19 RTL-SDR Dongles Reviewed

Blogger [radioforeveryone] set out to look at 19 different RTL-SDR dongles for use in receiving ADS-B (that’s the system where airplanes determine their position and broadcast it). Not all of the 19 worked, but you can read the detailed review of the 14 that did.

Granted, you might not want to pick up ADS-B, but the relative performance of these inexpensive devices is still interesting. The tests used Raspberry PI 3s and a consistent antenna and preamp system. Since ADS-B is frequently sent, the tests were at least 20 hours in length. The only caveat: the tests were only done two at a time, so it is not fair to directly compare total results across days.

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One Transistor RTL-SDR Upconverter

Even if you haven’t used one, you’ve probably seen the numerous projects with the inexpensive RTL-SDR USB dongle. Originally designed for TV use, the dongle is a software defined radio that many have repurposed for a variety of radio hacking projects. However, there’s one small issue. By default, the device only works down to about 50 MHz or so. There are some hacks to change that, but the cleanest way to get operation is to add an upconverter to shift the frequency you want higher. Sounds complicated? [Qrp-Gaijin] shows how to do it with a single transistor. You can see some videos of the results, below.

Actually, [Qrp-Gaijin] built an earlier version but wasn’t satisfied with the performance. He found that his original oscillator was driving an overtone crystal at its fundamental frequency. The device worked, but only because the oscillator was putting out harmonics, including the third harmonic at the actual needed frequency (49.8 MHz).

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Old Rabbit Ears Optimized for Weather Satellite Downlink

Communicating with a satellite seems like something that should take a lot of equipment. A fancy antenna and racks full of receivers, filters, and amplifiers would seem to be the entry-level suite of gear. But listening to a weather satellite with an old pair of rabbit ears and an SDR dongle? That’s a thing too.

There was a time when a pair of rabbit ears accompanied every new TV. Those days are gone, but [Thomas Cholakov (N1SPY)] managed to find one of the old TV dipoles in his garage, complete with 300-ohm twinlead and spade connectors. He put it to work listening to a NOAA weather satellite on 137 MHz by configuring it in a horizontal V-dipole arrangement. The antenna legs are spread about 120° apart and adjusted to about 20.5 inches (52 cm) length each. The length makes the antenna resonant at the right frequency, the vee shape makes the radiation pattern nearly circular, and the horizontal polarization excludes signals from the nearby FM broadcast band and directs the pattern skyward. [Thomas] doesn’t mention how he matched the antenna’s impedance to the SDR, but there appears to be some sort of balun in the video below. The satellite signal is decoded and displayed in real time with surprisingly good results.

Itching to listen to satellites but don’t have any rabbit ears? No problem — just go find a cooking pot and get to it.

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Fail of the Week: Tracking Meteors with Weather Radio

It’s not hard to detect meteors: go outside on a clear night in a dark place and you’re bound to see one eventually. But visible light detection is limiting, and knowing that meteors leave a trail of ions means radio detection is possible. That’s what’s behind this attempt to map meteor trails using broadcast signals, which so far hasn’t yielded great results.

Passing jet’s Doppler signature

The fact that meteor trails reflect radio signals is well-known; hams use “meteor bounce” to make long-distance contacts all the time. And using commercial FM broadcast signals to map meteor activity isn’t new, either — we’ve covered the “forward scattering” technique before. The technique requires tuning into a frequency used by a distant station but not a local one and waiting for a passing meteor to bounce the distant signal back to your SDR dongle. Capturing the waterfall display for later analysis should show characteristic patterns and give you an idea of where and when the meteor passed.

[Dave Venne] is an amateur astronomer who turns his eyes and ears to the heavens just to see what he can find. [Dave]’s problem is that the commercial FM band in the Minneapolis area that he calls home is crowded, to say the least. He hit upon the idea of using the National Weather Service weather radio broadcasts at around 160 MHz as a substitute. Sadly, all he managed to capture were passing airplanes with their characteristic Doppler shift; pretty cool in its own right, but not the desired result.

The comments in the RTL-SDR.com post on [Dave]’s attempt had a few ideas on where this went wrong and how to improve it, including the intriguing idea of using 60-meter ham band propagation beacons. Now it’s Hackaday’s turn: any ideas on how to fix [Dave]’s problem? Sound off in the comments below.

Using SDR to Take Control of Your Home Security System

[Dan Englender] was working on implementing a home automation and security system, and while his house was teeming with sensors, they used a proprietary protocol which was not supported by the open source system he was trying to implement. The problem with home automation and security systems is the lack of standardization – or rather, the large number of (often incompatible) standards used to ensure consumers get tied in to one specific system. He has shared the result of his efforts at getting the two to talk to each other via his project decode345.

The result enabled him to receive signals from Honeywell’s 5800 series of wireless products and interface them with OpenHAB — a vendor and technology agnostic open source automation software. OpenHAB offers “bindings” that allow a wide variety of systems and hardware to be integrated. Unfortunately for [Dan], this exhaustive list does not yet include support for the (not very popular) 345MHz protocol used by the Honeywell 5800 system, hence his project. Continue reading “Using SDR to Take Control of Your Home Security System”

GSM Sniffing on a Budget with Multi-RTL

If you want to eavesdrop on GSM phone conversations or data, it pays to have deep pockets, because you’re going to need to listen to a wide frequency range. Or, you can just use two cheap RTL-SDR units and some clever syncing software. [Piotr Krysik] presented his work on budget GSM hacking at Camp++ in August 2016, and the video of the presentation just came online now (embedded below). The punchline is a method of listening to both the uplink and downlink channels for a pittance.

[Piotr] knows his GSM phone tech, studying it by day and hacking on a GnuRadio GSM decoder by night. His presentation bears this out, and is a great overview of GSM hacking from 2007 to the present. The impetus for Multi-RTL comes out of this work as well. Although it was possible to hack into a cheap phone or use a single RTL-SDR to receive GSM signals, eavesdropping on both the uplink and downlink channels was still out of reach, because it required more bandwidth than the cheap RTL-SDR had. More like the bandwidth of two cheap RTL-SDR modules.

Getting two RTL-SDR modules to operate in phase is as easy as desoldering a crystal from one and slaving it to the other. Aligning the two absolutely in time required a very sweet hack. It turns out that the absolute timing is retained after a frequency switch, so both RTL-SDRs switch to the same channel, lock together on a single signal, and then switch back off, one to the uplink frequency and the other to the downlink. Multi-RTL is a GnuRadio source that takes care of this for you. Bam! Hundreds or thousands of dollar’s worth of gear replaced by commodity hardware you can buy anywhere for less than a fancy dinner. That’s a great hack, and a great presentation.
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An Amateur Radio Repeater Using An RTL-SDR And A Raspberry Pi

An amateur radio repeater used to be a complex assemblage of equipment that would easily fill a 19″ rack. There would be a receiver and a separate transmitter, usually repurposed from commercial units, a home-made logic unit with a microprocessor to keep an eye on everything, and a hefty set of filters to stop the transmitter output swamping the receiver. Then there would have been an array of power supply units to provide continued working during power outages, probably with an associated bank of lead-acid cells.

More recent repeaters have been commercial repeater units. The big radio manufacturers have spotted a market in amateur radio, and particularly as they have each pursued their own digital standards there has been something of an effort to provide repeater equipment to drive sales of digital transceivers.

But what if you fancy setting up a simple repeater and you have neither a shed full of old radios or a hotline to the sales department of a large Japanese manufacturer? If you are [Anton Janovsky, ZR6AIC], you make your own low-powered repeater using an RTL-SDR, a low-pass filter, and a Raspberry Pi.

[Anton]’s repeater is a clever assemblage through pipes of rtl_sdr doing the receiving, csdr demodulating, and [F5OEO]’s rpitx doing the transmitting. As far as we can see it doesn’t have a toneburst detector or CTCSS to control its transmission so it is on air full-time, however we suspect that may be a feature that will be implemented in due course.

With only a 10 mW output this repeater is more of a toy than a useful device, and we’d suggest any licensed amateur wanting to have a go should read the small print in their licence schedule before doing so. But it’s a neat usage of a Pi and an RTL stick, and with luck it’ll inspire others in the same vein.

We’ve touched on the Pi as a transmitter before, from a straightforward broadcast FM unit to crossing continents with WSPR, and even transmitting digital TV in another [F5OEO] hack.