Hak5: Getting Started with the HackRF

On this episode of Hak5, a popular technology YouTube channel, Shannon does a tutorial on how to get started with the HackRF. The HackRF is a recently released software defined radio similar to the RTL-SDR dongle, but with transmit capabilities.

In the video she shows how to set up the HackRF on Pentoo Linux and GNU Radio. She then shows how to use a GNU Radio program that can receive multiple broadcast FM signals simultaneously. The GNU Radio program is one that is based on Micheal Ossmans GNU Radio video tutorials.

Getting Started With The HackRF, Hak5 1707

Receiving BPSK63 with an RTL-SDR and Ham-It-Up Upconverter

Over on YouTube user Java’s Toys has uploaded a video showing a demo of his reception of a BPSK63 signal using his RTL-SDR and the Ham-it-up upconverter. BPSK63 is a text based digital communications mode used by ham radio enthusiasts to make contacts. It is twice as fast compared to the more commonly used BPSK31 mode.

Java’s toys used HDSDR together with Fldigi to receive and decode the signal.

RTL HF 15m BPSK63 Demo

Understanding Filtering in an Upconverter for the RTL-SDR

Over on YouTube user w2aew has uploaded a video tutorial explaining how filtering in an upconverter works. In a previous video w2aew explained how a simple upconverter for the RTL-SDR worked and noted that for best performance the upconverter needs three filters, one preselector at the input, one after the local oscillator and one after the mixing stage.

In this video w2aew takes a Nooelec Ham-it-up upconverter which has the three filters mentioned above implemented and scopes the output after each filter to show their effect on an input signal.

Filter functions in an HF Upconverter used with RTL-SDR Dongle Receiver

Review of the USA TCXO Modified RTL-SDR Dongle

A few days ago we posted about a new US source for TCXO modified RTL-SDR dongles. We received a sample from the company that does the modifications and below we present a review of the product.

The modified TCXO dongle is based on a standard full sized R820T RTL-SDR PCB board. Inside we can see that the standard 28.8 MHz oscillator has been removed and in its place is a 28.8 MHz TCXO oscillator. The old oscillator has been removed and the new oscillator is carefully soldered in its place. The soldering job appears to be nice and tidy.

TCXO Close up
TCXO close up

Next we tested the TCXO dongle against a control RTL-SDR which had a standard non-TCXO oscillator. First we measured the PPM offset at room temperature against a known ATIS signal. The TCXO dongle had an offset that was somewhere around 0.5 PPM. The control RTL-SDR had an offset of 60 PPM.

As the dongle heats up from use, the oscillator will experience thermal drift, causing the frequency offset to change. The TCXO should be immune to this problem due to it’s temperature compensation circuitry. To test the TCXOs temperature compensation capabilities we placed both dongles in a freezer for 30 minutes and then took them out and recorded their start and end PPM offsets after 30 minutes of operation. To simulate a warm environment the dongles were also placed under a warm tungsten light during operation.

The control RTL-SDR started with an PPM offset of 58 PPM and ended with an offset of 72 PPM, giving a total drift of 14 PPM. The TCXO RTL-SDR dongle started with a PPM offset of ~0.5 PPM and ended with an offset of ~0.5 PPM, giving a total drift of 0 PPM.

Below we have recorded animated GIFs of the drift observed in both dongles. The first GIF shows the control RTL-SDR. Note how the frequency offset oscillates at first and then slowly drifts away in one direction. The TCXO dongle exhibited no drift whatsoever.

Control RTL-SDR Drift over 15 Minutes (Sped up)
TCXO Dongle Drift over 15 Minutes (Sped up)

The results show that the US TCXO has a very low overall PPM offset and is very stable over temperature changes. If you want one of these dongles they can be found for sale over on Ebay for $65 USD.

In the previous post some commenter’s raised the concern that this product was overpriced at $65 USD. However, we believe this price is reasonable. The reason the cost is much higher than a standard RTL-SDR is that it is very difficult to obtain TCXO oscillators with 28.8 MHz clocks. The company selling these needed to have the TCXOs custom made from the factory with a large minimum order quantity of 1000 pieces. Then after adding the labour, quality control and selling costs the profit margins become quite small.

SDR(X): New Upconverter for the RTL-SDR

A new UK designed and manufactured upconverter that goes by the name SDR(X) has recently become available for purchase. This upconverter connects to a RTL-SDR dongle and allows it to receive from 100 kHz up till 1850 MHz. Some of its features include:

  • Four user selectable HF pre-filters (0-2, 2-6, 6-11 and 11 to 30MHz) or single 0-30MHz pre-filter.
  • Band pass filter after mixer and band pass filter after Oscillator
  • User selectable MMIC 18db amplifier external to RTL chip set (lower noise level, than RTL chip and compensates for pre-filters).
  • User selectable HF and VHF/UHF mode (HF 0-30MHz, VHF/UHF mode 24MHz to 1850MHz).
  • Microchip PIC controller for above.
  • Diode protection on RF input.

The board comes as a prebuilt kit which is currently selling for 79.95 GBP which includes an RTL-SDR dongle. The device also comes with complete documentation. The SDR(X) can be purchased from 6v6.co.uk.

Image of the SDR(X)
Image of the SDR(X)

DSD+ Version 1.5 Released

Version 1.5 of Digital Speech Decoder Plus (DSD+) has been released. DSD+ is a popular Windows software tool used for decoding digital speech such as P25 with the RTL-SDR. The latest version comes with a simple GUI interface that has an event log that shows call target and source ID history and an audio waveform plot which can help determine if DSD+ is receiving audio correctly. This version of DSD+ has the ability to decode the following protocols.

  • D-STAR
  • NXDN4800
  • NXDN9600
  • DMR/MotoTRBO
  • P25 Phase 1
  • X2-TDMA
  • ProVoice

In addition to the above, the new version comes with an LRRP decoder and display program which should allow you to see on a map the GPS location of broadcasting radios.

DSD+ V1.51 can be downloaded from this link. The forum thread on RadioReference where the developer releases and discusses the DSD+ software can be found here.

This version of DSD+ comes with all the files needed to make it run already. To use DSD+ V1.5 simply extract the zip file into a folder and double click on DSDPlus.EXE. DSD+ will listen to your default audio device that is set in the Windows sound recording properties. Simply tune to a digital voice signal in SDR# or any other SDR receiver and set the output audio settings accordingly. To start the LRRP display program simply open LRRP.exe.

DSD+ V1.5 LRRP GPS Display
DSD+ V1.5 LRRP GPS Display

Radiosonde Decoding

Over on his blog, nerdsville has posted about his experiences with decoding Radiosondes, a.k.a Meteorological Weather Balloons using his Funcube Dongle, which is an SDR with similar capabilities to the RTL-SDR. Using a program called SondeMonitor he was able to produce graphs balloon sensor data such as temperature, pressure, humidity and altitude.

If you are interested in decoding this type of thing we also have a tutorial on this topic available on our site.

SondeMonitor Graphs
SondeMonitor Graphs

Creating a Signal Strength Heatmap with an RTL-SDR

Over on Reddit, user tautology2 has linked to his project which is software that can create a heatmap of signal strengths. His software uses the data that is output from RTLSDR Scanner which is a program that will collect signal strength data over any desired bandwidth and at the same time also record GPS coordinates using an external GPS receiver. RTLSDR Scanner can also create a heatmap by itself, but tautology2’s heatmap is much clearer and has good web controls for choosing the heatmap signal frequency.

Tautology2 writes about his program:

Eartoearoak’s rtl-sdr scanner can save GPS location data along with spectrum samples, I had put USB GPS unit and SDR’s antenna on the top of my car, put my notebook with running scanner on the front seat and driven it around.

Then I saved results both as an image sequence (which you can see at the bottom of the map) and as the raw data in json format. My script (scan2web.rb[3] ) parses raw data, filters out redundant samples (which were captured standing at the traffic lights etc) and computes normalized spectrum power for eight 300-KHz bands for each spatial sample. Results are saved in heatmap.json[4] , which is rendered using Google maps v.3 heatmap API.

The Reddit thread discussing his project can be found here.

Tools used for making the heatmap: Laptop, RTL-SDR with stock antenna and a GPS.
Tools used for making the heatmap: Laptop, RTL-SDR with stock antenna and a GPS.
Heatmap of GSM Signal Strengths
Heatmap of GSM Signal Strengths

Using a Mixer to Listen to HF on a RTL-SDR Dongle

Over on YouTube user w2aew has uploaded a tutorial video that clearly explains the theory behind upconverters. Upconverters are commonly used with the RTL-SDR to receive the HF (0 – 30 MHz) bands. In the video he shows how to make a simple homemade double-balanced diode ring mixer for the RTL-SDR and shows its performance in HDSDR.

Using a mixer to listen to HF, shortwave, ham, etc. on RTL-SDR dongle

New USA Source for Modded TCXO RTL-SDR Dongles

Previously on our blog we posted about RTL-SDR dongles for sale in Japan that had been modified by replacing the low quality 28.8 MHz oscillator with a quality low ppm and high stability temperature controlled oscillator (TCXO).

Now there is a new USA based source for modified TCXO dongles over on Ebay. The new dongles are modified with a 1 ppm high stability TCXO and sell for $65 USD. The manufacturer of these modded dongles has been kind enough to send us a sample and we will have a review of the product up in a few days.

The oscillator on the RTL-SDR is prone to thermal drift, which means that as the dongle heats up from use, the frequency you are tuned to may change over time. A TCXO compensates for differences in temperature and thus keeps the frequency stable as the temperature changes.

TCXO Modded RTL-SDR from the USA
TCXO Modded RTL-SDR from the USA