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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Umbrella Antenna Protects You From Rain, But Not The Way You Think

You never know when you’ll be called upon to [MacGyver] your way out of an emergency. We can’t imagine what kind of situation would call for whipping up a satellite ground station for NOAA weather satellites from junk, but hey, it could happen.

And when it does, you’ll be ready — as long as you have an umbrella, some foil tape, and various bits and bobs like wire and an RTL-SDR dongle. That’s what [saveitforparts] used for his field-expedient build, at least in the first instance; as you can imagine, builds like this take a lot of tweaking to get right. The umbrella and foil tape form the main reflector for the antenna, with a pie tin, a scrap of wire, and some random twigs being used to build the antenna’s helical feed. Attached to a SAWbird LNA/filter and an RTL-SDR plugged into a dodgy second-hand phone, he was able to get at least some kind of data from one of the GOES satellites, but it wasn’t great.

Switching the feed to a commercially available log periodic antenna worked much better, with some partial decodes of weather map data. Actually, getting anything at all with a setup like this is impressive enough for us to call it a win. It shows that the umbrella approach to antennas is valid; but then again, we already knew that.

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Wok Your Way To The Center Of The Galaxy

The round bottom of a proper wok is the key to a decent stir fry, but it also makes it hard to use on traditional Western stoves. That’s why many woks end up in a dark kitchen cabinet, unused and unloved. But wait; it turns out that the round bottom of a wok is the perfect shape for gathering something else — radio waves, specifically the 21-cm neutral hydrogen emissions coming from the heart of our galaxy.

Turning a wok into an entry-level radio telescope doesn’t appear to be all that hard, at least judging by what [Leo W.H. Fung] et al detail in their paper (PDF) on “WTH” or “Wok the Hydrogen.” Aside from the wok, which serves as the main reflector, you’ll need a bit of coaxial cable and some stiff copper wire to fashion a small dipole antenna and balun, plus some plastic tubing to support it at the focal point of the reflector. Measuring the wok’s shape and size, which in turn determines its focal point, is probably the hardest part of the build; luckily, the paper includes tips on doing just that. The authors address the controversy of parabolic versus spherical reflectors and arrive at the conclusion that for a radio telescope fashioned from a wok, it just doesn’t matter.

As for the signal processing chain, WTH holds few surprises. A Nooelec Sawbird+ H1 acts as preamp and filter for the 1420-MHz hydrogen line signal, which feeds into an RTL-SDR dongle. Careful attention is paid to proper grounding and shielding to keep the noise floor as low as possible. Mounting the antenna is a decidedly ad hoc affair, and aiming is as simple as eyeballing various stars near the center of the galactic plane — no need to complicate things.

Performance is pretty good: WTH measured the recession velocity of neutral hydrogen to within 20 km/s, which isn’t bad for something cobbled together from scrap. We’ve seen plenty of DIY hydrogen line observatories before, but WTH probably wins the “get on the air tonight” award.

Thanks to [Heinz-Bernd Eggenstein] for the tip.

Passionate Hams Make Their Mark On The Hack Chat

Let’s be honest — there are some not very pleasant stereotypes associated with amateur radio, at least if you ask outsiders. Hams are often thought of as being in two camps: old guys who can’t figure out modern technology or conspiracy theorists who think their knowledge of radio will give them an edge after the world becomes a post-apocalyptic hellscape. We’ll leave it to you to decide which is the worse brush to be painted with.

As is often the case, the best way to fight such ignorance is with education and outreach. Events like our weekly Hack Chat are a perfect platform for that, as it allows the curious to ask questions and get answers directly from subject matter experts. This is precisely why we invited Mark Hughes and Beau Ambur to helm last week’s Chat. The fact that they’re both relatively recent licensees makes them uniquely qualified to shed some light on what it’s like to become part of the ham radio community in the 21st century. As an added bonus, they’re both sharp and articulate technologists — about as far as you can get from the mental image of the doddering old granddad who prefers the simplicity of the Morse key to those newfangled smarty-phones.

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Hams Watch For Meteors

After passing an exam and obtaining a license, an amateur radio operator will typically pick up a VHF ratio and start talking to other hams in their local community. From there a whole array of paths open up, and some will focus on interesting ways of bouncing signals around the atmosphere. There are all kinds of ways of propagating radio waves and bouncing them off of various reflective objects, such as the Moon, various layers of the ionosphere, or even the auroras, but none are quite as fleeting as bouncing a signal off of a meteor that’s just burned up in the atmosphere.

While they aren’t specifically focused on communicating via meteor bounce, The UK Meteor Beacon Project hopes to leverage amateur radio operators and amateur radio astronomers to research more about meteors as they interact with the atmosphere. A large radio beacon, which has already been placed into service, broadcasts a circularly-polarized signal in the six-meter band which is easily reflected back to Earth off of meteors. Specialized receivers can pick up these signals, and are coordinated among a network of other receivers which stream the data they recover over the internet back to a central server.

With this information, the project can determine where the meteor came from, some of the properties of the meteors, and compute their trajectories by listening for the radio echoes the meteors produce. While this is still in the beginning phases and information is relatively scarce, the receivers seem to be able to be built around RTL-SDR modules that we have seen be useful across a wide variety of radio projects for an absolute minimum of cost.

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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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