Back in April we posted about "Hash's" RECESSIM YouTube series on hacking electricity smart meters using a software defined radio. Recently his series continues with a video on decoding and logging the GPS coordinates sent by the smart meters used in his area. Using a car, SDR and laptop he was able to drive down the freeway collecting smart meter data as he travelled, decode the data, and plot it on a map. In his video Hash explains why there is GPS data in the signal, and how he was able to reverse engineer and determine the GPS data.
Over on YouTube channel RECESSIM has uploaded a three part series on reverse engineering smart utility meters. In many locations wireless mesh smart electricity meters are installed in houses allowing for completely wireless monitoring. These mesh network devices pass the wireless data from meter to meter until the data reaches a router that is typically placed on a neighborhood power pole.
In the first video Recessim explains how a smart meter mesh network works, and demonstrates signal reception in the 900 MHz band with a USRP B200 software defined radio.
In the second video he demonstrates how he can see meter ID and power outage information from Oncor meters, explains his GNU Radio flowgraph setup and goes on to explain how he reverse engineered the data packets.
Finally in the third video he performs a few teardowns of smart meters he found on eBay, and shows his reverse engineering setup with a faraday cage. More videos are likely to be on the way, so you might want to consider subscribing to his channel for updates. Recessim is also diligently recording all the information he's discovered about the meters on his Wiki.
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.
DragonOS is a ready to use Linux OS image that includes many SDR programs preinstalled and ready to use. The creator Aaron also runs a YouTube channel that has multiple tutorial videos demonstrating software built into DragonOS.
In a recent video Aaron shows how you can set up a GSM basestation within minutes by using the latest DragonOS version together with a USRP b205mini-i software defined radio. As the required software (osmo-BTS, osmo-bts, osmo-bts-trx) is all preinstalled, setting up the basestation is a simple matter of opening three terminal windows and running a few commands. We note that this latest DragonOS version is due to be released this Thursday.
In a previous video Aaron also shows a more detailed setup procedure showing how all the software was installed.
Recently research from Tel-Aviv University by Sivan Toledo et al. involving the use of USRP SDRs to track wild bats was published in Science. The Journal Science (aka Science Magazine) is one of the world's top peer reviewed academic journals.
Sivan and his collaborators developed inexpensive 434 MHz band tracking tags for bats that emit radio pings every few seconds. These pings do not contain any location data, however the location is accurately tracked by several USRP SDRs with high accuracy GPSDO oscillators set up around the target tracking area. A radio direction finding technique known as "time difference of arrival" or TDoA is used to pinpoint the location of each tag. Sivan writes:
A wildlife tracking system called ATLAS, developed by Sivan Toledo from Tel-Aviv University in collaboration with Ran Nathan from the Hebrew university, enabled a science breakthrough reported in an article in Science that was published yesterday.
The system uses miniature tracking tags that transmit radio pings in the 434 MHz bands and SDR receivers (Ettus USRP N200 or B200). Software processes the samples from receivers to detect the pings and to estimate their time of arrival. The overall system is a "reverse-GPS" system, in the sense that the principles and math are similar to GPS, but the role of transmitters and receivers is reversed. A youtube video explains how the system works. SDR-RTL dongles can certainly detect the pings, but their oscillators are not stable enough to accurately localize the tags.
The system has been used to track 172 wild bats (in batches, some consisting of 60 simultaneously-tagged bats). The results showed that bats can make novel shortcuts, which indicates that they navigate using a cognitive map, like humans. The system, and other ATLAS systems in the Netherlands, England, Germany, and Israel are also tracking many different animals, mostly small birds and bats.
The video below shows the bats being tracked on a map accelerated to 100x.
The Science article itself is mostly about the discoveries on bat behaviour that were made by the system. However the YouTube video embedded below explains a bit more about how the technical radio side works.
Librespace, who are the people behind the open hardware/source SatNOGS satellite ground station project have recently released a comprehensive paper (pdf) that compares multiple software defined radios available on the market in a realistic laboratory based signal environment. The testing was performed by Alexandru Csete (@csete) who is the programmer behind GQRX and Gpredict and Sheila Christiansen (@astro_sheila) who is a Space Systems Engineer at Alexandru's company AC Satcom. Their goal was to evaluate multiple SDRs for use in SatNOGS ground stations and other satellite receiving applications.
The SDRs tested include the RTL-SDR Blog V3, Airspy Mini, SDRplay RSPduo, LimeSDR Mini, BladeRF 2.0 Micro, Ettus USRP B210 and the PlutoSDR. In their tests they measure the noise figure, dynamic range, RX/TX spectral purity, TX power output and transmitter modulation error ratio of each SDR in various satellite bands from VHF to C-band.
The paper is an excellent read, however the results are summarized below. In terms of noise figure, the SDRplay RSPduo with it's built in LNA performed the best, with all other SDRs apart from the LimeSDR being similar. The LimeSDR had the worst noise figure by a large margin.
In terms of dynamic range, the graphs below show the maximum input power of a blocking signal that the receivers can tolerate vs. different noise figures at 437 MHz. They write that this gives a good indication of which devices have the highest dynamic range at any given noise figure. The results show that when the blocking signal is at the smallest 5 kHz spacing the RSPduo has poorest dynamic range by a significant margin, but improves significantly at the 100 kHz and 1 MHz spacings. The other SDRs all varied in performance between the different blocking signal separation spacings.
Overall the PlutoSDR seems to perform quite well, with the LimeSDR performing rather poorly in most tests among other problems like the NF being sensitive to touching the enclosure, and the matching network suspected as being broken on both their test units. The owner of Airspy noted that performance may look poor in these tests as the testers used non-optimized Linux drivers, instead of the optimized Windows drivers and software, so there is no oversampling, HDR or IF Filtering enabled. The RSPduo performs very well in most tests, but very poorly in the 5 kHz spacing test.
The rest of the paper covers the TX parameters, and we highly recommend going through and comparing the individual result graphs from each SDR test if you want more information and results from tests at different frequencies. The code and recorded data can also be found on the projects Gitlab page at https://gitlab.com/librespacefoundation/sdrmakerspace/sdreval.
Back in August 2019 the Chaos Communication Camp was held in Germany. This is a 5 day conference that covers a variety of hacker topics, sometimes including SDR. At the conference Osmocom developer Harald Welte (aka @LaF0rge) presented a talk titled "The Limits of General Purpose SDR devices". The talk explains how general purpose TX capable SDRs like HackRFs and LimeSDRs have their limitations when it comes to implementing advanced communications systems like cellular base stations.
If you prefer, the talk can be watched directly on the CCC website instead of YouTube.
Why an SDR board like a USRP or LimeSDR is not a cellular base station
It's tempting to buy a SDR device like a LimeSDR or USRP family member in the expectation of operating any wireless communications system out there from pure software. In reality, however, the SDR board is really only one building block. Know the limitations and constraints of your SDR board and what you need around it to build a proper transceiver.
For many years, there's an expectation that general purpose SDR devices like the Ettus USRP families, HackRF, bladeRF, LimeSDR, etc. can implement virtually any wireless system.
While that is true in principle, it is equally important to understand the limitations and constraints.
People with deep understanding of SDR and/or wireless communications systems will likely know all of those. However, SDRs are increasingly used by software developers and IT security experts. They often acquire an SDR board without understanding that this SDR board is only one building block, but by far not enough to e.g. operate a cellular base station. After investing a lot of time, some discover that they're unable to get it to work at all, or at the very least unable to get it to work reliably. This can easily lead to frustration on both the user side, as well as on the side of the authors of software used with those SDRs.
The talk will particularly focus on using General Purpose SDRs in the context of cellular technologies from GSM to LTE. It will cover aspects such as band filters, channel filters, clock stability, harmonics as well as Rx and Tx power level calibration.
The talk contains the essence of a decade of witnessing struggling SDR users (not only) with running Osmocom software with them. Let's share that with the next generation of SDR users, to prevent them falling into the same traps.
Modern cell phones in the USA are all required to support the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) program, which allows citizens to receive urgent messages like AMBER (child abduction) alerts, severe weather warnings and Presidential Alerts.
In January 2018 an incoming missile alert was accidentally issued to residents in Hawaii, resulting in panic and disruption. More recently an unblockable Presidential Alert test message was sent to all US phones. These events have prompted researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder to investigate concerns over how this alert system could be hacked, potentially allowing bad actors to cause mass panic on demand (SciHub Paper).
Their research showed that four low cost USRP or bladeRF TX capable software defined radios (SDR) with 1 watt output power each, combined with open source LTE base station software could be used to send a fake Presidential Alert to a stadium of 50,000 people (note that this was only simulated - real world tests were performed responsibly in a controlled environment). The attack works by creating a fake and malicious LTE cell tower on the SDR that nearby cell phones connect to. Once connected an alert can easily be crafted and sent to all connected phones. There is no way to verify that an alert is legitimate.