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Nuts & Volts Magazine (December 2016)

Spy Gear

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  


When I was a kid, the coolest electronics were miniature wireless microphones, video cameras, and other gear that could be stuffed into a ball point pen, the heel of a shoe, or a clock radio. Today, that sort of spy gear is mainstream. It most often involves home monitors, remote two-way video communications, and similar technology used to “spy” on the sitter, the kids, or elderly parents, or even the pet — all from the comfort of a smartphone.

Remote, audio, and video monitoring is much more than just cool technology. The convenience it provides is close to addicting. I can’t imagine going back to a time when I had to physically walk to the front door and peek through the peephole to see who was knocking. Or of wondering what the kids are doing in the back yard while I’m working on a project in my workshop.

Of course, when I was a kid, I never dreamed of having live streaming video available from hundreds of feet in the air. The closest I ever came to a quadcopter with video camera was a glider with a built-in film camera with a timer. If the glider happened to be directly overhead when the timer went off, I’d have a print of an aerial photo a week to 10 days later.

I’ve built several quadcopters over the past few years, and I’m still hooked on the aerial images. It doesn’t help my bank account since miniature streaming video cameras keep getting lighter and higher resolution every few months.

I used to have one of those spy microphones made of a handheld microphone and clear plastic parabolic reflector. I think they were sold as bird song recording microphones to get around the privacy issues. In any case, they worked. Today, however, highly directional amplified microphones can be found in any home video shop. Still, it’s a wonder what you can do with a plastic salad bowl, a directional microphone, and a good preamplifier.

Of course, the real spy gear today is necessarily secret. I’ve heard of using lasers reflected off of window panes that vibrate in response to the pressure waves associated with voice. Then, there’s the use of microwave radiation to pick up vocal movement from those in the path of the beam. There’s also the flying bird camera that looks like a wounded bird. And don’t forget the multi-million dollar imaging satellites that monitor activity on the surface.

I did a quick search for “spy gear” on Amazon, which turned up 6,020 items ranging from lie detectors, night vision goggles, walkie-talkies, and voice changers, to quadcopters and snake cameras. Even more impressive is that most of these spy devices are in the $20-$30 range. True, they’re toys, but the technology is still a bargain. Plus, there’s no better way to understand a voice changer or any other spy electronics than by performing a non-destructive teardown.

Modern “toy” spy technology touches on just about every aspect of electronics, from sensors and communications to microcontrollers. As such, spy technology is a fun vehicle for learning basic electronics. Even if you have your mind set on $2,500 army surplus night vision goggles, starting off with a $40 version sold in the toy store is probably the best way to go. You might be surprised at how little difference there is between the toy and professional versions of the technology.

So, go on. Order yourself a few electronic spy toys from Amazon or other retailer. It’s fun viewing electronics technology from a fresh perspective.  NV



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