Category: Other

Using a Cheap USB to Serial Port Adapter as a Transmitting SDR

A while ago we posted about Osmo-FL2K which is a Steve M Osmocom project that allows you to use a cheap $10 USB to VGA adapter as an HF - 1.7 GHz transmitting SDR. Now another similar project by Ted Yapo has been released which allows the use of a low cost FT232RL based USB to Serial Port adapter as a transmit capable SDR. It appears that the FT232RL via harmonics is able to transmit up to at least 27 MHz, and possibly higher.

A USB To Serial Port adapter being used as a transmitting SDR
A USB To Serial Port adapter being used as a transmitting SDR

The basic implementation is similar to the idea used by RPiTX - that is to modulate the square wave output of a TX pin to generate an arbitrary signal at a desired frequency. Of course this results in numerous harmonics which must be heavily filtered if ever actually transmitting with some power or high gain antenna.

In his hackaday.io project log, Ted shows that he's been able to transmit AM audio at 1 MHz, and has also been able to control an RC toy at 27 MHz. For the RC toy controller he's also created a simple BPF in order to reduce the harmonics. In addition to the FT232RL chip, he's also tried other serial chips like the CP2102N but found that the signal produced was not as clean.

More information about the hack can be found on his project log, and on a recent Hackaday post.

Serial Port SDR: 27 MHz RC Truck

Othernet Sale: $75 Dreamcatcher LoRa Radio, $99 moRFeus Signal Generator

Othernet (previously known as Outernet) are currently having a 50% off sale on all their products. This means that you can snag a discounted Dreamcatcher at only US$75, and a moRFeus at US$99. The sale expires midnight on the 26th.

The sale is exclusive to RTL-SDR Blog readers (although feel free to share the coupon) and the coupon code to use at checkout is rtlsdrblog83759

Dreamcatcher and Othernet Data Signal Information

If you weren't already aware, the Othernet project aims to bring live data such as news, weather, video, books, Wikipedia articles and audio broadcasts to the world via a free satellite service and cheap receivers. Although an internet connection provides the same data, Othernet's satellite broadcast is receivable in remote areas, will continue working in disasters, and costs nothing to continually receive roughly 200MB of data a day. The trade off is that the service is downlink only, so the data that you get is only what is curated by the Othernet team.

Othernet can provide this service for free because they are funded by private customers whom they provide private data/audio satellite channels to. One such private customer is attempting to implement an Othernet based Tsunami early warning system in Vanuatu which would work even when the cell phone system fails in a disaster. Each siren is equipped with an Othernet receiver and LNB that receives the Othernet signal. The goal is to allow for any village to be able to set up their own low cost warning system. At the same time the Othernet Tsunami warning receiver is made use of in normal circumstances as it receives a satellite radio broadcast which is then re-transmitted to the village over regular FM radio.

Currently the public service is in a test period and is only available in North America, but public service for the EU and possibly Oceania is planned to begin in Q1 2019. The rest of the world should eventually follow after. Some more information about the data service can be found on our previous post.

Alternatively, if you have no interest in the data service then your Dreamcatcher could also be used as a TX/RX capable LoRa radio. In a previous post we had some fun with two Dreamcatchers and a LoRa chat application.

Outernet Dreamcatcher - Precursor to the Lantern
Othernet Dreamcatcher

moRFeus Information

The moRFeus is a low cost signal generator. It's capable of generating a tone anywhere from 85 MHz to 5400 MHz, and it can also be used as a frequency mixer component for implementing things like homebrew upconverters and downconverters.

In the past we've seen it be used as a tracking generator for measuring filters and VSWR, and users from the Othernet community have implemented custom GUIs to control it. Recently @sam210723 released a new very slick looking GUI too.

moRFeus Signal Generator
moRFeus Signal Generator

Video Tutorial: Installing GNU-Radio on Windows 10

Over on YouTube user Petr Horký has uploaded a helpful tutorial video showing how to install GNU Radio on Windows 10. Petr goes through the steps from installing Python, pip and other dependencies like numpy and pyqt, to installing GNU Radio itself and then ensuring that the system PATH is set correctly.

GNU Radio is a block based programming language for building digital signal processing applications (e.g. demodulators/decoders). It is very useful for experimenting with more advanced SDR concepts, and there are also many RTL-SDR compatible applications built with GNU Radio as well. GNU Radio is typically run on Linux, but can also run on Windows now too, although perhaps not every program will be compatible.

How to install GNU Radio Companion on Windows 10 (pip, environment variables)

A Multi-Feature Raspberry Pi Radio with RTL-SDR, Internet Radio, Google Assistant and Alexa

Recently JJ wrote in and wanted to share his multi-feature living room radio that he's created with a Raspberry Pi, RTL-SDR, and various software packages installed on the Pi. Previously we posted about his cute LegoPi radio, and this living room radio is an iteration on that.

The radio is able to tune into live broadcast FM via an RTL-SDR and the NGSoftFM software, and also can be remotely access with SpyServer. It can also tune into internet radio, or play MP3 files. He's also installed Google Assistant and Alexa onto the Pi, so it can work as a digital assistant too. The features and software he uses are noted below:

FM / DAB+ / Internet radio with random mode / MP3 player / Google assistant / Amazon Alexa / SPYserver (SDRsharp), all controlled with a USB keypad or a Bluetooth remote control.

OS
I used RASPBIAN STRETCH LITE (https://www.raspberrypi.org/downloads/raspbian/)
Small, efficient and very stable (NO GUI). Radio boots in 15 seconds (Raspberry Pi 3 Model B).

FM
NGSoftFM (https://github.com/f4exb/ngsoftfm)
Works well but needs a clean / strong signal.

DAB+
dab-cmdline (https://github.com/JvanKatwijk/dab-cmdline)
Works well but needs a clean / strong signal. I used example-2.

Internet radio
VLC (https://www.videolan.org/vlc/index.html)
The random internet radio part is a lot of fun to use. You can do random by genre or just random everything. Reminds me when turning the MW dial at night when I was a kid and not knowing what was coming next!
It is just a python script that fetch the icecast directory then populate a small SQL database on the pi. I used this (https://github.com/ksc91u/icecast_play) as a starting point.

MP3 player
VLC. I used a 16GB SD card on the pi (good compromise between speed of boot versus capacity). The whole system takes a little bit less than 5GB, which means I have 10GB+ for MP3 files.

Google assistant
Fun and addictive, I used an old webcam that was gathering dust as a USB microphone. Pick-up range is pretty good, 4-5 meters in a quiet room. I followed these instructions:
https://developers.google.com/assistant/sdk/guides/library/python/

Amazon Alexa
My favorite! Fun and addictive, I followed these instructions:
https://developer.amazon.com/docs/alexa-voice-service/set-up-raspberry-pi.html

SPYserver
More a gadget than a serious tool because I'm using a wire for antenna (on the last radio) but has proven to be usefull to help position the wire for optimum FM / DAB+ reception by looking at the spectrum and play with the dongle gain in SDRsharp (https://airspy.com/spy-servers/).

Bluetooth remote control
I used a PlayStation 3 (PS3) bluetooth remote since the pi 3 has bluetooth built-in.
Easily available in used video game stores and very cheap, the remote works very well but it took me a while to get it going. This page helped:
https://www.mythtv.org/wiki/Sony_PS3_BD_Remote

Last but not least, the radio is a complete Linux environment so I can connect to it from my Win10 box via SSH (https://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~sgtatham/putty/latest.html) and play with all the RTL-SDR goodies, even GNU Radio :-) providing you install a desktop environment (for ex. PIXEL) on top of Raspbian Stretch Lite.

JJ has also uploaded a video here.

JJ's Radio is Packaged in a Plastic Toolbox
JJ's Radio is Packaged in a Plastic Toolbox
All the pieces
All the pieces

Tracking People Through Walls with WiFi Passive Radar

For a while now researchers at MIT and several other universities have been investigating methods for using frequencies in the WiFi bands to see through walls using a form of low power radar. The basic concept is to track and process the reflections of these signals from peoples bodies.

Recently researchers at MIT have taken this idea a step further, combining the radar results with machine learning in a project they call RF-Pose. The result is the ability to recreate and track full human post information through walls. The abstract from their paper reads:

This paper demonstrates accurate human pose estimation through walls and occlusions. We leverage the fact that wireless signals in the WiFi frequencies traverse walls and reflect off the human body. We introduce a deep neural network approach that parses such radio signals to estimate 2D poses. Since humans cannot annotate radio signals, we use state-of-the-art vision model to provide cross-modal supervision.

Specifically, during training the system uses synchronized wireless and visual inputs, extracts pose information from the visual stream, and uses it to guide the training process. Once trained, the network uses only the wireless signal for pose estimation. We show that, when tested on visible scenes, the radio-based system is almost as accurate as the vision-based system used to train it. Yet, unlike vision-based pose estimation, the radio-based system can estimate 2D poses through walls despite never trained on such scenarios.

The hope is that this technology could one day be used as a replacement for camera based computer vision. It would be a non-intrusive method for applications like gaming, monitoring the elderly for falls, motion capture during film making without the need for suits and of course for gathering data on peoples movements.

It is not mentioned in the paper, but it is likely that they are using some sort of SDR like a USRP for receiving the signals. It's possible that a lower resolution system could be set up cheaply with a HackRF and some passive radar software.

RF Pose Estimating Human Pose Behind walls using RF signals in the WiFi frequencies.
RF Pose Estimating Human Pose Behind walls using RF signals in the WiFi frequencies.
Multiple people tracked with RF-Pose
Multiple people tracked with RF-Pose

AI Senses People Through Walls

YouTube Talk: Evaluating 9 of the Best Single Board Computers for Ham Radio SDR Systems

Over on YouTube the Ham Radio 2.0 channel has recently uploaded a talk that Scotty Cowling (WA2DFI) did at the 2018 TAPR digital communications conference. His talk centers around single board computers and his findings on the nine best single board computers (SBC) for ham radio SDR setups.

Scotty's talk begins by discussing why you'd want to use SBCs in your ham radio SDR setup, and explains why you might want to place them with the SDR close to the antenna, and then distribute the data over ethernet cable. He then reviews 9 boards listed below: 

  • Hardkernel Odroid C1
  • Raspberry Pi 3B
  • Hardkernel Odroid XU4
  • ASUS Tinker S
  • FriendlyElec NanoPC-T4
  • Pine64 RockPro64
  • 96 Boards Mediatek X20
  • 96 Boards HiKey 960
  • UDOO X86 Ultra

The boards are compared against CPU clock speeds, architecture, cache, debut year, RAM, boot ROM, bus speeds, OS support, and more. Scotty also discusses the need for low latency operation, but is yet to compare this on the boards. The best value for money boards that Scotty recommends end up being the Odroid XU4, Tinkerboard, NanoPC-T4 and the RockPro64.

Ham Radio 2.0: Episode 151 - Evaluating 9 of the Best Single Board Computers for Modern SDR Systems

Listening to the Sound of Molecules via Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and an RTL-SDR

Over on YouTube user aonomus has uploaded a video showing how he's used an RTL-SDR to observe and listen to the radio signal generated via a chemistry lab's nuclear magnetic resonance machine. To do this he simply taps the RF output of the NMR machine which allows the RTL-SDR to listen to the signal and play it as audio. In the video he shows the sound of a sample of chloroform in acetone-d6. The demo has no real scientific purpose other than to hear the sound of the molecule. Normally the RF output goes straight into a spectrum analyzer for visual analysis.

Nuclear magnetic resonance is a technique used in chemistry for the analysis of chemicals, as well as in MRI medical imaging machines. Very basically, it works by applying a chemical sample to a strong magnetic field, exciting it with a strong pulse of RF, and listening to the echo. An echo will only occur when the radio waves are transmitted at the chemicals resonant frequency. The frequencies used are typically between 60 to 800 MHz.

A few years ago I came up with a demonstration for some high school students interested in chemistry. This demo is a modern take on a classic NMR experiment, using a low cost software defined radio to observe the FID signal as audio. In short, this demo allows you to hear the proton FID echo from the liquid sample inside the NMR magnet.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Demonstration Using Software Defined Radio

Othernet (formerly Outernet) Updates Lantern Backers

Othernet (formerly known as Outernet) are a providers of a free data service broadcast from satellites. They hope to build a system and low cost satellite receiver products where people can easily stream free daily data such as news, videos, books, and live audio down to a computer or phone from anywhere in the world via a device called a Lantern. It is a one way download only service, but may be useful for those in areas with limited internet, disaster preppers, or people in countries with internet censorship. The describe their mission as:

Othernet's mission is to build a universal information service; a truly pervasive multi-media service that operates in the most remote places and functions even when nothing else does.

In the past they ran a trial service on L-band satellite frequencies and used RTL-SDR dongles as the receiver. They have since discontinued that service in favor of a new Ku-band LoRa based service which can provide much more data - up to 200MB a day. The update released today was sent to Lantern backers, which was the receiver they crowdfunded for in their Kickstarter back in 2014. The update notes that the final iteration of the Lantern is close to being ready.

Broadcasting Khan Academy 24/7

Hello Backers,

Yes, we are still here. It’s been a long while since the last update, but that does not mean we have stopped–or even slowed–working on Lantern. We have been making progress, though it has been much, much slower than what everyone wants. Fortunately, we are in the final stage of development.

The last update described the new network technology we had developed. Our original goal was to broadcast 20 MB of content per day, which is what we were doing with our previous network. The new system is operating at 10-times that speed, which is a little over 20kbps and 200 MB of content per day. Some of the work we’ve been doing over the past few months is related to tripling our current download speeds. Our target is 60kbps, which results in over 600 MB per day. The size of the device will be similar to a standard flashlight.

At our current download speed of 20kbps, we are broadcasting both data and a 24/7 audio stream. I know many of you were interested in the educational applications that were highlighted during the campaign, which is why I’m very pleased to share that we are currently broadcasting the entirety of Khan Academy as a 24/7 audio stream. The Khan Academy library consists of over 900 separate lectures, which we’ve turned into a giant audio playlist. Now we just need to get Lanterns into everyone’s hands.

The next update will include a picture of our final antenna design. The antenna that is currently included in our DIY kit is 2-inches/5-cm across and the shape of a cone. We are trying to flatten the cone and also increase the size to about 4-inches/10-cm, which is what allows for greater download speeds. Since we are operating at microwave frequencies (12 GHz), both the design of the antenna and the parts to convert the high frequency to a lower one are pretty tricky. Microwave engineering is widely considered black magic, which is the main reason for the long break since the last update. We are close to turning the corner and are targeting the end of the year for our initial production run.

Unrelated to our technical work is our recent name change. We had been fighting a trademark issue for the past four years. We recently decided that it made more financial sense to change our name, rather than continue spending legal fees to defend our position. We are now Othernet (http://othernet.is). This name change does not mean we are going away, nor does it mean we are not delivering Lanterns. It’s just a legal hiccup.

Thanks for your patience and support while we get through the final stage of building what you all backed several years ago. I know it’s been a long time and we are making every possible effort to deliver something that exceeds everyone’s original expectations. Although it’s taking three times longer to develop and ship the product, what we now have will be ten-times more useful.

Outernet Dreamcatcher - Precursor to the Lantern
Outernet Dreamcatcher - Precursor to the Lantern