Q&A: Colin O’Flynn (Engineering and “Pure” Research)

Colin O’Flynn

NAN: Where are you located?

COLIN: I’m currently living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I’m originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and had been living in Edinburgh, Scotland for almost two years before I moved to Halifax.

NAN: How did you become interested in electronics?

COLIN: Like many people in this area, I did start at a very young age. If I had to pin one event as the starting of my life-long interest in electronics, it was getting one of those “20-in-1” kits from RadioShack as a present. My parents always encouraged my interest in electronics, but as they were a commercial airline pilot and a chartered accountant, it wasn’t the case of them initially pushing me in the same direction they started!

My dad found me a few small “learn-to-solder” kits, which I enjoyed. At age 8, I assembled my first real kit, the LED-Tric Christmas tree featured in the December 1994 issue of Popular Electronics. My parents have kept bringing that tree out as a Christmas decoration every year since, and it still works.

Besides my parents, I also had help from local people interested in electronics and became friends with many of the local electronics store owners. I spent many hours building projects from magazines like Electronics Now, Popular Electronics, Circuit Cellar, and the various Forrest M. Mims III books. I find it interesting to see the recent surge in “maker” culture. It’s something that has really been going on for years. Growing up, there wasn’t such a thing as maker spaces, but there were local people with interesting workshops who would share projects. It’s great to see this a little more mainstream now, as it means more opportunities for people to get involved at any stage of their life in this fascinating world.

NAN: What is your current occupation? Are you still consulting for projects related to 802.15.4 wireless communications?

COLIN: I’m currently a graduate student at Dalhousie University pursuing a PhD. I decided to go back to school for the chance to do more “pure” research. It’s also fun to have access to a range of tools I wouldn’t otherwise get—the lab I sit in has an anechoic chamber, for example. And we have most of the latest versions of high-end software like MATLAB (including most of the add-ons), 3-D electromagnetic antenna simulation software, FPGA design software, and so forth.

RadioBlocks

I’m only loosely involved in 802.15.4 projects for now, and not actively following the latest developments and standards. Having said that, a friend of mine has gotten involved in creating small, wireless modules called RadioBlocks.

They use an IEEE 802.15.4 radio combined with a small ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller. They use an open-source mesh networking software we created called SimpleMesh, so most of my recent work on 802.15.4 has been around this project. The mesh software is designed to do the basic job of sending a block of data to another node, and otherwise staying out of the way. I previously did a lot of work using IPv6 on such small sensor networks, but haven’t been active in that area lately.

At Dalhousie, I’m working on the area of side-channel analysis of cryptographic systems, specifically power analysis. This area has a simple idea: if you have a microcontroller or other embedded controller, it typically has some internal data bus. When those data lines switch state, it takes power. But the power actually depends on the data. Imagine a databus switching from all 1s to all 0s in a clock cycle, compared to staying at all 1s. Likewise, different operations, such as a MUL compared to a LDI, have different power signatures. If you measure the current consumption on each clock cycle, you can learn something about the data being processed, and then often the secret key. Practically speaking, you can measure this current even with an electromagnetic probe, so you don’t need to physically modify the circuit board.

I gave a presentation at Black Hat Abu Dhabi in December 2012 about some of this work. If you are interested, the slides and white paper are available online at Blackhat.com, or from my personal website NewAE.com. You can see the photo above showing an example of attacking a microcontroller-based smart card. The capture software might look something like where you can see different computations the card is performing directly from the power trace. In this case, each burst is a round of the AES-128 computation.

NAN: Many of your projects include Atmel microcontrollers. Why Atmel?

COLIN: It’s no secret I’ve been a big fan of Atmel’s AVR microcontroller, but it wasn’t my first. I don’t know the exact lineage of my microcontroller work, but one of the first things I learned on was an AMD 2900 Evaluation and Learning Kit. A local electronics store happened to have it in stock. They had gotten it from someone cleaning out old inventory, as even at that time it was old. I added heatsinks, as the several amps it drew when powered with 5 V made a lot of those chips very hot. And, of course, you had to keep the entire board powered up if you didn’t want to lose you program you’d been manually entering. From there, I moved onto a Z80 trainer board, which let you program with a hex-entry keypad, and eventually I moved onto programming it from the computer. I designed a Z80 computer board but never built it—I still have the piece of transparency with the taped out PCB design and photosensitive PCB on which I was to expose it. That’s more than 10 years old now, so I suspect the chemicals in it have degraded a little!

I forget exactly why I picked up the AVRs, but I had one of the first AVRs released, Atmel’s AT90S1200, which I programmed in Assembly. After Assembly, I programmed them in BASIC (using MCS Electronics’s BASCOM-AVR), going as far to write a neural network in

BASCOM-AVR. Even today, I think BASIC gets a bad rap. It was almost the original “Arduino” environment, as you could drop down LCD drivers, ADC, and so forth without ever knowing much about how it worked, and with a really intuitive feel. I moved onto C sometime later, and used C almost exclusively for embedded development since. For some time, I was fairly involved in the tools used in the AVR world, such as WinAVR. Atmel donated a considerable amount of equipment to me, as at the time I was a high school student using these devices for science fair projects. I think that’s a great example of how such corporate donations pay off. I’ve almost exclusively used AVR processors since I am so familiar with them because of that. In addition, as a student with little money but lots of time, I was happy to spend hours each day on AVRFreaks.net or working on open-source tools. While Atmel probably ended up giving me around $3,000 worth of tools, I’m sure the value of work I performed for free in terms of open-source tool contributions or forum posts would be worth many times this.

A funny story around all this work: In undergrad, we used the Atmel AVR microcontrollers. During one of the first labs they distributed a tutorial on how to set up the WinAVR tools and compile your first program. As it turned out, this guide was something I wrote years prior and had posted to the WinAVR website. Sufficient to say, I did OK in that class.

NAN: Tell us about NewAE.com. What kind of information is available on the site?

COLIN: I’ve run NewAE.com since 2001, although it’s not really designed to be the type of website one checks for new content daily. If I’ve spent some time solving a problem that I think other people could use, I’ll put a post up. Sometimes this is a complete project, such as my IEEE 802.15.4 sniffer. Sometimes it’s just a small post, such as how to set up the AVR USB keyboard for 5-V operation, which wasn’t described in the manual. I also use it for keeping copies of any published papers or presentations.

I’ve more recently been posting some ongoing research to the site, including blog posts with ongoing projects, rather than just waiting until it’s completely finished! In that vein, I started a YouTube channel with some technical videos (www.youtube.com/user/colinpoflynn). A big collection of these are from when I taught a digital logic course and recorded all my presentations from that.

My content spans a huge range of topics—everything from showing my students how to get screen captures, to a demonstration of my soldering station, to recordings of my academic paper presentations. I don’t like duplicating work. I’ll only go to the effort of making a video or website post if I really couldn’t find the information elsewhere. Because of this, I don’t have one specific topic you could expect to learn about. I’ve never been aiming to be like EEVBlog!

NAN: You wrote “It’s a SNAP: A Flexible Communications Protocol” (Circuit Cellar 139, 2002) more than 10 years ago. Do you still use SNAP in any of your current projects?

COLIN: I have to admit that I haven’t used SNAP in probably eight years! Of course now, when needing to network devices, I’m more likely to turn to a wireless standard.

NAN: Your article “Open-Source AVR Development” (Circuit Cellar 196, 2006) provides an introduction to the AVR-GCC toolchain for AVR microcontrollers. The article references the Cygwin project and Sourceforge’s WinAVR project. How do these components work in the design?

COLIN: The Cygwin project is still something I use regularly, as it lets you run a variety of Unix-like tools on Windows. The Linux command line is extraordinarily powerful, and it is makes it simple to access things like C compilers, text parsing utilities, and scripting tools. With Cygwin, one can have a Linux-like experience under Windows, which I used in that article to build some of the tools you are developing for AVR. By comparison, WinAVR is just a number of prebuilt tools for the AVR development. While it’s more work to build your own tools, sometimes you require special features that were not available in the premade tools.

NAN: Atmel products have played a starring role in several articles you have published in Circuit Cellar. For example, an AT90S4433 microcontroller was featured in “It’s a SNAP: A Flexible Communications Protocol” (Circuit Cellar 139, 2002), an ATmega88 AVR RISC microcontroller was featured in “Digital Video in an Embedded System” (issue 184, 2005), an AT45DB041 DataFlash and an ATmega88 microcontroller were featured in “Open-Source AVR Development” (issue 187, 2006), and an AT90USBKEY demonstration board was featured in “Advanced USB Design Debugging” (issue 241, 2010). Why Atmel microcontrollers/boards? What do you prefer about these products?

COLIN: As I mentioned before, I have a long history with Atmel products. Because of this, I already have the debug toolchains for their chips and can get projects up very quickly.

When picking boards or products, one of the most important considerations for me is that readers can buy it easily. For me, this means I can get it at DigiKey (and I’ll check Farnell for our UK friends). Part of this comes from being in Canada, where DigiKey was one of the first distributors offering cheap and fast shipping to Canada.

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any microprocessor-based projects?

Binary Explorer Board

COLIN: My current big project is something I designed over the summer of 2012. It’s called the Binary Explorer Board and is something I used when teaching a course in digital logic at Dalhousie University. I needed a simple, programmable logic board and nothing I could find was exactly right. In particular, I needed something with an integrated programmer, several switches and LEDs, and an integrated breadboard. The students needed to be able to use the breadboard without the CPLD to learn about discretely packaged parts. All the CPLD-based trainers I found didn’t have exactly what I wanted in this regard.

The embedded part is the USB interface using an Atmel AT90USB162 microcontroller, although I plan on later upgrading that to an XMEGA for lower cost and more code room. The firmware is powered by Dean Camera’s excellent open-source USB library called LUFA (www.fourwalledcubicle.com/LUFA.php). This firmware lets students program the CPLD on the board easily over USB. But the cool thing is you can go even further and use the device as a generic programmer for other AVRs or CPLDs/FPGAs. For example, you can mount an AVR on the breadboard, connect it to the USB interface, and program that through the Arduino IDE. The entire board would retail for $35 in single-unit quantity, so it’s cheaper than most textbooks. I’m working on making it a real product with Colorado Micro Devices right now.

The design environment is the standard Xilinx toolchain, although I’ve made a number of predefined projects to make it simple enough for students with zero previous design experience to use. The idea is to get students familiar with the real tools they might see in the industry. Around this project, it’s interesting to note I choose a Xilinx CPLD because of my familiarity with Xilinx devices and design tools. This familiarity comes from years ago when Xilinx donated to me a part for a project I was working on. Now throngs of students will be exposed to Xilinx devices, all because Xilinx was willing to donate some parts to a student.

There is always an assortment of half-finished projects, too. I started designing a battery tester, which could simulate characteristics you’d typically see when driving small wireless nodes from coin-cell batteries. I started planning on using an AVR USB microcontroller and doing all the data logging myself. I then found this LabJack device, which simplified my life a lot, as they had basically a generic USB-based logging/control module.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the embedded design industry?

COLIN: Wireless and the “Internet of Things” will eventually be a big thing, which means design engineers will need to become more familiar with things like protocols and realistic transmission characteristics. I use the word “realistic,” as part of this world is separating hype from reality. There’s certainly a huge disconnect between the marketing hype around all these various wireless protocols and how well they work in practice. When designing a product that will use a wireless technology, it’s likely some commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) module will be used, so the engineer may think they can remain blissfully unaware of RF or networking things. But the engineer still needs to have a rough idea about how many devices might fit in an area on a single network or the advantage of selecting certain protocols.

Another thing of interest to me is programmable logic, such as FPGAs. It’s been interesting to see the tools that try to turn anybody into an FPGA designer becoming more mainstream, or at least letting you program FPGAs in more common languages (e.g., C/C++). They are still fairly specialized and more likely to be used by a hardware engineer looking to improve productivity, compared to a software engineer who needs to offload an algorithm into a FPGA. But I think they could fairly quickly get to the point that engineers with some FPGA experience could implement considerably more complex designs than they would have otherwise been able to had they been required to design everything from scratch.

In a somewhat similar vein, we are starting to see the availability of multicore devices coming down to embedded levels. Learning to program them in a way to take advantage of these new cores is a useful skill to pick up. I recently started using both the OpenMP API and Cilk++ development software on some of my programs. My work wasn’t targeting an embedded project, but instead regular full-size multicore computers, but it’s still a useful (and fairly simple) skill to pick up.

NAN: Tell us a little about your workbench. What are some of your favorite design tools?

Colin’s Workbench

COLIN: My initial workbench was the kitchen table, although other family members were frequently concerned about eating in the same space as these various items with warning labels about lead. My next workbench was a long, custom-built bench in Hamilton, Ontario. My current bench in Halifax was again custom-built, and I’ll take you few of its features. I’d like to point out by “custom-built” I mean built by myself with a jigsaw and some plywood, not an artesian finely crafted piece of furniture.

Due to a back injury, I work standing up, which you can’t see in the photo. It’s actually quite refreshing, and combined with a good quality antifatigue mat and stool to lean up against means I can work long hours without tiring. A cover comes down to hide everything in my desk, which was a feature partially required by my significant other, who didn’t want guests to see the typical mess of wires it contains. When closed, it also gives it some protection against any rogue water leaks. For my computer, I use a trackball instead of a mouse, and the keyboard and trackball are mounted on a plate tilted underneath the desk in a “negative” tilt angle, adjusted to most natural angle. And, because there is no way to see the keyboard while typing, it tends to keep anyone else from borrowing my computer to look something up!

I’ve wired a ground fault interrupter (GFI) into the desk, so all my power outlets are protected. If I ever did something dumb like dropping a scope ground on a live wire, the GFI socket would at least give me a hope of protecting the scope and myself. There are many outlets above and below the desk, and also a ground jack for the antistatic strap beside the thermal wire strippers. The outlets under the desk let me plug in things in a hidden manner—printers, USB hubs, and other permanent devices get wired in there. I’ve wired a number of USB hubs to the top of my desk, so I typically have around 12 free USB slots. You always seem to run out otherwise!

Most of my tools are off the desk and stored in the drawers to either side. I made the “drawers” just pieces of wood with minimal sides—the idea being most of the time you are placing PCBs or tools down, so the lack of high sides prevents you from piling too much into them! All the cables get stored on hooks to the left of my desk, and I’ve got a whiteboard that sticks up when I’m working on a problem.

SMD Organization

I store all my SMD parts in small envelopes stored in index card holders in the bottom left of my desk. While I’m not a static-phobic, I also didn’t want to use plastic film strips or plastic bags. So the paper envelopes at least I hope don’t generate much static, even if they don’t dissipate it. It’s very easy to label all your parts and also this system holds up to a high dynamic range of stock numbers. For example, capacitors get split into 10.1–99.9 nF, 100 nF, 100.1–999.9 nF, and so forth. Because you seem to end up with loads of 100-nF capacitors, they get their own envelope. It’s trivial to change this division around as you get more parts, or to group part sizes together.

In terms of interesting tools: my soldering station is probably my favorite tool, a Metcal MX500 I got used from eBay. The response time on these is unbelievable. I put a video up to show people just because I’ve been so impressed with it. There are other manufactures that now make stations with the same RF-heating technology I believe, and I always encourage everyone to try one. I’ve been using the DG8SAQ Vector Network Analyzer (VNWA) for a while too. It’s a very affordable way to get familiar with VNA and RF measurements. It’s especially fun to follow along with some of the “Darker Side” columns in Circuit Cellar. Rather than just hearing about the mysterious world of RF, you can do experiments like viewing the response of several different decoupling capacitors mounted in parallel. I’ve got an old TiePie TiePieSCOPE HS801 parallel-port oscilloscope mounted underneath my desk, and still use it today. A lot of my work is digital, so have an Intronix LogicPort digital analyzer, a Beagle USB 480 protocol analyzer, and oodles of microcontroller programming/debug tools from different manufacturers.

CC270: Forward Progress

As you might have noticed, parts of this issue look a bit different than the publication you’re used to reading. You can see a slightly updated layout, some different colors, and a few new sections. We’ve made these changes to reflect where we are today and where we’re taking this magazine in the months to come. It’s all about forward progress. Here are the broad strokes:

FRESHENED UP LAYOUT

We’re planning an exciting layout redesign for 2013. The layout will be modern, clean, and engaging, but its fonts and colors won’t distract you from what you’re reading—professional engineering content. Since the new layout is still an issue or two away, we’re presenting you with this freshened up issue to mark the transition to 2013. We hope you like the changes.

CLIENT PROFILES

On page 20 you’ll find a new section that will appear frequently in the coming months. The purpose of our client profiles is to shine a light on one company per month and bring you an exclusive offer for useful products or services.

TECH THE FUTURE

Last month we ran Steve Ciarcia’s final “Priority Interrupt” editorial. This month we’re introducing a new section, “Tech the Future.” The EE/ECE community is on the verge of major breakthroughs in the fields of microcomputing, wireless communication, robotics, and programming. Each month, we’ll use page 80 to present some of the fresh ideas, thought-provoking research projects, and new embedded design-related endeavors from innovators who are working on the groundbreaking technologies of tomorrow.

CC25

You’ll soon have Circuit Cellar’s 25th (“CC25”) anniversary issue in your hands or on your PCs or mobile devices. Here are just a few of the exciting topics in the issue: Circuit Cellar in 1988, design/programming tips, engineers’ thoughts on the future of embedded tech, and much more. It’s going to be a classic.

Well, there’s certainly a lot of publishing-related innovation going on at our headquarters. And I know you’re equally busy at your workbenches. Just be sure to schedule some quiet time this month to read the articles in this issue. Perhaps one of our authors will inspire you to take on your first project of the new year. We feature articles on topics ranging from an MCU-based  helicopter controller to open-source hardware to embedded authentication to ’Net-based tools for energy efficiency. Enjoy!

CC269: Break Through Designer’s Block

Are you experiencing designer’s block? Having a hard time starting a new project? You aren’t alone. After more than 11 months of designing and programming (which invariably involved numerous successes and failures), many engineers are simply spent. But don’t worry. Just like every other year, new projects are just around the corner. Sooner or later you’ll regain your energy and find yourself back in action. Plus, we’re here to give you a boost. The December issue (Circuit Cellar 269) is packed with projects that are sure to inspire your next flurry of innovation.

Turn to page 16 to learn how Dan Karmann built the “EBikeMeter” Atmel ATmega328-P-based bicycle computer. He details the hardware and firmware, as well as the assembly process. The monitoring/logging system can acquire and display data such as Speed/Distance, Power, and Recent Log Files.

The Atmel ATmega328-P-based “EBikeMeter” is mounted on the bike’s handlebar.

Another  interesting project is Joe Pfeiffer’s bell ringer system (p. 26). Although the design is intended for generating sound effects in a theater, you can build a similar system for any number of other uses.

You probably don’t have to be coerced into getting excited about a home control project. Most engineers love them. Check out Scott Weber’s garage door control system (p. 34), which features a MikroElektronika RFid Reader. He built it around a Microchip Technology PIC18F2221.

The reader is connected to a breadboard that reads the data and clock signals. It’s built with two chips—the Microchip 28-pin PIC and the eight-pin DS1487 driver shown above it—to connect it to the network for testing. (Source: S. Weber, CC269)

Once considered a hobby part, Arduino is now implemented in countless innovative ways by professional engineers like Ed Nisley. Read Ed’s article before you start your next Arduino-related project (p. 44). He covers the essential, but often overlooked, topic of the Arduino’s built-in power supply.

A heatsink epoxied atop the linear regulator on this Arduino MEGA board helped reduce the operating temperature to a comfortable level. This is certainly not recommended engineering practice, but it’s an acceptable hack. (Source: E. Nisley, CC269)

Need to extract a signal in a noisy environment? Consider a lock-in amplifier. On page 50, Robert Lacoste describes synchronous detection, which is a useful way to extract a signal.

This month, Bob Japenga continues his series, “Concurrency in Embedded Systems” (p. 58). He covers “the mechanisms to create concurrently in your software through processes and threads.”

On page 64, George Novacek presents the second article in his series, “Product Reliability.” He explains the importance of failure rate data and how to use the information.

Jeff Bachiochi wraps up the issue with a article about using heat to power up electronic devices (p. 68). Fire and a Peltier device can save the day when you need to charge a cell phone!

Set aside time to carefully study the prize-winning projects from the Reneas RL78 Green Energy Challenge (p. 30). Among the noteworthy designs are an electrostatic cleaning robot and a solar energy-harvesting system.

Lastly, I want to take the opportunity to thank Steve Ciarcia for bringing the electrical engineering community 25 years of innovative projects, essential content, and industry insight. Since 1988, he’s devoted himself to the pursuit of EE innovation and publishing excellence, and we’re all better off for it. I encourage you to read Steve’s final “Priority Interrupt” editorial on page 80. I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s no better way to begin the next 25 years of innovation than by taking a moment to understand and celebrate our past. Thanks, Steve.

Q&A: Andrew Spitz (Co-Designer of the Arduino-Based Skube)

Andrew Spitz is a Copenhagen, Denmark-based sound designer, interaction designer, programmer, and blogger studying toward a Master’s interaction design at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID). Among his various innovative projects is the Arduino-based Skube music player, which is an innovative design that enables users to find and share music.

The Arduino-based Skube

Spitz worked on the design with Andrew Nip, Ruben van der Vleuten, and Malthe Borch. Check out the video to see the Skube in action.

On his blog SoundPlusDesign.com, Spitz writes:

It is a fully working prototype through the combination of using ArduinoMax/MSP and an XBee wireless network. We access the Last.fm API to populate the Skube with tracks and scrobble, and using their algorithms to find similar music when in Discover mode.

The following is an abridged  version of an interview that appears in the December 2012 issue of audioXpress magazine, a sister publication of Circuit Cellar magazine..

SHANNON BECKER: Tell us a little about your background and where you live.

Andrew Spitz: I’m half French, half South African. I grew up in France, but my parents are South African so when I was 17, I moved to South Africa. Last year, I decided to go back to school, and I’m now based in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’m earning a master’s degree at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CID).

SHANNON: How did you become interested in sound design? Tell us about some of your initial projects.

Andrew: From the age of 16, I was a skydiving cameraman and I was obsessed with filming. So when it was time to do my undergraduate work, I decided to study film. I went to film school thinking that I would be doing cinematography, but I’m color blind and it turned out to be a bigger problem than I had hoped. At the same time, we had a lecturer in sound design named Jahn Beukes who was incredibly inspiring, and I discovered a passion for sound that has stayed with me.

Shannon: What do your interaction design studies at CIID entail? What do you plan to do with the additional education?

Andrew: CIID is focused on a user-centered approach to design, which involves finding intuitive solutions for products, software, and services using mostly technology as our medium. What this means in reality is that we spend a lot of time playing, hacking, prototyping, and basically building interactive things and experiences of some sort.

I’ve really committed to the shift from sound design to interaction design and it’s now my main focus. That said, I feel like I look at design from the lens of a sound designer as this is my background and what has formed me. Many designers around me are very visual, and I feel like my background gives me not only a different approach to the work but also enables me to see opportunities using sound as the catalyst for interactive experiences. Lots of my recent projects have been set in the intersection among technology, sound, and people.

SHANNON: You have worked as a sound effects recordist and editor, location recordist and sound designer for commercials, feature films, and documentaries. Tell us about some of these experiences?

ANDREW: I love all aspects of sound for different reasons. Because I do a lot of things and don’t focus on one, I end up having more of a general set of skills than going deep with one—this fits my personality very well. By doing different jobs within sound, I was able to have lots of different experiences, which I loved! nLocation recording enabled me to see really interesting things—from blowing up armored vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to interviewing famous artists and presidents. And, documentaries enabled me to travel to amazing places such as Rwanda, Liberia, Mexico, and Nigeria. As a sound effects recordist on Jock of the Bushvelt, a 3-D animation, I recorded animals such as lions, baboons, and leopards in the South African bush. With Bakgat 2, I spent my time recording and editing rugby sounds to create a sound effects library. This time in my life has been a huge highlight, but I couldn’t see myself doing this forever. I love technology and design, which is why I made the move...

SHANNON: Where did the idea for Skube originate?

Andrew: Skube came out of the Tangible User Interface (TUI) class at CIID where we were tasked to rethink audio in the home context. So understanding how and where people share music was the jumping-off point for creating Skube.

We realized that as we move more toward a digital and online music listening experience, current portable music players are not adapted for this environment. Sharing mSkube Videousic in communal spaces is neither convenient nor easy, especially when we all have such different taste in music.

The result of our exploration was Skube. It is a music player that enables you to discover and share music and facilitates the decision process of picking tracks when in a communal setting.

audioXpress is an Elektor International Media publication.

DIY Internet-Enabled Home Control System

Why shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars on various home control systems (HCS) when you have the skills and resources to build your own? You can design and implement sophisticated Internet-enabled systems with free tools and some careful planning.

John Breitenbach did just that. He used a microcontroller, free software, and a cloud-based data platform to construct a remote monitoring system for his home’s water heater. The innovative design can email or text status messages and emergency alerts to a smartphone. You can build a similar system to monitor any number of appliances, rooms, or buildings.

An abridged version of Breitenbach’s article, “Internet-Enabled Home Control” (Circuit Cellar 264, July 2012), appears below. (A link to the entire article and an access password are noted at the end of this post.) Breitenbach writes:

Moving from the Northeast to North Carolina, my wife and I were surprised to find that most homes don’t have basements. In the north, the frost line is 36˝–48 ˝ below the surface. To prevent frost heave, foundations must be dug at least that deep. So, digging down an extra few feet to create a basement makes sense. Because the frost line is only 15 ˝ in the Raleigh area, builders rarely excavate the additional 8’ to create basements.

The lack of basements means builders must find unique locations for a home’s mechanical systems including the furnace, AC unit, and water heater. I was shocked to find that my home’s water heater is located in the attic, right above one of the bedrooms (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: My home’s water heater is located in our attic. (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)

During my high school summers I worked for my uncle’s plumbing business (“Breitenbach Plumbing—We’re the Best, Don’t Call the Rest”) and saw firsthand the damage water can do to a home. Water heaters can cause some dramatic end-of-life plumbing failures, dumping 40 or more gallons of water at once followed by the steady flow of the supply line.

Having cleaned up the mess of a failed water heater in my own basement up north, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I discovered the water heater in my North Carolina attic. For peace of mind, especially when traveling, I instrumented my attic so I could be notified immediately if water started to leak. My goal was to use a microcontroller so I could receive push notifications via e-mails or text messages. In addition to emergency messages, status messages sent on a regular basis reassure me the system is running. I also wanted to use a web browser to check the current status at any time.

MCU & SENSOR

The attic monitor is based on Renesas Electronics’s YRDKRX62N demonstration kit, which features the RX62N 32-bit microcontroller (see Photo 2). Renesas has given away thousands of these boards to promote the RX, and the boards are also widely available through distributors. The YRDK board has a rich feature set including a graphics display, push buttons, and an SD-card slot, plus Ethernet, USB, and serial ports. An Analog Devices ADT7420 digital I2C temperature sensor also enables you to keep an eye on the attic temperature. I plan to use this for a future addition to the project that compares this temperature to the outside air temperature to control an attic fan.

Photo 2: The completed board, which is based on a Renesas Electronics YRDKRX62N demonstration kit. (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)

SENSING WATER

Commercial water-detection sensors are typically made from two exposed conductive surfaces in close proximity to each other on a nonconductive surface. Think of a single-sided PCB with no solder mask and tinned traces (see Photo 3).

Photo 3: A leak sensor (Photo courtesy of Michael Thomas)

These sensors rely on the water conductivity to close the circuit between the two conductors. I chose a sensor based on this type of design for its low cost. But, once I received the sensors, I realized I could have saved myself a few bucks by making my own sensor from a couple of wires or a piece of proto-board.

When standing water on the sensor shorts the two contacts, the resistance across the sensor drops to between 400 kΩ and 600 kΩ. The sensor is used as the bottom resistor in a voltage divider with a 1-MΩ resistor up top. The output of the divider is routed to the 12-bit analog inputs on the RX62N microcontroller. Figure 1 shows the sensor interface circuit. When the voltage read by the analog-to-digital converter (ADC) drops below 2 V, it’s time to start bailing. Two sensors are connected: one in the catch pan under the water heater, and a second one just outside the catch pan to detect failures in the small expansion tank.

Figure 1: The sensor interface to the YRDK RX62N board

COMMUNICATIONS CHOICES

One of my project goals was to push notifications to my cell phone because Murphy’s Law says water heaters are likely to fail while you’re away for the weekend. Because I wanted to keep the project costs low, I used my home’s broadband connection as the gateway for the attic monitor. The Renesas RX62N microcontroller includes a 100-Mbps Ethernet controller, so I simply plugged in the cable to connect the board to my home network. The open-source µIP stack supplied by Renesas with the YRDK provides the protocol engine needed to talk to the Internet.

There were a couple of complications with using my home network as the attic monitor’s gateway to the world. It is behind a firewall built into my router and, for security reasons, I don’t want to open up ports to the outside world.

My Internet service provider (ISP) occasionally changes the Internet protocol (IP) address associated with my cable modem. So I would never know what address to point my web browser. I needed a solution that would address both of these problems. Enter Exosite, a company that provides solutions for cloud-based, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.

TALKING TO THE CLOUD

Exosite provides a number of software components and services that enable M2M communications via the cloud. This is a different philosophy from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems I’ve used in the past. The control systems I’ve worked on over the years typically involve a local host polling the hundreds or thousands of connected sensors and actuators that make up a commercial SCADA system. These systems are generally designed to be monitored locally at a single location. In the case of the attic monitor, my goal was to access a limited number of data points from anywhere, and have the system notify me rather than having to continuously poll. Ideally, I’d only hear from the device when there was a problem.

Exosite is the perfect solution: the company publishes a set of simple application programming interfaces (APIs) using standard web protocols that enable smart devices to push data to their servers in the cloud in real time. Once the data is in the cloud, events, alerts, and scripts can be created to do different things with the data—in my case, to send me an e-mail and SMS text alert if there is anything wrong with my water heater. Connected devices can share data with each other or pull data from public data sources, such as public weather stations. Exosite has an industrial-strength platform for large-scale commercial applications. It provides free access to it for the open-source community. I can create a free account that enables me to connect one or two devices to the Exosite platform.

Embedded devices using Exosite are responsible for pushing data to the server and pulling data from it. Devices use simple HTTP requests to accomplish this. This works great in my home setup because the attic monitor can work through my firewall, even when my Internet provider occasionally changes the IP address of my cable modem. Figure 2 shows the network diagram.

Figure 2: The cloud-based network

VIRTUAL USER INTERFACE

Web-based dashboards hosted on Exosite’s servers can be built and configured to show real-time and historical data from connected devices. Controls, such as switches, can be added to the dashboards to push data back down to the device, enabling remote control of embedded devices. Because the user interface is “in the cloud,” there is no need to store all the user interface (UI) widgets and data in the embedded device, which greatly reduces the storage requirements. Photo 4 shows the dashboard for the attic monitor.

Photo 4: Exosite dashboard for the attic monitor

Events and alerts can be added to the dashboard. These are logical evaluations Exosite’s server performs on the incoming data. Events can be triggered based on simple comparisons (e.g., a data value is too high or too low) or complex combinations of a comparison plus a duration (e.g., a data value remains too high for a period of time). Setting up a leak event for one of the sensors is shown in Photo 5.

Photo 5: Creating an event in Exosite

In this case, the event is triggered when the reported ADC voltage is less than 2 V. An event can also be triggered if Exosite doesn’t receive an update from the device for a set period of time. This last feature can be used as a watchdog to ensure the device is still working.

When an event is triggered, an alert can optionally be sent via e-mail. This is the final link that enables an embedded device in my attic to contact me anywhere, anytime, to alert me to a problem. Though I have a smartphone that enables me to access my e-mail account, I can also route the alarm message to my wife’s simpler phone through her cellular provider’s e-mail-to-text-message gateway. Most cellular providers offer this service, which works by sending an e-mail to a special address containing the cell phone number. On the Verizon network, the e-mail address is <yourcellularnumber>@vtext.com. Other providers have similar gateways.

The attic monitor periodically sends heartbeat messages to Exosite to let me know it’s still working. It also sends the status of the water sensors and the current temperature in the attic. I can log in to Exosite at any time to see my attic’s real-time status. I have also configured events and alarms that will notify me if a leak is detected or if the temperature gets too hot…

The complete article includes details such about the Internet engine, reading the cloud, tips for updating the design, and more.  You can read the entire article by typing netenabledcontrol to open the password-protected PDF.