Home Automation: Evolution of a Term

Home automation: for me the term recalls rich dudes in the ’80s who could turn off their garage lights with remote-control pads. The stereotype for that era was the more buttons your system had—even non-enabled ones—the more awesome it was, and by extension any luxury remote control had to be three times the size of any TV remote.

And it was a luxury–the hardware was expensive and most people couldn’t justify it. Kind of like the laser-disc player of home improvements. The technology was opaque to casual tinkering, it cost a lot to buy, and also was expensive to install.

The richie-rich stereotypes were reinforced with the technology seen in Bond movies and similar near-future flicks. Everything, even silly things, is motorized, with chrome and concrete everywhere. You, the hero, control everything in the house in the comfort of your acrylic half-dome chair. Kick the motorized blinds, dim the track lighting, and volume up the hi-fi!

This Moonraker-esque notion of home automation turned out to be something of a red herring, because home automation stopped being pretty forever ago; eventually it became available to everyone with a WiFi router in the form of Amazon Echo and Google Nest.

But the precise definition of the term home automation remains elusive. I mean, the essence of it. Let’s break it down.

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Raspberry Pi Home Automation for the Holidays

When you want to play around with a new technology, do you jump straight to production machinery? Nope. Nothing beats a simplified model as proof of concept. And the only thing better than a good proof of concept is an amusing proof of concept. In that spirit [Eric Tsai], alias [electronichamsters], built the world’s most complicated electronic gingerbread house this Christmas, because a home-automated gingerbread house is still simpler than a home-automated home.

fya59blixaq00y3-largeYeah, there are blinky lights and it’s all controlled by his smartphone. That’s just the basics. The crux of the demo, however, is the Bluetooth-to-MQTT gateway that he built along the way. A Raspberry Pi with a BTLE radio receives local data from BTLE sensors and pushes them off to an MQTT server, where they can in principle be read from anywhere in the world. If you’ve tried to network battery-powered ESP8266 nodes, you know that battery life is the Achilles heel. Swapping over to BTLE for the radio layer makes a lot of sense.

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IoT Coop Door Cares for Chickens, Tests Home Automation

Most chickens are pretty good at putting themselves to bed when the sun sets, and [Eddy]’s chickens are no exception. But they’re not terribly thoughtful about closing up after themselves, so he set about on a long-term project to automate the door of their coop.

An open door overnight leaves chickens and their food vulnerable to predation. Rather than handle the chore manually and risk one forgetful moment that could wipe out his flock, [Eddy] used a servo to power the door and an Arduino to control it. To keep track of bedtime and wakeup, a Raspberry Pi looks up the local civil dawn and twilight times online and tells the Arduino when the moment is at hand. The Pi cleverly caches the times for use the next day in case the WiFi connection is down, and also provides a web interface to check on the door’s status and manually override the cycle. Result: safe, happy chickens.

If all this seems a bit much for a simple job, [Eddy] agrees. But he’s using this as a testbed to develop a home automation framework that can be retasked at will. Sounds like he’s on the right track to us, but for more IoT animal husbandry tips, he’ll want to check out this small farm automation effort.

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Converting a TP Link Router to Mission Control for Cheap 433MHz Home Automation

[Jean-Christophe Rona] found himself with some free time and decided to finish a project he started two years ago, reverse engineering cheap 433MHz home automation equipment. He hopes to control his space heaters remotely, in preparation for a cold and, now, robotic winter.

In a previous life, he had reverse engineered the protocol these cheap wireless plugs, garage doors, and electric window shutters all use. This eventually resulted in a little library called rf-ctrl that can toggle and read GPIO pins in the correct way to control these objects. He has a few of the more popular protocols built into the library and even wrote a guide on how to do the reverse engineering yourself if you have need.

Having successfully interfaced with the plugs to use with his space heaters, [Jean-Christophe] went about converting a cheap TP Link router into a command center for them. Since TP Link never expected anyone to hammer their square peg into a mismatched hole, it takes a careful hand at soldering and some enamel wire to break out the GPIO pins, but it’s well within the average skill set.

The end result is a nicely contained blue box with a little antenna hanging out of it, and we hope, a warm abode for the coming winter.

Asking the Security Question of Home Automation

“Security” is the proverbial dead horse we all like to beat when it comes to technology. This is of course not unjust — we live in a technological society built with a mindset of “security last”. There’s always one reason or another proffered for this: companies need to fail fast and will handle security once a product proves viable, end users will have a harder time with setup and use if systems are secured or encrypted, and governments/law enforcement don’t want criminals hiding behind strongly secured systems.

This is an argument I don’t want to get bogged down in. For this discussion let’s all agree on this starting point for the conversation: any system that manages something of value needs some type of security and the question becomes how much security makes sense? As the title suggests, the technology du jour is home automation. When you do manage to connect your thermostat to your door locks, lights, window shades, refrigerator, and toilet, what type of security needs to be part of the plan?

Join me after the break for an overview of a few Home Automation security concerns. This article is the third in our series — the first asked What is Home Automation and the second discussed the Software Hangups we face.

These have all been inspired by the Automation challenge round of the Hackaday Prize. Document your own Automation project by Monday morning to enter. Twenty projects will win $1000 each, becoming finalists with a chance at the grand prize of $150,000. We’re also giving away Hackaday T-shirts to people who leave comments that help carry this discussion forward, so let us know what you think below.

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Home Pool Added to Home Automation

Anyone who owns their own pool knows it’s not as simple as filling it up with water and jumping in whenever you want. There’s pool covers to deal with, regular cleaning with the pool vacuum and skimmers, and of course, all of the chemicals that have to be added to keep the water safe. While there are automatic vacuums, there aren’t a whole lot of options for automating the pool chemicals. [Clément] decided to tackle this problem, eliminating one more task from the maintenance of his home. (Google Translate from French.)

The problem isn’t as simple as adding a set amount of chemicals at a predetermined time. The amount of chemicals that a pool owner has to add are dependent on the properties of the water, and the amount of time that’s elapsed since the previous chemical treatment, and the number of people who have been using the water, and whether or not the pool cover is in use. To manage all of this, [Clément] used an ORP/Redox probe and a pH probe, and installed both in the filtration system. The two probes are wired to an Arduino with an ethernet shield. The Arduino controls electrically actuated chemical delivery systems that apply the required amount of chemicals to the pool, keeping it at a nice, healthy balance.
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Home Automation Is Hung Up On Software

Home automation is a favorite in sci-fi, from Tony Stark’s Jarvis, to Rosie the robotic maid on the Jetsons, and even the sliding doors pulled by a stagehand Star Trek. In fact, most people have a favorite technology that should be just about ready to make an appearance in their own home. So where are these things? We asked you a few weeks ago and the overwhelming answer was that the software just isn’t there yet.

We’re toddling through the smart home years, having been able to buy Internet-connected garage doors and thermostats for some time now. But for the most part all of these systems are islands under one roof. Automation is the topic of the current challenge for the 2016 Hackaday Prize. Developing the glue that can hold all of these pieces together would make a great entry. Why doesn’t that glue yet exist?

I think the problem is really twofold. On the one hand, there isn’t a clear way to make many devices work under one software. Second, there really isn’t an obvious example of great user experience when it comes to home automation. Let’s look at why and talk about what will eventually get us there.

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