ESP8266 In Commercial Products

The hobbyist electronics market is still tiny, and even though random companies are coming out with some very interesting hardware, these parts and components aren’t exactly meant for us. The ESP8266 WiFi module is a slight deviation from this trend, with hundreds of different ESP dev boards floating around, and weirdos buying them by the bag.

[4ndreas] finally found the ESP8266 in a product; it’s not a very noteworthy observation until you realize how much work has gone into the development of open source toolchains for the ESP.

[4ndreas] found an RGB LED strip on Ali Express that could be controlled by WiFi. Inside, he found everyone’s favorite WiFi module, and by shorting two pins, he started up the controller in bootloader mode.

Because of the massive amount of open source development surrounding the ESP8266, there are a host of tools that can be used to program this cheap LED controller. [4ndreas] took a swing at writing his own firmware for the controller and came up with this project.

It’s not a killer project, but it does demonstrate the power of open source toolchains for cheap WiFi modules. This is only the first product found with an ESP8266 inside, but there are undoubtedly others out there just waiting to be taken apart and controlled in more advanced ways.

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Hello RAMPS, meet ESP8266

The proliferation of  DIY 3D printers has been helped in large measure by the awesome open-source RepRap project. A major part of this project is the RAMPS board – a single control board / shield to which all of the other parts of the printer can be easily hooked up. A USB connection to a computer is the usual link of choice, unless the RAMPS board has the SD-Card option to allow the 3D printer to operate untethered. [Chetan Patil] from CreatorBot built a breakout board to help attach either the ESP8266 WiFi or the HC-05 Bluetooth module to the Aux-1 header on the RAMPS board. This lets him stream G-code to the printer and allow remote control and monitoring.

While the cheap ESP8266 modules are the current flavor of the season with Hackers, getting them to work can be quite a hair tearing exercise. So [Chetan] did some hacking to figure out the tool chain for developing on the ESP module and found that LUA API from NodeMcu would be a good start. The breakout board is nothing more than a few headers for the ESP8266, the HC-05 and the Aux-1 connections, with a few resistors, a switch to set boot loader mode and a 3.3V regulator. If you’re new to the ESP8266, use this quick, handy, guide by [Peter Jennings] to get started with the NodeMCU and Lualoader. [Chetan]’s code for flashing on the ESP8266, along with the Eagle board design files are available via his Github repo. Just flash the code to the ESP8266 and you’re ready to go.

One gotcha to be aware of is to plug in the ESP module after the printer has booted up. Otherwise the initial communication from the ESP module causes the printer to lock up. We are sure this is something that can be taken care of with an improved breakout board design. Maybe use a digital signal from the Arduino Mega on the RAMPS board to keep the ESP module disabled for a while during start up, perhaps? The video after the break gives a short overview of the hack.

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Google’s OnHub Goes Toe to Toe with Amazon Echo

Yesterday Google announced preorders for a new device called OnHub. Their marketing, and most of the coverage I’ve seen so far, touts OnHub as a better WiFi router than you are used to including improved signal, ease of setup, and a better system to get your friends onto your AP (using the ultrasonic communication technique we’ve also seen on the Amazon Dash buttons). Why would Google care about this? I don’t think they do, at least not enough to develop and manufacture a $199.99 cylindrical monolith. Nope, this is all about the Internet of Things, as much as it pains me to use the term.

google-onhub-iot-router-thumbOnHub boasts an array of “smart antennas” connected to its various radios. It has the 2.4 and 5 Gigahertz WiFi bands in all the flavors you would expect. The specs also show an AUX Wireless for 802.11 whose purpose is not entirely clear to me but may be the network congestion sensing built into the system (leave a comment if you think otherwise). Rounding out the communications array is support for ZigBee and Bluetooth 4.0.

I have long looked at Google’s acquisition of Nest and assumed that at some point Nest would become the Router for your Internet of Things, collecting data from your exercise equipment and bathroom scale which would then be sold to your health insurance provider so they may adjust your rates. I know, that’s a juicy piece of Orwellian hyperbole but it gets the point across rather quickly. The OnHub is a much more eloquent attempt at the same thing. Some people were turned off by the Nest because it “watches” you to learn your heating preferences. The same issue has arisen with the Amazon Echo which is “always listening”.

Google has foregone those built-in futuristic features and chosen a device to which almost  everyone has already grown accustom: the WiFi router. They promise better WiFi and I’m sure it will deliver. What’s the average age of a home WiFi AP at this point anyway? Any new hardware would be an improvement. Oh, and when you start buying those smart bulbs, fridges, bathroom scales, egg trays, and whatever else it’ll work for them as well.

As far as hacking and home automation, it’s hard to beat the voice-activated commands we’ve seen with Echo lately, like forcing it to control Nest or operate your Roku. Who wants to bet that we’ll see a Google-Now based IoT standalone device quickly following the shipment of OnHub?

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Hacking an SD Slot for WiFi

Back in the 1990’s moving files via a floppy disk was known as “sneaker net.” While floppies are a thing of the past, SD Cards are the modern equivalent and they still lend themselves to sneaker net operations.

But why? WiFi is everywhere now. Wouldn’t it be great if you could hack those devices with SD slots to use WiFi? Apparently 3D printer [extrud3d] thought the same thing and found a way to reconfigure a Toshiba FlashAir card to put his 3D printer on the network.

The card is aimed at consumers, so by default it creates a hotspot and waits for a connection, a rudimentary web app allows you to move files back and forth over the network to the SD card which is then read by the host device. However, [extrud3d] shows how to modify a file on the SD card’s file system to allow the device to hook up to an existing wireless network and also provides a Python script to make the file transfer easier.

Although this hack is for a 3D printer, it ought to work with most devices that have a full sized SD slot (or can be adapted to take a full sized card). Since the hack is nothing more than changing a text file, it is a lot easier than some other SD hacks we’ve covered. Over on, [Chris Jones] has recently done some hacking on the FlashAir and has a list of its shell commands if you want to go beyond the text file hacks.

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Alarm Notifies the Office When the Coffee is Ready

[Stian] thought it would be nice if his coworkers could be electronically notified when the latest batch of coffee is ready. He ended up building an inexpensive coffee alarm system to do exactly that. When the coffee is done, the brewer can press a giant button to notify the rest of the office that it’s time for a cuppa joe.

[Stian’s] first project requirement was to activate the system using a big physical button. He chose a button from Sparkfun, although he ended up modifying it to better suit his needs. The original button came with a single LED built-in. This wasn’t enough for [Stian], so he added two more LEDs. All three LEDs are driven by a ULN2003A NPN transistor array. Now he can flash them in sequence to make a simple animation.

This momentary push button supplies power to a ESP8266 microcontroller using a soft latch power switch. When the momentary switch is pressed, it supplies power to the latch. The latch then powers up the main circuit and continues supplying power even when the push button is released. The reason for this power trickery is to conserve power from the 18650 li-on battery.

The core functionality of the alarm uses a combination of physical hardware and two cloud-based services. The ESP8266 was chosen because it includes a built-in WiFi chip and it only costs five dollars. The microcontroller is configured to connect to the WiFi network with the push of a button. The device also monitors the giant alarm button.

When the button is pressed, it sends an HTTP request to a custom clojure app running on a cloud service called Heroku. The clojure app then stores brewing information in a database and sends a notification to the Slack cloud service. Slack is a sort of project management app that allows multiple users to work on projects and communicate easier over the internet. [Stian] has tapped into it in order to send the actual text notification to his coworkers to let them know that the coffee is ready. Be sure to watch the demo video below. Continue reading “Alarm Notifies the Office When the Coffee is Ready”

New Part Day: The ESP8266 Killer

Around this time last year we first heard of the ESP8266 WiFi module. It’s still a great little module, providing WiFi connectivity for all those Internet of Things things at a price point of just $5. It’s an attractive price for a great module with a huge community pumping out a lot of projects for the platform.

Now there’s a new kid on the block. It’s called the EMW3165, and like the ESP it provides WiFi connectivity for a bunch of wireless projects. It’s much, much more capable with an STM32F4 ARM Coretex M4 microcontroller, a ‘self hosted’ networking library, more RAM, more Flash, and more GPIOs. How much, you’re probably asking yourself. It’s a dollar more than the ESP8266.

The datasheet for the module goes over all the gritty details. While this chip has 3.6V I/Os, there are some 5V tolerant pins – a boon for the Arduino crowd. It’s also surprisingly low power for something that connects to an 802.11n network. The real bonus here is the STM32F4 core – that’s a very, very powerful microcontroller, and if you want a 2-component WiFi webcam build, this is the part you should use. There will be a lot of interesting builds using this part. It’s also passed FCC certification. Very cool.

DNS Tunneling with an ESP8266

There’s a big problem with the Internet of Things. Everything’s just fine if your Things are happy to sit around your living room all day, where the WiFi gets four bars. But what does your poor Thing do when it wants to go out and get a coffee and it runs into a for-pay hotspot?

[Yakamo]’s solution is for your Thing to do the same thing you would: tunnel your data through DNS requests. It’s by no means a new idea, but the combination of DNS tunneling and IoT devices stands to be as great as peanut butter and chocolate.

DNS tunneling, in short, relies on you setting up your own DNS server with a dedicated subdomain and software that will handle generic data instead of information about IP addresses. You, or your Thing, send data encoded in “domain names” for it to look up, and the server passes data back to you in the response.

DNS tunneling is relatively slow because all data must be shoe-horned into “domain names” that can’t be too long. But it’s just right for your Thing to send its data reports back home while it’s out on its adventure.

Oh yeah. DNS tunneling may violate the terms and conditions of whatever hotspot is being accessed. Your Thing may want to consult its lawyer before trying this out in the world.