Saturday, 12 March 2016

Raspberry Pi 3 with RTL-SDR dongles

The Raspberry Pi is a microcomputer, with roughly the same performance as a three-year old smartphone.
It's more than enough - how often do you redline your car?
The latest version, the Paspberry Pi 3 costs around $40, uses common Android mobile phone chargers for power, utilizes microSD cards for data storage, has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth for easy connectivity, and is much faster and more usable than its predecessor, the RasPi 2.
Using Raspberry microcomputers are part of the upcoming book, so here are a few reasons why you should use them in conjunction with an RTL-SDR stick such as dongles from Nooelec, or cheap alternatives off ebay.

1. Native Linux operating system

Quite a few tools and guides require Linux, and Raspberries run a derivative, called Raspbian, which is based on Ubuntu, which is based on Linux. If these words sound alien, be assured: if you read or see Linux anywhere in a review or tutorial, more than likely commands and confusing-looking long sentences will work on the small computer.

2. No messing with your main workhorse computer

Partitioning a hard drive and installing Linux is an unnecessary pain with Windows, so using a separate computer for playing with the RTL stick is easier. Plus, if something is not going the way you intended, restoring the system takes 10 minutes by re-writing the microSD card with the last working image.

3. Less power use

A laptop uses 60-70 Watts of electricity, a desktop PC can use anything from 150W to 500W+. Raspberries use a maximum of 4 Watts, you read it right, four Watts on full blast. On average, less than one Watt. This is visible on the electricity bill if you run a computer 24/7 - let's not go into the tree-hugger argument, power must come from somewhere...

4. Small size

A Raspberry, upconverter, RTL dongle, low-noise amplifier (LNA) and filters fit into a cookie tin, so the whole setup can be placed right at the antenna, away from electrical noise.

5. Common voltage

5V is used by upconverters and LNAs, just like the Raspberry. Power everything with the same voltage.

6. No hassle remote power

So-called General Purpose Input and Output Pins (GPIO) pins are available, these are the needle-like protrusions on the image above. The board can be powered through a cheap Ethernet cable using Power-over-Ethernet: working homemade solution costs $10 (cable included), and dedicated off-the-shelf products make the whole endeavor plug-and-play for the less brave.

7. Easy ADS-B

Airplane / Flight tracking is cool, but if you contribute to a website, must be on constantly. Contributing data to sites such as is as easy as downloading a file, writing it to a microSD card, then plugging in the card. That's it, software takes care of the rest. Oh, and you get a free subscription to the website.

If you enjoyed this article please pre-order my RTL-SDR
Guide Book on Amazon Kindle. More than a hundred pages of knowledge, information and diagrams for all levels of expertise.

Kindle is available for computers (Windows and Mac), and for smartphones and tablets (Android and Iphone, iPad and iPod touch).

If you're interested in the Raspberry Pi, please sign up for the upcoming book, which details the ins and outs of setting up, using and enjoying the Pi 3 microcomputer.

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