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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iCEstick Makes Terrible Radio Transmitter

We’ve done a lot of posts on how to use the Lattice iCEstick ranging from FPGA tutorials to how to use one as a logic analyzer. If you picked up one of these inexpensive boards here’s a fun little experiment. [T4D10N] saw a project [Hamster] put together to send SOS on the FM radio band using nothing but an FPGA. [Hamster used a Spartan], so he decided to do the same trick using an iCEstick with the open source IceStorm tools.

You might be surprised that the whole thing only takes 53 lines of Verilog — less if you cut out comments and whitespace. That’s because it uses the FPGA’s built-in PLL to generate a fast clock and then uses a phase accumulator divider to produce three frequencies on the FM radio band; one for a carrier and two for a tone, spaced 150 Hz apart. The result is really frequency shift keying but you can hear the results on an FM radio.

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Simple RC to USB Interface

With the radio control hobby arguably larger now than it ever has been in the past, there’s a growing demand for high-fidelity PC simulators. Whether you want to be able to “fly” when it’s raining out or you just want to practice your moves before taking that expensive quadcopter up for real, a good simulator on your computer is the next best thing. But the simulator won’t do you much good if it doesn’t feel the same; you really need to hook your normal RC transmitter up to the computer for the best experience.

[Patricio] writes in to share with us his simple hack for interfacing his RC hardware to his computer over USB. Rather than plugging the transmitter into the computer, his approach allows the receiver to mimic a USB joystick. Not only is this more convenient since you can use the simulator without wires, but it will make sure that the minutiae of your radio hardware (such as response lag) is represented in the simulation.

The setup is actually very simple. [Patricio] used the ATtiny85 based Digispark development board because it’s what he had on hand, but the principle would be the same on other microcontrollers. Simply connect the various channels from the RC receiver to the digital input pins. RC receivers are 5 VDC and draw very little current, so it’s even possible to power the whole arrangement from the USB port.

On the software side, the Arduino sketch does about what you expect. It loops through listening for PWM signals on the input pins, and maps that to USB joystick position information. The current code only supports three channels for a simple airplane setup (X and Y for joystick, plus throttle), but it should be easy enough to follow along and add more channels if you needed them for more complex aircraft.

For more information on the intricacies of RC transmitter and receiver interaction, check out this fascinating research on receiver latency.

Hacked RC Transmitters Control All The Things

If you have lots of RC creations about, each with their own receiver, you’ll know that the cost of a new one for each project can quickly mount up – despite RC receivers being pretty cheap these days. What if you could use a NRF24L01+ module costing less than $3?

That’s just what [Rudolph] has done for his Hackaday Prize entry, rudRemoteThough many people already spin their own RC link with the NRF24 modules, this sets itself apart by being a complete, well thought out solution, easily scalable to a large number of receivers.

The transmitter can be made of anything to hand; stick an NRF24 module and Teensy inside, some gimbals if needed, and you have a rudRemote transmitter. Gaming controllers, sandwich boxes and piles of laser cut parts are all encouraged options. [Rudolph] used some 40-year-old transmitters for his build – on the outside they remain unchanged, apart from a small OLED and rotary encoder for the function menu. The gimbal connections are simply re-routed to the Teensy I/O.

The protocol used is CRTP (Crazy RealTime Protocol); this is partly because one of the things [Rudolph] wanted to control is a CrazyFlie quadcopter. It’s a protocol that can easily be used to control anything you like, providing it fits into the 29-byte payload space. The CrazyFlie only uses 14 bytes of that, so there’s plenty of headroom for auxiliary functions.

We’d be interested to see the latency of this system – we’ve some surprising results when it comes to measuring cheap RC transmitter latency.

Tiny Transmitter Brings Out the Spy Inside You

When it comes to surveillance, why let the government have all the fun? This tiny spy transmitter is just the thing you need to jumpstart your recreational espionage efforts.

We kid, of course — you’ll want to stay within the law of the land if you choose to build [TomTechTod]’s diminutive transmitter. Barely bigger than the 337 button cell that powers it, the scrap of PCB packs a fair number of surface mount components, most in 0201 packages. Even so, the transmitter is a simple design, with a two transistor audio stage amplifying the signal from the MEMS microphone and feeding an oscillator that uses a surface acoustic wave (SAW) resonator for stability. The bug is tuned for the 433-MHz low-power devices band, and from the video below, it appears to have decent range with the random wire antenna — maybe 50 meters. [TomTechTod] has all the build files posted, including Gerbers and a BOM with Digikey part numbers, so it should be easy to make one for your fieldcraft kit.

If you want to dive deeper into the world of electronic espionage, boy, have we got you covered. Here’s a primer on microphone bugs, a history of spy radios, or how backscatter was used to bug an embassy.

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Temperature Sensor and Simple Oscillator Make a Value-Added HF Beacon

Sometimes the best projects are the simple, quick hits. Easily designed, fast to build, and bonus points for working right the first time. Such projects very often lead to bigger and better things, which appears to be where this low-power temperature beacon is heading.

In the world of ham radio, beacon stations are transmitters that generally operate unattended from a known location, usually at limited power (QRP). Intended for use by other hams to determine propagation conditions, most beacons just transmit the operator’s call sign, sometimes at varying power levels. Any ham that can receive the signal will know there’s a propagation path between the beacon and the receiver, which helps in making contacts. The beacon that [Dave Richards (AA7EE)] built is not a ham beacon, at least not yet; operating at 13.56 MHz, it takes advantage of FCC Part 15 regulations regarding low-power transmissions rather than the Part 97 rules for amateur radio. The circuit is very simple — a one-transistor Colpitts oscillator with no power amplifier, and thus very limited range. But as an added twist, the oscillator is keyed by an ATtiny13 hooked to an LM335 temperature sensor, sending out the Celsius and Fahrenheit temperature in Morse every 30 seconds or so. The circuit is executed in Manhattan style, which looks great and leaves plenty of room for expansion. [Dave] mentions adding a power amp and a low-pass filter to get rid of harmonics and make it legal in the ham bands.

Beacons are just one of the ways for hams to get on the air without talking. Another fun way to analyze propagation is WSPR, which is little like an IoT beacon.

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