Slinky Walks Down Stairs and Picks up 80m Band

Originally intended as a way to stabilize sensitive instruments on ships during World War II, the Slinky is quite simply a helical spring with an unusually good sales pitch. But as millions of children have found out since the 1940’s, once you roll your Slinky down the stairs a few times, you’ve basically hit the wall in terms of entertainment value. So what if we told you there was yet another use for this classic toy that was also fun for a girl and a boy?

As it turns out, a cheap expandable metal coil just so happens to make for a pretty good antenna if you hook it up right. [Blake Hughes] recently took on this project and provided some detailed pictures and information for anyone else looking to hook a couple of Slinkies to their radio. [Blake] reports excellent results when paired to his RTL-SDR setup, but of course this will work with whatever kind of gear you might be using at these frequencies.

Before anyone gets out the pitchforks, admittedly this isn’t exactly a new idea. There are a few other write-ups online about people using a Slinky as a cheap antenna, such as this detailed analysis from a few years ago by [Frank Dörenberg]. There’s even rumors that soldiers used a Slinky from back home as a makeshift antenna during the Vietnam War. So this is something of an old school ham trick revived for the new generation of SDR enthusiasts.

Anyway, the setup is pretty simple. You simply solder the RF jack of your choice to two stretched out Slinkies: one to the center of the jack and one to outside. Then run a rope through them and stretch them out in opposite directions. The rope is required because the Slinky isn’t going to be strong enough when expanded to keep from laying on the ground.

One thing to keep in mind with a Slinky antenna is that these things are not exactly rated for outside use. Without some kind of treatment (like a spray on acrylic lacquer) , they’ll quickly corrode and fail. Though a better idea might simply to be to think of this as a temporary antenna that you put away when you’re done with. Thanks to the fact that the Slinky doesn’t get deformed even when stretching it out to maximum length, that’s relatively easy to accomplish.

If you’re looking for a good RTL-SDR to go along with your new Slinky antenna, check out this roundup of some of the options that are on the market as of 2017. You’ll probably need an upconverter to get down to the 80m band, so you might as well build that while you’re at it.

A TEMPEST in a Dongle

If a couple of generations of spy movies have taught us anything, it’s that secret agents get the best toys. And although it may not be as cool as a radar-equipped Aston Martin or a wire-flying rig for impossible vault heists, this DIY TEMPEST system lets you snoop on computers using secondary RF emissions.

If the term TEMPEST sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve covered it before. [Elliot Williams] gave an introduction to the many modalities that fall under the TEMPEST umbrella, the US National Security Agency’s catch-all codename for bridging air gaps by monitoring the unintended RF, light, or even audio emissions of computers. And more recently, [Brian Benchoff] discussed a TEMPEST hack that avoided the need for thousands of dollars of RF gear, reducing the rig down to an SDR dongle and a simple antenna. There’s even an app for that now: TempestSDR, a multiplatform Java app that lets you screen scrape a monitor based on its RF signature. Trouble is, getting the app running on Windows machines has been a challenge, but RTL-SDR.com reader [flatfishfly] solved some of the major problems and kindly shared the magic. The video below shows TempestSDR results; it’s clear that high-contrast images at easiest to snoop on, but it shows that a $20 dongle and some open-source software can bridge an air gap. Makes you wonder what’s possible with deeper pockets.

RF sniffing is only one of many ways to exfiltrate data from an air-gapped system. From power cords to security cameras, there seems to be no end to the ways to breach systems.

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3D Printed Helical Satcom Feed

With the advent of cheap software defined radios made popular by the RTL-SDR project a few years back, satellite communications are now within the budget of even the most modest hacker. For $20 USD you can get a USB SDR module that is more than capable of receiving signals from any number of geosynchronous satellites, but you’ll need something a little more robust than rabbit ears to pick up a signal broadcast from over 22,000 miles away.

Building a satellite-capable antenna isn’t necessarily difficult, but does involve a fair bit of arcane black magic and mathematics to do properly; something that can scare away those new to the hobby. But by using a 3D printed mandrel, [Tysonpower] has come up with a feed you can build and mount on a standard dish without having to take a crash course in antenna theory. [Tysonpower] reports the feed has a center frequency 1550 MHz, and works well for reception of Inmarsat, AERO and HRPT signals.

The channel in the 3D printed core of the feed ensures that the inserted wire is of the correct length and in the perfect position for optimal reception. All you need to do is print the core, wrap it with wire, and then solder the end to a connector on a ground-plane that’s nothing more than a sheet of aluminum. [Tysonpower] was even kind enough to model up a mount that will allow you to bolt this feed to a standard satellite dish.

We’ve previously covered using RTL-SDR to receive Inmarsat transmissions, and hardware for the Outernet project, both of which would be great applications for an antenna like this.

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Exploiting Weak Crypto on Car Key Fobs

[tomwimmenhove] has found a vulnerability in the cryptographic algorithm that is used by certain Subaru key fobs and he has open-sourced the software that drives this exploit. All you need to open your Subaru is a RasPi and a DVB-T dongle, so you could complain that sharing this software equates to giving out master keys to potential car thieves. On the other hand, this only works for a limited number of older models from a single manufacturer — it’s lacking in compatibility and affordability when compared to the proverbial brick.

This hack is much more useful as a case study than a brick is, however, and [tomwimmenhove]’s work points out some bad design on the manufacturer’s side and as such can help you to avoid these kind of mistakes. The problem of predictable keys got great treatment in the comments of our post about an encryption scheme for devices low in power and memory, for instance.

Those of you interested in digital signal processing may also want to take a look at his code, where he implements filtering, demodulation and decoding of the key fob’s signal. The transmission side is handled by rpitx and attacks against unencrypted communications with this kind of setup have been shown here before. There’s a lot going on here that’s much more interesting than stealing cars.

[Via Bleeping Computer]

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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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