What is Software-defined Radio used for?

Software-defined Radio technologies have become increasingly accessible these days with low-cost devices ranging in price between $20 and $300 and offering varying levels of performance.

Here is a list describing some Software-defined Radio applications – everything from Radio Astronomy to Animal Tracking. We are always adding to this list, so if you see any interesting applications, please drop us a note.

Radio Astronomy

The folks at West Virginia University have been working on the Digital Signal Processing in Radio Astronomy project and have put together a guide including detailed instructions on how to build a Radio Telescope. A brief summary of the project and the people behind it is provided here.


The RTL-SDR is capable of detecting and decoding signals from an Insulin Pump. It gets a little scary when you realize that the transmit capability of the HackRF can be used to withhold a scheduled dose of insulin.

Medical Imaging

SDRs can be used to replace expensive Vector Network Analyzers used in the research and development of medical imaging systems.

Airplane Tracking

ADS-B technology was developed for tracking airplanes and is used by services such as Flightradar24. These services aggregate data from a number of receivers – some of which are SDRs, to provide this information. With SDR you can build your own receiver.

Drone Detection

The use of drones has grown significantly in popularity over the years. While they are fun to use, drones can present a threat to people, airplanes and more. SDR can be used for drone detection and even jamming drone communication thereby impeding their ability to operate.

Phone detection

Software-defined radios can be used to detect signals from cellphones, decode GSM, 3G, 4G and 5G signals. SDRs can also be used to detect where a phone might be – either indoors or outdoors.

Wildlife Tracking

Software-defined radios can be mounted on board a UAV and used to track VHF equipped wildlife. SDR provides a significant advantage in being able to adapt to different radio protocols from these VHF radios and also to operate in frequency bands other than VHF.

Amateur Radio

Amateur or Ham radio is a broad term that describes the use of radio spectrum for non-commercial applications including recreation, education, training and even emergency communication. This is a large global community that is now adopting various SDRs into their toolkit.

AIS Tracking

Automatic Identification System (AIS) is used to track marine vessels. The RTL-SDR can be used to receive the AIS signals and the ship positions can be plotted on a map.

GNSS Detection

SDRs such as the USRP and HackRF can be used to receive and decode Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals. These include GPS, GLONASS, and other regional navigation satellite systems.

Tracking Bats

This would fall under the Wildlife tracking, but the application and tracking system is so interesting that we felt like breaking it out into its own category! The bats are equipped with lightweight and low power tags while SDRs are used as ground stations for detecting and processing the beacons.

Satellite Systems

SDRs have been used to decode weather satellite images from NOAA, and GOES. As SDR-based communication systems are very small and flexible, they can also be used to implement communication systems on-board satellites.


SDRs are the ideal tool for teaching and experimenting with concepts in Communication Systems Engineering. Analog Devices ADALM Pluto SDR, introduced in 2018 has excellent support from MATLAB and LabVIEW for education and there’s an entire free book that has been developed around this hardware.

Art Projects

SDRs enable easy visualization of the electromagnetic spectrum through waterfall plots and data superimposed and layered in many interesting ways. Here’s a story of an artist who is using radio technology to broadcast art that can be visualized using SDRs.


Software-defined radio has many applications – some of which we have covered in this article. At a price point of only $25 it is a very accessible technology and easy to get started with. You will want to check out our article on the best software-defined radios to get your own SDR and start experimenting!

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