This Pico-W IoT Starter Project Gets You Into Home Assistant Quick As A Flash

Many of us hacker types with some hardware knowledge and a smattering of embedded experience would like to get into home automation, but there can be quite a learning curve. If you’re looking for a hackable starting point; something to deploy, learn about and then later expand upon, then look no further than the PicoW Home Assistant Starter project from [Danilo Campos].

The project is based upon the arduino-pico core, which supports a whole pile of RP2040-based boards, so you don’t need to restrict yourself to the “official” Pico-W, so long as you have working networking, Wi-Fi or otherwise. Integration is provided by the arduino-home-assistant library, which acts as the bridge between your sensors and other widgets, MQTT, and thence the network beyond. Events and sensor data on the end-point are packaged up with MQTT and published out to the broker via the network provided, all for minimal initial effort. Once you’ve got the basic connectivity to your Home Assistant instance working, there are many code examples in the arduino-home-assistant GitHub page to give you a helping start to connect whatever tickles your fancy.

It turns out we’ve covered HA quite a bit on these fair pages, like for example, these sweet automated window blinds. Another hack uses load cells under the bed legs to detect if someone is in bed or not, and if this isn’t your thing, maybe your idea of a home assistant is a bit more like this one?

A brick mailbox with a LIDAR sensor mounted inside

Using A LIDAR Sensor To Monitor Your Mailbox

The inconvenience of having to walk to your mailbox to check for mail has inspired many hackers to install automated systems that let them know when the mail has been delivered. Mailbox monitors have been made based on several different mechanisms: some measure the weight of the items inside, some use cameras and machine vision, while others simply trigger whenever the mailbox’s door or flap is moved. When [Gary Watts] wanted to install a notification system for his 1940s brick letterbox, his options were limited: with no flap or door to monitor, and limited space to install mechanical contraptions, he decided to use a LIDAR sensor instead.

Probably best-known for their emerging application in self-driving cars, LIDAR systems send out a laser pulse and measure the time it takes for it to be reflected off a surface. In the case of [Gary]’s mailbox, that surface is either the brick wall or a letter leaning against it. Since letters are inserted through a vertical slot, they will usually be leaning upright against the wall, providing a clear target for the laser.

The LIDAR module, a VL53L0X made by ST, is hooked up to a Wemos D1 Mini Pro. The D1 communicates with [Gary]’s home WiFi through an external antenna, and is powered by an 18650 lithium battery charged through a solar panel. The whole system is housed inside a waterproof plastic case, with the LIDAR sensor attached to the inside of the mailbox through a 3D-printed mounting bracket. On the software side, the mailbox notifier is powered by Home Assistant and MQTT. The D1 spends most of its time in deep-sleep mode, only waking up every 25 seconds to read out the sensor and send a notification if needed.

We’ve seen quite a few fancy mailbox monitors over the years: some are extremely power efficient, some use multiple sensors to allow for different use-cases, and some others are simply beautifully designed.

ESP32 Brings Air Purifier Online With Home Assistant

A lot of hackers are rightfully concerned about the privacy issues that surround many of today’s “smart” gadgets, but it’s hard to argue that the ability to remotely control devices around your home isn’t convenient. Enter self-hosted, open source projects like Home Assistant. This provides the framework for building out a home automation system without having your soul information sold, but as you might expect, you’re going to have to put some effort in to get the most of it.

For example, take a look at this Phillips AC4014 air purifier that [Anton] connected to Home Assistant by way of an ESP32. Rather than getting too bogged down in reverse engineering the purifier’s surprisingly complex internal electronics, he took the easy way out and wired a couple of relays across the power and fan speed buttons; this allows the device to be easily controlled by the microcontroller, without impacting the functionality of the original controls.

But since those front panel controls still work, that meant [Anton] needed a way for the ESP32 to detect the device’s status and report that to Home Assistant so everything stayed in sync. So he looked around on the PCB for a trace that got powered up when the air purifier was up and running, which he connected to a pin of the microcontroller through a transistor. This let’s the firmware determine if the machine is running or not just by checking if the appropriate pin has gone high.

Speaking of the firmware, [Anton] decided to use ESPHome rather than trying to write his own code from scratch. This project allows you to rapidly add new devices to Home Assistant by providing the firmware with a relatively simple YAML configuration file, which he’s provided as an example. In fact, he’s provided quite a lot of examples with this project, down to an annotated image of the PCB that shows where to tap your wires into. He’s done quite a service for anyone who’s got this same model of air purifier.

This unit doesn’t appear to have any capability of actually checking the quality of the air in the room, but we’ve recently seen a low-cost IKEA product that can do exactly that. Even better, it can be easily modified to report its findings over the network using the ESP8266.

Picture of the automatic blind controller and three servo motors, all in their enclosures, displayed on a table.

Automated Window Blinds Using MQTT And Home Assistant

Finnish software engineer [Toni] is on a quest to modernize his 1991 house, and his latest project was to automate the window blinds and control them using Home Assistant. Unless your blinds have built-in motors, most of the effort of such a project centers around how to integrate and attach the motor — and as [Toni] points out, there are tons of different blinds with all kinds of operating mechanisms. But once you solve that issue, half the battle is over.

These particular blinds require less than one turn of the control rod to go from fully open to fully closed, and [Toni] selects a 270-degree range-of-motion, 20 kg*cm torque servo motor to drive them. He really wanted to install the motor inside the window, but it just wouldn’t fit. Instead, each servo motor is mounted in a custom 3D-printed case installed on the window frame just below the operating rod. An ESP8266-based controller box is installed above the window, hidden behind curtains, and operates all three servos.

On the software side of things, the project is coded in C++ and uploaded using the Ardiono IDE. The blinds communicate to [Toni]’s Home Assistant network using MQTT. All the software is available on the project’s GitHub repository, and the 3D-printed case design is posted on Thingiverse. Even though your blinds may be of a completely different design, we think many parts of [Toni]’s project are still useful — do check out this project if you’re thinking about doing something similar. The notion of motorized window blinds has been around for a some time — we covered one project way back in 2013 and another in 2016. If you have added automation to your window blinds, let us know how it went down in the comments section.

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Home Automation Terminal With Cyberpunk Style

The OLKB-Terminal designed by [Jeff Eberl] doesn’t have a battery, can’t fold up (even if it seems like it could), and is only portable in the sense that you can literally pick it up and move it somewhere else. So arguably it’s not really a cyberdeck per se, but it certainly does look the part. If you need to be furiously typing out lines of code in a dimly lit near-future hacker’s den, this should do you nicely.

[Jeff] has provided everything you’d need to recreate this slick little machine on your own, though he does warn that some of the hardware decisions were based simply on what he had on-hand at the time, and that better or cheaper options may exist. So for example if you don’t want to use the Raspberry Pi 4, you can easily swap it out for some other single-board computer. Though if you want to change something better integrated, like the LCD panel, it will probably require modifications to the 3D printed components.

The rear electronics tray offers plenty of room for expansion.

The slim mechanical keyboard that [Jeff] used for the OLKB-Terminal, which in some ways set the tone for the whole design, is actually a completely separate open source project from [Victor Lucachi]. The VOID30 is a 3D printed, 30% handwired ortholinear keyboard that runs the popular QMK firmware on an Arduino Pro Micro. He’s implemented a couple tweaks, namely using a USB-C equipped Arduino clone, but otherwise it’s the same as upstream. So if you’re not in the market for a little bedside cyberpunk terminal but love its sleek keyboard, you’re in luck.

Software wise, [Jeff] has the OLKB-Terminal hooked into his larger Home Assistant system. This gives him an attractive status display of the whole network, and with just a tap on the terminal’s seven inch touch screen, he’s able to directly control devices around the home. That said, at the end of the day it’s just a Raspberry Pi, so it could really run whatever you want.

While cyberdeck builds might be all the rage right now, we do appreciate projects that bring those same design tenets to the desktop. From the gorgeous faux-retro designs of [Oriol Ferrer Mesià] to modernized pieces of vintage hardware, truly personal computers that can be easily upgraded and repaired don’t have to be limited to something you can lug around with a guitar strap.

ESP32 Soil Monitors Tap Into Ultra-Low Power Mode

Soil moisture sensors are cheap and easy to interface with, to the point that combining one with an Arduino and blinking an LED when your potted plant is feeling a bit parched is a common beginners project. But what about on the long term? Outside of a simple proof of concept, what would it take to actually read the data from these sensors over the course of weeks or months?

That’s precisely the question [derflob] recently had to answer. The goal was to build a device that could poll multiple soil sensors and push the data wirelessly into Home Assistant. But since it would be outside on the balcony, it needed to run exclusively on battery power. Luckily his chosen platform, the ESP32, has some phenomenal power saving features. You just need to know how to use them. Continue reading “ESP32 Soil Monitors Tap Into Ultra-Low Power Mode”

Is Your Echo Flex Listening?

We are always surprised that Amazon or Google doesn’t employ Kelsey Grammer — TV’s Frasier — as a spokesman for their smart home devices. After all, his catchphrase was, “I’m listening…” Maybe they don’t want to remind you that the device could, theoretically, be sending everything you say to them or a nefarious hacker or government agency. Sure, there’s a mute button and it lights up a red LED.

But if you are truly paranoid, that’s not enough. After all, the same people want to eavesdrop on you would be happy to fake a red light. [Electronupdate] had the same thought and decided to answer the question: does the mute button really mute your microphone? The answer required not only some case opening and analysis, but there was even some IC decapsulation.

We were impressed with the depth of the analysis. The tiny SMD parts are marked confusingly, and if you are really paranoid you don’t believe them anyway. But looking at the actual circuit die is pretty unambiguous. The  parts in question turned out to be a Schmitt trigger, a flip flop, and a NAND gate.

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