Inexpensive Ham Radio Gets Upgrades Thanks To A Trojan

Love them or hate them, the crop of cheap hand-held amateur radio transceivers is here to stay. They’re generally horrible radios, often smearing spurious emissions across the spectrum, but they’re cheap enough to throw in a glove box for emergencies, and they invite experimentation — for instance, modifying the firmware to add functionality the OEM didn’t think to offer.

The new hotness in this class of radios is the Quansheng UV-K5, a two-band transceiver you can pick up for about $40, and we suspect it’ll get hotter still with this firmware trojan by [Piotr (SQ9P)]. We’ve already seen a firmware hack for these radios, one that aimed at unlocking the full frequency range of the RF chip at the heart of the radio. Honestly, we’re not huge fans of these mods, which potentially interfere with other allocations across multiple bands. But [Piotr]’s hacks seem a bit more innocuous, focusing mainly on modifying the radio’s display and adding useful features, such as a calibrated received signal strength bar graph and a numerical RSSI display. The really neat new feature, though, is the spectrum display, which shows activity across a 2-MHz slice of spectrum centered on the currently set frequency. And just because he could, [Piotr] put in a game of Pong.

[Piotr]’s description of the mod as a trojan seems apt since his new programs run in parallel to the OEM firmware by wrapping its vector table. We’d imagine other mods are possible, and we’re keen to see what people come up with for these hackable little units. Just make sure you’re staying within the law, especially in the United States — the FCC does not play games (third item).

Inspect The RF Realm With Augmented Reality

Intellectually, we all know that we exist in a complex soup of RF energy. Cellular, WiFi, TV, public service radio, radar, ISM-band transmissions from everything from thermometers to garage door openers — it’s all around us. It would be great to see these transmissions, but alas, most of us don’t come from the factory with the correct equipment.

Luckily, aftermarket accessories like RadioFieldAR by [Manahiyo] make it possible to visualize RF signals. As the name suggests, this is an augmented reality system that lets you inspect the RF world around you. The core of the system is a tinySA, a pocket-sized spectrum analyzer that acts as a broadband receiver. A special antenna is connected to the tinySA; unfortunately, there are no specifics on the antenna other than it needs to have a label with an image of the Earth attached to it, for antenna tracking purposes. The tinySA is connected to an Android phone — one that supports Google’s ARCore — by a USB OTG cable, and a special app on the phone runs the show.

By slowly moving the antenna around in the field of view of the phone’s camera, a heat map of signal strength at a particular frequency is slowly built up. The video below shows it in action, and the results are pretty cool. If you don’t have a tinySA, fear not — [Manahiyo] has a version of the app that supports a plain old RTL-SDR dongle too. That should make it easy for just about anyone to try this out.

And if you’re feeling deja vu about this, you’re probably remembering the [Manahiyo]’s VR spectrum analyzer, upon which this project is based.

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This WiFi Signal Strength Meter Ain’t Afraid Of No Ghosts

The original Ghostbusters movie is a classic that’s still delivering nearly 40 years after its release — just let that sink in for a minute. Almost every aspect of the film, from hand props to quotes, is instantly recognizable, even to people who haven’t based their lives on the teachings of [Venkman], [Stantz], and [Spengler]. To wit, we present this PKE meter-style WiFi scanner.

Of course, [Kevin McAleer]’s project is strictly in the “Just for Fun” category. But that doesn’t mean it’s not at least somewhat useful. The design is pretty close to the original PKE meter, with a little bit of creative license taken to make it easier to build. Guts include a Raspberry Pi Pico W and a generous 320×240 LCD display. The body of the meter is entirely 3D printed; design files are of course available. The meter’s arms are geared together to move with a single hobby servo.

On the software side, [Kevin]’s GUI lets users see a list of WiFi hotspots in the area and select one from the list. From there, the position of the arms is determined by the RSSI for the hotspot, similar to how the prop was supposed to indicate the proximity to a spook, specter, or ghost. There’s perhaps a bit of a missed opportunity by not adding LEDs to the arms, but we’ll let that slide.

The video below has full design and build details, but fair warning that it’s a bit on the long side. That’s probably just a reflection of how much work [Kevin] put into this, though. Of course, you may rather build a PKE meter that “actually” detects ghosts, in which case we’ve got you covered.

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wifi scanner

Visualizing WiFi With A Converted 3D Printer

We all know we live in a soup of electromagnetic radiation, everything from AM radio broadcasts to cosmic rays. Some of it is useful, some is a nuisance, but all of it is invisible. We know it’s there, but we have no idea what the fields look like. Unless you put something like this 3D WiFi field strength visualizer to work, of course.

Granted, based as it is on the gantry of an old 3D printer, [Neumi]’s WiFi scanner has a somewhat limited work envelope. A NodeMCU ESP32 module rides where the printer’s extruder normally resides, and scans through a series of points one centimeter apart. A received signal strength indicator (RSSI) reading is taken from the NodeMCU’s WiFi at each point, and the position and RSSI data for each point are saved to a CSV file. A couple of Python programs then digest the raw data to produce both 2D and 3D scans. The 3D scans are the most revealing — you can actually see a 12.5-cm spacing of signal strength, which corresponds to the wavelength of 2.4-GHz WiFi. The video below shows the data capture process and some of the visualizations.

While it’s still pretty cool at this scale, we’d love to see this scaled up. [Neumi] has already done a large-scale 3D visualization project, using ultrasound rather than radio waves, so he’s had some experience in this area. But perhaps a cable bot or something similar would work for a room-sized experiment. A nice touch would be using an SDR dongle to collect signal strength data, too — it would allow you to look at different parts of the spectrum.

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Duck And Cover With This WiFi “Geiger Counter”

There’s perhaps no sound more recognizable than the frantic clicking of a Geiger counter. Not because this is some post-apocalyptic world in which everyone is personally acquainted with the operation of said devices, but because it’s such a common effect used in many movies, TV shows, and video games. If somebody hears that noise, even if it doesn’t really make sense in context, they know things are about to get serious.

Capitalizing on this phenomena, [Anton Haidai] has put together a quick hack which turns the ESP8266 into a “Geiger counter” for WiFi. Rather than detecting radiation, the gadget picks up on the strongest nearby WiFi signal and will start clicking in response to signal strength. As the signal gets stronger, so does the clicking. While primarily a novelty, it’s an interesting idea that could potentially be useful for things like fox hunting.

The hardware is really about as simple as it gets, just a basic buzzer attached to one of the digital pins on a NodeMCU development board. This project is more of a proof of concept, but if it were to be developed further it would be interesting to see the electronics placed into a 3D printed replica of one of the old Civil Defense Geiger counters. Perhaps even integrating an analog gauge that can bounce around in response to signal strength.

Software-wise there is the option of locking onto one single network SSID or allowing the device to find the strongest network in the area. Even if you’re not in the market for a chirping WiFi detector, the code is a good example of how you can detect signal RSSI and act on it accordingly; a neat trick which might come in handy in a future project.

If you’re more interested in the real thing, we’ve got plenty of DIY Geiger counters in the archive for you to check out. From diminutive builds that can be mounted to the top of a 9V battery to high-tech solid state versions with touch screen interfaces, you should have plenty of inspiration if you’re looking to kit yourself out before your next drive through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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Smartphone App Uses AR To Visualize The RF Spectrum

Have you ever wished you could see in the RF part of the radio spectrum? While such a skill would probably make it hard to get a good night’s rest, it would at least allow you to instantly see dead spots in your WiFi coverage. Not a bad tradeoff.

Unwilling to go full [Geordi La Forge] to be able to visualize RF, [Ken Kawamoto] built the next best thing – an augmented-reality RF signal strength app for his smartphone. Built to aid in the repositioning of his router in the post-holiday cleanup, the app uses the Android ARCore framework to figure out where in the house the phone is and overlays a color-coded sphere representing sensor data onto the current camera image. The spheres persist in 3D space, leaving a trail of virtual breadcrumbs that map out the sensor data as you warwalk the house. The app also lets you map Bluetooth and LTE coverage, but RF isn’t its only input: if your phone is properly equipped, magnetic fields and barometric pressure can also be AR mapped. We found the Bluetooth demo in the video below particularly interesting; it’s amazing how much the signal is attenuated by a double layer of aluminum foil. [Ken] even came up with an Arduino with a gas sensor that talks to the phone and maps the atmosphere around the kitchen stove.

The app is called AR Sensor and is available on the Play Store, but you’ll need at least Android 8.0 to play. If your phone is behind the times like ours, you might have to settle for mapping your RF world the hard way.

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Desktop Radio Telescope Images The WiFi Universe

It’s been a project filled with fits and starts, and it very nearly ended up as a “Fail of the Week” feature, but we’re happy to report that the [Thought Emporium]’s desktop WiFi radio telescope finally works. And it’s pretty darn cool.

If you’ve been following along with the build like we have, you’ll know that this stems from a previous, much larger radio telescope that [Justin] used to visualize the constellation of geosynchronous digital TV satellites. This time, he set his sights closer to home and built a system to visualize the 2.4-GHz WiFi band. A simple helical antenna rides on the stepper-driven azimuth-elevation scanner. A HackRF SDR and GNU Radio form the receiver, which just captures the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) value for each point as the antenna scans. The data is then massaged into colors representing the intensity of WiFi signals received and laid over an optical image of the scanned area. The first image clearly showed a couple of hotspots, including a previously unknown router. An outdoor scan revealed routers galore, although that took a little more wizardry to pull off.

The videos below recount the whole tale in detail; skip to part three for the payoff if you must, but at the cost of missing some valuable lessons and a few cool tips, like using flattened pieces of Schedule 40 pipe as a construction material. We hope to see more from the project soon, and wonder if this FPV racing drone tracker might offer some helpful hints for expansion.

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