The Most Hackable Handheld Ham Radio But

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

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

Now it’s Quansheng that’s making a splash. The UV-K5, launched final yr, 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 nice. (I’m utilizing K5 right here to seek advice from each the unique K5 and the brand new K5(8) mannequin.) The important thing technical distinction between the 5R and K5 is a seemingly minor design alternative. With Baofeng’s 5R, the firmware resides in read-only reminiscence. However Quansheng shops the K5’s firmware in flash reminiscence and made it attainable to rewrite that reminiscence with the identical USB programming cable used to assign frequencies to preset channels.

This function has opened the door for enhancements to the K5 which are 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 in all probability 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. However the prospect of an updatable radio dangled an irresistible temptation for people to begin reverse engineering the firmware and {hardware} so they might strive writing their very own code. Modifications to this point have typically taken the type of patches to the official firmware, somewhat than wholesale rewrites. With the official firmware taking on many of the radio’s 64 kilobytes of flash reminiscence, such mods have to suit into lower than 3 KB. And the CPU will not be 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 may regulate the bandwidth, set a threshold for tuning into detected peaks robotically, and specify frequencies to disregard, amongst different issues. One other mod lets you change textual content messages between K5s. Different mods enhance the K5’s capability 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 substitute the start-up message with a line-art picture of your alternative.

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

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

A modder generally known as whosmatt has created a Net-based patcher/flasher for the K5 that permits you to decide a collection 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 truth, if you happen to’re utilizing Chrome, Edge, or Opera, you don’t even want to make use of Quansheng’s installer to add the firmware: You may replace the radio’s flash reminiscence instantly from the browser by way of the built-in Net Serial API and the USB programming cable. (The directions say this may work solely on Linux and Home windows, however I used to be in a position to do it utilizing a Mac as nicely.) Net Serial might do with some improved error dealing with, although. The primary 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, Net Serial would silently crash and take the entire Home windows working system with it.

There are much more K5 mods obtainable than are in whosmatt’s on-line patcher. If you wish 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

After all, permitting unfettered modding of the K5’s transceiver does elevate the potential for abuse. For instance, the Quansheng firmware blocks transmitting on the aviation band, to forestall unlawful and dangerous interference. However this block could be eliminated by a patch (though to be a big menace, you’d possible want an amplifier to spice up the K5’s 5-watt sign).

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

Lots of the most thrilling makes use of of ham radio immediately contain digital processing, and that processing is generally performed utilizing a pc related to a transceiver. With embedded controllers turning 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 features the best way apps are added to smartphones. Right here’s hoping producers embrace that future!

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