Most of us will have a hazy idea of how radar works to detect aircraft by listening for reflected radio waves. And we’ll probably also know that while radar can detect aircraft, it’s not the most efficient or useful tool in the hands of an air traffic controller. Aircraft carry transponders so that those on the ground can have a clearer picture of the skies, as each one reports its identity, altitude, and position. [Yeo Kheng Meng] was lucky enough to secure a non-functioning aircraft transponder and do a teardown, and his write-up makes for interesting reading as he explains their operation before diving into the hardware.
The 1978 and 1979 date codes on the various integrated circuits and transistors identify it as having been made in 1979, so not having a CPU is not entirely unsurprising given its age. Instead this is a straightforward device that responds to pulse lengths of different timings with sequential bursts of data.
[Yeo Kheng] is mystified by the RF strip and associated components, which look to us like a typical crystal oscillator and frequency multiplier strip from that era, along with some screened boxes that probably contain cavity filters and given that there is also a high voltage power supply present, a tube RF power amplifier. GHz-capable semiconductors were quite exotic in the 1970s, while high-frequency tubes had by then a long history.
It’s evident that the tech behind aircraft transponders has moved on since this unit was built, but one thing’s certain. Hackers in 1978 would have had to go to a lot of work to listen to them and interpret the results, while here in the 21st century it’s something we do routinely.