Cheap Cat Feeder Enhances Sleep

We’ll admit it: we sometimes overcomplicate things. Look at [Peter Weissbrod’s] automated cat feeder, for example. It isn’t anything more than a bottle, a servo, some odds and ends, and an Arduino. However, it lets him sleep in without his cat waking him for service.

We looked at the code and thought, “This thing will just dispense food all the time! That’s not what you want!” Then we looked closer. [Peter] uses a common household timer to just turn the device on in the morning, let it run for a bit, and then turns it off. You can see a video of the mechanism, below.

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Police Want Alexa Data; People Begin to Realize It’s Listening

It is interesting to see the wide coverage of a police investigation looking to harvest data from the Amazon Echo, the always-listening home automation device you may know as Alexa. A murder investigation has led them to issue Amazon a warrant to fork over any recordings made during the time of a crime, and Amazon has so far refused.

Not too long ago, this is the sort of news would have been discussed on Hackaday but the rest of my family would have never heard about it. Now we just need to get everyone to think one step beyond this and we’ll be getting somewhere.

What isn’t being discussed here is more of concern to me. How many of you have a piece of tape over your webcam right now? Why did you do that? It’s because we know there are compromised systems that allow attackers to turn on the camera remotely. Don’t we have to assume that this will eventually happen with the Echo as well? Police warrants likely to affect far less users than account breaches like the massive ones we’ve seen with password data.

All of the major voice activated technologies assert that their products are only listening for the trigger words. In this case, police aren’t just looking for a recording of someone saying “Alexa, help I’m being attacked by…” but for any question to Alexa that would put the suspect at the scene of the crime at a specific time. Put yourself in the mind of a black hat. If you could design malware to trigger on the word “Visa” you can probably catch a user giving their credit card number over the phone. This is, of course, a big step beyond the data already stored from normal use of the system.

It’s not surprising that Amazon would be served a warrant for this data. You would expect phone records (although not recordings of the calls) to be reviewed in any murder case. Already disclosed in this case is that a smart water meter from the home reported a rather large water usage during the time of the murder — a piece of evidence that may be used to indicate a crime scene clean-up effort.

What’s newsworthy here is that people who don’t normally think about device security are now wondering what their voice-controlled tech actually hears them say. And this is a step in the right direction.

Cat vs. Human Escalates with Armor-Plated Feeder

Wars generally increase innovation as the opposing sides try to kill each other in ever more efficient ways. Even the soft war waged daily between felines and their human servants results in innovation, to wit we offer this armor-plated automated cat feeder.

The conflict between [Sprocket H.G. Shopcat] and her human [Quinn Dunki] began with a thoughtfully provided automatic food dispenser. Like human vending machine customers who witness a just-purchased bag of Cheesy Poofs dangling on the end of the dispense auger, [Sprocket] learned that the feeder would dispense a few fishy nuggets when nudged. [Quinn] embarked on an iterative design process to control [Sprocket]’s off-schedule snacking. Fastening the feeder firmly to the floor, and adding obstructions to prevent her from pawing up the dispense chute — nothing seemed to stop the clever feline’s raids. [Quinn] then pulled out all the stops and whipped up a [Sprocket]-safe enclosure for the feeder from 1/8″ plate steel and copper. This seems to have put the cat back on the straight and narrow, and it doesn’t look half bad either.

All kidding aside, [Quinn]’s approach to this problem is pretty instructive. Careful observations informed several cycles of reasonable modifications until it became clear that only the most extreme solution would work. There’ve been tons of cat feeders here before, from the simple to the complex, but we think all would fall prey to the clever [Sprocket] without a little up-armoring.

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How Has Amazon Managed To Make Hackers Love Alexa?

Our hackspace has acquired an Amazon Dot, courtesy of a member. It mostly seems to be used as a source of background music, but it has also spawned a seemingly never-ending new entertainment in which the hackspace denizens ceaselessly bait their new electronic companion with ever more complex and esoteric requests. From endless rephrasing and careful enunciation of obscure early reggae artists to try to settle a musical argument to hilarious mis-hearing on the part of our silicon friend, the fun never stops. “Alexa, **** off!” it seems results in “I’m sorry, I can’t find a device of that name on this network”.

amazon-dot-always-listeningThat is just the experience of one hackspace, but it evidently does not end there. Every other day it seems that new projects using Alexa pass through the Hackaday timeline, so it looks as though Amazon’s online personal assistant has been something of a hit within our community.

Fair enough, you might say, we’re always early adopters of any new technology. But it’s a development over which I wonder; am I alone in finding it surprising? It’s worth taking a moment to look at the subject.

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Voice Activated Fireplace Is As Cool As It Gets

A fireplace can add a cozy, relaxed atmosphere  — and a touch of style — to any home. Redditor [hovee] saw the opportunity to add some flair to his gas fireplace by making it voice activated. Check out the video of it in action below.

Google Home and Google Assistant provides the voice recognition component. A Raspberry Pi 3 with Home Assistant does the legwork. An iTach TCP/IP-to-Contact-Closure relay toggles the fireplace, and an IFTTT account connected to Google Assistant brings it all together.

[hovee] then ran some thick 16/2 wire from the relay network port to the fireplace’s remote receiver circuit to actually turn it on. Some custom code and configuration of the Home Assistant files was necessary, but [hovee] has shown his work, with some tips besides, if you want to throw together a similar setup. It’s a help if your fireplace has a ‘remote’ setting, and a double bonus if there is documentation for the fireplace to be found that will help with the build process.

Once done, all you need to do is kick back with your favorite beverage in the lap of home automated luxury. Just be sure you have a backup to turn off your fireplace just in case your setup goes the way of Skynet. While you’re at it, you can set up your fireplace to save energy as well.

[via /r/homeautomation]

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DIY Rocket Mass Heater Build Log For Commercial Greenhouse

[Bigelow Brook Farm] has a cool geodesic dome greenhouse that needs to stay warm in the winter. There are a lot of commercial solutions for greenhouse heating, but if you’re the kind of person who research and develops solutions for aquaponics, a greener solution may have more appeal.

A rocket mass heater is a combination of a rocket stove and underfloor heating. A rocket stove works by having such a strong draft created by the heat rising up the chimney that the flames can’t crawl up the fuel and burn in the open air, creating a controlled burn zone. Unfortunately, with just a plain rocket stove a lot of heat is lost to the atmosphere needlessly. You only need enough to create the draft.

The mass part solves this. It runs the exhaust under the floor and through radiators. This passively retains a lot of heat inside the space to be heated. It’s a bit of a trick to balance the system so it puts as much heat into the space as possible without stalling, which can be dangerous due to carbon monoxide, among other things. Once the balance is achieved the user gets a stove that can burn fuel very effectively and best of all passively.

[Bigelow Brook Farms] have been working on their heater for quite some time. We really enjoy their test driven development and iteration. They have really interesting autopsies when a component of the heater fails and needs replacing. Right now they have a commercial sized operation heated by their latest iteration and it’s completely passive, being gravity fed. Video after the break.

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Stairwell Lights Keep Toddler with Night-Blindness Safe

A devastating diagnosis for a young child is every parent’s worst nightmare. All too often there’s nothing that can be done, but occasionally there’s a window of opportunity to make things better for the child, even if we can’t offer a cure. In that case even a simple hack, like a rapid response stairwell light to help deal with night-blindness, can make a real difference.

[Becca] isn’t yet a year old, but she and her parents carry a heavy burden. She was born with Usher Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disease that affects hearing and vision to different degrees. In [Becca]’s case, she was born profoundly deaf and will likely lose her sight by the time she’s 10 or so. Her dad [Jake] realized that the soon-to-be-toddler was at risk due to a dark stairwell and the night-blindness that accompanies Usher, so he came up with a simple tech solution to the problem.

He chose Philips Hue LED light strips to run up the stringer of the stairs controlled by a Raspberry Pi. Originally he planned to use IFTTT for but the latency resulted in the light not switching on fast enough. He ended up using a simple PIR motion sensor which the Pi monitors and then uses the Hue API to control the light. This will no doubt give him a platform for future capabilities to help [Becca].

We’ve covered a few builds where parents have hacked solutions for their kids, like this custom media center for the builder’s autistic son. We suspect [Jake] has a few more tricks up his sleeve to help [Becca], and we’re looking forward to seeing how she does.