Minimal MQTT: Power and Privacy

In this installment of Minimal MQTT, I’m going to cover two loose ends: one on the sensor node side, and one on the MQTT server side. Specifically, I’ll tackle the NodeMCU’s sleep mode to reduce power and step you through bridging MQTT servers to get your data securely out of your home server and into “the cloud”, which is really just other people’s servers.

If you’re just stepping into this series now, you should really check out the other three posts, where I set up a server, then build up some sensor nodes, and then flesh-out a few ways to control everything from your phone or the web. That’s the coolest material, anyway. This last installment just refines what we’ve built on. Let’s go!

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Minimal MQTT: Control and Clients

So you’ve built a central server and filled your house with WiFi-connected nodes all speaking to each other using the MQTT protocol. In short, you’ve got the machine-to-machine side of things entirely squared away. Now it’s time to bring the humans into the loop! We’re going to explore a couple graphical user interfaces.

You could build a physical knob and/or LED display for every little aspect of your entire system, but honestly, this is where GUIs really shine. In this installment of Minimal MQTT, we’re going to look at human-friendly ways of consuming and producing data to interact with your connected sensors, switches, and displays. There are a ton of frameworks out there that use MQTT to build something like this, but we’re going to cut out the middle-man and go straight for some GUI MQTT clients.

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Hack Your Apartment: Keyless Entry with Little Effort

A typical buzzer for an apartment complex.
A typical buzzer for an apartment complex.

If you’ve been to an apartment complex with a locked front door, you’ve seen the buzzer systems. You press the corresponding button for the apartment you want and can talk to the resident. They can press a button to unlock the door briefly, and then you go up to their apartment and they don’t have to come down to let you in. But what if you’re the resident and you want to go for a run without your keys jingling in your pocket? What if you want to open it using just your smartphone?

I knew this was a silly problem, and everyone I told about it thought that for the amount of time and effort it might save, it was hardly worth it.

Challenge accepted.

How fast can I put this together using only parts I have around the apartment? Turns out about 2 hours.

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Compact Controllers Automate Window Blinds

Commercially available motorized window blinds are a nice high-end touch for today’s automated home, but they tend to command a premium price. Seems silly to charge so much for what amounts to a gear motor and controller, which is why [James Wilcox] took matters into his own hands and came up with this simple and cheap wireless blind control.

[James] started his project the sensible way, with a thorough analysis of the problem. Once COTS alternatives were eliminated – six windows would have been $1200 – he came up with a list of deliverables, including tilting to pre-determined positions, tilt-syncing across multiple windows, and long battery life. The hardware in the head rail of each blind ended up being a Moteino on a custom PCB for the drivers, a $2 stepper motor, and a four-AA battery pack. The Moteino in one blind talks to a BeagleBone Black over USB and wirelessly to the other windows for coordinated control. As for battery life, [James] capitalized on the Moteino’s low-power Listen Mode to reduce the current draw by about three orders of magnitude, which should equate to a few years between battery changes. And he did it all for only about $40 a window.

Window blinds seem to be a tempting target for hacking, whether it’s motorizing regular blinds or interfacing commercial motorized units into a home automation system. We like how compact this build is, and wonder if it could be offered as an aftermarket add-on for manual blinds.

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Minimal MQTT: Networked Nodes

Last time on Minimal MQTT, we used a Raspberry Pi to set up an MQTT broker — the central hub of a home data network. Now it’s time to add some sensor and display nodes and get this thing running. So pull out your ESP-8266 module of choice, and let’s get going.

DSCF8443For hardware, we’re using a WeMos D1 Mini because they’re really cute, and absolutely dirt cheap, but basically any ESP module will do. For instance, you can do the same on the simplest ESP-01 module if you’ve got your own USB-serial adapter and are willing to jumper some pins to get it into bootloader mode. If you insist on a deluxe development board that bears the Jolly Wrencher, we know some people.

NodeMCU: Getting the Firmware

We’re using the NodeMCU firmware because it’s quick and easy to get running. But you’re not stuck with NodeMCU if you want to go it alone: MQTT has broad support. [TuanPM] ported over an MQTT library to the native ESP8266 SDK and of course there’s espduino, a port for an Arduino-plus-ESP combo. He also ported the MQTT module to NodeMCU that we’ll be using today. Thanks, [TuanPM]!

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When the Smart Hits the Fan

A fan used to be a simple device – motor rotates blades, air moves, and if you were feeling fancy, maybe the whole thing oscillates. Now fans have thermostats, timers, and IR remotes. So why not increase the complexity by making a smart fan with an IoT interface?

[Casper]’s project looks more like a proof of concept or learning platform than a serious attempt at home automation. His build log mentions an early iteration based on a Raspberry Pi. But an ESP8266 was a better choice and made it into the final build, which uses an IR LED to mimic the signals from the remote so that all the stock modes of the fan are supported. The whole thing is battery powered and sits on a breadboard on top of the fan, but we’ll bet that a little surgery could implant the interface and steal power internally. As for interfaces, take your pick – an iOS app via the SmartThings home automation platform, through their SmartTiles web client, or using an Amazon Echo. [Casper] mentions looking into MQTT as well but having some confusion; we’d suggest he check out [Elliot Williams]’ new tutorial on MQTT to get up to speed.

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Minimal MQTT: Building a Broker

In this short series, we’re going to get you set up with a completely DIY home automation system using MQTT. Why? Because it’s just about the easiest thing under the sun, and it’s something that many of you out there will be able to do with material on-hand: a Raspberry Pi as a server and an ESP8266 node as a sensor client. Expanding out to something more complicated is left as an exercise to the motivated reader, or can be simply left to mission creep.

We’ll do this in four baby steps. Each one should take you only fifteen minutes and is completely self-contained. There’s a bunch more that you can learn and explore, but we’re going to get you a taste of the power with the absolute minimal hassle.

In this installment, we’re going to build a broker on a Raspberry Pi, which is the hub of your MQTT network. Next time, we’ll get an ESP8266 up and running and start logging some data. After that, we’ll do some back-end scripting in Python to make the data speak, and in the last installment, we’ll explore some of the useful frills and fancy bits. Let’s get started!

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