you really need is an ESP32, a LoRa radio, and the open-source firmware. If you get something like the Heltec LoRa 32 development board, you don’t even need to solder anything together. Just flash the board and go. Once you have a few Pylons going, you can also put together a cheap repeater node using a LoRa equipped Arduino. Both devices are small and energy efficient enough that they could easily be battery or solar powered. As you can see in the video after the break, the team even envisions a future where they could be dropped off in public areas via drone.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the ESP32 used to establish an off-grid LoRa communications network, and like those previous attempts, it’s usefulness will largely depend on how many people you can convince to set up their own nodes and repeaters. But if you’ve got some open minded friends who live relatively close by, this could be a great way to have a little chat.

Continue reading “IRC Over LoRa, For When Things Really Go South”

Weather Warnings And Dust Detection From This Meteorological Marvel

We love getting our weather in a flurry of different methods, but have you tried building your own sensor suite to harvest the data for you? [Giovanni ‘CyB3rn0id’ Bernardo] needed to monitor isolated locations outside the reach of WiFi. His ray of hope is an ESP32 controller coupled with a LoRa module to beam data to a remote station that can access the cloud.

In addition to radios, he poured a deluge of sensors into the base station to read the temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and fine dust. Why monitor dust as part of weather data collection? Particulate matter has a huge effect on air quality, something of great interest during a respiratory pandemic. For those readers near wildfires, quantifying your air quality (both indoors and out) is certainly of interest. [Giovanni] is using an SDS011 air quality sensor and has a long writeup just on this part. It uses a fan to move air past a laser-based sensing mechanism.

At the base station, live readings are shown on an OLED screen, but you can also connect to the ESP32 through your phone like a hotspot. If you keep a memory card installed, it will cache the readings in a perpetually-updated CSV file. In regular operation, the LoRa module overcasts the telemetry to its sister unit that acts as a Wifi/LoRa bridge so anyone can view gauges and graphs in real-time on ThingSpeak.

We want to shower [CyB3rn0id] with praise for seeing the cirrus serious impact of harmful dust and making something that can alert people. We don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but sometimes it is better to stay inside.