The cheap and awesome R820T DVB-T dongle got me interested in Software Defined Radio (SDR). I was immediately hooked and started looking for downconverters etc to expand the frequency range. After seeing the success of the HackRF Jawbreaker, I decided to build one. As with many of my projects, I ended up getting sidetracked and delayed, until über genius Michael Ossmann released plans for his new HackRF One, so I decided to go for that instead. Having completely dropped the ball and missing out on the Kickstarter, I still had to build it myself though.
I ordered 5 PCBs from my favourite board house, and started ordering the components from Mouser and Digikey. Some of the parts were unavailable so I had to get them from Taobao instead. Everything arrived, and I realized I completely forgot about getting a solder stencil made so I ended up doing everything quite manually. It took me 3 days to build the board and go over all the solder joints with a USB microscope and fix all the cold solder joints and tombstoned components. I very nervously plugged it in and did an “lsusb” then breathed a sigh of relief when it was detected. After a few hiccups with the firmware and another few days finding out what was wrong with the RF section it was working quite nicely using the Jawbreaker source for GNU Radio.
I started showing a few friends, and one in particular, who’s job is sourcing components for RS, wanted one too. She came back a week later with all the components and this time I took it to another friend who owns an assembly factory and got them to put it together.
I’m absolutely convinced that SDR will significantly contribute to the next generation of RF communications technology. SDR does to the RF spectrum what sound cards did to the audio spectrum, and we got MP3 etc out of that, which is the only reason we now have streaming, podcasts, iTunes, etc. Who knows what people will think of for the RF spectrum, anything could happen and it’s very exciting.
Throughout my time in Asia, I’ve seen how my hobbyist/hacker/maker/geek counterparts in less privileged parts of the world have a completely different take on how to use technology than us in the developed world. For example, in China, farmers are making submarines, a company started 3d printing entire houses and even apartment blocks out of waste material to solve their housing problems in rural areas, and a traffic cop made a fully roadworthy electric car for his disabled friend. In India they’re converting old alarm clocks into medical devices that basically tell low-skilled medical staff if the patient needs to see a doctor or can go home, not the standards we are used to but a fantastic way to triage when there are limited medical resources. If you want to have your mind completely blown, go to any developing country and see what our fellow geeks are doing. There’s a huge untapped reservoir of innovative ability in the poorer regions of the world, I suspect far more so than in the developed world, and this is a resource the world really needs right now.
I talked to my factory friend who thought he could get the boards made for $60 which got me very excited, but that turned out to be quite a premature estimate and did not include the MCU, the RFFC5072, the MAX chips, or any of the headers or half the other components and the PCB itself was quite substandard along with all the components being no-name crap. I had a chat with my component sourcing friend/magician, and she figured that we could probably get the cost of the HackRF down at least somewhat while still maintaining performance. She spent 6 months bringing me more and more components to test out. I’d first test them, and if that went well, I’d switch them out for the ‘expensive’ components on one of the boards and see how it performed. Eventually we built up a list of factories that make the needed business-grade components at the price we wanted, without negatively affecting the performance of the device. The components themselves are all stuff that is normally supplied to RS components, Mouser, Digikey etc under various OEM brands. I bought a Great Scott Gadgets HackRF One for comparison and it looks like what we’ve ended up with is every bit as stable and reliable as the original, and also seems to have better performance at lower frequencies (e.g. RFID at 125kHz), but this could just be a random ‘issue’ with these builds and I wouldn’t consider it an improvement, at least not yet. The other thing we did was leave off the clock in + clock out SMA headers, as well as the expansion headers, these are easy to add whenever. I also have another friend with 20 years experience in bringing new circuit designs into mass production, he’s been working on that side of the project to get the price down. On top of that, I have no expectation of turning a profit, as I’ll explain.
I’ve talked to quite a few people about this and I think the best way to get these into the hands of innovative minds in developing countries is to give them to hackerspaces in underprivileged areas for free, so that’s what I’m planning on doing. I’ve compiled a tentative list of hacker spaces which I would like to provide with a HackRF and the list can be seen at the end of this post. The criteria is based the amount of poverty in the region, number of members, and how accessible the hackerspace is (i.e. the cost to members) as well as whether or not a member can bring friends for free, and if they do regular demonstrations etc. You can see all the hackerspaces mapped out here:
I’ll be launching an Indiegogo campaign to indirectly fund this by offering a HackRF Blue as a perk, rather than just asking for donations, which I think is the wrong way to go about these things in general and is unsustainable. Increasing access to the technology amongst the developer community in general by offering it at the lowest possible price should also go a long way towards improving SDR in general, even if we only sell limited numbers (I have a day job and can’t be spending too much time on this), it should still serve to put downwards pressure on the price, I’m sure there are other people who are also capable of getting the price down. So if you want a HackRF for $200 instead of the usual ~$320 be sure to check it out. To distinguish between Michael Ossmann’s hardware build of the open source design, and our hardware build, we are calling ours the HackRF Blue.
Depending on how the Indiegogo campaign goes we may not get to all of the hacker spaces listed, or conversely we may need a bigger list, let’s hope for the latter! If you know of another space that fits in with the general criteria (poor area, 30+ members, free or very cheap access), or have any other suggestions, please get in touch with me in the comments and share your thoughts.
|Raul Hacker Club||Brazil|
|House 4 Hack||South Africa|
|Nairobi Dev School||Nairobi|
|Centre for Internet and Society||India|
|Vigyan Ashram DIY Lab||India|
|I3 Detroit||United States|
Some eyebrows have been raised about including Detroit in the United States on this list because the U.S. is not traditionally thought of as a third world or disadvantaged country. All politics aside, my thoughts are that I3 Detroit is doing some great work in the community, and they are doing it in a community which is disadvantaged enough for there to be children without access to running water.