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HackRF, a Kickstarter project promising the holy grail of wireless radios

Listen up wireless nerds, a Kickstarter project called HackRF is promising to take the revolutions that Moore’s Law has brought to servers and networking to wireless radios — namely making programmable (and thus more flexible) radios far cheaper. The project aims to offer hackers a radio that can speak many different protocols over a variety of spectrum bands, all controlled via software.

So if you want a ZigBee radio, you program it in software. For a Wi-Fi radio, just type some commands. Having high quality software-defined radios, especially open source ones like the HackRF could be fundamentally remove the limitations on our wireless devices — be they geographic or protocol based.

This particular project won’t accomplish all that, but if your highest aspiration in life is a global iPhone, then stick around and I’ll explain how a project like this could get us there. The first thing you need to know is that today wireless radios are hard-wired to transmit a specific protocol (Wi-Fi, LTE) over a set band of frequencies. Phones have started supporting more frequencies over time, leading to quad-band phones. Dual-band Wi-Fi is another example of supporting multiple frequencies on a single chip. The limits to supporting more frequencies are mainly a matter of the antennas.

But thanks to CPUs getting more powerful and cheaper, it’s now possible to take the incoming analog wavelengths and clean them up for whatever protocol they’re transmitting on using a CPU on your laptop instead of permanently hard wiring those chips with an inflexible set of protocols.

That makes the radios more flexible and eventually they could be cheaper. It also changes how we could use spectrum in the future. Radios that can tune to any frequency and technology would give us highly adaptive networks, making sharing spectrum easier.

HackRF is a project that was started a year ago with the goal of building an open source software-defined radio for people to experiment with. Michael Ossmann, the project’s creator, notes that while HackRF isn’t a DARPA product it has support from the defense department’s now defunct DARPA Cyber Fast Track effort. Ossmann’s interest in this project is to create a low-cost software defined radio for wireless security research, according to his blog and a presentation he made at ToorCon announcing the project.

The device itself has a radio that can span from the 30 MHz frequency band all the way up to 6 Ghz. Protocols such as Wi-Fi, Zigbee, GPS, LTE and others use those bands to communicate. This isn’t a consumer-friendly or even a hobbyist product, unless your hobby is messing around with RF frequencies on a regular basis. But it could be the first building block to widely available software-defined radios and help lead to a disruptive shift in the ways we build wireless devices and use spectrum.

5 Responses to “HackRF, a Kickstarter project promising the holy grail of wireless radios”

  1. Another Kickstarter software defined radio? For $100 less than bladeRF, the hackRF lacks a lot of features and capabilities like USB3.0, full duplex, 12 bit data converts, RF shielding, an FPGA and the overall ability to run OpenBTS. Alternatively, if you have money Ettus USRPs are worth it.

  2. Steve Crowley

    The Wireless Innovation Forum’s comments in the FCC’s proceeding on dynamic spectrum access reflect a remarkable consensus of among its many members on SDR technical trends. Progress isn’t fast, but it’s there, and it continues. The HackRF board isn’t going in a smartphone in the foreseeable future, but it’s approaching the performance level of commercial SDR prototyping and experimental units that cost several times more. The Realtek RTL2832U DVB-T tuner, costing $20, is today being hacked into a software defined receiver covering 64-1700 MHz.

  3. SDR has been a dream for 30 years. The things that hold it back are antennas (as you mention,) battery life, power levels, and concurrency. Smartphones need to handle multiple radio streams at the same time: the network connection, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, FM radio, etc., which are received at the phone with radically different power levels.

    If this is all done in a single chip, the processing load would kill your battery in about five minutes. Apple and Samsung would be happy to shrink their part count today, but the nature of the problem is such that multi-stream connectivity is most practical with multiple chips and multiple antennas. DARPA has spent billions on SDR projects with nothing to show for it. It’s a pipe dream.

    BTW, Kickstarter is not going to end world hunger either, only beauty queens can do that.