An Eight-Day Home Automation Hackathon Is Inspiration For Getting More Projects Done

There’s nothing quite like a deadline to cut through extras and get right at the heart of the problem. Maybe we should all follow Interpreet’s example and stop thinking about automating our homes and just make it in an eight-day hackathon. His talk at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference covers the zero-to-deployment home automation build he finished in the eight days leading up to his move from one continent to another.

Hackaday’s very own Inderpreet Singh found himself pulling up roots and moving from his home in India to teach at Centennial College in Toronto, Canada. He needed a way to keep an eye on his home from afar and the name of the game is IoT. When the only choice is “whatever works right now”, you can learn a lot about simple solutions.

He chose familiar hardware to work with, with the ESP8266 making up the bulk of the nodes and a Raspberry Pi as as a central hub for the setup. He chose to communicate between all the nodes on his system using WiFi because the hardware is robust and available. With security in mind, he keeps the automation system separate from the daily use WiFi system by grabbing an extra access point to serve as the automation network. The Raspberry Pi serves as a router of sorts; its Ethernet port is connected to the IoT device’s AP, while the onboard WiFi is used to connect to the home’s main AP for a connection to the wider Internet.

Software for the system is built on a REST API served by a Python Flask app. Many would advocate for using MQTT but Inderpreet’s testing with that protocol came up short as the broker he intended to use was no longer available. One of the interesting parts of his system design is that all nodes will check in at regular intervals; this allows them to inquire about actions they need to take, but it also allows the system to detect a malfunctioning node immediately. I’ve seen a similar trick used by Elliot Williams where he assigns a “ping” topic to all MQTT devices that causes them to report in with their IP address. Having a system to query and ensure the health of every node is a big tip to take away from this talk.

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Reverse Engineering Yokis Home Automation Devices

These days, it’s hard to keep track of all the companies that are trying to break into the home automation market. Whether they’re rebrands of somebody else’s product or completely new creations, it seems like every company has at least a few “smart” gadgets for you to choose from. We hadn’t heard of the Yokis devices that [Nicolas Maupu] has been working on before today, but thanks to his efforts to reverse engineer their protocol, we think they might become more popular with the hacking crowd.

Even if you don’t have a Yokis MTV500ER dimmer or MTR2000ER switch of your own, we think the detailed account of how [Nicolas] figured out how to talk to these devices is worth a read. His first step was to connect his oscilloscope directly to the SPI lines on the remote to see what it was sending out. With an idea of what he was looking for, he then used an nRF24L01+ radio connected to an ESP8266 to pull packets out of the air so he could analyze their structure. This might seem like a very specialized process, but in reality most of the techniques demonstrated could be applicable for any unknown communications protocol of which you’ve got a hex dump.

On the other hand, if you do have some of these devices (or plan to get them), then the software [Nicolas] has put together looks very compelling. Essentially it’s an interactive firmware for the ESP8266 that allows it to serve as a bridge between the proprietary Yokis wireless protocol and a standard MQTT home automation system. When the microcontroller is connected to the computer you get a basic terminal interface that allows you to scan and pair for devices as well as toggle them on and off.

This bridge could be used to allow controlling your Yokis hardware with a custom handheld remote, or you could follow the example of our very own [Mike Szczys], and pull everything together with a bit of Node-RED.

Automate Your Life With Node-RED (Plus A Dash Of MQTT)

For years we’ve seen a trickle of really interesting home automation projects that use the Node-RED package. Each time, the hackers behind these projects have raved about Node-RED and now I’ve joined those ranks as well.

This graphic-based coding platform lets you quickly put together useful operations and graphic user interfaces (GUIs), whether you’re the freshest greenhorn or a seasoned veteran. You can use it to switch your internet-connected lights on schedule, or at the touch of a button through a web-app available to any device on your home network. You can use it as an information dashboard for the weather forecast, latest Hackaday articles, bus schedules, or all of them at once. At a glance it abstracts away the complexity of writing Javascript, while also making it simple to dive under hood and use your 1337 haxor skills to add your own code.

You can get this up and running in less than an hour and I’m going to tackle that as well as examples for playing with MQTT, setting up a web GUI, and writing to log files. To make Node-RED persistent on your network you need a server, but it’s lean enough to run from a Raspberry Pi without issue, and it’s even installed by default in BeagleBone distributions. Code for all examples in this guide can be found in the tutorial repository. Let’s dive in!

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Embedding A Smart Switch In A Java Factory

When you need coffee, you don’t need any hassles standing between you and caffeination. Especially ironic hassles, like having to do more to turn on appliances inside of home automation schemes than you did without them.

[Maurice Makaay] bought a smart plug to add this beautiful drip coffee machine to his Z-Wave setup, but it isn’t all that smart. Starting the brew remotely means making sure that both the machine’s power switch and the smart plug switch are on. Some members of the household still like making their coffee the old-fashioned way, so [Maurice] came up with a smart, single switch solution to satisfy both cases.

The answer comes in the form of a Z-Wave switch that takes dual inputs and is small enough to fit inside the machine. After a lot of searching around for compatible, splash-proof parts, [Maurice] replaced the existing on/off rocker with a momentary rocker for making coffee manually. That switch labeled ‘extra heet’ used to turn the warming burner on and off. Since he never uses the burner, the switch receptacle now houses a power indicator light.

[Maurice] went about this mains appliance hack the right way — he used extra thick wires connected with lever nuts, and kept the machine’s equally beautiful spare parts and safety documentation by his side the whole time. A person could probably become a lot more comfortable with the idea of installing these by looking over [Maurice]’s pictures of the process.

You know how coffee makes everything better? Turns out ‘everything’ includes printer filament.

The Smart Home Gains An Extra Dimension

With an ever-growing range of smart-home products available, all with their own hubs, protocols, and APIs, we see a lot of DIY projects (and commercial offerings too) which aim to provide a “single universal interface” to different devices and services. Usually, these projects allow you to control your home using a list of devices, or sometimes a 2D floor plan. [Wassim]’s project aims to take the first steps in providing a 3D interface, by creating an interactive smart-home controller in the browser.

Note: this isn’t just a rendered image of a 3D scene which is static; this is an interactive 3D model which can be orbited and inspected, showing information on lights, heaters, and windows. The project is well documented, and the code can be found on GitHub. The tech works by taking 3D models and animations made in Blender, exporting them using the .glTF format, then visualising them in the browser using three.js. This can then talk to Hue bulbs, power meters, or whatever other devices are required. The technical notes on this project may well be useful for others wanting to use the Blender to three.js/browser workflow, and include a number of interesting demos of isolated small key concepts for the project.

We notice that all the meshes created in Blender are very low-poly; is it possible to easily add subdivision surface modifiers or is it the vertex count deliberately kept low for performance reasons?

This isn’t our first unique home automation interface, we’ve previously written about shAIdes, a pair of AI-enabled glasses that allow you to control your devices just by looking at them. And if you want to roll your own home automation setup, we have plenty of resources. The Hack My House series contains valuable information on using Raspberry Pis in this context, we’ve got information on picking the right sensors, and even enlisting old routers for the cause.

Handheld MQTT Remote For Home Automation

If you’re working on a home automation project, you’re probably knee-deep into MQTT by now. If not, you should be. The lightweight messaging protocol is an ideal choice for getting your “Things” on the Internet, and controlling them all can be done easily through a simple web interface or an application on your mobile device. Or if you’re [serverframework], you make yourself a handsome little all-in-one MQTT remote.

The hardware here is pretty simple; inside there’s just a NodeMCU ESP8266 development board, some buttons, an RGB LED to give feedback, and a 3.7v 1200mAh LiPo battery with associated charging module. Everything is held inside a nice little wooden box that looks like it would fit right in with the living room decor. We’d like to see some kind of a cover over the exposed perfboard the circuit is assembled on, but that’s arguably a personal preference kind of thing.

Most of the magic in this project is actually happening on the software side. Not only does the provided source code handle all the MQTT communications with Home Assistant, but it provides a clever user interface that allows [serverframework] to perform 25 functions with just five buttons. No, you aren’t seeing things. There are actually six buttons on the device, but one of them is a dedicated “power” button that wakes the remote out of deep sleep.

If you’d like to learn more about getting this protocol working for you, our resident MQTT guru [Elliot Williams] has plenty of thoughts on the subject. From his talk at the 2017 Hackaday Supercon to his home automation tutorial series, there’s plenty of information to get you started.

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New Part Day: Alexa Connect Kit Now Available For Sale

People who were subscribed to updates on the Alexa Connect Kit (ACK) would recently have received an email informing that this kit is now available for sale. Last time we covered the ACK was back in September of 2018, the ‘release’ moniker meant ‘preview’ and there wasn’t any hardware one could actually purchase.

Over a year a later it seems that we can now finally get our grubby mitts on this kit that should enable us to make any of our projects Alexa-enabled. What this basically seems to mean is that one can spend close to 200 US dollars on an Arduino Zero and an Arduino shield-mounted WM-BN-MT-52 module from USI (though not listed on their site, but similar to the WM-BN-BM-22?) that integrates a 192 MHz Cortex-M MCU and a WiFi/Bluetooth module, as summarized on the Amazon Developer page for the ACK.

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