Thesis on Locating Transmitters with TDoA and RTL-SDRs

Jan Hrach of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Univerzita Karlova in the Czech Republic recently defended his Masters thesis titled "Passive emitter tracking". The main theme of the thesis was the use of RTL-SDRs for tracking transmitters via the Time Difference of Arrival (TDoA) technique. TDoA works by having multiple receivers spread out over a region. As long as the receivers are synchronized in time, we can calculate the difference in time that a signal took to arrive at each receiver, which allows us to pinpoint the location of a transmitter. The challenge is in the timing synchronization, and receiver placement. The thesis abstract reads:

We have implemented a TDOA multilateration of transmitters on an unmodified rtl-sdr receiver using transmitters with known location as a timing reference. We present a brief theoretical background and describe the measurement process which includes several approaches that correct the timing and frequency errors between the receivers. Additionally, we have implemented an angle of arrival direction finder using coherent rtl-sdr.

The thesis and associated code is available on the universities website at this link and it is written in English. Jan also does have a presentation available on YouTube, however it is presented in Czech and automated subtitles do not appear to be available. The video and results section of the thesis shows some good results that indicate that transmitters were able to be pinpointed with very good accuracy, however, localization only worked well on signals with good cross-correlation properties, like DVB-T. Only about half the tested broadcast FM stations could be located due to interference, FM being low bandwidth and FM being transmitted at lower frequencies which suffer from reflections and multipath all of which result in poorer correlation.

TDoA results achieved with RTL-SDRs distributed around Prague.
TDoA results achieved with RTL-SDRs distributed around Prague.

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