Radio Telescopes Horn In With GNU Radio

Who doesn’t like to look up at the night sky? But if you are into radio, there’s a whole different way to look using radio telescopes. [John Makous] spoke at the GNU Radio Conference about how he’s worked to make a radio telescope (PDF) that is practical for even younger students to build and operate.

The only real high tech part of this build is the low noise amplifier (LNA) and the project is in reach of a typical teacher who might not be an expert on electronics. It uses things like paint thinner cans and lumber. [John] also built some blocks in GNU Radio that made it easy for other teachers to process the data from a telescope. As he put it, “This is the kind of nerdy stuff I like to do.” We can relate.

The telescope is made to pick up the 21 cm band to detect neutral hydrogen from the Milky Way. It can map the hydrogen in the galaxy and also measure the rotational speed of the galaxy using Doppler shift. Not bad for an upcycled paint thinner can. These are cheap enough, you can even build a fleet of them.

This would be a great project for anyone interested in radio telescopes or space. However, it is particularly set up for classroom use. Students can flex their skills in math, engineering, programming, and — of course — astronomy and physics.

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Underclocking the ESP8266 Leads To WiFi Weirdness

Sometimes the best hacks come from the most basic of questions. In this case, [CNLohr] was wondering what would happen if he started to reduce the clock speed of the ESP8266’s Baseband PLL (BBPLL) while still trying to communicate with it. You know, as one does. The results ended up being fairly surprising, and while it’s not immediately clear if there’s a practical application for this particular trick, it’s certainly worth some additional research.

Code for stepping through clock speeds

The idea here is that the BBPLL is the reference clock for the entire system, including all of the peripherals. So underclocking it doesn’t just slow down code execution as you might expect, but it also slows down the chip’s interactions with the outside world. [CNLohr] demonstrates this concept in the video below, showing how the baud rate used to view the serial output from the ESP8266 needs to be adjusted to match the chip’s frequency or else you’ll only get garbage on the line.

But what happens to the WiFi? As [CNLohr] discovered, while the center frequency itself doesn’t change, the channel width gets narrower as the clock rate is lowered. When viewed on the waterfall display of a software defined radio (SDR), the transmission can be seen “compressing” in a step pattern as the clock rate is reduced. As one might expect, the 802.11 packets become indecipherable to a normal WiFi device running in monitor mode. The signal is still at the correct frequency, but the devices can no longer understand each other.

Now it was time for another of those basic questions. What would happen if you did the same thing to a second ESP8266? Much to his surprise, [CNLohr] discovered that the two devices could still communicate successfully as long as their BBPLL clock speed was the same. From an outsider’s perspective it looked like gibberish, but to the two ESPs which had been slowed by the same amount, everything worked as expected even though the 802.11 standards say it shouldn’t.

So what can you do with this? The most obvious application is a “stealth” WiFi connection between ESP8266s which wouldn’t show up to normal devices, a communications channel invisible to all but the most astute eavesdropper. [CNLohr] has made all the source code to pull this trick off public on GitHub, and it should be interesting to see what kind of applications (if any) hackers find for this standards-breaking behavior.

If your thing is devices being forced into operations they were never intended to by particularly twisted hackers, check out our recent coverage of the USB serial adapter turned SDR by [Ted Yapo].

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Radio Gets Ridiculous

There were plenty of great talks at this year’s Supercon, but we really liked the title of Dominic Spill’s talk: Ridiculous Radios. Let’s face it, it is one thing to make a radio or a computer or a drone the way you are supposed to. It is another thing altogether to make one out of things you shouldn’t be using. That’s [Dominic’s] approach. In a quick 30 minutes, he shows you two receivers and two transmitters. What makes them ridiculous? Consider one of the receivers. It is a software defined radio (SDR). How many bits should an SDR have? How about one bit? Ridiculous? Then you are getting the idea.

Dominic is pretty adept at taking a normal microcontroller and bending it to do strange RF things and the results are really entertaining. The breadboard SDR, for example, is a microcontroller with three components: an antenna, a diode, and a resistor. That’s it. If you missed the talk at Supercon, you can see the newly published video below, along with more highlights from Dominic’s talk.

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Your USB Serial Adapter Just Became a SDR

To say that the RTL-SDR project was revolutionary might be something of an understatement. Taking a cheap little USB gadget and using it as a Software Defined Radio (SDR) to explore the radio spectrum from the tens of megahertz all the way into gigahertz frequencies with the addition of nothing more than some open source tools may go down as one of the greatest hacks of the decade. But even in the era of RTL-SDR, what [Ted Yapo] has manged to pull off is still pretty incredible.

With a Python script, a length of wire attached to the TX pin, and a mastery of the electron that we mere mortals can only hope to achieve, [Ted] has demonstrated using a common USB to serial adapter as an SDR transmitter. That’s right, using the cheap little UART adapter you’ve almost certainly got sitting in your parts bin right now and his software, you can transmit in the low megahertz frequencies and even up into VHF with some trickery. The project is still very much experimental, and though this may be the first time, we’re willing to bet this isn’t the last time you’ll be hearing about it.

The basic idea is that when sending certain characters over the UART serial line, they can combine with the start and stop bits to produce a square wave burst at half the baud rate. [Ted] found that sending a string of 0x55 at 19200 baud would generate a continuous square wave at 9600 Hz, and if he turned the baud rate all the way up to 2,000,000 where these USB adapters top out, that signal was transmitted at 1 MHz, right in the middle of the AM dial.

A neat trick to be sure, but alone not terribly useful. The next step was to modulate that signal by sending different characters over UART. [Ted] explains at great length his experiments with multi-level quantization and delta-sigma schemes, and each step of the way shows the improvement of the transmitted audio signal. Ultimately he comes up with a modulation scheme that produces a impressively clean signal, all things considered.

This alone is impressive, but [Ted] isn’t done yet. He realized that this method of transmission was generating some strong frequency harmonics which extended far beyond the theoretical maximum 1 MHz frequency of his UART SDR. In his experimentation he found he was able to pick up a signal from all the way out to 151 MHz, though it was too poor to be of any practical use. Dialing back the expectations a bit, he was able to successfully control a cheap 27 MHz RC toy using the 43rd harmonic of a 631 kHz signal at a range of about 10 feet with a FT232RL adapter, which he notes produces the cleanest signals in his testing.

[Ted] is still working on making transmissions cleaner and stronger by adding filters and amplifiers, but these early accomplishments are already very promising. His work reminds us of a low frequency version of the USB to VGA adapter turned GHz SDR transmitter, and we’re very eager to see where it goes from here.

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SDR Is At the Heart of This Soup-Can Doppler Radar Set

Want to explore the world of radar but feel daunted by the mysteries of radio frequency electronics? Be daunted no more and abstract the RF complexities away with this tutorial on software-defined radar.

Taking inspiration from our own [Gregory L. Charvat], whose many radar projects have graced our pages before, [Luigi Freitas]’ plunge into radar is spare on the budgetary side but rich in learning opportunities. The front end of the radar set is almost entirely contained in a LimeSDR Mini, a software-defined radio that can both transmit and receive. The only additional components are a pair of soup can antennas and a cheap LNA for the receive side. The rest of the system runs on GNU Radio Companion running on a Raspberry Pi; the whole thing is powered by a USB battery pack and lives in a plastic tote. [Luigi] has the radar set up for the 2.4-GHz ISM band, and the video below shows it being calibrated with vehicles passing by at known speeds.

True, the LimeSDR isn’t exactly cheap, but it does a lot for the price and lowers a major barrier to getting into the radar field. And [Luigi] did a great job of documenting his work and making his code available, which will help too. Continue reading “SDR Is At the Heart of This Soup-Can Doppler Radar Set”

All The Goodies You Need For Your RTL-SDR

When the RTL2832-based USB digital TV sticks were revealed to have hidden capabilities that made the  an exceptionally cheap software-defined radio receiver, it was nothing short of a game-changing moment for the home radio experimenter. The RTL might not be the best radio available, but remains a pretty good deal for only $10 from your favourite online supplier.

Having bought your RTL SDR, you will soon find yourself needing a few accessories. A decent antenna perhaps, an HF upconverter, and maybe an attenuator. To help you, [IgrikXD] has come up with a repository containing open-source implementations of all those projects and more. There’s an HF upconverter handily in both SMD and through-hole versions, as well as a wideband active antenna. A resonant antenna for a single band will always out-perfom a wideband device if your interest lies on only one frequency, but when your receiver has such a wide range as that of the RTL it’s irresistible to look further afield so the wideband antenna is a useful choice.

The RTL SDR is a device that just keeps on giving, and has featured innumerable times here since since its first appearance a few years ago. Whether you are into passive radar or using it to decode data from RF-equipped devices it’s the unit of choice, though we rather like it as a piece of inexpensive test equipment.

Via Hacker News.

Header image: Joeceads [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Revive that old Analog Cell Phone with SDR

With the latest and greatest 5G cellular networks right around the corner, it can be difficult to believe that it wasn’t so long ago that cell phones relied on analog networks. They aren’t used anymore, but it might only take a visit to a swap meet or flea market to get your hands on some of this vintage hardware. Of course these phones of a bygone era aren’t just impractical due to their monstrous size compared to modern gear, but because analog cell networks have long since gone the way of the floppy disk.

But thanks to the efforts of [Andreas Eversberg] those antique cell phones may live again, even if it’s only within the radius of your local hackerspace. His software allows the user to create a functioning analog base station for several retro phone networks used in Europe and the United States, such as AMPS, TACS, NMT, Radiocom, and C450. You can go the old school route and do it with sound cards and physical radios, or you can fully embrace the 21st century and do it all through a Software Defined Radio (SDR); in either event, calls to the base station and even between multiple mobile devices is possible with relatively inexpensive hardware.

[Andreas] has put together exceptional documentation for this project, which starts with a walk through on how you can setup your DIY cell “tower” with traditional radios. He explains that amateur radios are a viable option for most of the frequencies used, and that he had early success with modifying second-hand taxi radios. He even mentions that the popular BaoFeng handheld radios can be used in a pinch, though not all the protocols will work due to distortion in the radio.

If you want to take the easy way out, [Andreas] also explains how to replace the radios with a single SDR device. This greatly simplifies the installation, and turns a whole bench full of radios and wires into something you can carry around in your pack if you were so inclined. His software has specific options to use the LimeSDR and LimeSDR-Mini, but you should be able to use other devices with a bit of experimentation.

We’ve previously reviewed the LimeSDR-Mini hardware, as well as covered its use in setting up DIY GSM networks.