Ask Hackaday: Is Amazon Echo the Future of Home Automation?

Unless you’ve been living under a case of 1 farad capacitors, you’ve heard of the Amazon Echo. Roughly the size of two cans of beans, the Echo packs quite a punch for such a small package. It’s powered by a Texas Instrument DM3725 processor riding on 256 megs of RAM and 4 gigs of SanDisk iNAND ultra flash memory. Qualcomm Atheros takes care of the WiFi and Bluetooth, and various TI chips take care of the audio codecs and amplifiers.

What’s unique about Echo is its amazing voice recognition. While the “brains” of the Echo exist somewhere on the Internets, the hardware for this circuitry is straight forward. Seven, yes seven microphones are positioned around the top of the device. They feed into four Texas Instrument 92dB SNR low-power stereo ADCs. The hardware and software make for a very capable voice recognition that works from anywhere in the room. For the output sound, two speakers are utilized – a woofer and a tweeter. They’re both powered via a TI 15 watts class D amplifier. Check out this full tear down for more details of the hardware.

circuit board

Now that we have a good idea of the hardware, we have to accept the bad news that this is a closed source device. While we’ve seen other hacks where people poll the to-do list through the unofficial API, it still leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, the wake word, or the word which signals the Echo to start listening to commands, is either “Alexa” or “Amazon”. There is no other way to change this, even though it should be easily doable in the software. It should be obvious that people will want to call it “Computer” or “Jarvis”. But do not fret my hacker friends, for I have good news!

It appears that Amazon sees (or had seen all along) that home automation is the future of the Echo. They now officially support Philips Hue and Belkin WeMo gadgets. The Belkin WeMo, which is no stranger to the hacker’s workbench, has a good handle on home automation already, making the ability to control things in your house with the Echo tantalizingly close. See the video below where I test it out. Now, if you’re not excited yet, you haven’t heard of the WeMo Maker, a device which they claim will let you “Control nearly any low-voltage electronics device“. While the WeMo Maker is not supported as of yet, it surely will be in the near future.

We know it sucks that all of this is closed source. But it sure is cool! So here’s the question: Is the Echo the future of home automation? Sure, it has its obvious flaws, and one would think home automation is not exactly Amazon’s most direct business model (they just want you to buy stuff). However, it works very well as a home automation core. Possibility better than anything out there right now – both closed and open source.

Do you think Amazon would ever open the door to letting the Echo run open source modules which allow the community to add control of just about any wireless devices? Do you think that doing so would crown Amazon the king of home automation in the years to come?

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Reverse-Engineering a Wireless BBQ Thermometer

[Bob] has his own smoker and loves to barbecue, but doesn’t like spending all day checking on his smoker’s temperature. He thought about building his own wireless thermometer setup, which would have been pretty awesome, but then he had a better idea: why not hack an existing wireless barbecue thermometer? [Bob] purchased an off-the-shelf wireless BBQ thermometer and reverse-engineered its wireless protocol to make his own wireless thermometer setup.

The first problem [Bob] encountered was figuring out the frequency of the transmitter. Thankfully [Bob] had access to a spectrum analyzer, where he discovered the transmitter was running at 433.92MHz (a cheap RTL-SDR dongle would also get the job done). Next, [Bob] started digging into the manufacturer’s FCC filings and found that it actually called out the transmit frequency, which matched the transmit frequency he measured. He also found a ton of other helpful information in the filing, like a block diagram and full transmitter schematic.

[Bob] used a Radiometrix RF module to receive the thermometer’s signal. He hooked up the output to his logic analyzer to start decoding the protocol. After a quick visual analysis, [Bob] found that the signal was a preamble followed 13 bytes of Manchester-encoded data being transmitted at 2kbps. He started collecting data with known temperatures, created a table of the data, and began looking for patterns. After quite a bit of searching [Bob] was successfully able to find and parse the temperature values out of the data stream. [Bob] did a great job of documenting his process and results, so check out his writeup if you want to try it out yourself.

WiFi Sucks for RC Vehicles, Upgrade to 3G

This is the Kyosho Blizzard, a tracked remote control vehicle that’s a blast to take out in the rapidly retreating snowpack. [Antibore] was interested in performance testing the range of the thing. It includes a camera that streams video back to a tablet or smartphone. Both the video and the controls use WiFi for communications. As he expected, the rover loses control signal at about fifty meters, with the video has a disappointing twenty meter limit. His workaround is to saddle the crawler with a 3G bridge. Not a bad idea that may be feasibly completed with hardware you have on hand.

In this case he grabbed a Beagleboard-XM. It runs embedded Linux and has USB ports which is perfect for the other two parts of the added hardware: a Huawei E230 3G dongle and a WiFi dongle. This means no alterations to the rover were necessary. He set up OpenVPN and performed a few other tweaks. The WiFi signal is constant, as the transmitter and receiver are both attached to the rover. We just wonder about the latency of the 3G traffic. Let’s hear your thoughts on that in the comments below.

We would be remiss if we didn’t tie-in the potential of this hack. Previously this winter we saw a Kyosho with a 3D printed snow thrower attached to the front. More snow removal power, arguably unlimited range… you can do your entire block from the comfort of the couch. To the Future!

Internet Knows Your Every Move Thanks to IKEA and ESP8266

[terenceang] got his feet wet with the ESP8266 WiFi module by hacking up an IKEA Molgan PIR light. The stock PIR light simply lights when motion is detected. [terenceang] added some extra functionality to it by making it send notifications to his phone as well.

The default configuration of the stock PIR light was to only work at night. This is done with a photo diode. It was removed to make it work in daylight, along with several other components. He removed a handful of current limiting resistors to disable the hi output LEDs. One was preserved as a visual indicator. The onboard voltage regulator didn’t supply enough current for the ESP8266. [terenceang] used some electronic wizardry and was able to solve the problem with an opto-coupler.

The one thing he would change is moving from battery to mains power, as expected battery life is less than two weeks.Schematics, source code and tons of great pictures are available on his blog. If you want to give it a try but need a crash course check out the recent news that the Arduino IDE works with ESP8266, or give direct programming a try.

Arduino IDE Support for the ESP8266

Despite a wealth of tutorials for setting up and writing code for the ESP8266 WiFi module, there has not been much of anything on programming this cheap wireless module with the Arduino IDE. Finally, this has changed. After many months of coding, the Arduino IDE supports the ESP8266 module.

The Arduino IDE support was announced on the ESP8266 community forum. Setup is fairly simple with downloads for Linux, OS X, and Windows. This isn’t an ESP8266 shield, either: you can write code for the ESP module, connect the serial pins, and hit the program button.

The basic functions of the Arduino IDE – pinMode, digitalRead, digitalWrite, and analogRead – are available. Most of the WiFi functions work just like the WiFi shield library.

There are a few things that aren’t written yet; PWM doesn’t work, as the ESP8266 only has one hardware PWM source. SPI and I2C slave mode aren’t done yet, and uploading sketches via WiFi needs a little bit of thought. That said, this is a great introduction to programming the ESP module. If the Arduino IDE isn’t your thing, you could always do it the cool way with [CNLohr]’s programming tutorial we featured last week.

Another Radio Module for IoT fun – EMW3162

The availability of cheap radio modules is making them ubiquitous in an increasing number of projects that we have been seeing recently. The usual go-to solution is using any one of the several modules based on the ESP8266 device. [Willem] wrote in to share with us his experiences with another radio module – the EMW3162 from MXChip, which at $10 isn’t as cheap as the ESP8266 modules, but is a more capable, power packed, device.

The EMW3162 (PDF datasheet) is a low-power embedded WiFi module with integrated wireless LAN, and a STM32F205 Cortex-M3 microcontroller that runs a “self-hosted” WiFi networking library and software application stack. The microcontroller has 1M flash, 128k RAM and runs at 120MHz. And since MXChip is a Broadcom partner, they are allowed to use the WICED_SDK.

The on-board ARM M3 means all kinds of useful interfaces are available: UART, SPI, I2C, ADC, DAC, PWM, TIMERS, GPIO, and a JTAG flash interface. The good news could be on the power consumption figures – the module is touted to be low-power, and the data sheet shows 7mA when connected to an access point but with no data transfer. When transmitting at 20kbps, the current draw is about 24mA, which goes up to 320mA at 11Mbps.

[Willem] has his EMW3162_WICED repository up on Github, but also take a look at the MXChips MICO (Mico-controller based Internet Connectivity Operation System) repository. At the moment, he has it working using Linux, with a gnu gcc compiler and a JLINK JTAG programmer. He also has the WICED SDK working and has a WiFi AP with an on-board 120MHz arm chip. It would be interesting to hear about other users’ experiences with this radio module. Do let us know in the comments below!

 

Help! There’s an Imp in my Coffee Pot!

Coffee. The lifeblood of our society. The sweet nectar of bean, whose chemical compound makes us feel so, so good. Doesn’t it deserve a place in the Internet of Things? [Matt] and [Don] thought so — so they connected their old coffee pot to their phones.

After receiving their developer version of the Electric Imp board, the two started thinking of small projects to test it out on; ones that might even have a real-world application. Since the Imp is capable of receiving inputs via the web, it’s super easy to write an app to control things — in this case, a coffee pot.

Hardware-wise it was actually pretty simple. The coffee pot control board provides power for the Imp, and the On/Off switch of the coffee maker is wired to one of the Imp’s outputs. One simple app later, and boom we have wireless java capabilities. Heh. Java.

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