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This is the UK website for Peter and Maureen Scargill. We live in the Northeast of England and also on occasion in Andalucia in Spain.

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Enjoying the Summer of 2014

Lots of info on Facebook and the blog over at www.bedrock.es – right now, Maureen is off with her bad foot to Pilates down in Galera village – we managed a nice trip to Lake Negratin yesterday and last night I did the usual G8 thing, meeting the Brits down at the bar in the village – we had a very nice evening.

panorama

Today I’m sitting here catching up with emails, organising websites (I have them all over the place and I’m consolidating to eventually get to one provider) and working on my home control system so it is reliable over the winter.

I’ve had more than my fair share of problems with the home controller kit here…

1. The heat is generally far more than you’d see in the UK so it’s no unusual to see my office here at 28c – way higher than the UK – this and less than perfect mains power has taken out a number of cheap power supplies. Now I’m using higher rated supplies with success.

2. It seemed like a good idea at the time – as we have wireless Internet here (by which I mean a dish pointing down to the town centre) and the cave is not well suited to drilling holes for wires – I put in an over-the-mains setup with little TPLink units plugged into the mains. Turns out they are not AT ALL reliable and the quality varies for numerous reasons including the amount and type of data you send over them. So – I’m putting everything back onto either WIFI where sensible or hardwired. Thankfully network cable and connectors are dirt cheap here in Spain. Just a matter of drilling holes.

3. My home control coding took a leap forward a little while ago with proper wireless networking – unfortunately like many others I’d not realised quite how sensitive my little NRF radios are to interference, especially from cheap Chinese switched power supplies. That is now resolved and the radio network is working a treat.

I now have the control unit sending me TWEETS reliably when certain events occur – and that’s great. Just need now to get a whole boatload of supplies from the UK

Galera

stars at night

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Beardless

beardlessRight now we’re in Spain (pop over and have a look at our Spanish blog or follow us on Facebook)  and as such I recently, reluctantly agreed to shave off the beard (it’s grown back since). In the picture on the left you will see Simon – who convinced me after a few beers that we should shave the lot off.

I got up the next morning and the first thing Maureen said, after months of pestering me to modify the beard, was… she doesn’t like this new look!!!!

You just can’t win. Anyway, right now we’re with friends in Galera – by all means go take a look.

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The “Internet of Things”

As this is now abuzz-phrase you’ll see littering the press, I thought I’d put in my two-pence worth on this “new” subject.

The “Internet of Things” is a phrase used to describe things that can be controlled or monitored (or both) over the Internet.

In 1962  I was too young to be aware of what was happening outside of my own house! but at this time, a fellow called Licklider from MIT was describing what he called a “galactic network” concept in which computers all over the world would talk to each other. By 1969 4 machines were talking to each other in what was called “Arpanet” and the rest is well known… today, billions of machines are connected worldwide… but most folk think of everything from large computers down to mobile phones – what is slightly less well known is the massive spread late last century of “microcontrollers” which are now found in most everyday electronic gadgets (washing machines, industrial controllers etc. and which are often connected together by what is currently called “The Internet of Things”. Checkout Cloudwash if you’re interested in what might be done with domestic appliances. Here is another link to a Samsung phone controlled washing machine, the WW9000.

In 1963 my interest in electronics started with a “Philips E10” kit which started me on the path of building radio receivers, controlling lights and motors.. and I’ve been involved with electronics since then, writing articles, building machines and eventually turning my interest into a business in the 80’s and beyond.

In 1974, the X10 protocol was developed in Scotland (but strangely found much favour in America where, amongst others,  Steve Ciarcia made it popular with hobbyists -Steve Ciarcias Circuit Cellar magazine). This was a means of connecting gadgets around the home/office/factory for the purpose of remote control. In this case the signals were/are in fact sent over the mains electricity supply. Other solutions involve WIFI, Bluetooth, general radio, Infra-red and other mechanisms.

That takes care of the local connectivity while the Internet allows that remote control to extend worldwide.

In 1982, students at Carnegie Mellon University created the first ever “Internet connected soda vending machine”. I remember being fascinated at the possibilities this would bring, thousands, perhaps millions of machines of all shapes and sizes being controlled and monitored via the Internet from anywhere in the world. Of course at that time there was not even the concept of an Internet-connected mobile phone so that limited possibilities at the time – but this was enough to start me off and by May 1994 our company had developed a home control system called Appcon which basically let anyone control lights, alarms, heating and more from a PC – and by implication, by remotely controlling the PC, from anywhere. 

We used wire control and the mobile infrastructure was simply not ready for this. Today it is and we’re already starting to see simple light and heating control via mobile phones appearing on the market. We’re also seeing what I believe is only the tip of the iceberg in dire warnings in the press about security.  While Windows and the Internet in general have had a long time to get used to nasty people trying to break in and destroy – to the extent that virtually all of the public are aware of viruses, trojans and other means of destroying PCs, certainly the home control market has to date not been sufficiently important to attract large scale attempts at disruption – but it will happen – it’s just a matter of time.

Part of the problem is that the sophisticated anti-virus and other techniques used to protect PCs are simply not available to the simplest of controllers you might see in for example a remote light switch. Even HTTPS: which is a simple mechanism to encrypt data over the Intranet is mostly not available to the simplest of controllers.

Gartner reckon that by 2020, 30 BILLION devices will be connected to the Internet and bear in mind that the current IP4 system of Internet addressing allows for only 4.3 billion individual device addresses and that includes PCs and phones etc.!! Newer technologies such as IP6 which allow for a FAR greater number of devices are again not really available to the simplest of devices at this time so there are lots of changes and improvements to be made in the coming years.

In the meanwhile, much fun and entertainment is still to be had in this emerging field – enthusiasts using the likes of the Raspberry Pi, Arduino and other technologies are having a great time coming up with new ideas and new applications. The combination of local networking and remote control via the Internet has chance to dramatically change how we interact with the world in the coming years, offering massive possibilities for saving energy and doing things in completely new ways. Expect to hear a LOT more of this in the coming months.

For my own efforts I’m now controlling my own gadgets in 3 properties including modern lighting technologies and heating and already making savings on heating bills.

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Home Control – The Full Mesh

Danger sign - Peter ScargillI’ve been working on home control now for many years on and off both professionally and today as a hobby (for now). This blog documents the latest state of play.

My first attempt at home control years ago took the form of a bunch of boards talking to each other around a building by cheap telephone cable. Simple as that may be it can be a deal-breaker when it comes to wives who don’t like wires! Today this needs to be handled as far as possible, wirelessly.

Home Control App - Peter ScargillTalking to a home controller via mobile phone is a no-brainer – simply fit Ethernet capability to an microprocessor board and there are solutions out there for talking to mobile phones, one which takes some work but which yields one of the best visual interfaces to date is NETIO. I’ve developed my own Android software and that works well, but for now, visually, NETIO remains my tool of choice – though lack of updates from the designers is starting to grind a little – such is the way of Apps.

To get instructions delivered around the building, for the last year I have been struggling with a low-cost radio called the NRF24L01 – these are readily available on Ebay and are small and cheap – however they do not suffer stone walls gladly and have somewhat restrictive range, due mainly to their choice of operating frequency – 2.4Ghz which just happens to be the same range as everything from WIFI routers to cordless phones and more. Their advantage – cheap.

Within that restriction they are quite reliable – I’ve sent hundreds of thousands of data packages in a row without error. In order to get past the stone wall issue, it’s no good having a controller simply talking to radio units (which is how you avoid wires all over the house), you need some kind of network so that units can pass message from one to another. Because the Atmel Atmega328 processors I use (custom variations on the basic “Arduino” theme) are limited in capacity, as is the NRF24L01 radio, up to now it has been impossible to to manage anything more than a limited form of hopping network where certain “nodes” or slave units act not only independently but also as “relay” nodes, passing messages on to others and hence increasing the range of the system.

Full MESH Home ControlWhat has always been needed was some kind of full mesh where all units can act as gateways to others and where the failure of one unit results in the mesh re-adjusting itself automatically to handle that. Up to now that’s been a dream but the software now exists to do this – called RadioMesh.  The nearest anyone has come up with until now was RF24NETWORK, a simple network but not a mesh – in this network up to 6 units could each talk to 6 others and so on – the limitations included the need to specify exactly who would talk to who – so if one unit went down it could bring the whole network down. Accordingly I’ve been spending my evenings and weekends gutting my software to try to accommodate some new software which forms a “mesh”… and the work has paid off – I now have a rig up and running.

Mesh Radio Home Control - Peter ScargillAs you can see from the above, I’ve used the Atmel 1284p for the “master” unit – I long since gave up on the 328s for this – just not enough RAM or storage memory  – and I’m now about 2/3rds through the 128K memory that comes with the 1284.  On the other hand, “slave” boards which have no Ethernet can JUST about handle a range of functions and the mesh at the same time.

Each “slave” board has an output to control serial LED strip (which needs a separate 5v supply), 1 Infrared output, 3 normal digital outputs, 3 PWM outputs (again handy for LEDS), 2 general purpose analog (or digital) inputs and 2 temperature sensors. I’ve also incorporated an inexpensive 433Mhz transmitter to replace wireless remote controls – but that’s not 100% yet. The main board has an Ethernet Connection and also an optional output to an LCD display – the slaves also have similar outputs to an LCD display and in each case I made the decision to give the display it’s own intelligence – i.e. it’s own processor – so that I end up using the serial out on the slave boards and the SECOND serial out on the master for this purpose – hence the displays are optional without any software changes.

PC-Based Controller Tester - Peter ScargillThe master board is able to update Google Docs spreadsheets, send emails and Tweet – I’m currently still experimenting with the above as the email tools have a tendency to take too long to operate (but still work).

If you look up “Scargill home control” on Google you’ll find a host of earlier articles including some in-depth stuff and on YouTube I’ve detailed my experiences with the NRF24L01 radio units. Amazingly this has had well over 20,000 views! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgmVYdSCNLs

Next steps – I’m working with a pal and we’re going to take a look at Atmel’s own mesh software for a chip they do with radio built in – we’ve a very tiny PCB on the way from China to test this out  – also I’m pondering putting the radio part on it’s own 328 chip with a slave SPI interface in order to allow it to concentrate on radio reliability while taking a whole load away from the main board. It sounds over the top but given the very low potential cost of a 328 chip and crystal, such a solution would leave more memory and MUCH more program space in the main board for improvements and new features. Watch this space.

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