Pi 5 And SDR Team Up For A Digital Scanner You Can Actually Afford

Listening to police and fire calls used to be a pretty simple proposition: buy a scanner, punch in some frequencies — or if you’re old enough, buy the right crystals — and you’re off to the races. It was a pretty cheap and easy hobby, all things considered. But progress marches on, and with it came things like trunking radio and digital modulation, requiring ever more sophisticated scanners, often commanding eye-watering prices.

Having had enough of that, [Top DNG] decided to roll his own digital trunking scanner on the cheap. The first video below is a brief intro to the receiver based on the combination of an RTL-SDR dongle and a Raspberry Pi 5. The Pi is set up in headless mode and runs sdrtrunk, which monitors the control channels and frequency channels of trunking radio systems, as well as decoding the P25 digital modulation — as long as it’s not encrypted; don’t even get us started on that pet peeve. The receiver also sports a small HDMI touchscreen display, and everything can be powered over USB, so it should be pretty portable. The best part? Everything can be had for about $250, considerably cheaper than the $600 or so needed to get into a purpose-built digital trunking scanner — we’re looking at our Bearcat BCD996P2 right now and shedding a few tears.

The second video below has complete details and a walkthrough of a build, from start to finish. [Top DNG] notes that sdrtrunk runs the Pi pretty hard, so a heat sink and fan are a must. We’d probably go with an enclosure too, just to keep the SBC safe. A better antenna is a good idea, too, although it seems like [Top DNG] is in the thick of things in Los Angeles, where LAPD radio towers abound. The setup could probably support multiple SDR dongles, opening up a host of possibilities. It might even be nice to team this up with a Boondock Echo. We’ve had deep dives into trunking before if you want more details.

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What It Takes To Make A Raspberry Pi Killer

The folks at Raspberry Pi are riding on a bit of a wave at the moment, with the launch of the Pi 5 with its PCIe and RP1 peripheral chip, the huge success of the RP2040 microcontroller, and the supply chain issues that dogged the Pi 4 and Compute Module 4 during and after the pandemic finally working themselves out. But as always there are plenty of would-be competitors snapping at their heels, so [Jeff Geerling] has posed the question of what it takes to make a Raspberry Pi killer. He’s in a good position to do this, as he’s amassed an impressive collection of every competing Compute Module board.

It’s a well-observed analysis of the world of small Linux SBCs, on hardware, software, community, and price, and we find ourselves pretty much in agreement with it. The Pi hardware has quirks and is rarely the best on paper when compared to the competition, but they win hands-down on distribution support and community. In a sense what you really buy when you get a PI is this, because Raspberry Pi OS will run on it for the reasonable future. Rival makers would do well to read his piece, because we sense that if one of them tried to give the Pi a run for its money away from the hardware it would make for a much better SBC ecosystem. Take a look at his Compute Module comparison below the break.

We recently took a look at the strategic importance of the Pi 5 and in particular the RP1.

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Getting PCIe Working On The New Pi 5

After the Pi 4 released, a discovery was quickly made that the internals of the popular single-board computer use PCIe to communicate with each other. This wasn’t an accessible PCIe bus normally available in things like desktop computers for expansion cards, though; this seemed to be done entirely internally. But a few attempts were made to break out the PCIe capabilities and connect peripherals to it anyway, with varying levels of success. The new Pi 5 seems to have taken that idea to its logical conclusion and included a PCIe connector, and [George] is showing us a way to interface with this bus.

The bus requires the port to be enabled, but once that’s done it’s ready to be used. First, though, some support circuitry needs to be worked out which is why [George] is reverse engineering the system to see what’s going on under the hood. There are a few handshakes that happen before it will work with any peripherals, but with that out of the way a PCIe card can be connected. [George] removed the connector to solder wires to the board directly in order to connect a proper PCIe port allowing a variety of cards to be connected, in this case a wireless networking card and an old Firewire card. This specific build only allows Gen 1 speeds, but the bus itself supports faster connections in theory with better wiring and support circuitry.

While it might not be the prettiest solution, as [George] admits, it does a great job of showing the inner workings of this communication protocol and its use in the new, more powerful Raspberry Pi 5. This makes a lot of things more accessible, such as high-speed PCIe HATs allowing for a wide range of expansion for these popular single-board computers, which wouldn’t have been possible before. If you’re still stuck with a Pi 4, though, don’t despair. You can still access the PCIe bus on these older models but it’ll take a little bit more work.

Thanks to [CJay] for the tip!

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Reduce The Pi 5’s Power Consumption At A Stroke

The Raspberry Pi 5 is the new wunderkind single-board computer on the block, so new in fact that users are still finding out its quirks. One of those quirks is a surprisingly high power consumption when powered down, despite halting the SoC, it leaves the power on and consumes over a watt even in standby. [Jeff Geerling] has a solution, and it’s a simple config change.

It’s useful to know how to fix this, and we’re indebted to him for finding it, but it’s hardly the most complex of hacks. Where the interest lies is in why the board leaves the lights turned on when nobody’s at home in the first place. It seems that some HATs have an issue when the 3V3 rail shuts down, but the 5V rail doesn’t. The Raspberry Pi foundation took the most compatible route and kept the rails on all the time. Perhaps future OS releases will come up with something more elegant, but at least there *is* a fix.

If you’re new to the Pi 5, you can take a look at our review of a preview model, and see why it’s the closest yet to a usable everyday PC that they’ve produced.

Raspberry Pi Reveals A Little About Their RP1 Peripheral

The Raspberry Pi 5 is the new hotness from the Cambridge-based single board computer vendor, thanks in part to its new wonder-chip peripheral that speeds up much of its interfacing with the world. The RP1 hangs of the CPU’s PCIe bus and takes on many functions previously in the SoC, and those curious about it now have a little bit of information. Eben Upton has posted an article about the chip, and there’s a partial datasheet and a video in which the engineers talk about the chip as well.

The datasheet is intended to help anyone wishing to write a hardware driver for a Pi 5, and they admit that it doesn’t reveal everything on the silicon. We don’t expect them to put this chip up for sale on its own because doing so would enable their competitors to produce something much closer to a Pi 5 clone. It does reveal a few nuggets, though; there are a couple of Cortex M3 cores for housekeeping, and alongside all the interfaces we know from earlier boards it has, perhaps most interestingly for Hackaday readers, a 12-bit analogue-to-digital converter. This has always been on our Pi wishlist and is a welcome addition.

So, if you read the datasheet and watch the video below, you’ll learn a lot about the interfaces and how to talk to them, but not quite so much about the full workings of the chip itself. They hint that there’s more to be released, but since the Pi people have a history of not letting go of the family silver, we won’t expect the keys to the kingdom.

Have a read of our Pi 5 launch coverage.

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