A Parts Bin Cyberdeck Built For Satellite Hacking

While there’s little in the way of hard rules dictating what constitutes a cyberdeck, one popular opinion is that it should be a piecemeal affair — a custom rig built up of whatever high-tech detritus the intrepid hacker can get their hands on, whether it be through trades or the time-honored tradition of dumpster diving. It should also be functional, and ideally, capable of some feats which would be difficult to accomplish with a garden variety laptop.

If you’re looking for an example that embraces these concepts to the fullest, look no further than the Spacedeck built by [saveitforparts]. Combining a touch screen all-in-one computer pulled from a police cruiser in the early 2000s, an RTL-SDR, and the contents of several parts bins, the rig is designed to work in conjunction with his growing collection of motorized satellite dishes to sniff out signals from space.

As you can see in the build video below, the design for this mobile satellite hacking station was originally very different, featuring considerably more modern hardware with all the buzzword interfaces and protocols you’d expect. But [saveitforparts] couldn’t get all the parts talking satisfactorily, so he went in the closet and dug out one of the surplus police terminals he’d picked up a while back.

He didn’t have the appropriate connector to power the machine up, but by cracking open the case and tracing out the wires, he figured out where he needed to inject the 12 V to get it spun up. From there he installed a new Mini PCI WiFi adapter, loaded up an era-appropriate build of Linux, and got the standard software-defined radio tools up and running.

What really sets this build apart are the two custom panels. The top one offers access to the various ports on the computer, as well as provides a sort of switchboard that connects the RTL-SDR to various onboard filters. The lower panel includes the hardware and controls necessary to aim different styles of motorized satellite dishes, as well as a USB hub and connector that leads into a commercial satellite meter tucked into the case.

At the end of the video [saveitforparts] demonstrates the various capabilities of the Spacedeck, such as the ability to pull in imagery from weather satellites. Considering the sort of satellite sniffing we’ve seen him pull off in the past, we have no doubt this machine is going to be listening in on some interesting transmissions before too long.

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SDR Scanner Listens To Everything

In the old days, scanners would listen to a bunch of channels in a round-robin fashion. If a signal breaks the squelch, the scanner stops and scanning continues scanning after a few seconds of inactivity. But with modern SDRs, you don’t have to listen to one channel at a time. You can listen to all of them. [Tech Minds] shows RTL-SDR Scanner on Linux to record up to 20 MHz of the band simultaneously. It records all the channels in the band of interest. The actual project is on GitHub.

Once recorded, you can use a web interface to listen to the channels and see some statistics about them. [Tech Minds] tried recording aircraft traffic. It worked, but the program doesn’t know how to demodulate AM yet so if you want to record the entire shortwave band, aircraft, or other AM sources, you’ll have to wait a bit before this software is ready for your use case.

If you need to run the program under Windows like [Tech Minds] did, you can use VMWare Workstation Player to get a free copy of Linux on Windows. We wondered if WSL version two might work, too, but we don’t know. Once you have Linux running, Docker makes the installation straightforward.  Since the interface is a web interface, you could probably run this on a small computer on the network and then access it at your leisure from another computer.

Of course, old-fashioned scanners were often used to listen to police and fire radios. Those have all gone trunked these days. This isn’t a new idea, but it did seem like a well-packaged solution.

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Connecting Commercial 433 MHz Sensors To MQTT And Home Assistant With RTL-SDR

When [Elixir of Progress] was looking at setting up environmental sensors around their home to keep track of temperature, humidity and such, the obvious ideas of using WiFi-connected sensors didn’t work due to lack of WiFi range. Although Zigbee (Z-wave) sensors have longer range than WiFi, they are decidedly more expensive, proprietary and require a special transceiver hub. That’s where 433 MHz sensors for weather stations come into the picture.

The idea is simple: virtually all of those sensors – many of them rated for outdoor use – use the unlicensed 433 MHz spectrum that can easily be captured using cheap RTL-SDR (software defined radio) USB dongles. With the data stream from these sensors captured, the open source rtl_433 project enables automatic decoding of these data streams for a wide range of supported sensors.

While Realtek RTL2832-based and other RTL-SDRs can be found for quite cheap, it should be noted that these can run quite hot. Rather than heatsinking the IC, for this project it was elected to only listen sporadically and allow the RTL-SDR receiver to cool down in between listening sessions.

Getting the data from there into Home Assistant, InfluxDB or similar is easy, as rtl_433 can output the decoded data directly to an Influx database, MQTT broker as well as other formats. In this case, the data was sent via MQTT with the Home Assistant instance configured to treat these MQTT topics as sensors. With each sensor’s location carefully registered, this allows for setting up a dense, very low-power network of 433 MHz sensors for monitoring and home automation purposes.

Citizen-Driven Network Monitors Public Service Radio For Natural Disaster Alerts

Time is of the essence in almost every emergency situation, especially when it comes to wildfires. A wind-driven fire can roar across a fuel-rich landscape like a freight train, except one that can turn on a dime or jump a mile-wide gap in a matter of seconds. Usually, the only realistic defense against fires like these is to get the hell out of their way as soon as possible and make room for the professionals to do what they can to stop the flames.

Unfortunately, most people living in areas under threat of wildfires and other natural disasters are often operating in an information vacuum. Official channels take time to distribute evacuation orders, and when seconds count, such delays can cost lives. That’s the hole that Watch Duty seeks to fill.

Watch Duty is a non-profit wildfire alerting, mapping, and tracking service that provides near-real-time information to those living in wildfire country. Their intelligence is generated by a network of experienced fire reporters, who live in wildfire-prone areas and monitor public service radio transmissions and other sources to get a picture of what’s going on in their specific area. When the data indicate an incident is occurring, maps are updated and alerts go out via a smartphone app. Reporters have to abide by a strict code of conduct designed to ensure the privacy of citizens and the safety of first responders.

While Watch Duty’s network covers a substantial area of California — the only state covered so far — there were still a significant number of dead zones, mostly in the more remote areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and in the northern coastal regions. To fill these gaps, Watch Duty recently launched Watch Duty Echo, which consists of a network of remote listening posts.

Each station is packed with RTL-SDR receivers that cover a huge swath of spectrum used by the local fire, law enforcement, EMS agencies — any organization likely to be called to respond to an incident. In addition, each station has an SDR dedicated to monitoring ADS-B transponders and air band frequencies, to get a heads-up on incidents requiring aerial support. The listening posts have wideband discone antennas and a dedicated 1090-MHz ADS-B antenna, with either a cellular modem or a Starlink terminal to tie into the Watch Duty network.

Hats off to the folks at Watch Duty for putting considerable effort into a system like this and operating it for the public benefit. Those who choose to live close to nature do so at their own risk, of course, but a citizen-driven network that leverages technology can make that risk just a little more manageable.

The KrakenSDR in its metal case, with five small antennas connected to it

Open-Source Passive Radar Taken Down For Regulatory Reasons

Open-source technology brings a world that laws and regulations are not quite prepared for. As a result, every now and then, open projects need to work around governmental regulations. In today’s news, KrakenRF team has stumbled into an arms-trafficing legal roadblock for their KrakenSDR-based passive radar code, and is currently figuring it out. There’s no indication that there’s been any legal action from the USA government – the team’s being proactive, as fas as we’re told.

KrakenSDR hardware, to simplify it a lot, is five RTL-SDRs on one PCB – with plenty of work put in to do it the right way. It gets you much further than a few dongles – there’s shielded case, suitable connectors, reliable power distribution, a proper USB hub, and importantly, receiver synchronization hardware. Naturally, there’s nice things you can build with such a hefty package – one of them is passive radar, which was a prominent selling point on both KrakenSDR’s pre-launch page back in 2021, and on their crowdfunding page just a week ago. How does that work?

There’s RF emissions floating around you in the air, unless you’re at sea or in the desert. Whether it’s airplane transponders, cell towers, or a crappy switch-mode PSU, the radiowaves emitted interact with objects all around you. If you have multiple receivers with directional antennas, you can catch waves being reflected from some object, compare the wave reflected wave to the wave received from the initial source, and determine the object’s properties like location and speed. If you’d like to know more, IEEE Spectrum has covered this topic just a week ago, and the previously-deleted KrakenSDR wiki page has more details for you to learn from.

Through exposure in IEEE Spectrum, the KrakenSDR work has received plenty of attention and comments. And this is where the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) laws come in. We’re not lawyers, but it does look like passive radar is on the list. Today, the code repository and the documentation pages are scrubbed clean while the team is talking to legal experts.

Dealing with this is intimidating, and we wish them luck in clearing this with legal. In the bad old days, certain encryption algorithms were famously in scope, which appeared absolutely ridiculous to us at the time. The laws did eventually change to better reflect reality, but the wheels of justice turn slowly.

Snooping On Starlink With An RTL-SDR

With an ever-growing constellation of Starlink satellites whizzing around over our heads, you might be getting the urge to start experimenting with the high-speed internet service. But at $100 or more a month plus hardware, the barrier to entry is just a little daunting for a lot of us. No worries, though — if all you’re interested in is tracking [Elon]’s birds, it’s actually a pretty simple job.

Now, we’re not claiming that you’ll be able to connect to Starlink and get internet service with this setup, of course, and neither is the delightfully named [saveitforparts]. Instead, his setup just receives the beacon signals from Starlink satellites, which is pretty interesting all by itself. The hardware consists of his “Picorder” mobile device, which sports a Raspberry Pi, a small LCD screen, and a host of sensors, including an RTL-SDR dongle. To pick up the satellite beacons, he used a dirt-cheap universal Ku-band LNB, or low-noise block downconverter. They’re normally found at the focal point of a satellite TV dish, but in this case no dish is needed — just power it up with a power injector and point it to the sky. The signals show up on the Picorder’s display in waterfall mode; curiously, the waterfall traces look quite similar to the patterns the satellites make in the night sky, much to the consternation of astronomers.

Of course, you don’t have to have a Picorder to snoop in on Starlink — any laptop and SDR should work, despite [saveitforparts]’ trouble in doing so. You shouldn’t have much trouble replicating the results by following the video below, which also has a few tips on powering an LNB for portable operations.

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Tracking Weather Balloons With SDR

The advent of cheap software-defined radio hardware means that what would have once been an exotic expensive undertaking can now be relatively cheap. [David] notes that using some pretty simple gear, he could track down weather balloons.

The U.S. National Weather Service sends up a large number of radiosondes attached to balloons twice a day. Their job is to measure conditions at high altitudes up to about 30km. Once the balloon gets too high, the pressure inside bursts the balloon, and a small parachute slows the instrument package’s descent back to Earth. [David] wanted to track these down and return them to the NWS for reuse.

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