Category: News

Testing the Airspy with the New And Improved Version of ADSBSpy

Airspy have recently released an update to their ADSBspy decoder, which is an Airspy One/R2 compatible decoder for 1090 MHZ ADS-B signals. According to 'prog', the software developer of ADSBSpy, his setup can see almost double the number of aircraft and with fewer false positives when using the updated software. Prog writes that the secret to the improvement is some reworked DSP code that aims to exploit oversampling in the Airspy to the maximum.

We compared the new (1.0.0.38/39) decoder against the old decoder (1.0.0.37) which used to get similar performance to dump1090. The test setup was two Airspy dongles connected to a dipole antenna via a splitter, with our Triple Filtered ADS-B LNA used by the antenna. One Airspy was used to power the LNA via it's bias tee, and both units received the same amplified signal. We found indeed that the new version of ADSBSpy receives a good number more aircraft in our set up, and an increased number of ADS-B messages too.

It seems that most of the additionally received aircraft must be from extremely weak signals, because when looking in Virtual Radar Server the extra aircraft usually only show their ICAO and maybe altitude and speed until they get closer.

So far this software appears to provide the best performance on ADS-B that we've seen so far, so if you are using an Airspy for ADS-B tracking we'd like to hear results from anyone who upgrades.

The New ADS-B Spy Receives More Aircraft and Messages
The New ADS-B Spy Receives More Aircraft and Messages

Nexmon SDR: Using the WiFi Chip on a Raspberry Pi 3B+ as a TX Capable SDR

Back in March of this year we posted about Nexmon SDR which is code that you can use to turn a Broadcom BCM4339 802.11ac WiFi chip into a TX capable SDR that is capable of transmitting any arbitrary signal from IQ data within the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi bands. In commercial devices the BCM4339 was most commonly found in the Nexus 5 smartphone.

Recently Nexmon have tweeted that their code now supports the BCM43455c0 which is the WiFi chip used in the recently released Raspberry Pi 3B+. They write that the previous Raspberry Pi 3B (non-plus) cannot be used with Nexmon as it only has 802.11n, but since the 3B+ has 802.11ac Nexmon is compatible. 

Combined with RPiTX which is a Raspberry Pi tool for transmitting arbitrary RF signals using a GPIO pin between 5 kHz to 1500 MHz, the Raspberry Pi 3B+ may end up becoming a versatile low cost TX SDR just on it's own.

moRFeus: A Low Cost Wideband Signal Generator and Frequency Mixer

During development of the Outernet project the engineering team developed several tools to help them in their RF testing. One tool that they created has now been developed further into a commercial product that they are calling 'moRFeus'. moRFeus is a small handheld RF signal generator and frequency mixer. It can be used to generate an RF tone at any frequency between 85 MHz - 6 GHz and to upconvert or downconvert signals via the mixer with an input/output frequency range between 30 MHz - 6 GHz. This type of tool is useful for people working with RF hardware as it can be used for testing and prototyping.

morRFeus is currently selling for US$149 over on CrowdSupply, and the units are ready to ship out soon. They note that the current price is a special, and that it may be increased in the future. We think that this is a fairly good deal considering that similar products can cost much more. If you are interested in the technical details the datasheet includes figures on phase noise and conversion losses. There is also a user guide that explains how the buttons work, and what each screen on the menu is for.  The morRFeus press release reads:

Outernet launches sales for wideband frequency converter and signal generator with complete field-level configuration.

Today, Outernet announced the launch of moRFeus - a wideband (30MHz - 6GHz) frequency converter and signal generator with complete field-level configurability. The product is available on Crowd Supply for $149. The price will increase after the 30-day launch campaign.

The device has an LCD display and button interface for complete field-level configuration - from setting the LO frequency to toggling between mixer and generator mode, and more. It’s in a precision-milled all-aluminum enclosure for durability and aesthetics.

moRFeus was built for hams and hackers, people with a traditional amateur radio background, as well as a makers and researchers that are interested in RF experimentation. It was designed for easy integration into a wide variety of RF projects.

In mixer mode, moRFeus enables dynamic frequency up- and down-conversion. In generator mode, it is one of the most, if not the most, affordable tools to generate a stable +/-2.5 ppm CW signal. Additional information on features, specifications, and performance metrics can be found in the datasheet.

The team already has 100 units in stock and another 900 are going through final assembly and quality assurance in Chicago. The first 100 units will ship one week after launch and orders beyond the initial stock will ship within 30 days of the close of the campaign, or earlier.

Outernet has been working on novel RF projects since the founding of the company in 2014. moRFeus was developed because from an internal need for a wideband field-configurable frequency converter for testing purposes. The company identified a huge gap in the market for a solution that met the needs of others with similar problems add their own. Outernet’s founder describes the development process:

“The idea was hatched about a year ago because we needed an easy, quick way to dynamically up-and down-convert the various radios we were experimenting with for a new product. By the summer of 2017, we had our first prototype and functional firmware. The design still required some slight tweaking. The current version of moRFeus is its third iteration. Oddly enough, the last phase of the project, industrial design, ended up being the most time-consuming. We worked with a local designer/machinist with decades of experience to come up with a custom-made all-aluminum enclosure.”

For more information and to purchase moRFeus, visit Crowd Supply.

Furthermore the product features, description, and also some of the applications and use cases for moRFeus are quoted below:

Features

  • RF Input Frequency: 30MHz–6GHz
  • RF Output Frequency: 30MHz–6GHz
  • LO Frequency: 85MHz–5400MHz
  • Fractional-N Synthesizer
  • LO Step Size: 1.5–3Hz1
  • 2.5 ppm precision TCXO
  • USB programmable
  • Generator/Mixer Function Toggle
  • Input IP3 +23dBm
  • Small, Portable Form Factor
  • Adjustable Mixer Bias Current
  • LCD Display With Backlight Feature
  • Button Control Interface
  • Dimensions: 88mm x 38mm x 68mm
  • Weight: 7.4 oz

Product Description

moRFeus is a 30MHz–6GHz programmable Fractional-N wideband frequency converter and generator designed for low spurious emissions and dynamic configuring of the LO frequency. moRFeus is designed for easy integration into popular RF environments using SMA connectors and is powered using an external micro-USB 5V supply. The LCD display and button interface provide a dynamic way to program the mixer LO frequency in the field with a step size of 1.5–3Hz.1 The device is USB programmable, enabling automatic operation from a PC (must be running Linux). Dynamic toggling between mixer and generator modes adds to field-level functionality. An optional bias voltage of 5V is available via RF choke to the mixer input to supply active antenna systems.

Applications

  • Wideband Radios
  • Distributed Antenna Systems
  • Diversity Receivers
  • Software Defined Radios
  • Frequency Band Shifters
  • Point-to-Point Radios
  • WiMax/LTE Infrastructure
  • Satellite Communications
  • Wideband Jammers
  • Remote Radio Heads
  • Frequency Up/Down Conversion
  • Automated Test Equipment (ATE)
  • Wireless Communication Systems
moRFeus Block Diagram
moRFeus Block Diagram

Review and Testing

The Outernet team sent us a moRFeus unit for testing a few days ago. It comes in a portable 3.5 x 2.7 x 1.5 inch (8.9 x 6.9 x 3.8 cm) conductive milled aluminum enclosure and weighs 7.4 ounces (210 grams). The construction is very solid, and should easily survive being thrown around in a carry bag, although we'd still advise caution as the LCD screen is not protected by a window.

The unit is powered via a standard micro USB port. After connecting a USB cable the unit immediately powers up shows a frequency selection screen on the LCD display. Five small buttons are used to control the interface, and we found it very easy to adjust the output frequency using these buttons.

Using the interface the unit can be switched between the "Generator" and "Mixer" modes. In the generator mode moRFeus simply generates a CW tone at the desired frequency. In the mixer mode moRFeus takes an input signal, mixes it with the generated tone and puts the result on the out port. Mixing a signal with a tone is the core concept behind devices like upconverters, downconverters and tuners. For example, by generating a mixing tone at 2 GHz with the moRFeus, we are able to view 2.4 GHz WiFi signals at 2.4 GHz - 2 GHz = 400 MHz.

In the screenshot below we set moRFeus to run in mixer mode with the LO frequency set at 2 GHz. This allows us to view an active WiFi signal at 2.475 GHz using an Airspy and the SpectrumSpy software. The Airspy can only tune up to 1.8 GHz by itself, so it can't view the WiFi band directly. Of course to use as a proper downconverter filtering is required to remove any images and interfering signals, but by being able to easily change the LO frequency you are able to move the signals around quite easily to avoid images or interference.

Unfortunately one limitation is that moRFeus' lowest input frequency is 30 MHz, so it can't be used to upconvert HF signals.

Viewing a 2.4 GHz WiFi signal on an Airspy by using moRFeus as a downconverter.
Viewing a 2.4 GHz WiFi signal on an Airspy by using moRFeus as a downconverter with LO set to 2 GHz.

moRFeus also works well as a standard RF signal generator, and we were able to get a clean CW tone on any frequency between 85 MHz - 6 GHz.

moRFeus as a RF signal generator
moRFeus as a RF signal generator

moRFeus also shows up a a device on the PC, and the team write that it is possible to control it programatically via Linux, however documentation for this does not exist yet although it is scheduled to be released later. We would love to see a sweep feature which should be possible with PC control.

In conclusion if you are looking for a low cost signal generator or mixer to use in your experimental RF projects, then moRFeus certainly does seem like a good deal. A tool like this is very handy to have in your RF kit.

Uniden Announce the SDS100: A Software Defined Handheld Scanner

The Uniden SDS100 Handheld SDR Based Scanner
The Uniden SDS100 Handheld SDR Based Scanner

Radio manufacturer Uniden have just released news about their latest product called the SDS100 which is a handheld software defined radio scanner specifically for digital voice and trunking modes. The scanner will retail for USD699, and aims to be released in the 2nd quarter of 2018 pending FCC approval. Note that certain software decoders will require paid upgrades, but it will be capable of all the major digital voice modes such as P25 Phase I and II, DMR, NXDN and trunking modes. It doesn't seem to support TETRA since it's marketed at the American consumer, however, it seems plausible that simple software update could enable this feature in the future.

As far as we know this is the first handheld scanner to incorporate SDR and is probably one of the bigger leaps in scanner technology to date. Compared to hardware based scanners, the SDS100 should provide significantly better decoding capabilities, even in weak signal and simulcast conditions. Simulcast is when multiple overlapping base stations transmit a signal at the same frequency. This can cause multi-path distortion problems, but an IQ based radio like an SDR is able to overcome these issues.

Uniden creates another first with the SDS100 True I/Q Scanner, the first scanner to incorporate Software Defined Radio technology to provide incredible digital performance in even the most challenging RF environments. The SDS100’s digital performance is better than any other scanner in both simulcast and weak-signal environments.

The SDS100 is also the first scanner that allows you to decide what to display, where, and in what color. Custom fields put the information important to you right where you need it.

And, one more first, the SDS100 meets JIS4 (IPX4) standards for water resistance.

For more information you can check out this discussion thread on Radio Reference. In the future there should also be some videos of it in action available on the Uniden YouTube channel. The owners manual is also available here and all their promo material including many more demonstration videos can be found on their Google Drive.


Raspberry Pi 3 B+ Released: Faster CPU, Faster Networking and Power over Ethernet

RTL-SDR dongles and other SDRs are often used on single board computers. These small credit sized computers are powerful enough to run multiple dongles, and run various decoding programs. Currently, the most popular of these small computers is the Raspberry Pi 3.

Just recently the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ was released at the usual US$35 price. It is an iterative upgrade over the now older Raspberry Pi 3 B. The 3B+ has an improved thermal design for the CPU, which allows the frequency to be boosted by 200 MHz. WiFi and Ethernet connectivity has also been improved, both sporting up to 3x faster upload and download speeds.

The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ Power over Ethernet Hat
The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ Power over Ethernet Hat

The 3B+ also implements new Ethernet headers which allows for a cleaner Power over Ethernet (PoE) implementation via a hat. Previous PoE hats required that you connect the Ethernet ports together, whereas the new design does not. PoE allows you to power the Raspberry Pi over an Ethernet cable. The official PoE hat is not released yet, but they expect it to be out soon.

The faster processing speed should allow more processing intensive graphical apps like GQRX to run smoother, whilst the improved WiFi connectivity speeds should improve performance with bandwidth hungry applications like running a remote rtl_tcp server. PoE is also a welcome improvement as it allows you to easily power a remote Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR combination that is placed in a difficult to access area, such as in an attic close to an antenna. Placing the Pi and RTL-SDR near to the antenna eliminates the need for long runs of lossy coax cable. If the Pi runs rtl_tcp, SpyServer or a similar server, then the RTL-SDR can then be accessed by a networked connected PC anywhere in your house, or even remotely over the internet from anywhere in the world. 

The Raspberry Pi 3 B+
The Raspberry Pi 3 B+

New Apple iOS (iPhone/iPad) RTL-SDR rtl_tcp Client App in Beta Testing

Over on our forums poster hotpaw2 has released news about his new RTL-SDR app for iOS (iPhones/iPads). If we're not mistaken, this will be the first app that enables RTL-SDR usage on iOS. However, as iOS devices don't allow RTL-SDRs (or any arbitrary USB device) to connect directly to devices, you still need to use a Raspberry Pi or other network connected computing device as an rtl_tcp server. So the RTL-SDR does not plug directly into the iOS device. Currently he is looking for beta testers to help test a pre-release of the software. Hotpaw2 writes:

Hi. A first version of my iOS SDR app is nearing completion. So I'm interested finding a few users who would like to beta test a pre-release of the app, and provide some feedback. The beta test requirements are having a 64-bit iOS device (iPhone or iPad) running iOS 11.2.x or newer, having Apple's TestFlight app installed, having a Mac, PC, Raspberry Pi (or other Linux box) that already has rtl_tcp installed and ready to run. (And an RTL-SDR obviously.) The rtl_tcp server must be on a fast WiFi network reachable by your iOS device. Note that iOS TestFlight app distributions do have an expiration date.

iOS does not recognize arbitrary USB devices such as an RTL-SDR. This is even true when using Apple's Lightning Camera Connection kit to provide an iPhone with a wired USB port. So an adapter must be used. I use a headless Raspberry Pi 3 running rtl_tcp as the USB adapter to provide raw IQ samples from the RTL-SDR to the iOS app. A Raspberry Pi Zero W would also work. I then connect to the server either over WiFi, or via wired ethernet. 

This iOS SDR app is fairly simple. I've been experimenting with developing low-level DSP code in Swift. So this SDR app was written from scratch in the Swift programming language. Because the app is targeted for the iOS App store, it uses none of the existing SDR C++ code base. 

The app currently demodulates AM, N-FM, and mono W-FM. It also displays a spectrum and rudimentary waterfall, and allows one to swipe-to-tune. There are not a lot of controls, as screen real-estate on an iPhone is quite limited. But I can walk around the house and, from my iPhone, monitor if my RTL-SDR or AirSpy HF+ are picking up any interesting signals.

Contact info for beta testing can be found here: http://www.hotpaw.com/rhn/hotpaw/ 

Source code to librtlsdr and rtl_tcp can be found in many repositories on github, but zero support for finding or installing such, and/or setting up your Raspberry Pi, will be provided by me.

Screenshot of the RTL-SDR iOS app
Screenshot of the RTL-SDR iOS app

 

R820T2 Chip Discontinued: Low Cost R820T2 RTL-SDRs will Continue, Airspy Will Redesign

The R820T2 is the main tuner chip used in most RTL-SDR dongles. Several months ago Rafael Micro ceased regular production of their R820T2 chip, and the older R820T has also been discontinued for some time too.

However, Rafael are still producing new quality R820T2 chips for factories if they make very large bulk orders. Since it is one Chinese manufacturer producing all of RTL-SDR.com V3, NooElec, FlightAware and most generically branded dongles, the volume restriction is not a problem for them as long as the RTL-SDR is still in demand. So most dongles using R820T2 RTL-SDRs should be able to continue business as usual for the forseeable future. But we have also recently seen that a lot of generically branded RTL-SDR dongles presumably produced at other factories have started to ship with the less desirable FC0012/13 tuner chips instead.

The R820T chip is already 8 years old, and the R820T2 has been around for the last two years. The R820T2 was a slight improvement on the R820T, due to a higher quality manufacturing process used to produce it. The change in manufacturing process resulted in mostly higher yields, less chip-to-chip variance, better sensitivity, reduced L-band heat VCO lock issues, and wider filters. 

Recently the Youssef from the Airspy team announced the likely early retirement of their Airspy One and R2 line of products. These are SDRs that used the R820T2 tuner chip combined with a 12-bit ADC, allowing for significantly better performance compared to an RTL-SDR. It seems that they were able to acquire R820T2 chips from a distributor, but the stock proved to be very low yield. Possibly once discontinued a lot of low quality chips were dumped onto the distributors for final sale. They write:

I have some bad news. Rafael Micro officially discontinued the R820T2 since a few months. This is the tuner we use in the Airspy R2 and Airspy Mini.

We tried to secure an extra batch from Rafael (even at a higher price) but the quality of the silicon of the samples we received wasn't very good and most units didn't pass our automated QA tests. Sacrificing the performance is out of question. The alternatives proposed by Rafael are not pin compatible and require both a significant hardware redesign and new tuner control code - and this is a large investment with very little guarantees on the final result.

I can say this has been one of the longest running designs that resisted the new silicon tuner SDR's popping in and out while setting a standard for performance and price.

For now, our distributors are running out of R2/Mini's very quickly and, until a final solution is found or a new replacement is designed, there won't be any new batches out.

Youssef from Airspy also notes that he's beginning work on designing a new unit:

I was checking my notes for alternatives to the current Airspy R2/Mini design and wondered if consulting the community would give some constructive input. As the market is already crowded with low cost receivers and transceivers, but yet Icom manages to sell a 4 figures SDR, I was thinking of making something that is as open as possible for extensions and work good enough for the most demanding operators and pro's, all while being affordable.

The idea is to replace the R820T2 tuner with one of its latest high performance siblings, then replace the old LPC4370 with the brand new i.MX RT1020. This MCU can be interfaced with a good ADC and has enough processing power for oversampling and decimation through the Cortex M7 core, which will bring the final resolution higher.
The general goals:

  • Better RX performance than the general purpose low cost silicon transceivers
  • 12 bit RX at 10MHz bw and up to 16bit at narrow band
  • Coverage from 30 MHz to 1.8 GHz or more
  • Switched pre-selectors
  • Open source
  • Same form factor as the Airspy HF+ (same box actually)
  • Leverage the RF manufacturing and testing capability developed at Itead Studio
  • Affordable

So in conclusion there is no need to panic buy R820T2 RTL-SDRs as production will continue as per normal for the forseeable future as the RTL-SDR demand is high enough for factories to make large bulk orders of new R820T2 chips. Even if the R820T2 is fully discontinued, there are alternative tuners with the same performance that we can switch to after a minor redesign.

Note that we're currently out of stock of RTL-SDR V3's on Amazon and low in stock on our store but this is not related to R820T2, but rather simply shipping delays. We should be fully back in stock within a few weeks.

The R820T2 on an RTL-SDR
The R820T2 on a RTL-SDR V3

SDR# Tuner Knob, Night Mode and FFT Grabber Plugins have a new home

Recently we've posted about Eddie MacDonald's several releases of new plugins for the popular SDR# software. Recently he's released a tuner knob plugin which provides a visual frequency tuning knob that is useful for those running on touchscreen hardware, a 'dark mode' plugin which reduces the brightness of SDR# and compresses the UI a little, and an FFT grabber plugin which allows for easy screenshots of the FFT and waterfall spectrum's to be taken.

Eddie notes that all his plugins now have an actual home website at https://sdrplugins.com. This is where he will release updates and new plugins from now on.

If you are interested in discovering more SDR# plugins, we have a large list available here.

Tuner Knob Plugin for SDR#
Tuner Knob Plugin for SDR#