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.
When you think old school handheld games, you probably imagine something like Nintendo’s Game Boy line or the Sega Game Gear. But outside of those now iconic systems, there was a vast subculture of oddball handheld games vying for a chunk of an adolescent’s weekly allowance. Many of these were legitimately terrible and frankly aren’t worth remembering, but a few offered unique features that were arguably ahead of their time.
One such game was Hasbro’s short-lived P-O-X. As explained by [Zachary Ennenga], the game didn’t spend much time on store shelves as its core concept of defeating undetectable alien invaders hell-bent on destroying our way of life proved to be more than a little problematic when it launched in September of 2001. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have some cool ideas, such as a wireless ad-hoc multiplayer capability that let your game autonomously battle it out with other units that got close by.
Fascinated by this feature since his youth, [Zach] set out to study how this relatively cheap kid’s toy was able to pull this off back when even the flagship handheld consoles were still using physical link cables for multiplayer. He was aided in his quest by a particularly helpful patent, which not only gave him clues as to the frequency, data rate, modulation, and encoding of the RF signal, but even explained the game’s logic and overall structure. A lot of what was in the document seemed wishful thinking on the part of Hasbro, but reading through the marketing speak still uncovered some salient technical details.
Armed with an RTL-SDR, GNU Radio, Inspectrum, and a bit of Python, [Zach] was able to identify the signal and begin the process of decoding it. This is where things get really interesting, as the details of his reverse engineering process are widely applicable for all sorts of unknown RF signals. Even if you’re like most people and have nearly zero interest in failed handheld games of the early 2000s, it’s well worth a read. The same techniques he uses to figure out the name and physical characteristics of the invisible foe his game is transmitting could one day help you figure out how to manipulate the data from that wireless weather station you’ve got in the backyard.
Once he figured out the major parts of the protocol, [Zach] moves on to creating his own packets and broadcasting them out in such a way that the real hardware will recognize it. He even comes up with some code that will automatically battle games which wander within range of his Yardstick One, which may come in handy during the inevitable P-O-X Renaissance.
While this might seem like a lot of effort to put into a game that most people have never even heard of, we’ll remind you that some of the greatest hacks to ever grace these pages have been born of similar pursuits. Even if you’re the only person in the world to directly benefit from your current line of research and experimentation, there’s still plenty of like-minded folks in this community that are all to happy to cheer you on from the sidelines.
Even though not every Hackaday reader is likely to be a radio enthusiast, it’s a fair guess that many of you will have experimented with an RTL-SDR USB dongle by now. These super-cheap devices are intended for digital TV reception and contain an RTL2832 chip, which with the proper software, can be pushed into service as a general purpose software defined radio receiver. For around $10 USD they’re fantastic value and a lot of fun to play with, even if they’re not the best radio ever. How to improve the lackluster performance? One of the easiest and cheapest ways is simply to shield it from RF noise, which [Alan R] has done with something as mundane as a tubular fizzy orange tablet container.
This is probably one of the simpler hacks you’ll see on this site, as all it involves is making an appropriate hole in the end of the tube and shielding the whole with some aluminium foil sticky tape. But the benefits can be seen immediately in the form of reduced FM broadcast band interference, something that plagues the cheaper dongles.
Perhaps the value in this hack aside from how easy it is on a cheap dongle is that it serves to remind us some of the benefits of paying a little extra for a better quality device. If you’d like to know more about RTL-SDR improvements, it’s a topic we covered in detail back in 2019 when we looked at seven years of RTL-hackery.
Head for the hills!! We’re all doomed! At least that’s the impression you might get from the headlines about the monster Earth-facing sunspot this week. While any sunspot that doubles in size within a matter of days as AR3038 has done is worth looking at, chances are pretty low that it will cause problems here on Earth. About the best this class of sunspot can manage is an M-class solar flare, which generally cause radio blackouts only at the poles, and may present a radiation problem for the crew of the ISS. So no, this sunspot is probably not going to kill us all. But then again, this is the 2020s, and pretty much everything bad seems like it’s possible.
Speaking of bad outcomes, pity the poor Sonos customers and their ongoing battle with the company’s odd “glitches.” For whatever reason, customers have been getting shipments of Sonos products they never ordered, with at least one customer getting over $15,000 worth of products shipped. The customer reports ordering five Sonos items, but the company saw fit to fill the order six times, stuffing their apartment with goods. Sonos doesn’t appear to be doing much to make it right; while offering the customer free shipping labels to return the goods, they were expected to schlep the packages to a UPS store. And then there’s the money — Sonos charged the customer for all the unordered goods, and won’t issue a refund till it’s all returned.
If you’ve ever wondered exactly what the signals going up and down your cable line look like, you’ll want to check out this video from Double A Labs. Using an RTL-SDR dongle and some spectrum analyzer software they probed the RF signals on the cable, with some fascinating results. The first 11 minutes or so of the video are devoted to setting up the hardware and software, although there is some interesting stuff about broadband network architecture right up at the start. The scans are interesting — you can clearly see the 6-MHz quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) digital channels. We were surprised to learn that these start at just about the FM broadcast band — about 108 MHz. There were a couple of little surprises hiding in the spectrum, like two unmodulated analog TV carriers in one spot, and the fact that there are over 400 virtual channels jammed into 41 6-MHz QAM channels. Broadband indeed.
When one mulls the possibility of detecting pulsars, to the degree that one does, thoughts turn to large dish antennas and rack upon rack of sensitive receivers, filters, and digital signal processors. But there’s more than one way to catch the regular radio bursts from these celestial beacons, and if you know what you’re doing, a small satellite dish and an RTL-SDR dongle will suffice.
Granted, [Job Geheniau] has had a lot of experience exploring the radio universe. His website has a long list of observations and accomplishments achieved using his “JRT”, or “Job’s Radio Telescope.” The instrument looks like a homebrewer’s dream, with a 1.9-m satellite TV dish and precision azimuth-elevation rotator. Behind the feedhorn are a pair of low-noise amplifiers and bandpass filters to massage the 1,420 MHz signal that’s commonly used for radio astronomy, plus a Nooelec Smart SDR dongle and an Airspy Mini. Everything is run via remote control, as the interference is much lower with the antenna situated at his family’s farm, 50 km distant from his home in The Hague.
As for the pulsar, bloodlessly named PSR B0329+54, it’s a 5-million-year-old neutron star located in the constellation of Camelopardalis, about 3,500 light-years away. It’s a well-characterized pulsar and pulses at a regular 0.71452 seconds, but it’s generally observed with much, much larger antennas. [Job]’s write-up of the observation contains a lot of detail on the methods and software he used, and while the data is far from clear to the casual observer, it sure seems like he bagged it.
We’ve seen quite a few DIY radio astronomy projects before, both large and small, but this one really impresses with what it accomplished.
[Ross] has a 2008 Toyota Tacoma. Like many late model cars, each tire contains a direct tire pressure monitoring sensor or TPMS that wirelessly sends data about the tire status to the car. However, unlike some cars, the system has exactly one notification to the driver: one of your tires is low. It doesn’t tell you which one. Sure, you can check each tire, but [Ross] had a different problem. One sensor was bad and he had no way to know which one it was. He didn’t have any equipment to test the sensor, but he did have an RTL-SDR dongle and some know-how to figure out how to listen in on the sensors.
The key was to use some software called RTL-433 that is made to pick up these kinds of signals. It is available for Linux, Windows, or Mac, and supports hundreds of wireless sensors ranging from X10 RF to KlikAanKlikUit wireless switches.
Many people build cyberdecks just for the heck of it, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. On the other hand, [cyzoonic]’s rugged ‘deck is a bit more purpose-built. In this instance, the purpose is software-defined radio.
Underneath those sweet custom-cut panels lies a Raspberry Pi 3B and a BOM full of parts that can be had on Ali Express. There’s also an ESP32 that takes input from the keypad plus the 5 buttons that control the display, and the two potentiometers. [cyzoonic] can dial in frequencies with the knobs, or by punching in digits on the keypad.
One of the problems with using a Pelican case is this — how do you install any type of panel without compromising the case’s water-tightness? [cyzoonic] mentions in the comments that Pelican makes a bracket that allows for panels and things to be screwed down without breaching the case. But in this case, [cyzoonic] made their own brackets in a similar fashion.
Another problem with Pelican cases (and cyberdecks in general that are built into hinged boxen) is something that doesn’t get enough attention: typing ergonomics. Personally, we take comfortable and ergonomic typing fairly seriously, and would love to see a cyberdeck that speaks to this issue.
In the meantime, we’ll have to take [cyzoonic]’s word that while it’s not terribly comfortable to type with the ‘deck on a tabletop, sitting on the floor hunched over the thing like a true hacker is much better. This is a work in progress (at least the IO project anyway), so we’ll be tuning back in occasionally to see if any more instructions appear.