Home Automation Controller Uses Chalk

Responding to the Rethink Displays challenge of the 2021 Hackaday Prize contest, freelance design engineer [Rick Pannen] brings a retro look to his DIY home automation controller. You could be forgiven for not even realizing it is a controller at first glance. [Rick] built this using a magnetic chalk board and installed all the control electronics on the back. The main processor is a Raspberry Pi 400 running Raspian with IOBroker and Node-Red. Panel lettering and graphics are done free-hand with, you guessed it, chalk.

The controls on this panel are an eclectic hodgepodge of meters, switches, and sensors that [Rick] scored on eBay or scavenged from friends. We are curious about the simple-looking rotary dial that sends a pulse train based on the number set on the dial — this seems to have all the functionality of an old phone’s rotary dial without any of the fun.

But [Rick]’s design allows for easy changes — dare we say, it encourages them — so maybe we’ll see a salvaged rotary dial added in future revisions. Also note the indoor lighting ON/OFF switch that must be a real joy to operate. We wonder, is there any way the controls could be magnetized and moved freely around the board without permanently attaching them? Maybe an idea for version 4 or 5.

This design has a lot of possibilities, and we look forward to any upgrades or derivative versions of this unique home automation controller. Let us know in the comments below if you have any suggestions for expanding upon this idea.

Make Android’s New Power Menu Work On Your Terms

Introduced in Android 11, the power menu is a way to quickly interact with smart home gadgets without having to open their corresponding applications. Just hold the power button for a beat, and you’ll be presented with an array of interactive tiles for all the gadgets you own. Well that’s the idea, anyway.

[Mat] of “NotEnoughTech” wasn’t exactly thrilled with how this system worked out of the box, so he decided to figure out how he could create his own power menu tiles. His method naturally requires quite a bit more manual work than Google’s automatic solution, but it also offers some compelling advantages. For one thing, you can make tiles for your own DIY devices that wouldn’t be supported otherwise. It also allows you to sidestep the cloud infrastructure normally required by commercial home automation products. After all, does some server halfway across the planet really need to be consulted every time you want to turn on the kitchen light?

Adding tiles in Tasker.

The first piece of the puzzle is Tasker, a popular automation framework for Android. It allows you to create custom tiles that will show up on Android’s power menu, complete with their own icons and brief descriptions. If you just wanted to perform tasks on the local device itself, this would be the end of the story. But assuming that you want to control devices on your network, Tasker can be configured to fire off a command to a Node-RED instance when you interact with the tiles.

In his post, [Mat] gives a few examples of how this combination can be used to control smart devices and retrieve sensor data, but the exact implementation will depend on what you’re trying to do. If you need a bit of help getting started, our own [Mike Szczys] put together a Node-RED primer last year that can help you put this flow-based visual programming tool to work for you.

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Replacing An ESP8266 Clone With The Real Thing

The first time [konbaasiang] ordered some ceiling LED lights from Tuya, he was pleased to find they contained an ESP-12F that could easily be flashed with a different firmware. So when he ordered 30 more of them at a cost of nearly $900 USD, you can understand his frustration to find that the popular WiFi-enabled microcontroller had been swapped out for a pin-compatible clone that Tuya developed called the WB3L.

Some people would have just chalked this one up to bad luck and used the Tuya-supplied software to control their new lights, but not [konbaasiang]. Since the new chip was outwardly identical to the ESP8266, he decided to take the nuclear option and replace them with the genuine article. With a comfortable spot to work from and a nice microscope, he started on his desoldering journey.

Now it would have been nice if he could have just dropped in a real ESP-12F and called it a day, but naturally, it ended up being a bit more complex than that. The WB3L apparently doesn’t need external pull up and pull down resistors, but [konbaasiang] needed them for the swap to work. He could have come up with some kind of custom adapter PCB, but to keep things simple he decided to run a pair of through hole resistors across the top of the ESP-12F for GPIO 1/2, and use a gingerly placed SMD resistor to hold down GPIO 15.

[konbaasiang] reports that all 30 of the lights survived the transplant and are now running his own  homebrew firmware. While this story had a happy ending, it’s still a cautionary tale. With a growing trend towards replacing the venerable ESP8266 with cheaper and less hacker-friendly silicon, buying IoT hardware with the intent to replace its firmware is likely to get riskier in the near future.

Garage Door Controller Gets The IoT Treatment

[TheStaticTurtle] built a custom controller for automating his garage doors. He wanted to retain the original physical button and RF remote control interfaces while adding a more modern wireless control accessible from his internet connected devices. Upgrading an old system is often a convoluted process of trial and error, and he had to discard a couple of prototype versions which didn’t pan out as planned. But luckily, the third time was the charm.

The original door-closer logic was pretty straightforward. Press a button and the door moves. If it’s not going in the desired direction, press the button once again to stop the motor, and then press it a third time to reverse direction. With help from the user manual diagrams and a bit of reverse-engineering, he was able to get a handle on how to plan out his add-on controller to interface with the old system.

There are many micro-controller options available these days when you want to add IoT to a project, but [TheStaticTurtle] decided to use the old faithful ESP8266 as the brains of his new controller. For his add-on board to work, he needed to detect the direction in which the motor was turning, and detect the limit switches when the door reached end of travel in either direction. Finally, he needed a relay contact in parallel with the activation button to send commands remotely.

To sense if the motor was moving in the “open” or “close” direction, he used a pair of back-to-back opto-couplers in parallel with the motor terminals. He connected another pair of opto-couplers across the two end-limit switches which indicated when the door was fully open or closed, and shut off the motor supply. Finally, a GPIO from the ESP8266 actuates a relay to send the door open and close commands. The boards were designed in EasyEDA and with a quick turnaround from China, he was able to assemble, test and debug his boards pretty quickly.

The code was written using the Arduino IDE and connects the ESP8266 to the MQTT server running on his home automation computer. The end result is a nice dashboard with three icons for open, close and stop, accessible from all the devices connected to his home network. A 3D printed enclosure attaches outside the original control box to keep things tidy. Using hot melt glue as light pipes for the status LED’s is a pretty nifty hack. If you are interested in taking a deeper look at the project, [TheStaticTurtle] has posted all resources on his Github repository.

Parts of the automated soil moisture monitoring station

Solar Stevenson Screen For Smart Sprinkler

It’s not infrequent that we see the combination of moisture sensors and water pumps to automate plant maintenance. Each one has a unique take on the idea, though, and solves problems in ways that could be useful for other applications as well. [Emiliano Valencia] approached the project with a few notable technologies worth gleaning, and did a nice writeup of his “Autonomous Solar Powered Irrigation Monitoring Station” (named Steve Waters as less of a mouthful).

Of particular interest was [Emiliano]’s solution for 3D printing a threaded rod; lay it flat and shave off the top and bottom. You didn’t need the whole thread anyway, did you? Despite the relatively limited number of GPIO pins on the ESP8266, the station has three analog sensors via an ADS1115 ADC to I2C, a BME280 for temperature, pressure, and humidity (also on the I2C bus), and two MOSFETs for controlling valves. For power, a solar cell on top of the enclosure charges an 18650 cell. Communication over wireless goes to Thingspeak, where a nice dashboard displays everything you could want. The whole idea of the Stevenson Screen is clever as well, and while this one is 3D printed, it seems any kind of stacking container could be modified to serve the same purpose and achieve any size by stacking more units. We’re skeptical about bugs getting in the electronics, though.

We recently saw an ESP32-based capacitive moisture sensor on a single PCB sending via MQTT, and we’ve seen [Emiliano] produce other high quality content etching PCBs with a vinyl cutter.

Fan-tastic Misuse Of Raspberry Pi GPIO

[River] is a big fan of home automation. After moving into a new house, he wanted to assimilate two wirelessly controlled fan lights into his home automation system. The problem was this: although the fans were wireless, their frequency and protocol were incompatible with the home automation system.

Step one was to determine the frequency the fan’s remote used. Although public FCC records will reveal the frequency of operation, [River] thought it would be faster to use an inexpensive USB RTL-SDR with the Spektrum program to sweep the range of likely frequencies, and quickly found the fans speak 304.2 MHz.

Next was to reverse-engineer the protocol. Universal Radio Hacker is a tool designed to make deciphering unknown wireless protocols relatively painless using an RTL-SDR. [River] digitized a button press with it and immediately recognized it as simple on-off keying (OOK). With that knowledge, he digitized the radio commands from all seven buttons and was quickly able to reverse-engineer the entire protocol.

[River] wanted to use a Raspberry Pi to bring the fans into his home automation system, but the Raspberry Pi doesn’t have a 304.2 MHz radio. What it does have is user-programmable GPIO and the rpitx package, which converts a GPIO pin into a basic radio transmitter. Of course, the Pi’s GPIO pin’s aren’t long enough to efficiently transmit at 304.2 MHz, so [River] added a proper antenna, as well as a low-pass filter to clean up the transmitted signal. The rpitx package supports OOK out of the box, so [River] was quickly able get the Pi controlling his fan in no time!

If you’d like to do some more low-cost home automation, check out this approach to using a Raspberry Pi to control some bargain-bin smart plugs.

Roomba Gets Alexa Support With An ESP8266 Stowaway

The modern home is filled with plenty of “smart” devices, but unfortunately, they don’t always speak the same language. The coffee maker and the TV might both be able to talk to your phone through their respective apps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the two appliances can work together to better coordinate your morning routine. Which is a shame, since if more of these devices could communicate with each other, we’d be a lot closer to living that Jetsons life we were promised.

Luckily, as hardware hackers we can help get our devices better acquainted with one another. A recent post by [MyHomeThings] shows how the ESP8266 can bridge the gap between a Roomba and Amazon’s Alexa assistant. This not only allows you to cheaply and easily add voice control to the robotic vacuum, but makes it compatible with the Amazon’s popular home automation framework. This makes it possible to chain devices together into complex conditional routines, such as turning off the lights and activating the vacuum at a certain time each night.

The hack depends on the so-called Roomba Open Interface, a seven pin Mini-DIN connector that can be accessed by partially disassembling the bot. This connector provides power from the Roomba’s onboard batteries as well as a two-way serial communications bus to the controller.

By connecting a MP1584EN DC-DC converter and ESP8266 to this connector, it’s possible to send commands directly to the hardware. Add a little glue code to combine this capability with a library that emulates a Belkin Wemo device, and now Alexa is able to stop and start the robot at will.

We’ve seen this sort of trick used a few times before to add backdoor Alexa support to various gadgets, and it’s always interesting to see what kind of unusual hardware folks are looking to make an integral part of their smart home.