Ask Hackaday: What is “Home Automation”?

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We’re not entirely sure what’s become of the term “home automation.” The definition seems to have settled for any user interface in the home—via tablets, phones, handheld remote controls, etc. Some of these devices lack any form of automation and instead require manual input. Even Wikipedia’s home automation article suggests a move toward this trend, offering the following definition (emphasis ours):

It is automation of the home, housework or household activity. Home automation may include centralized control of lighting, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), appliances, security locks of gates and doors and other systems, to provide improved convenience, comfort, energy efficiency and security.

Though “automation” is clearly included in the first sentence, one could interpret the bolded potion as meaning either:

  • Truly automated systems may also include centralized control (as a feature).
  • The category of home automation also includes systems that merely provide centralized controls.

So, are automated components optional? Judging by the phrasing of projects submitted to our tips line: yes sir. Truly automated systems exist, but if you browse through any home improvement store’s “home automation” section, you’ll be pummeled by a string of remote-controlled light dimmers and outlets. How many of these are designed to interact with sensors as feedback systems or otherwise function unattended?

Our articles often favor an “automation-optional” categorization. Should we, however, reserve the “automation” label for projects like the light switch based on room occupancy and deny other builds, like the voice-activated lights/outlets system or the RasPi lighting and audio control via web interface? Hit up the comments and help shed some light on how to properly use the terminology.

Temp-Sensitive Automatic Blinds

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Any opportunity to shave a few bucks off your power bill is probably worth considering, especially if it’s a device like [Steve Hoefer's] Mini Blind Minder. This little guy staves off (or welcomes) the sun by monitoring the room with a temperature sensor and checking against a setpoint. If the room is too warm or too cool, the top-mounted servo will spin the wand and close or open the blinds, respectively.

[Steve] started by building a homemade Arduino shield from some perfboard to which he added a handful of discrete components: some current-limiting resistors for the RGB LED indicator light and a 10k trim pot for fine-tuning the temp sensor. Although this build forgoes an LCD readout to display precise information, it does provide feedback by stepping the RGB LED’s color through a spectrum of blue to red to indicate how the current room temperature compares to your setpoint. The two momentary pushbuttons beneath the light allow the user to adjust the setpoint up or down.

See the video below for a detailed guide to building your own, and take a look at a similar automatic blinds build from earlier this year that opens and closes in response to ambient light.

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Remote Servo-controlled Lightswitch

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We frequently get home automation tips, many of which have simple circuit-based on/off control for lights. [Paulo Borges] has created something quite different, however, with his in-the-wall servo-controlled light switch. This build forgoes the need of any relay to switch mains power, and because it’s physically flipping your switch, provides a distinct advantage over other builds that require a phone or tablet interface: you can use your switches as you normally would.

[Paulo] picked up a rocker-type switch at the local hardware store and carefully pried off the large, flat switch plate to notch out a small hole at its fulcrum. He then carefully shaped a piece of 12 gauge wire to provide a pivot point for the servo. His choice to use wire here seems to be entirely to provide a sturdy yet bendable component that functions mechanically rather than electrically. A small 9G servo fits to the back of the switch’s housing, and the servo’s arm connects up to the previously attached 12 gauge wire. He pieced together the remote control feature with an RF link kit with an inexpensive 433mhz Code duplicator from eBay.

[Paulo] explains that his Instructable is simply an overview rather than a step-by-step guide, so if you’re eager to reproduce this hack you’ll have to work out the code and the remote control portion yourself. He also acknowledges the biggest remaining hurdle: finding space in the wall to shove all the microcontroller guts. Check out a couple of videos of the switch after the break, and remember, there’s always the option of doing away with all light switches.

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Web connectivity and other addons for an automatic schnauzer feeder

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[Ben Miller] and his dad combined forces to create this automatic dog feeder. It not only keeps their two schnauzers happy, but gives them peace of mind as they can double-check that he feeding happened by pulling up an image on the Internet. Make sure you make it through all three posts of the build to get the entire picture.

The project started with some research which turned up a project that used a commercially available automatic feeder. That one used Arduino, but because of the cost the board plus a WiFi shield is a bit high, [Ben] went with a Raspberry Pi and a USB WiFi dongle instead. The Pi is much more powerful and adds the functionality for capturing images via a webcam.

After a convoluted process of connecting the Pi to the existing button traces on the automatic feeder it was time to start coding. The system runs from a Perl script which monitors a Gmail account for remote commands (in addition to a regular feeding schedule). The final touch is a bit of mechanical engineering which splits the output into two bowls so the dogs each have their own serving.

We still use the Autodine we built several years back but its single-serving limitation has always kept a second version on our project list. Hopefully seeing a well-executed system like this will motivate us to get building!

Voice controlled home automation uses Raspberry Pi and LightwaveRF

It’s not quite artificial intelligence, but saying “Jeeves, lights!” will switch on the bulbs in the room. [Chipos81] built the voice-activated home automation around a Rapsberry Pi board with LightwaveRF devices switching lights and outlets.

The LightwaveRF system offers a WiFi link which provides Internet connectivity for all of those devices in your house. This makes it a snap for [Chipos81] to control them from the RPi. To provide speech recognition he’s using CMU Sphinx. It’s an open source speech recognition library developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and released under a BSD license. It seems to do a great job in the video of quickly parsing several sets of commands.

“Jeeves” will even talk back to you to confirm a command. This is generated by Festival, a package developed by the University of Edinburgh.  This provides some entertainment in the last seconds of the video as we detect a distinct Scottish accent when it says “See you tomorrow”.

The GPIO pins provide a bit of feedback, using three colored LEDs to let you know what is going on with the system. There’s even an IR LED used to add voice control to your Television.

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Electric Imp as an Internet to RF gateway

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This project is a study in connecting several different families of hobby electronic hardware. The image above shows the Electric Imp side of things. It bridges its Internet connection with the RF connections of the rest of the project.

The Imp is a peculiar (intriguing?) piece of hardware. Take a look at [Brian Benchoff's] hand’s on experience with the SD form factor hardware which is not an SD card at all. It’s an embedded system which uses light programming and a cloud-based software setup to bring wireless Internet to your projects.

In this case [Stanley Seow] started wondering if he needed multiple Imps to connect different parts of his setup. A bit of head scratching led him to the use of nRF24L01 modules which are cheap and easy to use Radio Frequency transceiver boards. He took a partially finished driver project and brought it home to play nicely with the Imp. Now he can use the system to communicate with other components which will eventually be used for home automation. Right now his proof of concept issues wireless commands to an Arduino driving a strip of LEDs.

Home audio and lighting taken over by the Raspberry Pi

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We’re beginning to see a lot of momentum building for using Raspberry Pi boards as the basis of your home automation. This latest offering from [Iain Hamilton] combines lighting and audio control through a single web interface. His frontend is run as a web page from the RPi board. It even includes separate layouts for mobile devices and computers in order to maximize use of the screen real estate.

Three buttons at the top of the interface allow him to configure the settings and switch between lighting and audio controls. This audio control screen issues commands to the Spotify client running on the Pi. The Mopidy package takes care of almost everything (as we’ve seen with other single-board computer Spotify servers). Future iterations will offer other streaming services like SoundCloud. [Iain's] home lighting system uses X10 modules for control. He’s using a USB dongle to facilitate control of that system.

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