Inexpensive Ham Radio Gets Upgrades Thanks To A Trojan

Love them or hate them, the crop of cheap hand-held amateur radio transceivers is here to stay. They’re generally horrible radios, often smearing spurious emissions across the spectrum, but they’re cheap enough to throw in a glove box for emergencies, and they invite experimentation — for instance, modifying the firmware to add functionality the OEM didn’t think to offer.

The new hotness in this class of radios is the Quansheng UV-K5, a two-band transceiver you can pick up for about $40, and we suspect it’ll get hotter still with this firmware trojan by [Piotr (SQ9P)]. We’ve already seen a firmware hack for these radios, one that aimed at unlocking the full frequency range of the RF chip at the heart of the radio. Honestly, we’re not huge fans of these mods, which potentially interfere with other allocations across multiple bands. But [Piotr]’s hacks seem a bit more innocuous, focusing mainly on modifying the radio’s display and adding useful features, such as a calibrated received signal strength bar graph and a numerical RSSI display. The really neat new feature, though, is the spectrum display, which shows activity across a 2-MHz slice of spectrum centered on the currently set frequency. And just because he could, [Piotr] put in a game of Pong.

[Piotr]’s description of the mod as a trojan seems apt since his new programs run in parallel to the OEM firmware by wrapping its vector table. We’d imagine other mods are possible, and we’re keen to see what people come up with for these hackable little units. Just make sure you’re staying within the law, especially in the United States — the FCC does not play games (third item).

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Hackaday Links: June 25, 2023

Is it really a dystopian future if the robots are radio-controlled? That’s what came to mind reading this article on a police robot out of Singapore, complete with a breathless headline invoking Black Mirror, which is now apparently the standard by which all dystopias are to be judged. Granted, the episode with the robo-dogs was pretty terrifying, but it seems like the Singapore Police Force has a way to go before getting to that level. The bot, which has been fielded at Changi Airport after extensive testing and seems to be completely remote-controlled, is little more than a beefy telepresence robot. At 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) tall, the bot isn’t terribly imposing, although it apparently has a mast that can be jacked up another couple of feet, plus there are lights, sirens, and speakers that can get the message across. Plus cameras, of course; there are always cameras. The idea is to provide extra eyes to supplement foot patrols, plus the potential to cordon off an incident until meatspace officers arrive. The buzzword game here is weak, though; there’s no mention of AI or machine learning at all. We have a feeling that when the robots finally rise up, ones like this will be left serving the drinks.

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Easy Modifications For Inexpensive Radios

Over the past decade or so, amateur radio operators have benefited from an influx of inexpensive radios based around a much simpler design than what was typically commercially available, bringing the price of handheld dual-band or GMRS radios to around $20. This makes the hobby much more accessible, but they have generated some controversy as they tend to not perform as well and can generate spurious emissions and other RF interference that a higher quality radio might not create. But one major benefit besides cost is that they’re great for tinkering around, as their simplified design is excellent for modifying. This experimental firmware upgrade changes a lot about this Quansheng model.

With the obligatory warning out of the way that modifying a radio may violate various laws or regulations of some localities, it looks like this modified firmware really expands the capabilities of the radio. The chip that is the basis of the radio, the BK4819, has a frequency range of 18-660 MHz and 840-1300 MHz but not all of these frequencies will be allowed with a standard firmware in order to comply with various regulations. However, there’s typically no technical reason that a radio can’t operate on any arbitrary frequency within this range, so opening up the firmware can add a lot of functionality to a radio that might not otherwise be capable.

Some of the other capabilities this modified firmware opens up is the ability to receive in various other modes, such as FM and AM within the range of allowable frequencies. To take a more deep dive on what this firmware allows be sure to check out the original GitHub project page as well, and if you’re curious as to why these inexpensive radios often run afoul of radio purists and regulators alike, take a look at some of the problems others have had in Europe.