Snitch On Your AC Devices With Stolen Power

Low power devices are always intriguing, as they open up possibilities for applications with the need to operate remotely, or for very long periods without attention. There are all manner of techniques for powering such devices, too, such as using solar panels, super capacitors, or other fancy devices. The Micro Power Snitch is one such device, which can report wirelessly on your AC-powered appliances.

The device is built around a tiny ARM microcontroller and an RFM69 radio module. The entire circuit is run by leeching power from an AC current transformer, wrapped around one of the power lines of an AC appliance. When an appliance draws over the minimum threshold current (500W on 230VAC, 250W on 115VAC), the device sends a packet out, which can be received and logged at the other end.

The best part of this project, however, is the writeup. The project is split into an 8-part series, breaking down the minutiae of the concepts at work to make this possible. It’s a great primer if you’re interested in designing low-power devices.

We’ve seen some of [jcw]’s power research before – such as this guide to the effects of code on power consumption.

[Thanks to Ronald for the tip!]

Minimizing ESP8266 Battery Drain

[Alex Jensen] wanted to build a battery-powered weather station, using an ESP8266 breakout board to connect to WiFi. However, [Alex]’s research revealed that the ESP chip uses around 70mA per hour when the radio is on — meaning that he’d have to change batteries a lot more than he wanted to. He really wanted a low power rig such that he’d only have to change batteries every 2 years on a pair of AAs.

The two considerations would be, how often does the ESP get powered up for data transmissions — and how often the weather station’s ATtiny85 takes sensor readings. Waking up the ESP from sleep mode takes about 16mA — plus, once awake it takes about 3 seconds to reconnect, precious time at 70mA. However, by using a static IP address he was able to pare that down to half a second, with one more second to do the actual data transmission. In addition to the hourly WiFi connection, the Tiny85 must be powered, though its relatively modest 1.5mA per hour doesn’t amount to much, even with the chip awake for 36 hours during the year. All told, the various components came to around 500 mAh per year, so using a pair of AA batteries should keep the rig going for years.

We’re intrigued by stories of hackers eking out every last drop of power to make their projects work. We’ve posted about ESPs low-power mode before, and what can be more low-power than a watch running off a coin cell?

Weather Station Needs Almost No Batteries

While the ESP8266 has made its way into virtually every situation where a low-cost WiFi solution is needed, it’s not known as being a low-power solution due to the amount of energy it takes to run WiFi. [Alex] took this design constraint as more of a challenge though, and with the help of an ATtiny microcontroller was able to develop a weather station using an ESP8266 that only needs new batteries every 2-4 years.

While the ESP8266 module consumes a bit of power, the ATtiny excels in low-power mode. To take advantage of this, [Alex] designed the weather station using the ATtiny to gather data every two minutes, store the data in a buffer, and upload all of it in bursts every hour using the ESP8266. This means that the power-hungry WiFi chip can stay off most of the time, drastically limiting the power demands of the station. [Alex] mostly details the setup of the ATtiny and the ESP8266 on his project page, so this could be applied anywhere that low power and network connectivity are required.

As for the weather reporting capabilities, the station is equipped to measure temperature, light, and humidity. Presumably more could be added but this might increase the power demands for the weather station as a whole. Still, changing batteries once a year instead of once every two years might be a worthwhile trade-off for anyone else attempting such an ambitious project. Other additions to the weather station that we’ve seen before might include a low-power display, too.

Datalogger uses ESP32 and ESP8266 Low Power Modes

[G6EJD] wanted to design a low power datalogger and decided to look at the power consumption of an ESP32 versus an ESP8266. You can see the video results below.

Of course, anytime someone does a power test, you have to wonder if there were any tricks or changes that would have made a big difference. However, the relative data is interesting (even though you could posit situations where even those results would be misleading). You should watch the videos, but the bottom line was a 3000 mAh battery provided 315 days of run time for the ESP8266 and 213 days with the ESP32.

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How Low-Power Can You Go?

[lasersaber] has a passion: low-power motors. In a bid to challenge himself and inspired by betavoltaic cells, he has 3D printed and built a small nuclear powered motor!

This photovoltaic battery uses fragile glass vials of tritium extracted from keychains and a small section of a solar panel to absorb the light, generating power. After experimenting with numerous designs, [lasersaber] went with a 3D printed pyramid that houses six coils and three magnets, encapsulated in a glass cloche and accompanied by a suitably ominous green glow.

Can you guess how much power and current are coursing through this thing? Guess again. Lower. Lower.

Under 200mV and 20nA!

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At Last, (Almost) A Cellphone With No Batteries!

If you are tired of constantly having to worry about the state of the battery in your mobile phone, then maybe help is at hand courtesy of the University of Washington. They are reporting the first-ever battery free cell phone, able to make calls by scavenging ambient power. An impressive achievement, and one about which we’d all like to know more.

On closer examination though, the story is revealed as not quite what it claims to be. It’s still a very impressive achievement, but instead of a cell phone with which you can make calls through the public cell network, it’s more of a remote handset for a custom base station through which it can place Skype calls. Sadly the paper itself is hidden behind a journal publisher’s paywall, so we’re left to poke underneath the research group’s slightly baffling decision to use the word “Cellphone” for something that plainly isn’t, and the university PR department’s dumbing-down for the masses. Aren’t peer reviewers supposed to catch misleading descriptions as well as dodgy science?

In radio terms, it’s an analog AM two-way radio that uses a backscatter transmission technique of applying the modulation as switching to an absorbing antenna tuned to the RF source whose ambient energy is being utilized. This modulates the ambient field within the range of the device, and resulting modulated field can be received and demodulated like any other radio signal. It’s a simplex device, in that you can’t listen and talk at the same time. Other ambient power used by the circuitry is harvested by rectifying received RF and through capturing ambient light on a set of photodiodes. There is a short video explaining the system, which we’ve placed below the break.

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Using Backscatter Radio for a Soil Sensor Network

With almost 8 billion souls to feed and a changing climate to deal with, there’s never been a better time to field a meaningful “Internet of Agriculture.” But the expansive fields that make industrial-scale agriculture feasible work against the deployment of sensors and actuators because of a lack of infrastructure to power and connect everything. So a low-power radio network for soil moisture sensors is certainly a welcome development.

We can think of a lot of ways that sensors could be powered in the field. Solar comes to mind, since good exposure to the sun is usually a prerequisite for any cropland. But in practice, solar has issues, the prime one being that the plants need the sun more, and will quickly shade out low-profile soil-based sensors.

That’s why [Spyros Daskalakis] eschewed PV for his capacitive soil moisture sensors in favor of a backscatter technique very similar to that used in both the Great Seal Bug and mundane RFID tags alike. The soil sensor switches half of an etched PCB bowtie antenna in and out of a circuit at a frequency proportional to soil moisture. A carrier signal from a separate transmitter is reflected off the alternately loaded and unloaded antenna, picking up subcarriers with a frequency proportional to soil moisture. [Spyros] explains more about the sensor design and his technique for handling multiple sensors in his paper.

We really like the principles [Spyros] leveraged here, and the simplicity of the system. We can’t help but wonder what sort of synergies there are between this project and the 2015 Hackaday Prize-winning Vinduino project.

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