Over on our forums one user luc4sss has been discussing a method for using RTL-SDR's and perhaps other SDR dongles remotely which does not rely on rtl_tcp, SpyServer or other SDR specific server software. Using an SDR remotely is advantageous because it can allow you to position the SDR closer to the antenna, which results in less signal loss from long runs of lossy coax cable.
Instead of rtl_tcp, luc4sss uses a program called VirtualHere, which is a server that can work with any USB device. It essentially allows you to use USB devices over a network with the remote device acting as if it was plugged directly into your remotely operated PC. The server can run on single board Linux computers like the Raspberry Pi and luc4sss has been using an $8 Orange Pi Zero 256 MB as his server.
With the VirtualHere software and RTL-SDR running on his Orange Pi Zero, he's able to connect to a remote RTL-SDR over his network. He writes that data usage is about 5 - 6 MB/s so a wired Ethernet connection or high quality WiFi connection would be required. In comparison rtl_tcp should use about the same amount of data, but server software with some compression and data saving techniques implemented like SpyServer use much less data and is efficient enough to be used over the internet.
We can see the VirtualHere software being very useful for use with RTL-SDR compatible programs that don't have rtl_tcp support, which is most of them. It should also be useful for other SDRs that don't have streaming server software available.
VirtalHere is not free as a license costs $49. But it does have a 10-day trial period which supports 1 device being shared at a time.
Luc4sss has also uploaded a video on YouTube that shows him running the VirtualHere server and client, and connecting to the remote RTL-SDR with GQRX and dump1090. He also shows the data usage which is about 6 MB/s when running the RTL-SDR at 2.8 MSPS. Operation appears to be problem free and with almost entirely no latency as well.
RTL-SDR over Ethernet with VirtualHere Client/Server
Back in April we posted about QuestaSDR, which had just released the Android version of its SDR software. Recently QuestaSDR programmer 'hOne' wrote in and noted that a new update has enabled remote streaming in QuestaSDR.
To get set up, just run the Windows version of QuestaSDR on a PC, and open the "SDR Server" app. Once the server is running, you can connect to it via the Android version of QuestaSDR over a network connection. The server supports the RTL-SDR, Airspy and any ExtIO compatible device such as SDRplay units. As far as we're aware, this is the only Android app that currently supports streaming from non rtl_tcp compatible units such as the Airspy and SDRplay.
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 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.
I was looking to utilize a couple RTL dongles to monitor two ISM band frequencies commonly used in LoRa without buying an SDR with wide enough bandwidth to cover both ranges. I pretty quickly ran into issues with how SpyServer and rtl_tcp enumerate devices, which appears to be based mostly upon the order in which each device had been plugged in.
With some work, I think I've come upon a flexible and secure solution to handle an arbitrary number of dongles on one system while maintaining deterministic control of each device. This means I can label an individual dongle, connect it to the desired antenna, and then connect to that dongle on the assigned TCP port every time, without regard to the order in which things have been plugged in.
The rest of his post shows the steps which include creating an unprivileged service user, using rtl_eeprom to set device serial numbers and using a script that automatically runs on startup which will enumerate the dongles deterministically each time.
A number of people have asked how to use SDR#'s SpyServer with an RTL-SDR. In this tutorial we will show how to set up SpyServer on both Windows and Linux systems. We try to assume as little knowledge as possible, but we do assume that you have decent experience with computers. Also for the Linux/Raspberry Pi setup we need to assume that you have some basic experience with Linux and setting up Raspberry Pi's.
What is SpyServer?
SpyServer is a free RTL-SDR compatible SDR server that is designed to work with the popular SDR# software. It is actually designed for the Airspy range of products, but the author has also made it compatible with RTL-SDR dongles. Running a SpyServer allows you to connect to and use a remotely positioned RTL-SDR over a network connection (such as a local LAN/WiFi or the Internet). Once connected, using the dongle is the same as if the dongle was directly connected to the users PC.
Remote servers are useful as you may want to set up an antenna in a remote location (such as up on your roof or shack), and don't want to run a long lossy coax cable down to the PC. Instead you could run Ethernet cable, or avoid cables by using WiFi. All you'd need is power for a remote computing device like a Raspberry Pi 3. Perhaps you also have a great antenna location at a friends house, or other property and want to access that antenna remotely. Or maybe you want to use your radio while travelling.
SpyServer is similar to another tool that you may already be familiar with called rtl_tcp. However, SpyServer is regarded as superior because it is signficantly more efficient at network usage. Instead of sending the entire raw data like rtl_tcp does, SpyServer only sends the IQ data of the currently tuned in signal. Waterfall data is processed on the server and sent in compressed form. There is one disadvantage to SpyServer in that it requires slightly more powerful computing hardware like a Pi 2 or Pi 3, whereas rtl_tcp can run on the lowest end hardware.
Network usage when streaming with SpyServer will be about 120 KB/s when listening to WFM and about 38 KB/s when listening to narrow band modes for one client being connected. Multiple clients can connect to the SpyServer and share the same currently tuned bandwidth.
In his last video YouTube user GusGorman402 showed us how to install OpenWRT and the RTL-SDR drivers on a cheap used $20 router. The idea is that the router with custom third party Linux firmware can be used as a remote device for streaming raw data from an RTL-SDR over a network connection. Normally something like a $35 Raspberry Pi is used for something like this, but an old router could be cheaper and should have even better network performance as it is designed for high data rates (assuming the CPU on your router is powerful enough to run the RTL-SDR).
In his new video Gus shows how to properly configure OpenWRT and RTL_TCP for WiFi streaming of radio data. This includes things like setting up port forwarding and determining network performance.
We’ve also seen this post by GoJimmyPi which was inspired by Gus’s original video. This is a text and screenshot based tutorial which goes through the same process.
Over on his YouTube channel GusGorman402 has uploaded a video tutorial showing how to take an old internet router and install OpenWRT and the RTL-SDR drivers on it. OpenWRT is a third party Linux based router firmware which can greatly expand the usefulness of a standard router. As it is Linux based it is possible to install the RTL-SDR Linux drivers on the router and use the router as a cheap RTL-SDR streaming or decoding platform.
Gus’s tutorial takes us from the beginning where he first shows how to install OpenWRT firmware over the stock firmware on the router and how to configure the settings. He then shows how to install the RTL-SDR drivers and run software like rtl_tcp and dump1090 with opkg and luci.
Installing OpenWrt and RTL-SDR libs on used router
About a month ago the Airspy and SDRSharp development team released their new ‘SpyServer’ software. SpyServer is a streaming server for Airspy devices, which allows them to be used over a network connection. It is somewhat similar to rtl_tcp which is familiar to RTL-SDR users, although unlike rtl_tcp, SpyServer uses a multiclient architecture which allows several clients to connect to the server at the same time with each being able to choose individual bandwidth settings.
To use SpyServer with the RTL-SDR you’ll first need to edit the “spyserver.config” file which is in the SDR# folder. Open this file with a text editor like Notepad, and set the “device_type” to “RTL-SDR”. Now you can run spyserver.exe on your server and it will use your RTL-SDR. Multiple dongles can be used by editing the “device_serial” string in the config file. Next on the client PC run the latest version of SDR#, and choose the Source as “Spy Server”. Here you can enter your networked PC’s IP address to connect to it.
We tested the updated SpyServer with an RTL-SDR dongle and it worked perfectly. On an 802.11n WiFi connection we were able to stream up to 1 MSPS without problems. 2 MSPS was a bit jittery, but on an Ethernet or 802.11ac WiFi connection it should work with no problems. We also tested connecting two PC’s to a single SpyServer and both were able to run at the same time without trouble. The client which connects first gets to keep control of the center frequency and gain, whilst the second client has those options locked.