Yes, You Can Put IoT on the Blockchain using Python and the ESP8266

Last year, we saw quite a bit of media attention paid to blockchain startups. They raised money from the public, then most of them vanished without a trace (or product). Ethics and legality of their fundraising model aside, a few of the ideas they presented might be worth revisiting one day.

One idea in particular that I’ve struggled with is the synthesis of IoT and blockchain technology. Usually when presented with a product or technology, I can comprehend how and/or why someone would use it – in this case I understand neither, and it’s been nagging at me from some quiet but irrepressible corner of my mind.

The typical IoT networks I’ve seen collect data using cheap and low-power devices, and transmit it to a central service without more effort spent on security than needed (and sometimes much less). On the other hand, blockchains tend to be an expensive way to store data, require a fair amount of local storage and processing power to fully interact with them, and generally involve the careful use of public-private key encryption.

I can see some edge cases where it would be useful, for example securely setting the state of some large network of state machines – sort of like a more complex version of this system that controls a single LED via Ethereum smart contract.

What I believe isn’t important though, perhaps I just lack imagination – so lets build it anyway.

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Building A Simple Python API for Internet of Things Gadgets

It’s no secret that I rather enjoy connecting things to the Internet for fun and profit. One of the tricks I’ve learned along the way is to spin up simple APIs that can be used when prototyping a project. It’s easy to do, and simple to understand so I’m happy to share what has worked for me, using Web2Py as the example (with guest appearances from ESP8266 and NodeMCU).

Barring the times I’m just being silly, there are two reasons I might do this. Most commonly I’ll need to collect data from a device, typically to be stored for later analysis but occasionally to trigger some action on a server in the cloud. Less commonly, I’ll need a device to change its behavior based on instructions received via the Internet.

Etherscan is an example of an API that saves me a lot of work, letting me pull data from Ethereum using a variety of devices.

In the former case, my first option has always been to use IoT frameworks like Thingsboard or Ubidots to receive and display data. They have the advantage of being easy to use, and have rich features. They can even react to data and send instruction back to devices. In the latter case, I usually find myself using an application programming interface (API) – some service open on the Internet that my device can easily request data from, for example the weather, blockchain transactions, or new email notifications.

Occasionally, I end up with a type of data that requires processing or is not well structured for storage on these services, or else I need a device to request data that is private or that no one is presently offering. Most commonly, I need to change some parameter in a few connected devices without the trouble of finding them, opening all the cases, and reprogramming them all.

At these times it’s useful to be able to build simple, short-lived services that fill in these gaps during prototyping. Far from being a secure or consumer-ready product, we just need something we can try out to see if an idea is worth developing further. There are many valid ways to do this, but my first choice is Web2Py, a relatively easy to use open-source framework for developing web applications in Python. It supports both Python 2.7 and 3.0, although we’ll be using Python 3 today.

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AI on Raspberry Pi with the Intel Neural Compute Stick

I’ve always been fascinated by AI and machine learning. Google TensorFlow offers tutorials and has been on my ‘to-learn’ list since it was first released, although I always seem to neglect it in favor of the shiniest new embedded platform.

Last July, I took note when Intel released the Neural Compute Stick. It looked like an oversized USB stick, and acted as an accelerator for local AI applications, especially machine vision. I thought it was a pretty neat idea: it allowed me to test out AI applications on embedded systems at a power cost of about 1W. It requires pre-trained models, but there are enough of them available now to do some interesting things.

You can add a few of them in a hub for parallel tasks. Image credit Intel Corporation.

I wasn’t convinced I would get great performance out of it, and forgot about it until last November when they released an improved version. Unambiguously named the ‘Neural Compute Stick 2’ (NCS2), it was reasonably priced and promised a 6-8x performance increase over the last model, so I decided to give it a try to see how well it worked.

 

I took a few days off work around Christmas to set up Intel’s OpenVino Toolkit on my laptop. The installation script provided by Intel wasn’t particularly user-friendly, but it worked well enough and included several example applications I could use to test performance. I found that face detection was possible with my webcam in near real-time (something like 19 FPS), and pose detection at about 3 FPS. So in accordance with the holiday spirit, it knows when I am sleeping, and knows when I’m awake.

That was promising, but the NCS2 was marketed as allowing AI processing on edge computing devices. I set about installing it on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ and compiling the application samples to see if it worked better than previous methods. This turned out to be more difficult than I expected, and the main goal of this article is to share the process I followed and save some of you a little frustration.

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Compiling NodeMCU for the ESP32 With Support for Public-Private Key Encryption

When I began programming microcontrollers in 2003, I had picked up the Atmel STK-500 and learned assembler for their ATtiny and ATmega lines. At the time I thought it was great – the emulator and development boards were good, and I could add a microcontroller permanently to a project for a dollar. Then the ESP8266 came out.

I was pretty blown away by its features, switched platforms, except for timing-sensitive applications, and it’s been my chip of choice for a few years. A short while ago, a friend gave me an ESP32, the much faster, dual core version of the ESP8266. As I rarely used much of the computing power on the ESP8266, none of the features looked like game changers, and it remained a ‘desk ornament’ for a while.

About seven weeks ago, support for the libSodium Elliptic Curve Cryptography library was added. Cryptography is not the strongest feature of IoT devices, and some of the methods I’ve used on the ESP8266 were less than ideal. Being able to more easily perform public-private key encryption would be enough for me to consider switching hardware for some projects.

However, my preferred automated build tool for NodeMCU wasn’t available on the ESP32 yet. Compiling the firmware was required – this turned out to be a surprisingly user-friendly experience, so I thought I’d share it with you. If I had known it would be so quick, this chip wouldn’t have sat on my desk unused quite so long!  Continue reading “Compiling NodeMCU for the ESP32 With Support for Public-Private Key Encryption”

The Linux Throwie: A Non-Spacefaring Satellite

Throwies occupy a special place in hardware culture — a coin cell battery, LED, and a magnet that can be thrown into an inaccessible place and stick there as a little beacon of colored light. Many of us will fondly remember this as a first project. Alas, time marches inevitably on, and launching cheerful lights no longer teaches me new skills. With a nod to those simpler times, I’ve been working on the unusual idea of building a fully functional server that can be left in remote places and remain functional, like a throwie (please don’t actually throw it). It’s a little kooky, yet should still deliver a few years of occasional remote access if you leave it somewhere with sunlight.

A short while ago, I described the power stages for this solar-powered, cloud accessible Linux server. It only activates on demand, so a small solar cell and modest battery are sufficient to keep the whole show running.

Where we left off, I had a solar cell that could charge a battery, and provide regulated 12 V and 5 V output. For it to be a functional device, there are three high level problems to solve:

  1. It must be possible to set up the device without direct physical access
  2. You must be able to remotely turn it on and off as needed.
  3. It needs to be accessible from the Internet.

The funny thing is, this hardware reminds me of a satellite. Of course it’s not meant to go into space, but I do plan to put it somewhere not easy to get to again, it runs off of solar power, and there’s a special subsystem (ESP8266) to tend the power, check for remote activation, and turn the main computer (Raspberry Pi 3) on and off as necessary. This sounds a lot like space race tech, right?

As I have a bit more code than usual to share with you today, I’ll discuss the most interesting parts, and provide links to the full firmware files at the end of the article.

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The Linux Throwie: Powering a Linux Server with a 0.3W Solar Panel

Have you ever had one of those moments, when you’re rummaging through your spare parts heap, and have a rather bizarre project idea that you can’t quite get out of your head? You know, the ones that have no clear use, but simply demand to be born, of glass and steel and silicon?

This time, the stubborn idea in question was sort of like a solar-rechargeable LED throwie, but instead of a blinking light, it has a fully cloud-accessible embedded Linux server in the form of a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. Your choice of embedded Linux board should work — I just happen to have a lot of these due to a shipping error.

There were two main challenges here: First, it would have to combine the smallest practical combination of solar panel, power supply, and Li-ion cell that could run the Raspberry Pi. Second, we’ll need to remotely activate and access the Pi regardless of where it is, as well as be able to connect it to WiFi without direct physical access. In this article we’ll be dealing with the first set of problems — stay tuned for the rest.

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Selling Everything, Moving to Asia, and Setting Up a Company

Today I don’t have a hack for you. I have a story, one that I hope will prove useful to a few of you who are considering a move to Asia to chase opportunities here.

Seven years ago, I was a pretty stereotypical starving hacker. I had five jobs: A full-time dead-end job in biotech, and four part-time or contract gigs that were either electronic hardware design or programming. I worked perhaps 50 hours a week, and was barely past the poverty line – I was starting to wonder why I spent so much time in school. I saw the economic growth in Asia as an attractive but risky opportunity.

Check out that image above…France? No, this is Shenzhen and let’s face it: many exciting things are made there (even the copies). After a short visit to the region, I decided to take that risk but not in Shenzhen. I sold everything I owned and moved from Canada to Vietnam and started a company. Over the last seven years things have worked out well, although I certainly wish I had known more about the process before I got on a plane. This article is about the general path I took to get where I am. Obviously I don’t know the legal framework of every country in Asia, but speaking in generalities I hope that I can cover some interesting points for the curious and adventurous.

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