Tagged: raspberry pi

CrowPi: Raspberry Pi Experimenters Kit Review (With RTL-SDR and RPiTX Tests)

CrowPi is a Raspberry Pi all-in-one experimenters kit that is currently crowd funding on Kickstarter. The idea behind CrowPi is to combine a touchscreen, various sensors, actuators and interfaces into a clutter free kit mounted on a PCB in an easy to carry hard shell case. It's mostly intended to be used in STEM learning environments, however it could also be used for rapid prototyping of Raspberry Pi based ideas, or simply as a portable computer. 

The CrowPi
The CrowPi

The kit has 4 days left on Kickstarter and has already met its minimum goal. Pledging $1,169 HKD (~USD $150) gets you the basic kit which does not include a Raspberry Pi. Higher pledge levels (up to US$250) get you models that include a Raspberry Pi as well as extras such as a 5V power supplies, earphones, heatsinks, keyboards, game controllers etc. Shipping of the units is expected to commence in July.

Elecrow, the Shenzhen based company behind CrowPi kindly sent us a free kit for an honest review. While not directly related to RTL-SDR or RF, we thought that there might be several applications that might make the CrowPi kit useful for prototyping some simple low cost RF based ideas. For example:

  • Prototyping IoT based modules that use the RTL-SDR as a receiver. For example receiving a 433 MHz ISM signal and writing received information to the LCD/LED array or activating the relay.
  • Similarly, using FL2K-SDR or RPiTX to transmit a signal when a sensor is activated, or to transmit telemetry from that sensor (e.g. distance data from the ultrasonic sensor, humidity levels from the DH11 sensor, or light levels from the light sensor)
  • Using an RTL-SDR to prototype an ADS-B plane camera tracker using the two servo module interfaces.

To get an idea of what's packed into the CrowPi, the kit includes the following modules:

  • Everything that came with our CrowPi Demo Kit (Except the Raspberry Pi)
    Everything that came with our CrowPi Demo Kit (Except the Raspberry Pi)
    1920 x 1080 Capable HDMI 7" Touch Screen
  • LCD Module
  • 8x8 Matrix LED
  • Breadboard
  • 4 character 7-seg LED
  • Vibration motor
  • Light Sensor
  • Buzzer
  • Sound Sensor
  • Motion Sensor
  • Ultrasonic Sensor
  • Servo Interface
  • Step Motor Interface
  • UART
  • Tilt Sensor
  • IR Sensor
  • Touch Sensor
  • DH11 Humidity Sensor
  • Relay
  • Matrix of buttons
  • RFID Module

With our kit we also received:

  • 2x GPIO Flex Cables
  • 1x Stepper Motor
  • 1x Servo
  • 1x Charger
  • 1x IR diode
  • 1x NFC Tag
  • 1x Mini HDMI for the Raspberry Pi Zero
  • 1x IR Remote control

Setup, Initial Testing and Thoughts

Setup: Setup was simple and consisted of downloading their customized Raspberry Pi image onto an SD card, connecting the Raspberry Pi to the HDMI, USB and GPIO pins, and then powering it up using the power jack on the CrowPi Board. A user manual is available for download.

Initial Testing: CrowPi provide a set of lessons that show how to use each of the modules on the board. All modules also have Python code examples that are ready to run as soon as you boot up. Immediately after booting up we were able to run their demo code which allowed us to test all the various sensors, print text to the LCD module, activate the 7-seg display, and actuate a servo and stepper motor. 

The tutorials are easy to understand and provide a good basic rundown of the sensors. You will need to have some basic Python skills to understand the Python code however.

Thoughts: The CrowPi is built sturdy, and is definitely easy to use. The touch screen is bright and clear. It is capable of running in 1080P mode, but is a bit too small and hard on the eyes to use at this resolution. We kept the screen in 720P mode. In order to use the Raspberry Pi, you'll need to plug in a USB keyboard and mouse which is not included in the basic kit. A wireless keyboard/mouse combo is ideal. There appear to be speaker holes next to the monitor, but it seems that our demo model is the basic model which does not include built in speakers. The kit is impressive looking and appears to be priced reasonably for what you get.

RTL-SDR and RF Testing

Unfortunately when it came to run the RTL-SDR we instantly ran into a problem. With the one 5V 3A power supply running the Pi, HDMI Screen and modules, it seems that there just isn't enough power budget left over to run the RTL-SDR which draws about 270 - 290 mA current. The RTL-SDR connects fine, but when trying to run GQRX, the Pi 3 shuts down. To get around this problem we have to connect a second power supply directly to the Raspberry Pi 3's input. After doing this the board and kit runs smoothly with the RTL-SDR. Using a powered USB hub would also work.

RPiTX is software for the Raspberry Pi that allows you to transmit RF signals directly via PIN12 or PIN7 from the GPIO ports. On CrowPi PIN12 is already connected to the buzzer, and PIN7 is connected to the humidity sensor. Using PIN12 causes the buzzer to sound, so we tried PIN7. Even though it's connected to the humidity sensor, it doesn't seem to mind the GPIO bit flipping going on. The traces within the board and cable radiate sufficiently to transmit signals strongly enough to use within a room, so no external antenna is needed. Use of PIN7 can be activated in RPiTX by using the "-c 1" flag.

Using our Replay Attacks with an RTL-SDR, Raspberry Pi and RPiTX tutorial, we copied  the signal from the remote control of a 433 MHz alarm/door bell, and used RPiTX to replay the signal. Then by modifying some of the supplied CrowPi Python code we were able to get the doorbell to sound on a touch of the touch sensor, activation of the sound sensor and via activation the RFID sensor. We could see the CrowPi being used as a general tool for learning how to prototype simple IoT or home automatic devices. The video below shows a brief demonstration. 

It would have been nice if these RPiTX GPIO pins could have been exposed, and not connected to a sensor, but the developers of the board had probably not heard of RPiTX as the goal is for a more general classroom application.

CrowPi Demo

Conclusion

If you're looking to get kids or STEM students/hobbyists interested in what Raspberry Pi's can do, then this kit couldn't make it simpler. The single board and briefcase design makes the whole thing very tidy and portable and the kit looks and feels sturdy and professional. If you know a kid interested in electronics, then this kit would make a great present.

You could probably purchase all the components cheaper individually, but at the end of the day an all-in-one kit just makes sense as it is a lot tidier, and much easier to get up and running quickly.

For RF experiments, it's possible to use the RTL-SDR with the minor annoyance of having to connect two power supplies or use a powered USB hub. RPiTX also functions fine on the device and can be used to transmit an RF signal on activation of any one of the sensor modules. This could easily be used to prototype simple home automation or IoT ideas.

Monitoring FT8, JT65, JT9 on Multiple Bands with Low Cost Single Board PCs

Thank you to Michael (dg0opk) who wrote in and wanted to share details of his full SDR monitoring system for weak signal HF modes. His setup consists of nine ARM mini PCs (such as Banana Pi's, Raspberry Pi's, and Odroid's), several SDRs including multiple RTL-SDR's, an Airspy Mini, FunCube Dongle and SDR-IQ, as well as some filters and a wideband amp. For software he uses Linrad or GQRX as the receiver, and WSJTx or JTDX as the decoding software, all running on Linux.

Michael also notes that his Bananapi FT8, JT65 and JT9 SDR monitor has been up and stably running continuously for half a year now. Bananapi's are lower cost alternatives to the well known Raspberry Pi single board computers, so it's good to note that a permanent weak signal monitoring system can be set up on a very low budget. Presumably even cheaper Orange Pi's would also work well.

With his setup he is able to continuously monitor FT8, JT65 and JT9 on multiple bands simultaneously without needing to tie up more expensive ham radios. His results can be seen on PSKReporter. A video of his RTL-SDR Raspberry Pi 3 decoding FT8, JT65 and JT9 can be found here.

Weak Signal Receiver Setup
dg0opk's weak signal receiver setup

Getting the V3 Bias Tee to Activate on PiAware ADS-B Images

A few owners of our RTL-SDR V3 and/or our Triple Filtered ADS-B LNA (or other bias tee powered LNAs) have been having trouble getting the V3 bias tee to activate on the FlightAware PiAware Raspberry Pi image. The core stumbling point is that the PiAware image activates the dump1090 ADS-B decoder immediately upon boot. To activate the bias tee, the bias tee software requires access to the dongle which it cannot get since dump1090 is blocking it. So to get around this the bias tee must be activated first before dump1090 runs.

PiAware is FlightAware's Raspberry Pi image which feeds their flightaware.com flight tracking service using RTL-SDR dongles. By using our Triple Filtered ADS-B LNA, users can expect increased range and decoded messages, especially when using long runs of coax cable, and/or in environments with strong interfering signals.

In the instructions below we'll explain how to set up a PiAware image that automatically enables the Bias Tee upon boot.

Downloading the V3 Bias Tee Software onto PiAware

First we assume that you're starting fresh from a new PiAware image, so we need to enable WiFi and SSH connections which is part of the standard set up for PiAware. See the following links for instructions.

Enable WiFi via config file https://flightaware.com/adsb/piaware/build

Enable SSH by adding ssh file to boot https://flightaware.com/adsb/piaware/build/optional#password

 
Now log in to your PiAware machine using SSH and PuTTY (or any other terminal software) using username "pi" and password "flightaware".

Run the following commands to update and install some dependencies. 

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install git cmake build-essential libusb-1.0-0-dev

 
Download and install the RTL-SDR V3 Bias Tee software.

cd ~
git clone https://github.com/rtlsdrblog/rtl_biast
cd rtl_biast
mkdir build
cd build
cmake ..
make

Testing the Bias Tee

Over on his blog Akos has created a short guide to activating the bias tee manually, by first stopping dump1090, activating the bias tee, then restarting dump1090. It's a simple one line copy and paste job.

So after installing the rtl_biast software above you can use the following line to test the bias tee. After running this line the FlightAware service should be up and running again, with the bias tee and LNA activated.

sudo service dump1090-fa stop && cd ~/rtl_biast/build/src && ./rtl_biast -b 1 && sudo service dump1090-fa start

Automatically Starting the Bias Tee on Boot

Ideally we don't want to have to reactivate the bias tee manually every time the Raspberry Pi reboots. To make it automatic use the following instructions:

First create a service directory and configuration file

sudo mkdir /etc/systemd/system/dump1090-fa.service.d
sudo nano /etc/systemd/system/dump1090-fa.service.d/bias-t.conf

 
Then paste in the following

[Service]
ExecStartPre=/home/pi/rtl_biast/build/src/rtl_biast -b 1

 
Finally press Ctrl+X then Y to close and save. Now whenever PiAware reboots the bias tee should be automatically activated as this service runs before dump1090 is activated.

Credits:

Thanks to the discussion on the FlightAware forums and in particular user 'obj' for originally finding this automatic solution.

OH2BNF’s Plan for a Large Scale Raspberry SDR (LSR-SDR) Based on RTL-SDR Dongles

Thanks to OH2BNF for writing in and sharing his plan to build a "Large Scale Raspberry SDR" (LSR-SDR), which will be based on RTL-SDR dongles. To create the LSR-SDR he plans to take a 19" rack which can support up to 40 Raspberry Pi 3's, plus up to 160 USB devices, and turn it into a massive SDR array. The rack is key as it allows for simple power management of all the Pi's and other devices to be connected.

OH2BNF plans to connect 20 or so RTL-SDRs, with some operating individually and with others operating coherently via a common external oscillator. The rack may also contain some transceivers, an ICOM IC-7300, antenna switches, upconverters, LNAs and other hardware too. Once completed he hopes to move the system to a low RFI environment and operate the unit entirely remotely. With this he hopes to solve his local RFI issues. He also writes regarding applications:

Primary objectives are to incorporate automated adaptivity to the system at large – for example leveraging on band condition information, WSPR (Weak Signal Propagation Report) & friends, automated signal detection and decoding, great flexibility in terms of individual cluster nodes being able to fast respond to various needs and tasks, strong emphasis in parallel processing where applicable depending on the problem type and dataset, support for multiple end users benefiting from the computing and reception capacity of the cluster – to name the most significant.

It's an interesting idea for sure, and we hope to see some updates from OH2BNF in the future.

The Raspberry Pi 19" Rack
The Raspberry Pi 19" Rack

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.

Automatically Receiving, Decoding and Tweeting NOAA Weather Satellite Images with a Raspberry Pi and RTL-SDR

Over on Reddit we've seen an interesting post by "mrthenarwhal" who describes to us his NOAA weather satellite receiving system that automatically uploads decoded images to a Twitter account. The set up consists of a Raspberry Pi with RTL-SDR dongle, a 137 MHz tuned QFH antenna and some scripts.

The software is based on the set up from this excellent tutorial, which creates scripts and a crontab entry that automatically activates whenever a NOAA weather satellite passes overhead. Once running, the script activates the RTL-SDR and APT decoder which creates the weather satellite image. He then uses some of his owns scripts in Twython which automatically posts the images to a Twitter account. His Twython scripts as well as a readme file that shows how to use them can be found in his Google Drive.

mrthenarwhal AKA @BarronWeather's twitter feed with automatically uploaded NOAA weather satellite images.
mrthenarwhal AKA @BarronWeather's twitter feed with automatically uploaded NOAA weather satellite images.

Going Portable with the Airspy HF+, Raspberry Pi and 7-Inch Touch LCD

Over on the swling blog we've seen a post where contributor 'Tudor' demonstrates his Airspy HF+ running nicely on a Raspberry Pi 3, 7-inch touchscreen LCD, and USB power bank. The video shows GQRX running very smoothly on the Pi, and how the setup is able to receive various HF signals. Tudor writes:

I bought the RPi to use it as a Spyserver for my Airspy HF+ SDR.

My main radio listening location is a small house located on a hill outside the city and there is no power grid there (it’s a radio heaven!), so everything has to run on batteries and consume as little power as possible.

My first tests showed that the Raspberry Pi works very well as a Spyserver: the CPU usage stays below 40% and the power consumption is low enough to allow it to run for several hours on a regular USB power bank. If I add a 4G internet connection there I could leave the Spyserver running and connect to it remotely from home.

Then I wondered if the Raspberry Pi would be powerful enough to run a SDR client app. All I needed was a portable screen so I bought the official 7” touchscreen for the RPi.

I installed Gqrx, which offers support for the Airspy HF+. I’m happy to say it works better than I expected, even though Gqrx wasn’t designed to work on such a small screen. The CPU usage is higher than in Spyserver mode (70-80%) but the performance is good. Using a 13000 mAh power bank I get about 3.5 hours of radio listening.

On the swling blog post comments Tudor explains some of his challenges including finding a battery that could supply enough current, finding a low voltage drop micro-USB cable, and reducing the noise emanating from the Raspberry USB bus. Check out the post comments for his full notes. 

Airspy HF+ and Gqrx running on Raspberry Pi

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+