GRCon17 Review

Tom Rondeau

I recently attended GRCon17. Seven years ago, I helped create GNU Radio Conference, or GRCon, at the University of Pennsylvania. Every year, the conference has grown and become more exciting and impactful. This event always was meant to improve the GNU Radio Project and SDR community by providing a place for people to get together, exchange ideas, and pump in new energy for the Project in the coming year. This year’s GRCon17 in San Diego was a huge success in these respects. As has become the tradition for the gathering, this one was both fun and rife with useful information, and included some inspiring talks. The GRCon17 organizers pulled together a great program from (and for) the community.

Clearly evident to me this year was what I call “theory to implementation.” There were a number of talks that started with basic theory of signal processing and ended with doing something involving real signals. This is a concept that GNU Radio is designed around and uniquely suited to, and we saw more that “theory to implementation” work this year than ever before. On top of that, this year’s conference also featured the first-ever GRCon Capture the Flag (CTF) tournament. The CTF was a really fun way to get people active, keep up the energy, and push the attendees to participate in new and creative ways. I didn’t participate, but it looked like a lot of fun and I hope to see this continue into future conferences.

We also did quite a lot at GRCon for DARPA. I was there supporting and talking about the DARPA Bay Area SDR Hackfest. All presentations from the conference can be found here, including the presentation that I gave on Thursday morning as an overview to the Hackfest. During this presentation, we showed a working version of the new radio-to-UAS communication software, gr-uaslink, which we released to support the Hackfest The main event for us, however, was that afternoon’s workshop where we offered a deep-dive into the hardware and code we’re preparing for November’s event.

At the workshop, we allowed people to look at the drone and SDR system we’ve been putting together, and we walked attendees through the steps of uploading, installing, and running gr-uaslink. Part of this procedure includes installing and running a drone simulator that accepts commands from gr-uaslink so that anyone can start exploring the SDR links without needing a drone and the full hardware setup. I would estimate that well more than half of the workshop attendees managed to get the full gr-uaslink to simulator working, which is really quite an accomplishment for these kinds of hands-on workshops. There were two big challenges faced during the installation. The first problem is the different ways people had installed GNU Radio, and some of these made it difficult to get all of the necessary software to link up properly. A bigger problem a significant issue for much of the open source community: confusion between Python 2 and Python 3. Some workshop attendees were able to work through this, but these were time-consuming processes that made it hard for people to complete the full exercise in the allotted time.

The workshop achieved the goals of keeping momentum going for the Hackfest, which is now less than two months away, and for bringing more people to the point where they now start messing with ideas about SDR links for flight control and to prepare for the Hackfest by working directly with the code. We are already getting some feedback on the code that is mostly for fixes/cleanup on the Github repository.

Aside from the Hackfest event at GRCon17, DARPA also held an RF Data Workshop, led by Paul Tilghman, which was relevant to his new Radio Frequency Machine Learning Systems (RFMLS) program. In his workshop, Paul discussed the challenges of managing, storing, and distributing RF data with the context the machine-learning data sets he envisions for the RFMLS program. Because these data sets will need to encompass enormous geographic expanses and swaths of spectrum, they bring with them some unique characteristics. By the end of the RF Data workshop, some attendees indicated they would take steps toward creating such data sets.

GRCon17 proved its continued relevance both to the GNU Radio community and the RF/wireless community at large. It’s having a large impact and brings together a lot of experts for from around the world, which was why it was such an appropriate place for DARPA to run both the Hackfest and RF Data workshops. I suspect this will continue to be the case, and I look forward to next year’s GRCon!