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Home Automation

Written by: Written by: Jo Jackson

11 March 2019

Automation

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Home Automation

Back in the early 1960s when the American animated sitcom The Jetsons first aired on television, digital electronic watches weren’t even on the market yet. The wacky devices in use in the Jetsons’ home must have seemed like far-fetched projections into a dubious future. Granted, Hanna-Barbera’s vision of the 21st century hasn’t exactly aligned with the first two decades of it, but a handful of the crazy gadgets dreamt up by the animation duo have actually become a reality, including FaceTime, smartwatches, doggy treadmills, and 3D printed food.

Something The Jetsons were just shy of predicting, was one of the most revolutionary things humankind has ever invented: the internet. Our global system of interconnected computer networks has completely changed the way we live. While it’s rare to find a person who’s not familiar with the word “internet” today, there’s another term we don’t hear quite as often: “the internet of things” or IOT. The term is “becoming rapidly more commonplace in the vernacular of IT infrastructure,” and refers to the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. 

Many of us already have devices in our households readily packaged for IOT. For example: smart TVs, smartphones, smartwatches, baby monitors or smart surveillance, to name a few. These devices all contain microprocessors to interpret inputs, and a means of connecting to a proxy device or directly to the internet, through which data can be transferred.

The proliferation of such devices has lead to the phenomenon of home automation, which refers to the building of automated components within your home using IOT. “A home automation system typically connects controlled devices to a central hub or “gateway,” creating a kind of unified “smart home”. Through a user interface, such as a wall-mounted terminal, a tablet, a desktop computer, a mobile application, or a web interface, we can interact with these devices. Since these systems can connect to the internet, they are accessible from outside the network, which allows us to control our devices from anywhere in world. For example, you could switch the central heating on in your wintery apartment in Europe 24 hours before your return from a tropical holiday!

There are home automation hubs already on the market such as Amazon Echo, Wink Hub 2 and Google Home, which interface with other systems, allowing you to regulate your climate control, entertainment, lighting, and surveillance systems. The one common issue with all of these retail products is their price. 

Due to home automation devices being fairly new to the market, there is a lot of hype around this new technology and this reflects in their prices. Going retail to automate your household may not be a viable option just yet. Luckily, for the tech savvy, there is an alternative solution to the steep retail prices. DIY home automation is not as daunting as it may seem. While you’re unlikely to achieve the neatly polished products that retail has to offer (and you will most likely have to climb into the roof), once you understand the fundamentals, DIY home automation is very easy to implement and allows for a more personally tailored experience. If you’re keen to try building your own DIY home automation system, you’ll need the following ingredients: A Raspberry Pi - “a series of small single-board computers developed in the United Kingdom (...) to promote the teaching of basic computer science in schools and in developing countries.” The model 3b+ is preferable as it comes preloaded with Bluetooth and Wi Fi.

Relay modules - “A relay is an electrically operated switch of mains voltage.” Basically it will provide the most basic function of home automation – ‘on’ and ‘off’. A relay is usually connected between the electric source and the electronic device. It becomes the new switch, but a switch that can be controlled through data transmission. Jumpers - to connect your Raspberry Pi to the relay modules. If, for example, you wanted to automate a lamp in your home, you’d need to: Connect the Pi to the relay using the jumper cables. Strip a small section of a lamp’s cable, exposing the ground and live wires. Redirect the live wire through the relay, allowing the relay to control the voltage throughput. This method has its downfalls, however:

The Pi needs to be placed near the controlled electronic device; Cabling can get untidy if not managed; And if a second device is added to the network it will have to be near the Pi. That’s why a fourth and final ingredient is essential for any DIY home automation project:

The ESP32 - This tiny microcontroller has Wi Fi built into it which allows communications through a message queue. Using the ESP32 will save you hours of running cables, installing conduit and maintaining control over the mess that is cable. To top it off, the chip also has GPIO pins which means it can control a relay module using messages from the hub/server. Using these simple building blocks, it’s possible to control steadily more complex ways of automating your home’s functions. 

Whether you splash out on glossy retail products, or you get stuck into building your very own automated abode, one thing’s for sure - if George and Jane Jetson lived next door, you’d be giving them a run for their money!