The Most Hackable Handheld Ham Radio Yet

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All proper, confession time. I don’t use my handheld ham radio for far more than eavesdropping on the subway dispatcher when my prepare rumbles to a mysterious halt in a darkish tunnel. But even I couldn’t assist however hear the excitement surrounding a brand new handheld, Quansheng’s UV-K5.

It caught my consideration partly as a result of for over a decade, Baofeng has been the title in Chinese handhelds. In 2012 Baofeng made waves with its UV-5R radio, upending the sleepy handheld-transceiver market. Prior to the 5R, the value tag of the most affordable VHF/UHF handheld was a bit north of US $100. The 5R offered for 1 / 4 to a 3rd of that. Hams groused in regards to the 5R’s so-so technical efficiency—after which purchased a pair anyway, so that they’d at all times have a radio of their automobile or office.

Now it’s Quansheng that’s making a splash. The UV-K5, launched final 12 months, may be probably the most hackable handheld ever, with a small military of devoted hams including a raft of software-based enhancements and new options. I needed to have one, and $30 later, I did.

Like Baofeng’s 5R, Quansheng’s K5 as a radio transceiver is fantastic. (I’m utilizing K5 right here to consult with each the unique K5 and the brand new K5(8) mannequin.) The key technical distinction between the 5R and K5 is a seemingly minor design alternative. With Baofeng’s 5R, the firmware resides in read-only reminiscence. But Quansheng shops the K5’s firmware in flash reminiscence and made it potential to rewrite that reminiscence with the identical USB programming cable used to assign frequencies to preset channels.

This characteristic has opened the door for enhancements to the K5 which can be nicely past what Quansheng gives out of the field. Hopefully, this design will encourage different radio makers to supply extra help for modders, in flip bringing extra innovation to the VHF and UHF radio bands.

Quansheng most likely considered its design purely when it comes to fixing software program bugs or adjusting for regulatory modifications—it gives a free set up instrument for importing official firmware releases to the radio. But the prospect of an updatable radio dangled an irresistible temptation for people to start out reverse engineering the firmware and {hardware} so they might attempt writing their very own code. Modifications to this point have typically taken the type of patches to the official firmware, moderately than wholesale rewrites. With the official firmware taking on a lot of the radio’s 64 kilobytes of flash reminiscence, such mods have to suit into lower than 3 KB. And the CPU isn’t brimming with compute energy—it’s a 48-megahertz, 32-bit ARM-based processor with 8 KB of RAM. Nonetheless, I discovered the outcomes spectacular.

For instance, one mod installs a reasonably subtle graphical spectrum analyzer: You can regulate the bandwidth, set a threshold for tuning into detected peaks robotically, and specify frequencies to disregard, amongst different issues. Another mod means that you can trade textual content messages between K5s. Other mods enhance the K5’s capacity to obtain AM alerts, that means you may, say, eavesdrop on aviation bands extra clearly. And there are many enjoyable little mods that do issues like change up the system fonts or change the start-up message with a line-art picture of your alternative.

Updatable firmware dangled an irresistible temptation for people to start out reverse engineering…

Installing many of those mods is ridiculously straightforward. Normally at this level in a Hands On article that entails hacking some client electronics, issues get fairly heroic as I futz with the {hardware} or unravel a software-installation enigma. But not this time.

A modder often called whosmatt has created a Web-based patcher/flasher for the K5 that permits you to choose a number of mods from a menu. It then combines them with the official firmware to create a customized picture for importing (so long as you don’t exceed the whole quantity of reminiscence).

In reality, for those who’re utilizing Chrome, Edge, or Opera, you don’t even want to make use of Quansheng’s installer to add the firmware: You can replace the radio’s flash reminiscence straight from the browser by way of the built-in Web Serial API and the USB programming cable. (The directions say it will work solely on Linux and Windows, however I used to be in a position to do it utilizing a Mac as nicely.) Web Serial might do with some improved error dealing with, although. The first USB programming cable I used was a bit flaky, however the place Quansheng’s installer would halt and flag a communications error with a failed add, Web Serial would silently crash and take the entire Windows working system with it.

There are much more K5 mods accessible than are in whosmatt’s on-line patcher. If you need to play with these or begin writing your personal mods, Python-based toolchains exist to help you.

An illustration showing the arrangement of major subsystems in the UV-K5. A CPU is connected to an EEPROM, a keypad, a display screen, a 68- to 108-MHz FM receiver, and an RF transceiver integrated circuit. The RF IC is connected to the speaker, a microphone, and the amplification and filter circuits needed for transmission and reception, which are in turn connected to an antenna.

This block diagram of the UV-K5 relies on the work of Phil McAllen. Hams have reverse engineered many particulars of the radio’s {hardware} and software program.James Provost

Of course, permitting unfettered modding of the K5’s transceiver does elevate the potential of abuse. For instance, the Quansheng firmware blocks transmitting on the aviation band, to stop unlawful and dangerous interference. But this block might be eliminated by a patch (though to be a big risk, you’d probably want an amplifier to spice up the K5’s 5-watt sign).

However, hams have at all times had the power to behave badly, with or with out firmware blocks. Such blocks are handy for guarding in opposition to unintended abuse, however the fact is that except problematic alerts are persistent sufficient to permit a transmitter’s location to be triangulated, novice radio should proceed to depend on an honor system, whether or not which means not jamming a neighbor’s TV or transmitting on forbidden frequencies.

Many of probably the most thrilling makes use of of ham radio in the present day contain digital processing, and that processing is generally completed utilizing a pc linked to a transceiver. With embedded controllers changing into ever extra highly effective, the K5 modding scene factors towards a future the place extra processing occurs in-radio and the place you may add new capabilities the best way apps are added to smartphones. Here’s hoping producers embrace that future!

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