Your Plants Can Take Care Of Themselves Now

One of [Sasa]’s life goals is to be able to sit back in his home and watch as robots perform all of his work for him. In order to work towards this goal, he has decided to start with some home automation which will take care of all of his house plants for him. This project is built from the ground up, too, and is the first part of a series of videos which will outline the construction of a complete, open-source plant care machine.

The first video starts with the sensors for the plants. [Sasa] decided to go with a completely custom module based on the STM32 microcontroller since commercial offerings had poor communications designs and other flaws. The small board is designed to be placed in the soil, and has sensors for soil moisture as well as other sensors for amount of light available and the ambient temperature. The improvements over the commercial modules include communication over I2C, allowing a large number of modules to communicate over a minimum of wires and be arranged in any way needed.

For this build everything is open-source and available on [Sasa]’s GitHub page, including PCB layouts and code for the microcontrollers. We’re looking forward to the rest of the videos where he plans to lay out the central unit for handling all of these sensors, and a custom dashboard for controlling them as well. Perhaps there will also be an option for adding a way to physically listen to the plants communicate their needs as well.

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Open-Source Thermostat Won’t Anger Your Landlord

[Nathan Petersen] built a Hackable Open-Source Thermostat to smooth out temperature fluctuations caused by the large hysteresis of the bimetallic strip thermostat in his apartment. While it may be tempting to adjust the “anticipator” to take care of the problem or even replace the bimetallic thermostat with an electronic version, building your own thermostat from scratch is a good way to add to your project portfolio while making your way through college. Plus, he got to hone his hardware and software design chops.

The hardware is designed around the STM32, using a cheap, minimal variant since the device just needs to sense temperature and control the furnace in on-off mode. The TMP117 high-accuracy, low-power, temperature sensor was selected for temperature measurement since accuracy was an essential feature of the project. Dry-contact output for the furnace is via a normally-open solid state relay (opto-isolator). For the user interface, instead of going the easy-route and using an I2C/SPI OLED or LCD display, [Nathan] used three 7-segment LED displays, each driven by an 8-channel constant current driver. The advantage is that the display can be viewed from across the room, and it’s brightness adjusted via PWM. Temperature set-point adjustment is via a simple slide potentiometer, whose analog voltage is read by the micro-controller ADC. To remind about battery replacement, a second ADC channel on the micro-controller monitors the battery voltage via a voltage divider. The PCB components are mostly surface mount, but the packages selected are easy enough to hand solder.

[Nathan]’s Github repo provides the hardware and firmware source files. The board is designed in Altium, but folks using KiCad can use either the awesome Altium2KiCad converter or the online service for conversion. (The results, with some minor errors that can be easily fixed, are quite usable.) Serendipitously, his PCB layout worked like a charm the first time around, without requiring any rework or bodge wires.

The firmware is a few hundred lines of custom bare-metal C code, consisting of drivers to interface with the hardware peripherals, a UI section to handle the user interface, and the control section with the algorithm for running the furnace. [Nathan] walks us through his code, digging into some control theory and filtering basics. After making a few code tweaks and running the thermostat for some time, [Nathan] concludes that it is able to achieve +0.1°F / -0.5°F temperature regulation with furnace cycles lasting about 10-15 minutes (i.e. 4-6 cycles per hour). Obviously, his well insulated apartment and a decent furnace are also major contributing factors. Moving on, for the next version, [Nathan] wants to add data collection capabilities by adding some memory and SD card storage, and use an RTC to allow seasonal adjustments or time-based set-points.

This is his first attempt at a “functional’ useful project, but he does love to build the occasional toy, such as this POV Top.

Oh, Holey Light

We consider ourselves well-versed when it comes to the technical literature plastered on hardware store parts. Acronyms don’t frighten us, and our Google-fu is strong enough to overcome most mysteries. One bit of dark magic we didn’t understand was the gobbledygook on LED lamps. Wattage is easy and color temperature made sense because it corresponds with warm and cool colors, but Color Rendering Index (CRI) sounds like deep magic. Of course, some folks understand these terms so thoroughly that they can teach the rest of us, like [Jon] and [Kevin], who are building a light controller that corrects inadequacies in cheap lamps by installing several lamps into one unit.

We learned a lot by reading their logs, which are like the Cliff Notes from a lighting engineer’s textbook, but we’ll leave it as an exercise for the students to read through. Their project uses precise light sensors to measure the “flavor” of light coming off cheap lamps so you can mix up a pleasing ratio. In some ways, they are copying the effects of incandescent bulbs, which emit light relatively evenly across the visible light spectrum, right into the infrared. Unfortunately, cheap LEDs have holes in their spectrum coverage, and a Warm White unit has different gaps compared with Daylight, but combining them just right gives a rich output, without breaking the bank.

Into The Belly Of The Beast With Placemon

No, no, at first we thought it was a Pokemon too, but Placemon monitors your place, your home, your domicile. Instead of a purpose-built device, like a CO detector or a burglar alarm, this is a generalized monitor that streams data to a central processor where machine learning algorithms notify you if something is awry. In a way, it is like a guard dog who texts you if your place is unusually cold, on fire, unlawfully occupied, or underwater.

[anfractuosity] is trying to make a hacker-friendly version based on inspiration from a scientific paper about general-purpose sensing, which will have less expensive components but will lose accuracy. For example, the article suggests thermopile arrays, like low-resolution heat-vision, but Placemon will have a thermometer, which seems like a prudent starting place.

The PCB is ready to start collecting sound, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, illumination, and passive IR then report that telemetry via an onboard ESP32 using Wifi. A box utilizing Tensorflow receives the data from any number of locations and is training to recognize a few everyday household events’ sensor signatures. Training starts with events that are easy to repeat, like kitchen sounds and appliance operations. From there, [anfractuosity] hopes that he will be versed enough to teach it new sounds, so if a pet gets added to the mix, it doesn’t assume there is an avalanche every time Fluffy needs to go to the bathroom.

We have another outstanding example of sensing household events without directly interfacing with an appliance, and bringing a sensor suite to your car might be up your alley.

Bike Computer Powers On Long After Your Legs Give Out

A typical bicycle computer from the store rack will show your speed, trip distance, odometer, and maybe the time. We can derive all this data from a magnet sensor and a clock, but we live in a world with all kinds of sensors at our disposal. [Matias N.] has the drive to put some of them into a tidy yet competent bike computer that has a compass, temperature, and barometric pressure.

The brains are an STM32L476 low-power controller, and there is a Sharp Memory LCD display as it is a nice compromise between fast refresh rate and low power. E-paper would be a nice choice for outdoor readability (and obviously low power as well) but nothing worse than a laggy speedometer or compass.

In a show of self-restraint, he didn’t try to replace his mobile phone, so there is no GPS, WiFi, or streaming music. Unlike his trusty phone, you measure the battery life in weeks, plural. He implemented EEPROM memory for persistent data through power cycles, and the water-resistant board includes a battery charging circuit for easy topping off between rides.

When you toss the power of a mobile phone at a bike computer, someone will unveil the Android or you can measure a different kind of power from your pedals.

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Home Monitoring, Without All The Sensors

Smart homes come with a lot of perks, not least among which is the ability to monitor the goings-on in your home, track them, and make trends. Each piece of monitoring equipment, such as sensors or cameras, is another set of wires that needs to be run and another “thing” that needs to be maintained on your system. There are sometimes clever ways of avoiding sensors, though, while still retaining the usefulness of having them.

In this build, [squix] uses existing sensors for electricity metering that he already had in order to alert him when his oven is pre-heated. The sensor is a Shelly 3EM, and the way that it interfaces with his home automation is by realizing that his electric oven will stop delivering electricity to the heating elements once it has reached the desired temperature. He is able to monitor the sudden dramatic decrease in electricity demand at his house with the home controller, and use that decrease to alert him to the fact that his oven is ready without having to install something extra like a temperature sensor.

While this particular sensor may only be available in some parts of Europe, we presume the idea would hold out across many different sensors and even other devices. Even a small machine learning device should be able to tell what loads are coming on at what times, and then be programmed to perform functions based on that data.

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See-Through Catalytic Converter

There’s always something to be learned from taking things apart. Sometimes the parts can be used for other things, sometimes they can be repaired or improved upon, but sometimes it’s all in good fun. Especially in this case where extremely high temperatures and combustible gasses are involved. This is from the latest video from [Warped Perception] that lets us see inside of a catalytic converter as its operating.

Catalytic converters are installed on most vehicles (and other internal combustion engines) in order to process unburned hydrocarbons from exhaust gasses with a catalyst. These can get extremely hot, and this high temperature complicated the build somewhat. There were two prototypes constructed for this build and the first was a cross-section of a catalytic converter with a glass window sealed on in order to allow the viewing of the catalyst during the operation of a small engine. It was easy to see the dirty exhaust gasses entering and cleaner gasses leaving, but the window eventually blew off. The second was a complete glass tube which worked much better until the fitting on the back finally failed.

A catalytic converter isn’t something we’d normally get to see the inside of, and this video was worth watching just to see one in operation in real life. You could also learn a thing or two about high-temperature fittings as well if you’re so inclined. It might be a nice pairing with another build we’ve seen which gave us a window into a different type of combustion chamber than ones normally found on combustion engines.

Thanks to [Ryoku] for the tip!

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