Tagged: outernet

Receiving Outernet with a Grid Antenna and LeanDVB

Recently Luigi Freitas wrote in to us and wanted to share his fairly unique Outernet setup which is based on a Grid dish antenna, low cost SPF-5189 LNA, C.H.I.P mini single board computer generic RTL-SDR, and the open source LeanDVB decoder software.

Last month we made a post about LeanDVB, a lightweight DVB-S decoder, which with a few configuration changes can be used to also demodulate the Outernet signal. Luigi places his 2.4 GHz WiFi grid antenna (which still works for the 1.5 GHz Outernet signal) on a tripod and points it towards the Outernet satellite in his area. He connects the antenna up to a SPF-5189 based LNA, which is a 50 – 4000 MHz LNA that is very cheaply found on eBay for about $7 USD. Then a cheap generic no-TCXO $8 RTL-SDR is used together with the LeanDVB software.

In his post Luigi shows how to set up the LeanDVB software for decoding the Outernet signal by piping the output of rtl_sdr into it, and getting all the settings correct. To get the final files he then shows how to pipe the decoded packets in the Skylark decoder, and then the files can be accessed from the regular Outernet web GUI.

The LeanDVB Decoder GUI showing a successful lock
The LeanDVB Decoder GUI showing a successful lock

Demodulating the Outernet signal with leandvb and an RTL-SDR

Leandvb is command line based lightweight DVB-S decoder designed for receiving Digital Amateur TV, including signals like HamTV from the International Space Station. The RTL-SDR can be used together with leandvb and it turns out that leandvb can also be used to decode the Outernet signal. If you were unaware, Outernet is a free L-band based satellite service that provides content such as news, weather data, APRS repeats and more. Currently you can get about 20MB of data a day. Outernet receivers are also all based around the RTL-SDR, allowing for very cheap receivers to be built. At the moment you’ll need a C.H.I.P or their specialized Dreamcatcher hardware to run their special Skylark OS with software decoder, but a general Armbian decoder is in the works.

Alternatively leandvb can be used, and over on their website the folks behind the leandvb software have uploaded a tutorial showing how to use leandvb to decode Outernet. Thanks to some reverse engineering attempts by Daniel Estévez, it was discovered that the Outernet modulation is very similar to DVB-S so the standard decoder can be used with some custom flags. Leandvb only outputs raw frames, not decoded data. They haven’t tested it, but it may be possible to feed the frames into Daniel Estevez’s free-outernet project for obtaining the final files.

During the testing they also discovered some interesting notes about the E4000 and R820T RTL-SDRs. For example by patching the R820T2 drivers to add some additional VGA gain they were able to make the R820T2 chips more sensitive at the Outernet frequency compared to the E4000 chip by bringing the signal further out of the quantization noise. They also tested a 60cm dish vs a patch antenna and found that the dish works significantly better.

Patch vs Dish Antenna for Outernet
Patch vs Dish Antenna for Outernet

Outernet: Patch antenna now sold seperately + other products

Back in June we tested Outernet’s new Dreamcatcher which is an ARM based computing board with RTL-SDR and L-band LNA built in. The $99 USD kit also included an external active L-band patch antenna. The Dreamcatcher full kit has now been reduced to $89 USD, and the active L-band patch antenna can also now be purchased by itself for $29 USD. The active patch antenna is also compatible with the bias tee on our V3 dongles and is a good low cost option for exploring most L-band satellite signals like Outernet, Inmarsat STD-C and AERO around 1542 MHz. The filter does unfortunately cut off the higher Iridium frequencies though.

They are also selling off their older L-band SDRx RTL-SDR boards at a reduced price of $20 USD. The SDRx is a RTL-SDR PCB with a built in L-band LNA and filter, but unlike the Dreamcatcher does not have built in computing hardware. They also have a limited $25 USD edition version of their active patch antenna which includes a built in RTL-SDR. This version is a bit more noisy compared to the standard active patch, but may be an interesting experimental antenna for some.

Current Outernet Products
Current Outernet Products

Skylark Image for Outernet’s Dreamcatcher RTL-SDR

About two weeks ago we posted our review of the Dreamcatcher, a new RTL-SDR and full ARM based computing platform built onto a single PCB. Back then the only OS available for it was a standard Armbian build, and no Outernet decoder was available. So we reviewed the Dreamcatcher with the Armbian OS and tested to see how well it worked as a general purpose RTL-SDR and computing platform.

Recently the Outernet team released a new build of ‘Skylark’ for their Dreamcatcher board. Skylark is their customized Outernet signal specific operating system that was available on the C.H.I.P. Skylark is essentially turnkey as it is much easier to setup and use. Just burn the image to an SDcard, insert the card, connect to the automatically generated Outernet WiFi hotspot on a PC or mobile device, and then browse to outernet.is to see the Skylark interface.

Unfortunately it is unclear how long some of the high bandwidth features such as the nice weather app may last. The Outernet Inmarsat L-band signal runs at a bandwidth of almost 20mB a day and appears to cost quite a bit of money to operate, so Outernet appear to be considering moving to a lower bandwidth signal in the near future. This will probably reduce content to data like text articles (news/APRS/Wikipedia/books) only. But even if it is text only it will still continue to be a very useful and interesting service.

Receiving Outernet with a Grid Antenna and LeanDVB

Recently Luigi Freitas wrote in to us and wanted to share his fairly unique Outernet setup which is based on a Grid dish antenna, low cost SPF-5189 LNA, C.H.I.P mini single board computer generic RTL-SDR, and the open source LeanDVB decoder software.

Last month we made a post about LeanDVB, a lightweight DVB-S decoder, which with a few configuration changes can be used to also demodulate the Outernet signal. Luigi places his 2.4 GHz WiFi grid antenna (which still works for the 1.5 GHz Outernet signal) on a tripod and points it towards the Outernet satellite in his area. He connects the antenna up to a SPF-5189 based LNA, which is a 50 – 4000 MHz LNA that is very cheaply found on eBay for about $7 USD. Then a cheap generic no-TCXO $8 RTL-SDR is used together with the LeanDVB software.

In his post Luigi shows how to set up the LeanDVB software for decoding the Outernet signal by piping the output of rtl_sdr into it, and getting all the settings correct. To get the final files he then shows how to pipe the decoded packets in the Skylark decoder, and then the files can be accessed from the regular Outernet web GUI.

The LeanDVB Decoder GUI showing a successful lock
The LeanDVB Decoder GUI showing a successful lock

Demodulating the Outernet signal with leandvb and an RTL-SDR

Leandvb is command line based lightweight DVB-S decoder designed for receiving Digital Amateur TV, including signals like HamTV from the International Space Station. The RTL-SDR can be used together with leandvb and it turns out that leandvb can also be used to decode the Outernet signal. If you were unaware, Outernet is a free L-band based satellite service that provides content such as news, weather data, APRS repeats and more. Currently you can get about 20MB of data a day. Outernet receivers are also all based around the RTL-SDR, allowing for very cheap receivers to be built. At the moment you’ll need a C.H.I.P or their specialized Dreamcatcher hardware to run their special Skylark OS with software decoder, but a general Armbian decoder is in the works.

Alternatively leandvb can be used, and over on their website the folks behind the leandvb software have uploaded a tutorial showing how to use leandvb to decode Outernet. Thanks to some reverse engineering attempts by Daniel Estévez, it was discovered that the Outernet modulation is very similar to DVB-S so the standard decoder can be used with some custom flags. Leandvb only outputs raw frames, not decoded data. They haven’t tested it, but it may be possible to feed the frames into Daniel Estevez’s free-outernet project for obtaining the final files.

During the testing they also discovered some interesting notes about the E4000 and R820T RTL-SDRs. For example by patching the R820T2 drivers to add some additional VGA gain they were able to make the R820T2 chips more sensitive at the Outernet frequency compared to the E4000 chip by bringing the signal further out of the quantization noise. They also tested a 60cm dish vs a patch antenna and found that the dish works significantly better.

Patch vs Dish Antenna for Outernet
Patch vs Dish Antenna for Outernet

Outernet: Patch antenna now sold seperately + other products

Back in June we tested Outernet’s new Dreamcatcher which is an ARM based computing board with RTL-SDR and L-band LNA built in. The $99 USD kit also included an external active L-band patch antenna. The Dreamcatcher full kit has now been reduced to $89 USD, and the active L-band patch antenna can also now be purchased by itself for $29 USD. The active patch antenna is also compatible with the bias tee on our V3 dongles and is a good low cost option for exploring most L-band satellite signals like Outernet, Inmarsat STD-C and AERO around 1542 MHz. The filter does unfortunately cut off the higher Iridium frequencies though.

They are also selling off their older L-band SDRx RTL-SDR boards at a reduced price of $20 USD. The SDRx is a RTL-SDR PCB with a built in L-band LNA and filter, but unlike the Dreamcatcher does not have built in computing hardware. They also have a limited $25 USD edition version of their active patch antenna which includes a built in RTL-SDR. This version is a bit more noisy compared to the standard active patch, but may be an interesting experimental antenna for some.

Current Outernet Products
Current Outernet Products

Skylark Image for Outernet’s Dreamcatcher RTL-SDR

About two weeks ago we posted our review of the Dreamcatcher, a new RTL-SDR and full ARM based computing platform built onto a single PCB. Back then the only OS available for it was a standard Armbian build, and no Outernet decoder was available. So we reviewed the Dreamcatcher with the Armbian OS and tested to see how well it worked as a general purpose RTL-SDR and computing platform.

Recently the Outernet team released a new build of ‘Skylark’ for their Dreamcatcher board. Skylark is their customized Outernet signal specific operating system that was available on the C.H.I.P. Skylark is essentially turnkey as it is much easier to setup and use. Just burn the image to an SDcard, insert the card, connect to the automatically generated Outernet WiFi hotspot on a PC or mobile device, and then browse to outernet.is to see the Skylark interface.

Unfortunately it is unclear how long some of the high bandwidth features such as the nice weather app may last. The Outernet Inmarsat L-band signal runs at a bandwidth of almost 20mB a day and appears to cost quite a bit of money to operate, so Outernet appear to be considering moving to a lower bandwidth signal in the near future. This will probably reduce content to data like text articles (news/APRS/Wikipedia/books) only. But even if it is text only it will still continue to be a very useful and interesting service.

Testing the Outernet Dreamcatcher: Linux Based ARM PC with Built in RTL-SDR

Last week we posted about Outernet’s new Dreamcatcher unit which is an RTL-SDR + L-band LNA + computing board all on the same PCB. The Dreamcatcher comes with a new active ceramic L-band patch antenna, costs $99 USD (plus shipping) and can be bought directly from their store. Outernet were kind enough to send us a review unit, and we’ve been testing it for the past few weeks. This post is a review of the unit.

Background

Outernet is a free data service that uses L-band satellites to beam down information like news, weather updates, Wikipedia articles, books and more.

In the past Outernet have used the $9 USD C.H.I.P computing board, an RTL-SDR dongle and an external LNA as the receiving hardware for their data service. However, popularity of the Outernet service has been severely hindered by the huge supply shortages of the C.H.I.P. Over the past year or so it has been almost impossible to get a hold of a C.H.I.P unit if you did not back the Kickstarter or buy one from Outernet’s first initial stock. By manufacturing their own PCB including the computing hardware, Outernet must be hoping to be able to control their stock situation, and not rely on third parties who may not be able to deliver.

At the moment the Dreamcatcher can only be run on their new Armbian image. The older Skylark image has been removed from their servers presumably because the Outernet signal is going to change in the near future and the old demodulator on Skylark may no longer work. The Armbian image is basically just standard Armbian and at the moment does not actually run any Outernet software, and cannot decode their signal, but this is being worked on. Eventually they hope to replace Skylark with a standard decoding app that runs on Armbian.

In this post we’ll review the Dreamcatcher with Armbian and consider it as a general purpose receiver (not just for Outernet), and we’ll also review the new active ceramic patch antenna as well.

Dreamcatcher Overview

The Dreamcatcher is a single PCB that combines an RTL-SDR, Linux (Armbian) based computing hardware, and an L-band LNA and filter. 

On first impressions we noticed that the PCB is relatively large square at about 12 cm by 12 cm. The most prominent chip is the Allwinner A13 SoC. The RTL-SDR circuitry is positioned in the upper right with the RF sections (R820T and LNA) both covered with RF shielding cans. There is no onboard WiFi circuitry, but a small ‘EDUP’ branded WiFi dongle is included and plugs into one of the USB ports on the PCB.

We measured the Dreamcatcher to be using about 400 mA – 600 mA while idle and 800 mA while utilizing the RTL-SDR and 100% CPU. Heat is not an issue as the Dreamcatcher stays relatively cool during its operation even at 100% CPU with the CPU only getting up to about 45 degrees C.

Continue reading

The Outernet Dreamcatcher: A Linux Based ARM PC with Built in RTL-SDR

Recently Outernet released their new ‘Dreamcatcher’ hardware which is an RTL-SDR + L-band LNA & filter + computing board all on the same PCB. The Dreamcatcher costs $99 USD and can be bought directly from their store. For your $99 you get the Dreamcatcher board, as well as a new ceramic L-band patch antenna which has a built in L-band LNA and filter. The built in LNA is useful as it allows you to use a few meters of extension cable in order to get the patch antenna in a good position outdoors.

At the moment the Dreamcatcher can be run with two different SD card images: the Skylark Outernet software, or Armbian (Linux). The Armbian image is basically just standard Armbian and at the moment does not actually run any Outernet software, and cannot decode their signal – but this is being worked on. Eventually they hope to depreciate the Skylark image and instead use an Outernet receiver app that runs on Armbian.

When running on the standard Armbian image, the Dreamcatcher can be used as a regular RTL-SDR connected to Linux, as there is a bypass port which bypasses the built in L-band LNA and filter. This port is enabled by default, but can be software switched to the L-band port if desired. There is also a 4.8V bias tee on the bypass port that can be turned on in software and used to power external devices via the coax cable. Currently there is no display support on the Dreamcatcher so the unit must be run headless, meaning that you must connect to it via UART or SSH from another PC.

The Outernet Dreamcatcher
The Outernet Dreamcatcher

The Dreamcatcher is advertised with the following specifications:

  • L-band SAW filter (1525 – 1559 MHz)
  • Two-stage L-band LNA with 34dB gain
  • 1 PPM TCXO
  • RF bypass for tuning from 24 – 1600 MHz – use as a regular RTL SDR!
  • Software switchable bias tee
  • 3 USB ports
  • GPIO forest
  • UARTs, I2C, SPI headers (unpopulated) for driving external hardware
  • Two microSD card holders – for boot and storage!
  • 1 GHz CPU
  • 512 MB RAM
  • USB wifi dongle (based on RTL8188CUS chipset) – AP mode capable!
  • Lots of LEDs!
  • Switches!
  • microUSB OTG
  • microUSB power port
  • Audio In/Out
  • Fully mainline (4.10) kernel and Uboot (2017.01) support!

Also as explained on the forums, Dreamcatcher uses an Allwinner A13 SoC, which has inside an ARM Cortex A8 @ 1 GHz CPU. They’ve also added 512MB of RAM. The PCB measures 12 cm x 12 cm.

Currently the Dreamcatcher is being advertised as beta hardware, as they give the following warning:

Although some assistance can be found on our forums, Outernet provides no direct support for this product. If you are not a tinkerer, hobbyist, or hardware hacker, you may be disappointed with your purchase.

The Dreamcatcher also comes with Outernet’s latest L-band patch antenna. The new patch antenna uses a ceramic patch and a 12 cm x 12 cm PCB ground plane. The antenna is ‘active’, as it has a built in L-band LNA and filtering. It is powered by the bias tee on the Dreamcatcher, and can also be powered by the bias tee on our V3 RTL-SDR’s. An active antenna is a good idea as this allows you to place the antenna outdoors (you’d need to waterproof this antenna in a plastic box though), and run a coax cable inside. The LNA should help overcome the coax cable loss which can be quite high at the L-band Outernet frequency of 1.5 GHz.

Outernet has provided us with a sample of this kit, and we plan to release a full review of the unit within the next few weeks.

Outernet active ceramic patch antenna (Front)
Outernet active ceramic patch antenna (Front)
Outernet active ceramic patch antenna (Rear)
Outernet active ceramic patch antenna (Rear)

A 3D Printed Case for the DIY Outernet Kit

Thanks to Manuel (aka Tysonpower) for writing in and sharing his 3D printed ‘Universal Outernet Case’. Outernet is a satellite file casting service that uses an RTL-SDR based solution for reception. With an Outernet set up you can receive things like daily news, weather updates, books, Wikipedia pages and more all for free. About 20 MB of data can be transmitted in one day.

The DIY Outernet kit consists of an RTL-SDR ‘SDRx’ board, patch antenna and C.H.I.P single board computer. The patch antenna needs to point roughly in the direction of the Inmarsat/Alphsat satellite in your area. This can be a problem because the Outernet patch antenna doesn’t come with a stand or mounting solution.

Manuel solved this problem with his 3D printed Outernet enclosure. The enclosure houses the patch antenna, SDRx and C.H.I.P, and also doubles as a stand for pointing the patch antenna. Inside he’s also fitted a small 30mm fan to keep everything cool while inside the enclosure as the C.H.I.P is known to have overheating problems.

The 3D printed Outernet  enclosure.
The 3D printed Outernet enclosure.

Over on YouTube Manuel has uploaded a video explaining how the enclosure is made with 3D printing, demonstrates the assembly steps and finally shows the final product. The video is narrated in German, but it has English subtitles available. The design files required for 3D printing the case are also available on thingiverse.

New Outernet Hardware “Dreamcatcher”: An RTL-SDR with Embedded Computing Hardware

Over on the Outernet forums Outernet CEO Syed has just released pictures of the latest upcoming Outernet receiver called “Dreamcatcher”. The new receiver is an RTL-SDR, LNA, filter, and embedded Linux capable computing hardware all on board a single PCB. The full specs are pasted below:

  • L-band SAW filter (1525 – 1559 MHz)
  • Two-stage L-band LNA with 34dB gain
  • 0.5 PPM TCXO
  • RF bypass for tuning from 24 – 1600 MHz – use as a regular RTL-SDR!
  • USB ports
  • GPIO forest
  • UARTs, I2C, SPI headers (unpopulated) for driving external hardware
  • Two microSD card holders – for boot and storage!
  • 1 GHz CPU
  • 256 MB RAM Now 512 MB RAM
  • USB wifi dongle (not shown) – STA+ AP mode capable!
  • Lots of LEDs! and Switches!
  • microUSB OTG
  • microUSB power port
  • Audio In/Out
  • Speaker with 1.4 W integrated audio amplifier
  • Fully mainline (4.10) Kernel and (2017.01) Uboot support!
    *** JST battery is being removed

On the Roadmap:

  • armbian/debian support

This is a fully-integrated SDR receiver – RF frontend, SDR, Compute, Wifi – Everything!

Outernet is an L-band satellite service that aims to be a download only “library in the sky”. Currently they are broadcasting from Inmarsat and Alphasat geostationary satellites which can be received from almost anywhere in the world. We have a tutorial on receiving and decoding their signal here. Every day almost 20 MB of data is sent down, and this includes data like news, weather forecasts, APRS, wikipedia articles, books and more. In the future you will be able to pay to upload private files or messages. This could be useful for sending messages to people isolated from cell phone reception, or for operating remote hardware.

Previously Outernet sold a DIY version of their receiver which included an RTL-SDR V3 or E4000 dongle, LNA+filter, a C.H.I.P embedded computer, and a patch antenna. Recently they have changed to their custom RTL-SDR hardware which is called the “SDRx”. The SDRx includes the RTL-SDR, LNA and filter on a single PCB. Over time it seems that they are moving in the direction of integration of all components onto a single PCB and this can be seen in the Dreamcatcher which now also includes the computing hardware. This is especially good news as the $9 C.H.I.P computing hardware has been almost impossible to acquire since its release.

The Dreamcatcher looks to be also not just useful for Outernet, but also for general projects that can be done on embedded hardware as there is a port which bypasses the L-Band filter.

Back in 2014 we posted about the XiOne. This was also to be an RTL-SDR and computing hardware built onto the same PCB. It would have been controlled via a WiFi connection and apps on a smart phone/tablet. Unfortunately the XiOne Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign never reached its target so the project faded away. The Dreamcatcher is somewhat similar in that both are RTL-SDRs with onboard computing hardware and WiFi connectivity.

The Dreamcatcher is not yet for sale, but it is currently under production. From the looks of the discussion on the forums, it looks like it will sell for $149 USD. Outernet have said that they are sending us a review sample, so keep an eye out for the review in the coming weeks.

The Outernet Dreamcatcher: RTL-SDR + LNA + Filter + Computing Hardware on a single PCB.
The Outernet Dreamcatcher: RTL-SDR + LNA + Filter + Computing Hardware on a single PCB.