Tagged: outernet

Outernet 3.0: Implementation Details and a 71,572km LoRa World Record

Outernet Dreamcatcher Board running with an LNB
Outernet Dreamcatcher Board running with a cheap satellite TV LNB

Outernet 3.0 is gearing up for launch soon, and just today they've released a blog post introducing us to the RF protocol technology behind the new service. If you weren't already aware, Outernet is a free satellite based information service that aims to be a sort of 'library in the sky'. Their aim to to have satellites constantly broadcasting down weather, news, books, radio, web pages, and files to everyone in the world. As it's satellite based this is censorship resistant, and useful for remote/marine areas without or with slow/capped internet access.

Originally a few years ago they started with a 12 GHz DVB-S satellites service that gave 1GB of content a day, but that service required a large dish antenna which severely hampered user adoption. Their second attempt was with an L-band service that only needed a small patch antenna. This service used RTL-SDR dongles as the receiver, so it was very cheap to set up. Unfortunately the L-band service had a very slow data rates (less than 20MB of content a day), and leasing an L-band transmitter on a satellite proved to be far too expensive for Outernet to continue with. Both these services have now been discontinued.

Outernet 3.0 aims to fix their previous issues, giving us a service that provides over 300MB of data a day, with a relatively cheap US$99 receiver that is small and easy to set up. The new receiver uses a standard Ku-Band LNB as the antenna, which is very cheaply available as they are often used for satellite TV reception. The receiver itself is a custom PCB containing a hardware (non-SDR based) receiver with a LoRa decoder.

LoRa is an RF protocol that is most often associated with small Internet of Things (IoT) devices, but Outernet have chosen it as their satellite protocol for Outernet 3.0 because it is very tolerant to interference. In Outernet 3.0 the LNB is pointed directly at the satellite without any directive satellite dish, meaning that interference from other satellites can be a problem. But LoRa solves that by being tolerant to interference. From the uplink facility to the satellite and back to their base in Chicago the LoRa signal travels 71,572 km, making it the longest LoRa signal ever transmitted.

According to notes in their forums Outernet 3.0 is going to be first available only in North America. Europe should follow shortly after, and then eventually other regions too. When ready, their 'Dreamcatcher 3.0' receiver and computing hardware is expected to be released for US$99 on their store. You can sign up for their email list on that page to be notified upon release.

Also as a bonus, for those interested in just LoRa, the Dreamcatcher 3.0 is also going to be able to transmit LoRa at frequencies anywhere between 1 MHz to 6 GHz, making it great for setting up long range LoRa links. This might be an interesting idea for hams to play with.

The Outernet 3.0 'Dreamcatcher' Receiver.
The Outernet 3.0 'Dreamcatcher' Receiver.

Outernet 3.0 Coming Soon: Free 30kbps – 100kbps satellite data downlink for news, weather, audio etc

The new Outernet Dreamcatcher v3.01
The new Outernet Dreamcatcher v3.01

Over the past few years we've posted quite a bit about Outernet who offered a free downlink of satellite data such as news, Wikipedia articles and weather updates that was able to be received with a small L-band patch antenna, LNA and an RTL-SDR dongle.

Recently we've seen news on their forums that Outernet is planning on discontinuing their L-band service, and instead opening up a new much more efficient Ku-band service. Unfortunately that means that RTL-SDRs and the previous Outernet L-band hardware will no longer be useful for the downlink, but the new service appears to offer several significant advantages.

Firstly the downlink data rate is much higher at 30kbps, with the plan to eventually go up to 100kpbs. That's 300MB - 1 GB a day which is a lot more compared to the previous L-band implementation that gave less than 20MB a day.

Secondly the hardware seems to be simplified as well. All that is needed is their new Dreamcatcher V3 receiver board and a small Ku-band LNB (11.7-12.75 GHz). They claim that no dish is required as the LNB pointed at the satellite by itself will work just fine. The first iteration of Outernet also used Ku-band satellites, but required a large dish antenna to receive it which was a major hurdle to user adoption. They now appear to have discovered a new way to broadcast in the Ku-band without the need for a dish.

Thirdly, moving to Ku-band means significant cost savings for Outernet allowing them to survive and continue with their free data service. From what we understand the L-Band satellite downlink service is extremely costly to run, whereas a Ku-band service is much cheaper. There are also cost savings for the user as Ku-band LNBs are very common hardware that can be found cheaply for $10 - $20 US.

About the new services that they can offer and the cost savings that they can achieve Syed the CEO of Outernet writes:

The fatter pipe [300MB - 1GB] makes a lot of things possible, one of which is a true radio broadcast. How about a national radio broadcast that isn't SiriusXM? Our new receiver will include a speaker; audio through the speaker while files download in the background. But more data is not the most important thing that comes out of all this. The real win is that leasing standard, commodity Ku bandwidth is far, far more cost effective than the few kilohertz we have on L-band. Long-term sustainability of a free broadcast is no longer the financial burden that it once was--especially considering how much more interesting the service becomes.

There is no concrete hardware release date just yet, but on the forums Syed estimates mid-Jan. You can sign up to the Outernet mailing list on their buy-now page to be emailed when the new hardware is released. In the forums Syed also writes that the target price for the hardware is $99 US, with the intention to provide lower cost options in the future. Of course it might still be possible to DIY your own unit just like it was with the previous Outernet iterations.

We're really looking forward to this and think that this is what will finally make Outernet a very popular and useful service!

The Outernet 3.0 prototype setup
The Outernet 3.0 prototype setup

Outernet Dreamcatcher Setup with ADS-B dump1090 and PiAware Tutorial

The Outernet Dreamcatcher is a single board PC with a built in RTL-SDR. It has a TCXO and two SMA ports, one being amplified and filtered for L-band applications and the other being a regular port for all other applications.

With built in computing hardware the Dreamcatcher can be used as a standalone unit for various applications. As the Dreamcatcher is now on sale we've decided to create a brief tutorial that shows how to set one up as a cheap ADS-B aircraft radar receiver, and also how to set it up as a PiAware feeder. PiAware is software that allows you to feed FlightAware.com which is an ADS-B aggregatpr.

Any simple SMA antenna can be used, like our Dipole kit, an old RTL-SDR whip antenna, or even a short piece of wire.

We also have a previous review of the Dreamcatcher available here. In the past the main problem with the $59 USD Dreamcatcher was that you could get a more powerful Raspberry Pi 3 and RTL-SDR dongle for a similar price. But now at the sale price of $39 USD the Dreamcatcher is definitely a great deal.

Note that we'd recommend NOT purchasing the Dreamcatcher specifically for the Outernet data signal as we're unsure exactly how long that signal will continue to be broadcasting for. 

The Outernet Dreamcatcher
The Outernet Dreamcatcher

What follows below is a tutorial that shows how to set up a Dreamcatcher. The tutorial installs dump1090 at the same time, but afterwards could be used for a number of other applications.

Continue reading

Testing the Prototype Outernet Patch Antenna with Built in RTL-SDR

A few months ago satellite data broadcasting company Outernet created a limited number of prototype receivers that combined an L-band satellite patch antenna, LNA and RTL-SDR into a signal unit. This was never produced in bulk as they found it to be too noisy having the RTL-SDR so close to the antenna, but nevertheless it still worked fairly well.

Over on YouTube max30max31 bought one of these prototype units and made a video about using it for receiving and decoding various L-band satellite signals. In the video he first shows an overview of the product and then shows it receiving and/or decoding some signals like Inmarsat STD-C, AERO and Inmarsat MFSK.

Outernet SDRx Clearance Sale $15: RTL-SDR with built in L-band LNA and Filter

Recently the Outernet project transitioned from using RTL-SDR dongles and C.H.I.P single board computers to using their Dreamcatcher board, which is an RTL-SDR and computing board all in one. In between the transition they also produced a number of ‘SDRx’ dongles. These were custom RTL-SDR dongles with a built in L-band LNA and filter. As they no longer need the SDRx they have them on clearance at their store.

The clearance price is $15 USD which is an excellent deal. Remember though, that the SDRx is limited in frequency range – it is designed for receiving L-band satellites between 1525 – 1559 MHz and the filter will cut off all other frequencies.

The Outernet SDRx on Clearance
The Outernet SDRx on Clearance

Just add a simple L-band tuned antenna to the port and you should be able to receive Inmarsat and a signal like STD-C, AERO or the Outernet signal. A suitable antenna might be a homebrew patch, helix, cooking pot antenna or even a small tuned V-dipole antenna can work for the stronger AERO signals.

We also see that the price of their L-band Outernet active ceramic patch antenna has been dropped down slightly to $25 USD. This antenna is bias tee powered and can be used with a V3 dongle or their Dreamcatcher hardware. The Dreamcatcher itself is also now reduced in price to $59 USD.

We have a review of the Dreamcatcher and active ceramic patch antenna available here.

Outernet Dreamcatcher and L-Band Active Ceramic Patch
Outernet Dreamcatcher and L-Band Active Ceramic Patch

We also now list Outernet products in our store. These are commission sales so we receive a little bit per purchase which supports the blog, and the items are shipped by Outernet within the USA.

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

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