Category: Applications

Decoding NavTex with an SDRplay RSPDx, SDRUno and YanD

Over on YouTube TechMinds has uploaded a new video explaining NavTex and showing how to decode it with an HF capable SDR like the SDRplay RSPDx. NavTex is a marine digital data radio service designed for transmitting information like navigational and meteorological warnings, weather forecasts and maritime safety information. It is broadcast in either the MW frequency band at 490 kHz and 518 kHz or in the HF band at 4209.5 kHz.

In the video TechMinds uses a guide put out by Mike Ladd from SDRplay (pdf warning). The guide explains how to connect SDRuno to a NavTex decoder called YanD via a virtual audio cable. The rest of the video shows a NavTex message being decoded, some sample messages, and a closer look at YanD. 

Even if you don't use an SDRplay, the guide could be adapted for other SDRs too.

Decoding NavTex with Software Defined Radio - SDRuno RSPdx

A Hydrogen Line Telescope Made from Cereal Boxes and an RTL-SDR

SpaceAustralia.com have recently been hosting a community science project that involves encouraging teams to build backyard radio telescopes that can detect the arms of our Milky Way Galaxy by receiving the Hydrogen line frequency of 1420 MHz.

This can be achieved at home by building a horn antenna out of cardboard and aluminum foil, and a feed from a tin can. Then the Hydrogen line and galactic plane can be detected by using an RTL-SDR, LNA, and software capable of averaging an FFT spectrum over a long period of time.

While most horn antennas are typically made from four walls, one participant, Vanessa Chapman, has shown that even trash can be used to observe the galaxy. Vanessa's horn antenna is made from multiple cereal boxes lined with aluminum foil and an old tin fuel can. The boxes are held together by some string and propped up by some sticks.

With her cereal box horn antenna combined with an RTL-SDR Blog V3, and an RTL-SDR Blog Wideband LNA, Vanessa was able to use software to average the spectrum over time as the galactic plane passed overhead, revealing the Hydrogen line peak and corresponding doppler shift from the galactic plane.

Vanessa's Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope made from Cereal Boxes
Vanessa's Hydrogen Line Radio Telescope made from Cereal Boxes

If you don't know what the Hydrogen line is, we'll explain it here. Hydrogen atoms randomly emit photons at a wavelength of 21cm (1420.4058 MHz). Normally a single hydrogen atom will only very rarely emit a photon, but space and the galaxy is filled with many hydrogen atoms so the average effect is an observable RF power spike at 1420.4058 MHz. By pointing a radio telescope at the night sky and integrating/averaging the RF power over time, a power spike indicating the hydrogen line can be observed in a frequency spectrum plot. This can be used for some interesting experiments, for example you could measure the size and shape of our galaxy. Thicker areas of the galaxy will have more hydrogen and thus a larger spike, whereas the spike will be significantly smaller when not pointing within the galactic plane. You can also measure the rotational speed of our galaxy by noting the frequency doppler shift.

KerberosSDR 4-Channel RTL-SDR Passive Radar with Peak Hold Display

Recently we've been testing a simple peak hold for the KerberosSDR passive radar display. This results in some nice graphs that show aircraft and vehicle activity over time. 

Passive radar works by using already existing transmitters such as those for HDTV and listening for reflections that bounce off of RF reflective objects. With a two antenna setup, it is possible to generate a bistatic range/doppler speed graph of reflected objects.

With the reference Yagi antenna pointed towards a 600 MHz DVB-T tower, and the surveillance antenna pointed to an airport we were able to obtain the graph below. The top two large traces show aircraft heading towards our station, whereas the bottom traces show aircraft leaving the airport. Also visible are multiple blips with smaller doppler speeds, and these correspond to vehicles.

KerberosSDR Passive Radar Display Peak Hold
KerberosSDR Passive Radar Display Peak Hold

The code on the KerberosSDR git will be updated in a few days time. We are also working on a more comprehensive passive radar tutorial that will try to explain concepts like processing gain, bistatic ranges and other important tips for getting good passive radar results. At the same time we're also working on improving direction finding ease of use by prototyping antenna switches for calibration, and working on getting 4-channel beamformed passive radar working which will allow us to plot passive radar returns on a real map.

The KerberosSDR is our 4-channel phase coherent capable RTL-SDR unit that we previously crowdfunded back in 2018.  With a 4-channel phase coherent RTL-SDR interesting applications like radio direction finding, passive radar and beam forming become possible. It can also be used as 4 separate RTL-SDRs for multichannel monitoring. KerberosSDR is currently available from the Othernet store and Hacker Warehouse for US$149.95.

CyberRadio: A Minimal GPU Accelerated Radio App for Most SDRs

Programmer Luigi F. Cruz has recently released a new SDR app called "CyberRadio". CyberRadio is a minimal SDR app, which allows you to listen to FM and AM radio. It does not have any spectrum analyzer or waterfall display. As it is based on SoapySDR, it supports almost every SDR including the RTL-SDR, and runs on Linux, maxOS Sierra, Windows 10 and ARM SoCs.

Luigi also notes that he has made use of cuSignal and Numba functions which enable GPU acceleration on CUDA compatible graphics cards.

The app is still in pre-release status, so no binaries are available. However, Luigi has provided installation instructions for Linux on the GitHub.

CyberRadio Screenshot
CyberRadio Screenshot

Remote Spectrum Monitoring with OpenWebRX, RTL-SDR and the Balena Cloud Service

Thanks to Alan Boris of Balena.io for submitting their new blog post titled "Running OpenWebRX on balena to remotely monitor local radio spectrum". Balena.io is an IoT cloud service that is used for "building, deploying, and managing fleets of connected Linux devices".

In the blog post, they show how it's possible to use a RTL-SDR and Raspberry Pi running OpenWebRX to remotely monitor the radio spectrum over the internet. This of course has been done many times before, however, the novel thing here is the use of the Balena cloud platform which makes installing and managing the Raspberry Pi running OpenWebRX much easier.

Balena has a has a special balenaOS image that is first burned on the Raspberry Pi's SD card. The OS image is pre-generated with your home WiFi details, so upon boot it automatically connects to the internet and can be accessed on the balenaCloud dashboard. At that point you can easily remotely push the pre-made Balena "sdr-spectrum-monitor" docker image to the Pi from the Balena online dashboard. This docker image has OpenWebRX and the RTL-SDR drivers already installed on it. It's then a simple matter of connecting to OpenWebRX via the local IP address as you would normally.

This is quite a nice system as it avoids needing to perform the "fiddly" steps of setting up WiFi, connecting to the Pi, determining the Pi's IP address, and installing the RTL-SDR drivers and OpenWebRX software manually.

Balena also has a very simple way to make the OpenWebRX server accessible from outside your network. The only steps required are to set a port variable in the Balena cloud dashboard, and enable the "public device URL" option. No need to fiddle around with unblocking ports or dynamic DNS services.

Balena.io appears to be free for personal use, allowing you to add and manage up to 10 devices before needing to pay.

RTL-SDR & OpenWebRX Installed and Managed via Balena Cloud.
RTL-SDR & OpenWebRX Installed and Managed via Balena Cloud.

DSDPlusUI: A Graphical User Interface for DSD+

Over on Twitter Annunaki (@StupotSinders) has been teasing some screenshots of a GUI for DSD+ that he's been developing over the past few weeks. And now he has released the software which is called "DSDPlusUI". DSD+ is mostly command line based, so a GUI could be useful for newbies. The software can be downloaded from the DSDPlusUI groups.io page.

DSD+ (aka Digital Speech Decoder) is a free closed source program that is compatible with RTL-SDR and various other SDRs which is used to decoder digital speech protocols such as P25 P1, DMR, NXDN and more. DSD+ Fastlane is a paid upgrade which allows subscribers to receive the latest updates to the software early. 

DSD+ GUI by Annunaki
DSD+ GUI by Annunaki

Receiving and Decoding NFC with an RTL-SDR and GNURadio

Having been inspired by an NFC activated coffee machine at his work, back in 2017 Jean Christophe Rona uploaded a blog post showing how he used an RTL-SDR and GNU Radio to sniff and decode NFC (Near-Field Communication) tags. His post first goes into detail showing how NFC works and goes on to create a GNU Radio flow graph with custom GNU Radio block for decoding the NFC Miller code. The final result was him being able to demodulate the coffee machine to tag communication. We note that in Jeans experiments he used a standard RTL-SDR dongle with the HF driver hack in order to receive the NFC frequency of 13.56 MHz, but these days it should also be possible to simply use direct sampling on an RTL-SDR Blog V3 unit.

More recently Martin Schaumburg (5ch4um1 on YouTube), wrote in and wanted to share his video showing his replication of Jean's experiments. Martin's video shows him using a simple coiled up wire antenna on his RTL-SDR to receive NFC communication from an NFC reader to NFC tag, and he shares a few tips on getting the software to work.

RTLSDR NFC decoding reader to tag communication with a rtl-sdr and gnuradio.

Update 13 January 2020: Martin has added a second video with some additional information and tests.

RTLSDR decoding NFC, or: how to get two signals for the price of one.

Tracking down a Water Leak with RTLAMR

Earlier in the year Clayton discovered that his water bill had suddenly gone up one month. Suspecting a leaky appliance he set out to discover what it was by using an RTL-SDR and the rtlamr decoder. The rtlamr decoder is able to decode water meters that transmit usage data wirelessly via the Itron ERT protocol which is typically found in the unlicensed 900 - 920 MHz band in the USA and Canada.

Clayton wrote a simple Python script to plot the usage data extracted by rtlamr, and after a week determined that water was being consumed at 10 liters an hour even while away from home. Suspecting a leak in the toilets he turned off their valves and the next day saw that the reading remained constant when away, indicating that he'd found the leak.

A water leak graphed by decoding an Itron ERT water meter with RTL-SDR
A water leak graphed by decoding an Itron ERT water meter with RTL-SDR