Friday Hack Chat: GNU Radio

Software defined radio picked up a lot of popularity when it was discovered that cheap USB TV tuners were functional bits of hardware that could become SDRs. It’s the software that makes this possible, and when it comes to SDR software, there’s no better tool than GNU Radio. For this week’s Hack Chat we’re going to sit down with some of the people behind this awesome software tool and pick their brains.

Our guests for this week’s Hack Chat will be Derek Kozel and Nate Temple, officers of the GNU Radio project. They’re also organizers of this year’s GNU Radio Conference. Also joining in on the Hack Chat will be Martin Braun, community manager, PyBOMBS maintainer, and GNU Radio Foundation officer.

GNU Radio is perhaps the most important bit of any software defined radio toolchain. This is the software that provides signal processing blocks to implement software defined radios. GNU radio is how you take a TV tuner USB dongle and pull images from satellites. You can use it for simulation, and GNU Radio is widely used by hobbyists, academics, and by people in industry.

For this week’s Hack Chat, we’re going to be talking all about GNU Radio. What can you do with it? Was the interface really inspired by MaxMSP? All that and more in this week’s Hack Chat.

  • Various bits of hardware that make GNU Radio work
  • The core process of writing modules
  • Upcoming features of GNU Radio

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the GNU Radio Hack Chat Event Page and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.join-hack-chat

Our Hack Chats are live community events on the Hack Chat group messaging. This week is just like any other, and we’ll be gathering ’round our video terminals at noon, Pacific, on Friday, August 31st. Need a countdown timer? We should look into hosting these countdown timers on, actually.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on

You don’t have to wait until Friday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

GPS And SDR Combine Forces

Software-defined radio (or SDR) is a relatively new (to average tinkerers, at least) way of sending and receiving radio signals. The interest in SDR exploded recently with the realization that cheap USB TV tuner cards could be used to start exploring the frequency spectrum at an extremely reduced cost. One of the reasons that this is so advantageous is because of all of the options that a general-purpose computer opens up that go beyond transmitting and receiving, as [Chris] shows with his project that ties SDR together with GPS.

The goal of the project was to automatically tune a radio to the local police department’s frequency, regardless of location. To do this, a GPS receiver on a computer reports information about the current location. A JavaScript program feeds the location data to the SDR, which automatically tunes to the local emergency services frequencies. Of course, this relies on good data for what those frequencies are, but this is public information in most cases (at least in the US).

There are a lot of opportunities here for anyone with SDR. Maybe an emergency alert system that can tune to weather broadcasts if there’s a weather alert, or any of a number of other captivating projects. As for this project, [Chris] plans to use Google’s voice recognition software to transcribe the broadcasts as well. The world of SDR is at your fingertips to do anything you can imagine! And, if you’re looking to get started in it, be sure to check out the original post covering those USB TV tuner dongles.


What do you get if you cross a software defined radio (SDR) and an iconic children’s drawing toy that we are sure is a trademarked name? If you are [devnulling], you wind up with the Etch-A-SDR. The box uses an Odroid C1, a Teensy, and the ubiquitous RTL-SDR.

The knobs work well as control knobs (as you can see in the video below). When you are bored listening to the radio, you can reset the box and go into Etch-a… um, drawing mode. The knobs work like you’d expect and you can even erase the screen with a vigorous shake.

Continue reading “Etch-A-SDR”

Cracking GSM with RTL-SDR for Thirty Dollars

Theoretically, GSM has been broken since 2003, but the limitations of hardware at the time meant cell phone calls and texts were secure from the prying ears of digital eavesdroppers and all but the most secret government agencies. Since then, the costs of hardware have gone down, two terabytes of rainbow tables have been published, and all the techniques and knowledge required to listen in on cell phone calls have been available. The only thing missing was the hardware. Now, with a super low-cost USB TV tuner come software defined radio, [domi] has put together a tutorial for cracking GSM with thirty dollars in hardware.

Previous endeavours to listen in and decrypt GSM signals used fairly expensive software defined radios – USRP systems that cost a few thousand dollars a piece. Since the advent of RTL-SDR, the price of software defined radios has come down to about $30 on eBay, giving anyone with a Paypal account the ability to listen in on GSM calls and sniff text messages.

The process of cracking GSM first involves getting the TMSI – Temporary Mobile Subscriber Identifier – a unique ID for each phone in a certain cell. This is done by sending a silent SMS that will send back and acknowledgement an SMS has been received on the victim’s phone, but won’t give the victim any indication of   receiving a message.

From there, the attacker listens to the GSM signals in the cell, receiving bursts attached to a TMSI, and cracking the encrypted stream using 1.6 TB of rainbow tables.

[domi] put up a four-part tutorial series (part 1 above; part 2, part 3, and part 4) that goes over the theory and the actual procedure of cracking text messages and voice calls with a simple USB TV tuner. There are a few limitations; the attacker must be in the same cell as the victim, and it looks like real-time voice decoding isn’t yet possible. Cracking GSM for $30, though, that’s good enough for us.

HackRF, or playing from 30 MHz to 6 GHz

Up on Kickstarter, [Michael Ossmann] is launching the HackRF, an inordinately cheap, exceedingly capable software defined radio tool that’s small enough to lose in your laptop bag.

The HackRF was the subject of a lot of interest last time it was on Hackaday – the ability to receive up to 6GHz allows the HackRF to do a lot of very interesting things, including listening in on Bluetooth, WiFi, and 4G networks. Also, the ability to transmit on these frequencies means a lot of very interesting, and quite possibly slightly evil applications are open to anyone with a HackRF. Like the RTL-SDR dongles, the HackRF works with GNU Radio out of the box, meaning all those cool SDR hacks we’ve seen so far will work with this new, more powerful board.

Compared to the USB TV tuner cards that were so popular a year ago, the HackRF has 10 times the bandwidth, is able to receive up to 6GHz, and is also able to transmit. It’s only half-duplex, so to receive and transmit simultaneously you’ll need two HackRFs, or maybe wait for a hardware revision that will hopefully come sooner rather than later.

Below you can check out [Michael]’s presentation at Toorcon where the HackRF was unleashed to the world.

Continue reading “HackRF, or playing from 30 MHz to 6 GHz”

Building a better software defined radio (and transmitting as well)

By now most Hackaday readers should be familiar with this year’s latest advance in software defined radio. With a simple USB TV tuner dongle, it’s possible to receive FM broadcasts, GPS data from satellites, and even telemetry from aircraft flying overhead. There is one limitation to this setup, though: it’s receive only. Hacker extraordinaire [Michael Ossmann] is looking to make a better software defined radio called the HackRF.

The HackRF is an incredibly ambitious project – able to receive just about anything between 100 MHz and 6 GHz (this includes everything from the top of the FM radio band to cordless phones, cell phones, WiFi, and basically any radio technology that has been commercialized in the last 15 years), the HackRF is also able to transmit. Yes, with the HackRF it’s possible to build your own software-defined WiFi module, or just broadcast bogus GPS information.

Compared to the $20 TV tuner SDR dongles we’ve played around with, the HackRF isn’t exactly cheap. [Mossmann] figures he’ll be able to sell the device for about $300. A fair bit of change, but much, much less than professional, commercial SDR solutions.

A very cool advance in the state of SDR, but reason dictates we must suggest that everyone who wants a HackRF to start studying for their amateur radio exam now. Being a licensed radio operator won’t stop you from any sort of malicious intent, but with at least with licensing comes with the possibility of knowing what evil you’re doing.

You can check out the wiki for the HackRF over on the gits along with the current hardware design