Software defined radios can have many more applications other than just radio. For example, it's possible to connect an ultrasonic sensor which outputs a waveform at some frequency above DC directly to the input of an SDR. We can then simply treat the sensor output as an RF signal, and view it in any SDR compatible software that shows us a spectrum. Normally you'd use a microcontroller with ADC to process the output of these sensors, but using an SDR makes visualizing and experimenting with these sensors much easier.
Over on YouTube W1VLF has uploaded a video showing his experiments with an ultrasonic sensor connected to his Airspy HF+. In his experiment he places the Airspy HF+ with directly connected ultrasonic sensor in one room, and sets up an ultrasonic emitter in another room. He then uses SDR# to view the 24 kHz ultrasonic sensor signal output on the computer. As he moves the sensor around it's possible to clearly see the doppler shift of the ultrasonic sound waves on the waterfall.
In the past we've also posted about Jan de Jong who experimented with using a piezo speaker connected to an SDRplay RSP1A to detect the ultrasonic navigation sounds from bats.
Over on GitHub an interesting project that involves using an ultrasound transducer and RTL-SDR to create a low cost 2D ultrasound imager has been uploaded. Ultrasound imagers transmit acoustic sound waves with a transducer at frequencies between 1 - 5 MHz, and then listens for the audio reflections from objects in the audio waves path. This technique is commonly used in the medical field for imaging inside the body without using damaging ionizing radiation like with x-rays.
The project by wlmeng11 is based on the open un0rick hardware, which is an open source ultrasound imager. wlmeng11's idea is to simplify and lower the cost of the un0rick hardware by replacing some expensive components like the FPGA and ADC with a computer and RTL-SDR. The simplified hardware is called "SimpleRick" and PCB and firmware files are also available on GitHub.
Regarding his choice to use SDR and RTL-SDR he writes:
The analog signal produced by a B-mode ultrasound (ie. 2D imaging) is essentially an Amplitude Modulated (AM) signal. The signal's envelope (ie. amplitude) corresponds to boundary information in the physical media, and the signal's carrier frequency is equal to the resonant frequency of the transducer.
Most ultrasound systems take one of two approaches for data acquistion:
Direct sampling of the ultrasound signal: This method preserves the original signal in the time domain, accomodates any transducer frequency, and offers the best flexibility for post-processing and analysis. Both amplitude and phase information can be extracted the signal, so it is useful for both B-mode and Doppler mode imaging. However, this method requires a high sample rate ADC, as well as high bandwidth and storage for the digital data.
Envelope detection with analog hardware: Perform Amplitude Demodulation (typically with a diode-based rectifier and low pass filter) to yield an envelope signal, then acquire the envelope signal at a lower sample rate. This method reduces the bandwidth and storage requirements for the digital data, but there are a number of drawbacks:
Unless the low pass filter is adjustable, this method cannot accommodate different transducer frequencies.
The non-linearity of the diode may produce harmonic distortion.
All phase information in the signal is lost, rendering it useless for Doppler mode imaging.
It has been demonstrated by Peyton et al that quadrature sampling can be used to reduce bandwidth requirements in an ultrasound imaging system.
It turns out that quadrature modulation is essential to Software Defined Radio (SDR) because any type of amplitude modulation, frequency modulation, phase modulation, or combination of these can be expressed as a special case of quadrature modulation. Therefore, many of the software and hardware techniques used in SDR can be applied to ultrasound imaging.
The RTL2832U chip in the RTL-SDR takes a hybrid approach for data acquisition. It employs a high sample rate ADC (28.8 Msps), followed by a software-configurable Digital Down Converter (DDC) that produces IQ data at a lower sample rate (up to 2.56 Msps), thus reducing bandwidth and storage requirements. We can then perform envelope detection in software.
Plus, the RTL-SDR is really cheap (under $25 on Amazon in the United States)! As such, there is a lot of software support and a large community for the RTL-SDR.
With a few software tweaks, it should be possible to substitute the RTL-SDR with a more expensive SDR (eg. AirSpy HF+, LimeSDR) for use cases that require better ADC resolution and SNR.
Some of his test results are available in his August 21 writeup. His test involves a pseudo-anechoic chamber with some steel balls to reflect the ultrasound wave. The ultrasound transducer is swept through the chamber using a servo. The results so far have been successful in reliably and repeatedly resolving imaging on objects that are about 1 cm in size.
If you're interested in the combination of acoustic transducers and SDRs, then this previous post shows using a piezo to detect ultrasound echolocation sounds from bats.
Over on YouTube user Jan de Jong has uploaded a few screenshots and sounds on a video which shows that he was able to receive the ultrasonic sound of bats by connecting a small piezo speaker to an SDRplay RSP1A.
The piezo speaker used in reverse as a microphone appears to pickup bat echolocation sound waves which are typically between 20 to 200 kHz. The piezo is resonant in the 40 - 55 kHz range and converts sounds from that range into electric pulses that can be received directly by the RSP1A.