Desktop Radio Telescope Images The WiFi Universe

It’s been a project filled with fits and starts, and it very nearly ended up as a “Fail of the Week” feature, but we’re happy to report that the [Thought Emporium]’s desktop WiFi radio telescope finally works. And it’s pretty darn cool.

If you’ve been following along with the build like we have, you’ll know that this stems from a previous, much larger radio telescope that [Justin] used to visualize the constellation of geosynchronous digital TV satellites. This time, he set his sights closer to home and built a system to visualize the 2.4-GHz WiFi band. A simple helical antenna rides on the stepper-driven azimuth-elevation scanner. A HackRF SDR and GNU Radio form the receiver, which just captures the received signal strength indicator (RSSI) value for each point as the antenna scans. The data is then massaged into colors representing the intensity of WiFi signals received and laid over an optical image of the scanned area. The first image clearly showed a couple of hotspots, including a previously unknown router. An outdoor scan revealed routers galore, although that took a little more wizardry to pull off.

The videos below recount the whole tale in detail; skip to part three for the payoff if you must, but at the cost of missing some valuable lessons and a few cool tips, like using flattened pieces of Schedule 40 pipe as a construction material. We hope to see more from the project soon, and wonder if this FPV racing drone tracker might offer some helpful hints for expansion.

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ESP8266 Uses LiFi To Get On WiFi

Connecting your shiny new ESP8266 to WiFi can be as simple or as complicated as you please. Most people decide to manually add it. Some people find clever ways to make the bloody thing connect itself. [Eduardo Zola] transfers his WiFi password using the flashing light of a smartphone screen.

A simple photo-resistor and a bit of tinkering allows him to easily send credentials — or any data really — to his ESP8266, through the power of LiFi. Short for Light Fidelity, LiFi transmits data using light with on and off states representing digital values. It can use visible light, or reach into either the ultraviolet or infra-red radiation if need be. For the nitty-gritty details on the subject, check out our primer on LiFi.

 A flashing LCD screen and a photo-resistor barely make the cut for a one-way LiFi system, but [Eduardo Zola] makes it work. The approach is to build a resitor divider and watch an input pin on the ESP for changes.

The trick is to keep ambient light out of the mix. The test sensor shown here places the LDR in a black cap, but [Eduardo] 3D-Printed a slick little enclosure for his reverse flashlight so it fits flush with the phone screen. One click and about half a minute of a flashing screen later, and the Wi-Fi credentials are transferred. This circuit could really be added onto any project, for short data transfers. With a bit more work on the sensor circuit, speed could be improved with the limiting factor being the timing on the phone screen itself.

Since the ESP8266 has its own WiFi connection, it’s likely you’ll use that for data transfer once the LiFi gets it onto the network. But any situation where you don’t have a full user input or a network connection could benefit from this. Pull out that old scrolling LED matrix project and add this as a way to push new messages to the device!
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Deploying a Turnkey Raspberry Pi System

If you only do projects for yourself, you are spoiled. After all, you know your environment better than anyone. You know what power you’ll have, the temperature range, and how your network is configured. This last part is especially problematic if you are trying to deploy something that connects to a wireless LAN. How can you configure, say, a Raspberry Pi so that it can connect to an unknown user’s WiFi network? Fixing that problem is the goal of [schollz’s] Raspberry Pi Turnkey project.

The idea is simple. A Raspberry Pi image boots up for the first time and offers a WiFi hotspot itself called ConnectToConnect. The WiFi password is also ConnectToConnect. Once connected, you get configuration options that allow you to tailor the system to your network. Sure, you could have people log in and reconfigure via a serial terminal, wired ethernet (which isn’t always set up right, either), or a USB keyboard But that’s not a great out-of-the-box experience for most customers.

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Umbrella and Tin Cans Turned into WiFi Dish Antenna

There’s something iconic about dish antennas. Chances are it’s the antenna that non-antenna people think about when they picture an antenna. And for many applications, the directionality and gain of a dish can really help reach out and touch someone. So if you’re looking to tap into a distant WiFi network, this umbrella-turned-dish antenna might be just the thing to build.

Stretching the limits of WiFi connections seems to be a focus of [andrew mcneil]’s builds, at least to judge by his YouTube channel. This portable, foldable dish is intended to increase the performance of one of his cantennas, a simple home-brew WiFi antenna that uses food cans as directional waveguides. The dish is built from the skeleton of an umbrella-style photographer’s flash reflector; he chose this over a discount-store rain umbrella because the reflector has an actual parabolic shape. The reflective material was stripped off and used as a template to cut new gores of metal window screen material. It’s considerably stiffer than the reflector fabric, but it stretches taut between the ribs and can still fold up, at least sort of. An arm was fashioned from dowels to position the cantenna feed-horn at the focus of the reflector; not much detail is given on the cantenna itself, but we assume it’s similar in design to cantennas we’ve featured before.

[andrew] hasn’t done rigorous testing yet, but a quick 360° scan from inside his shop showed dozens of WiFi signals, most with really good signals. We’ll be interested to see just how much this reflector increases the cantenna’s performance.

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Unlocking Drones with Go

Looking for a first project in a relatively new language that’ll stretch your abilities? [Ron] was, so he hacked a commercially available drone and opened up a lot of its functionality, while writing the client software in Go.

The drone is a DJI Tello, which has some impressive hardware like a 14-core Intel processor and excellent video processing abilities. There’s also a vibrant community and a lot of support, making it the ideal platform for a project like this. It communicates to a base station via WiFi, and using some tools like the Wireshark [Rob] was able to decipher a lot of the communications and create a whole new driver for the drone. While the drone can be controlled in the traditional way, users can also write programs to control the drone as well.

The project is both an impressive feat in reverse engineering an inexpensive drone, and a fun example of programming in the Go language. Because of the fun and excitement of drones, they have become a popular platform on which to hack, from increasing their range to becoming a platform for developing AI.

Raspberry Pi W Antenna Analysis Reveals Clever Design

The old maxim is that if you pay peanuts, you get a monkey. That’s no longer true, though: devices like the Raspberry Pi W have shown that a $10 device can be remarkably powerful if it is well designed. You might not appreciate how clever this design is sometimes, but this great analysis of the antenna of the Pi W by [Carl Turner, Senior RF Engineer at Laird Technology] might help remind you.

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Monitor Foot Traffic Using Radio

We talk a lot about information security around here, but in reality it’s not at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Most people are content to walk around with their phones constantly looking for WiFi or Bluetooth connections despite the dangers. But if you’re not a black hat sort of person, you can do something like [Verkehrsrot] did and use all of these phones to do something useful and harmless.

[Verkehrsrot]’s project involves building a radio listening device in order to get an estimate of the amount of traffic in a particular area. The device polls for and detects WiFi and Bluetooth devices nearby and tallies them. For the privacy-minded, it doesn’t persistently store any information about the people or the devices that it detects. The project also runs on a variety of platforms, although you can get the whole thing up and running with little more than an ESP32 and a small lithium-ion battery.

If you’re looking for a useful way to tally the number of people in a given area, this project could be the thing for you. Not everyone keeps their WiFi and Bluetooth turned on, but even so this is still a good way to estimate. But if you need to count everyone going into a room, for example, you’ll need another way to count them.