SDR – or Software Defined Radio is relatively cheap and fun way to dive deeper into radio communication.
“Software-defined radio (SDR) is a radio communication system where components that have been typically implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded system. While the concept of SDR is not new, the rapidly evolving capabilities of digital electronics render practical many processes which used to be only theoretically possible.” (Wikipedia)
So with cheap hardware it’s possible to receive radio transmissions on all sorts of frequencies and modulations. Since everything after the actual “receiving stuff”-phase happens in software the things you can do are sort of limitless.
Now what about the relatively cheap factor? – The hardware you’re going to need to start with this is a DVB-T USB stick widely available for about 25 Euro. The important feature you’re going to look for is that it comes with a Realtek RTL2832U chip.
“The RTL2832U is a high-performance DVB-T COFDM demodulator that supports a USB 2.0 interface. The RTL2832U complies with NorDig Unified 1.0.3, D-Book 5.0, and EN300 744 (ETSI Specification). It supports 2K or 8K mode with 6, 7, and 8MHz bandwidth. Modulation parameters, e.g., code rate, and guard interval, are automatically detected.
The RTL2832U supports tuners at IF (Intermediate Frequency, 36.125MHz), low-IF (4.57MHz), or Zero-IF output using a 28.8MHz crystal, and includes FM/DAB/DAB+ Radio Support. Embedded with an advanced ADC (Analog-to-Digital Converter), the RTL2832U features high stability in portable reception.” (RealTek)
You’ll find this chip in all sorts of cheap DVB-T USB sticks like this one:
To use the hardware directly you can use open source software which comes pre-packaged with several important/widely used demodulator moduls like AM/FM. Gqrx SDR is available for all sorts of operating systems and comes with a nice user interface to control your SDR hardware.
The neat idea about SDR is that you, depending on the capabilities of your SDR hardware, are not only tuned into one specific frequency but a whole spectrum several Mhz wide. With my device I get roughly a full 2 Mhz wide spectrum out of the device allowing me to see several FM stations on one spectrum diagram and tune into them individually using the demodulators:
The above screenshot shows the OS X version of Gqrx tuned into an FM station. You can clearly see the 3 stations that I can receive in that Mhz range. One very strong signal, one very weak and one sort of in the middle. By just clicking there the SDR tool decodes this portion of the data stream / spectrum and you can listen to a FM radio station.
Of course – since those DVB-T sticks come with a wide spectrum useable – mine comes with an Elonics E4000 tuner which allows me to receive – more or less useable – 53 Mhz to 2188 Mhz (with a gap from 1095 to 1248 Mhz).
Whatever your hardware can do can be tested by using the rtl_test tool:
root@berry:~# rtl_test -t
Found 1 device(s):
0: Terratec T Stick PLUS
Using device 0: Terratec T Stick PLUS
Found Elonics E4000 tuner
Supported gain values (14): -1.0 1.5 4.0 6.5 9.0 11.5 14.0 16.5 19.0 21.5 24.0 29.0 34.0 42.0
Benchmarking E4000 PLL…
[E4K] PLL not locked for 52000000 Hz!
[E4K] PLL not locked for 2189000000 Hz!
[E4K] PLL not locked for 1095000000 Hz!
[E4K] PLL not locked for 1248000000 Hz!
E4K range: 53 to 2188 MHz
E4K L-band gap: 1095 to 1248 MHz
Interestingly when you plug the USB stick into an Raspberry Pi and you follow some instructions you can use the Raspberry Pi as an SDR server allowing you to place it on the attic while still sitting comfortably at your computer downstairs to have better reception.
If you want to upgrade your experience with more professional hardware – and in fact if you got a sender license – you can take a look at the HackRF project which currently is creating a highly sophisticated SDR hardware+software solution:
Source 1: http://www.realtek.com.tw/products/productsView.aspx?Langid=1&PFid=35&Level=4&Conn=3&ProdID=257
Source 2: http://gqrx.dk/
Source 3: www.hamradioscience.com/raspberry-pi-as-remote-server-for-rtl2832u-sdr/
Source 4: http://ossmann.blogspot.de/2012/06/introducing-hackrf.html
Source 5: https://github.com/mossmann/hackrf