Playing with Pi-Star

By Toshen, KEØFHS – last updated Dec 2017
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Pi-Star Digital Voice

Nice to meet you, Pi!

Updated for Pi-Star 3.4.8, Dashboard 20171206.

After I heard some good things about Pi-Star from another D-STAR enthusiast, I decided to give it a try. After playing around with it for a while, I found that I really like it, so much so that as of Nov 2017, Pi-Star became my default hotspot software for the two digital radio modes I use: D-STAR and DMR. It also handles YSF and even P25 (when used with an MMDVM-capable modem like the ZUMspot). If only it would do the dishes and take out the trash, too!

At this time, I'm using Pi-Star with a ZUMspot mounted on a Raspberry Pi Zero W. Initially, I used it with a DVMEGA-DUAL mounted on a Raspberry Pi 3. They're both great combinations.

Pi-Star dashboard

Andy Taylor, MWØMWZ, the driving force behind Pi-Star, has this to say on the Pi-Star website:

Pi-Star can be what ever you want it to be, from a simple single mode hotsport running simplex providing you with access to the increasing number of Digital Voice networks, up to a public duplex multimode repeater!

Jump to Pi-Star – Summary thoughts.

1) Learning about Pi-Star

Pi-Star is relatively easy to set up as a personal hotspot, so don't be put off by the length of this page. To get quickly up and running, just follow the easy steps outlined in a video by Craig, W1MSG: Pi-Star initial setup.

Even though I was able to get Pi-Star working quickly, I wanted to understand more about all of the many available configuration options and other features, so I continued researching and writing this article as a personal reference based on what I'm learning.

Disclaimer: These are my personal notes and opinions based on my own experience using Pi-Star, as well as by learning from what others are sharing. I'm not affiliated with the Pi-Star project in any way except as an appreciative user. I've tried to be as accurate as possible, but there may be things I'm mistaken about, and that's entirely on me. That said, please let me know if you come across anything needing correction.

1b) Other good resources for learning about Pi-Star

2) Downloading Pi-Star

First things first: grab the latest Pi-Star image designed for your hotspot from Pi-Star Downloads. I grabbed the one for the Raspberry Pi (RPi).

Pi-Star downloads page

In addition to the RPi image, there are Pi-Star images available for FriendlyARM NanoPi, NanoPi Air, Hardkernel ODROID, and Xunlong Software Orange Pi.

3) Flashing Pi-Star

Unzip the Pi-Star image zip file you downloaded, and then flash the image file itself (for example, Pi-Star_RPi_V3.4.8_01-Dec-2017.img) to a microSD card. I did this using, for the first time, Etcher SD Card Imager¹.

Etcher for Windows

[1] Etcher SD Card Imager is an open source project by available for Mac, Linux, and Windows with modern design that is totally easy to use. Thanks team for bringing SD card imaging into the 21st century!

4) Booting up Pi-Star

Boot up Pi-Star in the manner that's appropriate for your hardware. After inserting the microSD card with the Pi-Star image into my Raspberry Pi 3 with the DVMEGA hat and, Important!, plugging the RPi into my network router, I powered it on, starting Pi-Star for the first time.

Note: There's also a way to preload your wireless network settings. See 10h) Manually adding WiFi settings to RPi.

I have a display attached to my Raspberry Pi, so I watched the Raspbian Jessie Linux startup process until it reached a login prompt, which took a minute or so. However, do NOT log in via the RPi; rather, jump onto a computer connected to the same network—Pi-Star runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux—and browse to http://pi-star.local/, where you'll be greeted by a "No Mode Defined" screen (normal for first start).

No Mode Defined

At this point, you can either click the Configuration link or wait 10 seconds to be automatically redirected. The Configuration view requires authentication: the factory default user name is pi-star and the password is raspberry.

Authentication Required

Note: An important security step that should be part of your initial configuration of Pi-Star is changing that default password, which is discussed below: 5j) Remote Access Password.

5) Performing initial Pi-Star configuration

After authentication, the Configuration view is displayed. Here's the set of options that are displayed in the top part of the window.

Basic configuration settings

5a) Control Software

5b) MMDVMHost Configuration

5c) General Configuration

If any changes made, click Apply Changes.

Radio/Modem Type do-over

When I saved after making changes in General Configuration section, I received a WARNING message: "The Modem selection section has been updated, Please re-select your modem from the list." I presume this was because new or revised items had been added to the list. After re-selecting the radio/modem type and re-applying changes, everything was fine.

Digital mode configuration settings

Here's the second screen full of settings.

Digital mode configuration settings

5d) DMR Configuration

If you want to use only a specific system, choose a specific BrandMeister or DMR+ master; you'll see only options for that system, and everything is simpler. If you want to use DMRGateway, choose it as your DMR master, and then you'll see options for BrandMeister, DMR+, and XLX.²

[2] See also the notes:

If any changes made, click Apply Changes.

5e) D-STAR Configuration

[3] X-Reflectors running either older versions of their operating software or the FreeStar operating software (for example, XRF720, a Colorado statewide reflector) require port forwarding in order for Pi-Star to connect to them. This doesn't apply to X-Reflectors running the newer XLX software, for example, the XRF002 reflector. If your router doesn't support uPNP, you don't want to enable the "Use DPlus for XRF" option, and you want to manually set up port forwarding, see the note, Port forwarding.

If any changes made, click Apply Changes.

5f) Yaesu System Fusion Configuration

If any changes made, click Apply Changes.

5g) P25 Configuration

If any changes made, click Apply Changes.

Additional configuration settings

Here's the final screen full of settings.

Additional configuration settings

5h) Firewall Configuration

Used for accessing the dashboard remotely, from outside your network. Per Andy Taylor in the Pi-Star Users Support Group: "These settings tell the uPNP daemon to request port forwards from your router. If you don't use uPNP, they have NO effect."

If any changes made, click Apply Changes.

5i) Wireless Configuration

To set up WiFi, click Configure WiFi.

WiFi configuration
Add WiFi network

You can scan for open networks, find the one you want, and click Connect. Alternatively, for example, if the scan doesn't find the network you want to use, you can add a network manually:

  1. Click Add Network.
  2. Type the SSID (wireless network name).
  3. Type the PSK (password to access the wireless network).
  4. Click Save (and connect).
    Note: This step tripped me up initially. After saving, Pi-Star basically froze waiting to reconnect. I had to shut down and power off my DVMEGA + RPi, disconnect the network cable from the RPi, and also shut down the Pi-Star dashboard and power off my computer, before restarting everything. After that, it all started working smoothly (and wirelessly).
  5. Optionally, you can add additional wireless network connections.

5j) Remote Access Password

Used both for accessing the Pi-Star Admin and Configuration settings, and for SSH access.

Remote Access Password configuration

In order to protect your settings and network, I strongly recommend changing the password from the default to something stronger and more challenging to hack. It can be a scary world out there!

6) Running Pi-Star

Once you've done the initial configuration, running Pi-Star is easy peasy. Just start your hotspot or modem and give the Pi-Star RPi image a minute or two to fully boot up. As long as you have your radio set up correctly, you should be able to start using your radio for digital voice mode activity.

Optionally, you can browse to http://pi-star.local/ on any computer connected to your network to open the Pi-Star dashboard. You'll see the mode(s) you've configured to run enabled (green), and you can monitor activity.

Important! If you're using D-STAR, you must set up your radio correctly in order to use Pi-Star successfully. It doesn't work to use DV mode. Instead, you must set up RPT1, RPT2, and the Offset (0.000). Sometimes, this is referred to as Duplex mode; for the TH-D74A, this is known as D-STAR Repeater (DR) mode.

Craig, W1MSG, has another short video that addresses this: D-STAR on the Pi-Star image. And if you want more detailed info, see my write-up, Programming the TH-D74A for D-STAR. While my doc is specific to the Kenwood TH-D74A, much of the info applies to any D-STAR radio.

Dashboard view

Here's what the dashboard looks like with D-STAR mode enabled after it's been running for a while (showing activity on the D-STAR International Net on REF0001 C, which is on Sunday night or Monday morning, depending on time zone).

Pi-Star dashboard

Admin view

You can switch to the Admin view (requires authentication) to see more info, like Gateway Hardware Information and Service Status. This can be helpful for troubleshooting, though I haven't had to do much of that yet.

If you're running D-STAR mode, you also have the option of changing the reflector and linking/unlinking right from the Pi-Star Admin page.

Pi-Star Admin console

Live Logs view

From the Admin view, you can select the Live Logs view, which starts a more detailed live logging process that can be useful for troubleshooting.

Changing active mode(s)

If you want to change which modes are active, just hop over to the Configuration view and make the necessary changes in the MMDVMHost Configuration section.

7) Backing up or restoring Pi-Star

After you've done all the work of setting up Pi-Star just the way you want, it's a good idea to back it up.

In Admin view, click the Backup/Restore link.

Pi-Star Backup/Restore link

In the Backup/Restore view, click Download Configuration, and then choose a location to safely tuck your work away so that you can easily restore if things ever go sideways, for example, if you decide to play around in the Expert Editor (discussed below) and muck things up totally.

Initiating a Pi-Star configuration backup or restore

8) Rebooting or shutting down Pi-Star

Pi-Star provides a graceful way to reboot or shut down your hotspot. In Admin view, click the Power link.

Pi-Star Power link

In the Power view, click Reboot or Shutdown. Give your hotspot or modem a couple minutes to complete rebooting or powering down.

Initiating a Pi-Star reboot or shutdown

9) Updating and upgrading Pi-Star

One of the nice things about Pi-Star is that it's updated on a regular basis to add new features and options, including MMDVMhost updates.

Per Andy Taylor in the Pi-Star Users Support Group: " just for info here, MMDVMHost is updated reasonably often, Pi-Star will pull in the updates over night after I release them, or you can press update on the dashboard to pull in the updates if you want it before the nightly pull. I don't update the binaries daily, but I do try and track the upstream source reasonably often."

Running Pi-Star Update updates the dashboard and binaries. The update process doesn't upgrade the operating system, services, and packages (there's a manual process for that outlined further below). Upgrades are released less frequently.

If you don't leave Pi-Star running overnight or you want to manually launch an update, in the Admin view, click Update.

Update Pi-Star

In the Update view, you'll see the process running. Let it run until it's totally finished.

Pi-Star updating process
Pi-Star updating process finished

To upgrade the operating system, services, and packages, you need to SSH into Pi-Star and run an upgrade (you can run this in the default read-only mode):

  1. First, update the dashboard and binaries either by running Pi-Star Update in the dashboard, or by running an update after you SSH into Pi-Star:
    sudo pistar-update
    Allow the update process to run until you see:
    Updates complete, sleeping for a few seconds before making the disk Read-Only
  2. Next, upgrade the operating system, services, and packages:
    sudo pistar-upgrade
  3. Run the process as many times as needed until the system reports you are on the most recent version:
    Detected Pi-Star #.#.# running on RPi hardware, attached to dvmpid modem...
    You are already running the latest version...
    Sleeping a few seconds before making the disk Read-Only...

To view the update changes, visit the Pi-Star Downloads page and scroll down to Change Log.

10) Advanced Pi-Star configuration

Thanks to Janos, YO6GZI, for sharing this hint about Pi-Star with me: you can access a set of "Expert Editor" tabs by appending the admin URL with "/expert." You'll see a **WARNING** message:

Pi-Star Expert Editor

"Please keep in mind when making your edits here, that these config files can be updated by the dashboard, and that your edits can be over-written. It is assumed that you already know what you are doing editing the files by hand, and that you understand what parts of the files are maintained by the dashboard."

See the Pi-Star notes page for some advanced configuration notes.

11) Pi-Star – Summary thoughts

Thumbs up!

I really like Pi-Star!

As of Nov 2017, it became my default hotspot software for the two digital radio modes I use: D-STAR and DMR. It also handles YSF and even P25 (when used with an MMDVM-capable modem like the ZUMspot).

At this time, I'm using Pi-Star with a DVMEGA-DUAL mounted on a Raspberry Pi 3 (RPi). I intend to try other combinations as well.

Pi-Star connected to X-Reflector

11a) The dashboard is great

I'm actually surprised by how much I like the dashboard. I thought it would be a "nice-to-have" feature, but it turns out that it's great to be able to watch the activity on a reflector, especially during a net. It's also nice to be able to easily look up people's QRZ pages.

11b) Actively developed and supported

Another thing I really appreciate is how actively and enthusiastically Andy Taylor and team are developing and supporting Pi-Star; they're really responsive to the community of Pi-Star users.

11c) Totally won over

The moment I became totally won over was when Andy documented a method for updating the DVMEGA firmware via Pi-Star while it's mounted on the RPi. That was a pain point for me—having to take apart my hotspot and mount the DVMEGA-DUAL on my BlueStack board every time I wanted to update its firmware—so I really appreciate this much easier method. Thanks, Andy and team!

My appreciation was further solidified when, as of version 3.4.8, a new "Use DPlus for XRF" setting was introduced in the D-STAR Configuration section for people like me who don't have a router that supports automatic uPNP port forwarding and who don't want to manually set up port forwarding. The new setting enables linking to X-Reflectors that run either older versions of their operating software or the FreeStar operating software, for example, XRF720, a Colorado statewide reflector I like to connect to. Thanks again, Andy and team!

11d) Worth supporting

Obviously, Andy and team are pouring a lot of energy, intelligence, and heart into creating Pi-Star, which they're giving away freely to digital hams. There's also a robust community of hams contributing to helping Pi-Star users via the Pi-Star Users Support Group. Per Andy:

And now to you dear reader, you are probably reading this because you already run Pi-Star, or you are about to start. Without you, this project wouldn't be where it is today, a shining beacon of what can be when a few like-minded people with similar interests are prepared to set monetary gain aside and just give away their work. You might not be a coder, you might not feel that you understand digital radio enough to give anything back, but that time will come. Enjoy the hobby, tell your friends what we got right with Pi-Star, and tell us when it does something it shouldn't.

TX some support!

If you end up appreciating Pi-Star as much as I do, consider supporting this work by contributing to the support group or by sending some monetary support their way toward the running costs of the server / build / test environments that they're using to make Pi-Star what it is.

For more info, see Pi-Star – How can I help?.

Thanks for creating a really nice solution, Andy!

Notes »

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