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Hands on with HackRF

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First hands-on experiences with the low cost SDR platform.

HackRF is a compact software-defined radio peripheral that can transmit and receive half-duplex on any frequency from 30MHz right up to 6GHz, and with a maximum bandwidth of 20MHz. It's affordable, USB powered, supported by GNU Radio, and incredibly useful even if you don't have an interest in SDR (think spectrum analyser, and (vector) signal and arbitrary waveform generator!)

History

The “wireless Swiss army knife” is the brainchild of Michael Ossman, someone who is well known in information security circles and who also happens to be the person behind one of my favourite hacks of recent years, which turns a cheap kids toy into a handy spectrum analyser.

HackRF was introduced in June of last year via a blog post in which Michael explained how the project had secured support from DARPA's now defunct Cyber Fast Track programme. Providing funding to the tune of $200,000, this meant that development could proceed at a much faster pace and would enable hundreds of beta HackRF boards to be given away to early adopters.

Jawbreaker

I was one of the lucky people who received a beta board, a.k.a. “Jawbreaker”, and while this could have been put to use immediately there were a few small things I wanted to do beforehand.

Firstly, I couldn't help but populate the empty pin header positions on the board — you never know when you might need to hook up a JTAG adapter or connect something to the GPIO! There were also two footprints where SMA sockets could be added for clock inputs and outputs, and while the onboard oscillator is perfectly adequate for most uses, this is a great facility to have.

The HackRF also includes an built-in antenna for use around 900MHz, but it's recommended to cut the trace to this in order to enable use with a better performing external antenna. Which I did, and then attached a stubby antenna designed for amateur radio use on 144, 430 and 1200 MHz bands.

Finally, a friend was kind enough to laser cut two pieces of acrylic, which together with a handful of hexagonal spacers and machine screws form a smart enclosure for the HackRF.

Software support

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I did lose a bit of time on trying to compile the HackRF library and tools under Debian 6.0, due to what appears to be a Debian bug, which I never got to the bottom of. Upon switching to an Ubuntu 13.04 machine I immediately started to make headway.

Basic support for HackRF is provided by libhackrf and a collection of tools which enable the firmware to be updated etc. GNU Radio integration is then made possible via gr-osmosdr, which hooks into libhackrf and provides the source and sink blocks for use in SDR applications.

GNU Radio, the HackRF software and gr-osmosdr were all installed via GNU Radio's excellent new install system, PyBOMBS. This make use of recipes for GNU Radio and related software, which take into account build dependencies and satisfy them by installing binary packages where possible, and automatically downloading and compiling from source where otherwise required.

With the software set up, the HackRF firmware could be updated to the current version using the hackrf_spiflash command, which completed first time and without any issues.

Applications

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It should be possible to get the majority of half-duplex and transmit/receive-only GNU Radio-based application to work with HackRF, where necessary modifying them to use the osmosocom (gr-osmosdr) source/sink.

The gr-osmosdr software provides an FFT spectrum analyser application which allows you to quickly sweep from 30MHz up to 6GHz. This can be seen in the above screenshot, with a GSM carrier clearly visible at 1810.8MHz (a nearby femto-BTS).

The screenshot below shows the osmocom_siggen application which can be used to generate a signal with various modulation options.

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When the HackRF is in TX mode this is indicated by a red LED on the board — lest you forget!

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Kickstarter success

HackRF launched as Kickstarter project last week and with backers who pledge $275 or more scheduled to receive hardware in January of next year.

The Kickstarter campaign was an immediate success and the $80,000 goal was met within hours, and at the time of writing over $250,000 has been pledged and with 27 days still to go.

First impressions

This post has not scratched the surface when it comes to hardware capabilities, and bear in mind that HackRF is an open source platform with firmware sources for the ARM MCU and CPLD available, plus a generous selection of pin headers to aid hacking and for expansion.

In terms of potential applications, HackRF is a wideband solution that could be used with many diverse wireless systems. However, it's important to note that it is only half-duplex, which is fine for many applications — perhaps in particular wireless security research — but will mean that it's not suited to use as a GSM or LTE etc. mobile or base station, for example.

I'm looking forward to further and more useful experimentation with HackRF and I'm sure this won't be my last post on the topic!

Andrew Back

Open source (hardware and software!) advocate, Treasurer and Director of the Free and Open Source Silicon Foundation, organiser of Wuthering Bytes technology festival and founder of the Open Source Hardware User Group.

8 Aug 2013, 10:07

Comments

June 11, 2014 11:05

I can appreciate that for a radio amateur with an interest in HF bands, boards such as this may be frustrating in their lack of off-the-shelf support for lower frequencies. However, what you must remember is that the vast majority of wireless innovation is at much higher frequencies and where orders of magnitude more bandwidth is available. For example, HF would be no use for wireless/cellular broadband, unless you use vast swathes of it, and even then the propagation characteristics, inefficiencies and antenna sizes etc. would make it quite impractical. And this is where the new applications, research and money is.

Generally speaking, mass market requirements drive IC design. Developing new silicon that meets the requirements of radio hams before all others, would very likely be a loss making enterprise unless you could be certain that nearly every ham on the planet will buy a device with your chip in it. Even then, you'd probably have a difficult time convincing your investors. Sadly, amateur radio is, relatively speaking, very much a niche market.

That said, all is not lost and I do not see how one of these new highly integrated devices — such as the LMS6002D, as used with Blade RF — paired with some external circuitry to lower the frequency coverage, would necessarily result in reduced performance. With the aforementioned chip it's not that you'd even be forced to down/up-convert to and from 300MHz+, since it's a "field-programmable RF" device that lets you turn on and off parts of it (which are still RF building blocks such as you would have previously had spanning multiple chip packages and circuits, or before that implemented via many more discrete devices).

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June 11, 2014 09:41

While the Hack RF [and the Blade RF] cover the top end admirably, they are let down by their lack of HF coverage.
The Blade RF has a lower limit of 300 MHz. The Hack RF is better, getting down to 30MHz.

However, to cover the amateur radio bands, what is needed is a frequency range that goes down to 1 MHz, or even lower.

While there are upconverter adapters available as 3rd-party options, there are arguments about how well they work.
The lack of coverage for the lower frequencies is awful, and the manufacturing companies designing the IC's at the heart of these products are not helping.

I for one would happily buy a device which reached less than 1GHz if it just covered the HF bands.
It could reach 400 MHz and I'd be happy to match it with a Blade RF.
If it went to 110 MHz [local FM] I could combine with this - the Hack RF - for full RF spectrum coverage.

Alas, it would seem, I'm dreaming...

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