Turning Cheap WiFi Modules Into Cheap WiFi Swiss Army Knives

When the ESP8266 was released, it was sold as a simple device that would connect to a WiFi network over a UART. It was effectively a WiFi modem for any microcontroller, available for just a few bucks. That in itself is awesome, but then the hackers got their hands on it. It turns out, the ESP8266 is actually a very capable microcontroller as well, and the newest modules have tons of Flash and pins for all your embedded projects.

For [Amine]’s entry to the Hackaday Prize, he’s using the ESP8266 as the ultimate WiFi Swiss Army knife. The Kortex Xttend Lite is a tiny little WiFi repeater that’s capable of doing just about anything with a WiFi network, and with a bit of added hardware, can connect to Ethernet as well.

The hardware on this board sports an ESP8266-07S module, with two free GPIO pins for multiple functions. There’s a USB to UART in there, and a voltage regulator that’s capable of outputting 600mA for the slightly power hungry radio. There’s also an integrated battery management and charge controller, allowing this board to charge an off-the-shelf lithium cell and run for hours without any wires at all.

So, what can this board do? Just about everything you would want for a tiny little WiFi Swiss Army knife. There’s traffic shaping, port mapping, packet sniffing, and even support for mesh networking. There’s also an SMA connector on there, so grab your cantennas — this is a great way to extend a WiFi network, too.

This is a well-designed and well-executed project, and what makes this even more amazing is that this was done as one of [Amine]’s high school projects. Yes, it took about a year to finish this project, but it’s still amazing work for [Amine]’s first ‘high-complexity’ design. That makes it an excellent learning experience, and an awesome entry to this year’s Hackaday Prize.

Using An AI And WiFi To See Through Walls

It’s now possible to not only see people through walls but to see how they’re moving and if they’re walking, to tell who they are. We finally have the body scanner which Schwarzenegger walked behind in the original Total Recall movie.

Seeing through walls: real life, poses, skeletonsThis is the work of a group at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The seeing-through-the-wall part is done using an RF transmitter and receiving antennas, which isn’t very new. Our own [Gregory L. Charvat] built an impressive phased array radar in his garage which clearly showed movement of complex shapes behind a wall. What is new is the use of neural networks to better decipher what’s received on those antennas. The neural networks spit out pose estimations of where people’s heads, shoulders, elbows, and other body parts are, and a little further processing turns that into skeletal figures.

They evaluated its accuracy in a number of ways, all of which are detailed in their paper. The most interesting, or perhaps scariest way was to see if it could tell who the skeletal figures were by using the fact that each person walks with their own style. They first trained another neural network to recognize the styles of different people. They then pass the pose estimation output to this style-recognizing neural network and it correctly guessed the people with 83% accuracy both when they were visible and when they were behind walls. This means they not only have a good idea of what a person is doing, but also of who the person is.

Check out the video below to see some pretty impressive side-by-side comparisons of live action and skeletal versions doing all sorts of things under various conditions. It looks like the science fiction future in Total Recall has gotten one step closer. Now if we could just colonize Mars.

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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.