Easy-SDR: Open Source Designs for SDR Accessories

Back in 2018 we posted about Igor Yatsevich's Easy-SDR project which consisted of open source designs for a Mini-Whip antenna and upconverter. Igor has now added several new open source designs to the project including a bias tee, LNA, LNA with filtering, attenuator and SPDT antenna switch. On his Reddit post he notes:

The most interesting thing I've added so far:

  1. Most of the devices are now prepared for installation in a metal case measuring 80 x 50 x 20 millimeters.
  2. Completely redesigned LNA design. Now, Bias Tee powered amplifiers are housed in a 50 x 25 x 25mm metal case and have N-type connectors.
  3. Added an amplifier based on the PGA-103 microcircuit.
  4. Added the ability to install filters in final amplifiers (a separate printed circuit board, depending on the filter used).
  5. Added a new device - SPDT antenna switch for receiving antennas.
  6. The UP converter has been redesigned. Added intermediate buffer stage between crystal generator and mixer.
  7. RF lines in all devices were recalculated to correspond to the characteristic wave impedance of 50 Ohm.
  8. Reduced size of PI attenuator PCB.

In this project, I focused on the simplicity of self-assembly devices, which you can make at home. In the repository, you can find detailed assembly instructions, a list of necessary components for assembly, and GERBER files.

SPDT Antenna Switch from the Open Source Easy-SDR Project

Dictator Alert Fundraising

In the past we've posted about the Dictator Alert project a few times, as it makes use of ADS-B data contributed to ADS-B Exchange via volunteers who typically run an RTL-SDR as part of their ADS-B reception hardware. The project aims to track the movements of Dictators around the world via their use of private jets that can be tracked via ADS-B logging.

Over on Reddit the leader of the project Emmanuel has posted asking for donations. If you think this is a worthy project, please consider donating.

I'm raising some funds for our www.dictatoralert.org project which tracks aircrafts used by dictatorships all over the world (using SDR!). You can see all of the tracking for free on the website and several twitter bots (LondonParisGenevaEuroAirport).

The hosting costs me around $80 per month, which probably isn't a lot, unless you're a freelance journalist. I also hope to raise a bit more to make the project grow further with investigations (like this one on surveillance planes in Somalia or another on rich Frenchmen who used their jet to avoid COVID restrictions on travel.

You can give one-off donations or sign up to the Patreon, then I'll set you up with email alerts for your "favorite" dictators, airports, or any plane you like.

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/dictatoralert

One-off donations: https://dictatoralert.org/donation/

Please don't hesitate to ask questions and let me know what you think!

Dictator Alert. A Twitter bot reporting on dictator movements via ADS-B data. dictatoralert.org
Dictator Alert. A Twitter bot reporting on dictator movements via ADS-B data. dictatoralert.org

Notes on Observing Pulsars with an SDR from CCERA

A pulsar is a rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation. If this beam points towards the earth, it can then be observed with a large dish or directional antenna and a software defined radio. In the past we've posted a few times about Pulsars, and how the HawkRAO amateur radio telescope run by Steve Olney in Australia has observed Pulsar "Glitches" with his RTL-SDR based radio telescope.

Over in Canada, Marcus Leech has also set up a Pulsar radio telescope at the Canadian Centre for Experimental Radio Astronomy (CCERA). Marcus has been featured several times on this blog for his various amateur radio experiments involving SDRs like the RTL-SDR. In one of his latest memos Marcus documents his Pulsar observing capabilities at CCERA (pdf). His memo describes what Pulsars are and how observations are performed, explaining important concepts for observation like de-dispersion and epoch folding.

The rest of the memo shows the antenna dish and feed, the SDR hardware which is a USRP B210 SDR, the reference clock which is a laboratory 0.01PPB rubidium atomic clock and the GNU Radio software created called "stupid_simple_pulsar". The software DSP process is then explained in greater detail. If you're thinking about getting involved in more advanced amateur radio astronomy this document is a good starting point.

Dish Antenna + Feed used for receiving Pulsars

PySDR: A (Free) Guide to SDR and DSP using Python

Dr. Marc Lichtman has recently released his free online PySDR guide to Digital Signal Processing (DSP) explained with the help of software defined radio and Python code. Over the years we've seen numerous SDR & DSP courses come out, some requiring payment and some free. We note that this guide is completely free, and appears to be one of the better if not the best guide in terms of explaining DSP fundamental concepts in an easy to understand way. A lot of visualizations and animations are used which really help anyone new to the subject.

While the explanations are very good, please note that this is still a technical University level guide intended for Computer Science or Engineering students, so prerequisite knowledge is required. Dr. Marc recommends it for someone who is:

  1. Interested in using SDRs to do cool stuff
  2. Good with Python
  3. Relatively new to DSP, wireless communications, and SDR
  4. A visual learner, preferring animations over equations
  5. Better at understanding equations after learning the concepts
  6. Looking for concise explanations, not a 1000 page textbook

The SDR hardware used in the book examples is the PlutoSDR which is a fairly low cost SDR intended for use by students. However, the PlutoSDR isn't required as most of the code examples use generated data.

Converting an Old Cable Modem into an SDR

Over on his github blog, user stdw has uploaded a comprehensive post explaining how he investigated and turned an old Motorola MB7220 cable modem that was sitting in his closet into a fully functional software defined radio.

To begin the investigation stdw first opened the case and looked for a serial UART port. After finding one he connected the UART up to a Raspberry Pi and was almost immediately able to connect to the device's terminal. From the information displayed during the boot process, stdw was able to determine that the modem was running the eCos operating system on a Broadcom BCM3383 SoC. Unfortunately after receiving that information the UART connection is dropped, preventing any further terminal investigation.

To get around this issue, stdw decided to dump the flash memory via an SPI memory chip he saw on the board. Again using the Raspberry Pi he was able to connect via SPI and use the flashrom tool to read the memory. Next using a tool called bcm2-utils, stdw was able to parse and actually modify the configuration information stored in the flash memory. With this he was able to modify the configuration so that the serial connection did not drop after boot. 

With terminal access gained, stdw was now able to reverse engineer the firmware, and after a lot of searching eventually find a console command which would perform a bandpower measurement for a given frequency range. He found that IQ data for this scan was stored in a buffer which he could then stream out via a TCP connection. With the IQ data finally available on another PC he was then able to use Python libraries to compute an FFT and actually visualize the scanned spectrum. Some further investigation yielded actually demodulated FM audio, and the realization that the usable bandwidth is 7.5 MHz.

Unfortunately there were some limitations. There is only enough RAM to store less than a second of data at a time at max bandwidth and precision, which meant that a lot of data needed to be dropped in between captures. Further investigation yielded methods to reduce the sample rate down to 464 kHz which meant that only 12% of data was ever dropped - enough to stream a wideband FM radio signal.

If you wanted to try investigating the modem yourself, the Motorola MB7220 is available second hand on eBay for prices ranging between US$15 - US$40, and new on Amazon for $46.99. Although the usability of the modem for any real SDR applications may not be great, further investigation may yield better results. And if not, following along with the process stdw took looks to be a great reverse engineering learning experience. Other modems that use similar Broadcom chips may also be worth investigating.

The Motorola MB7220 connected to a Raspberry Pi for reverse engineering

Sanchez Scripting Examples For Post-Processing GOES, GK2A, Himawari, Elektro Satellite Images

Recently we posted about new updates to the Sanchez software. The updates allow users to combine images received from multiple geostationary weather satellites such as GOES 16/17, Himawari-8, GK-2A and Electro. The images can also be reprojected into a flat equirectangular image, and then optionally reprojected back into a disk view at any location on earth. Sanchez's original function is also still there which allows users to add a false color underlay image to grayscale infrared images received from the satellites.

Sanchez is a command line tool, so scripts are required to do anything interesting. Over on his page Carl Reinemann has uploaded a page with a number of Sanchez command line examples available. The page shows examples like how to stitch together multiple images, and how to create a stitched time lapse animation. The YouTube video below shows an example of an animation Carl created with Sanchez and GOES 16 and 17 images stitched together.

GOES 16-17 Composite imagery

And the image below is an example of an image of Himawari 8, GOES 16 and 17 he stitched together with Sanchez.

GOES 16 and 17 composite created by Carl Reinemann via Sanchez

Tech Minds: Portable RTL-SDR on Android

Over on his YouTube channel Tech Minds has recently released a new video demonstrating how to use an RTL-SDR portably via an Android tablet and an OTG cable. In the video he goes through the various Android software options available including general receiver software such as RF Analyzer (free) and SDR Touch (£5.99) as well as AVARE ADSB for ADS-B aircraft reception. He goes on to demonstrate each program in action.

Portable RTL - SDR Software Defined Radio with Android

Testing VOR Navigation in the Stratosphere with an SDRplay RSP1 and High Altitude Balloon

Over on the SDRplay blog Jon has posted about the STRATONAV experiment which makes use of the SDRplay RSP1 software defined radio. The STRATONAV experiment uses high altitude balloons to carry the RSP1 as well and a commercial portable receiver. The two receivers were configured to receive aircraft VOR navigation signals in order to test the effectiveness of VOR when used at extreme altitudes of up to 28 km. The VOR navigational data was then compared against GPS tracks, resulting in a measure of how well VOR worked at those altitudes. 

VOR (aka VHF Omnidirectional Range) is a navigational beacon that is transmitted between 108 MHz and 117.95 MHz from a site usually at an airport. In the past we have posted about VOR a few times as it can also be decoded with an RTL-SDR, or used for passive doppler aircraft radar. 

The results showed that VOR navigation does indeed continue to function at extreme altitudes, proving that it can be used as a back up navigation system for stratospheric platforms. They also note that VOR navigation could also be used as a primary navigation system on smaller stratospheric platforms due to its low cost and low complexity to implement.

The full academic paper is available on sciencedirect, or for free via Sci-Hub.

SDRplay RSP1 (seen bottom right behind the metal mount) Flying on a High Altitude Balloon