Homeowners’ Guide to Automation and DIY Robots for Your Everyday Life
With home automation and robotics projects, you can make your home more comfortable and convenient, all while enjoying a creative and tech-savvy outlet for your ingenuity.
Home automation carries many benefits, including:
- Better control of appliances and lighting
- Improved security and safety by making easy-to-forget processes automatic
- Increased comfort & convenience
- Time savings
- Increased monitoring & efficiency
Having a "smart" home is becoming increasingly popular. Unfortunately, smart home automation technology isn't cheap, and robotic devices for the home are even more costly. That's why it's beneficial to do it yourself… aside from also being more fun!
So how can you get started? Here's a closer look at what you need to do to tackle your own DIY automation or robotics project at home, and then some sample projects to get you started. Are you a complete newbie to this idea? Don't worry! There are quite a number of ideas you can implement with little prior knowledge of robotics and automation, so have some fun!
Fundamentals and Requirements for a Robotics or Home Automation Project
So you're ready to start, but where? How do create a robot or hack your home's systems to automate them if you don't have much experience in this? Here are some ideas to get you started.
Know Your Tools and Platforms
First, you're going to need to know the tools available to you for this process. If you're a complete newbie, you're going to need some basic terminology before you begin. Consider these terms:
- Sensor - A sensor detects factors in the environment so the automated system or robot can function accordingly. These can be likened to taking the place of human senses.
- Controller - A controller is what is used to send signals to the automation device or robot. It can be as simple as an on/off switch or as complicated as a full computer. Most controllers are handheld remote devices. In the case of home automation, the controller may be built into the interface.
- Microcontroller - A microcontroller is a small computer set up on a single integrated circuit used to program robots; an example of this is a microchip.
- Servo controller - The servo controller is the command center of a servo system, which includes a motor, feedback device, and the controller itself. For homemade robots that are mobile, a servo controller is necessary to ensure proper responses.
- Circuit board - A circuit board allows for the completion of connections from the controller or wireless receiver to the various components of the system.
- Module - In home automation, a module is the subset of the system used to control one item in the home. A thermostat control module is a good example of one.
- Interface - The interface is the place where you interact with your creation. This is the app on your smartphone, the screen on your remote, or the program on your computer you use to control what you've created.
Once you understand your basic terms, you will need to choose a platform. The platform is the central part of the hardware that allows the builder to program the functions of the robot. It can be simple or complex, depending on the design of the robot. Some popular platforms for DIY enthusiasts include:
- Pololu 3pi Robot Kit - The Pololu 3pi robot kit has an ATmega 168 micro-controller that runs at 20 MHz and is programmed with C/C++ language. It has an 8x2 character LCD display and can travel at up to 1 m/s.
- Raspberry Pi - This credit-card sized computer is a complete Linux computer that is cost effective but still a powerful programming tool. DIY hackers love it because of its small size, but ability to handle more than what a basic microcontroller offers.
- Arduino - Arduino offers boards that create an easy-to-use DIY robotics platform. These boards have Atmel/microchip processors running at "clock speed" with an affordable price tag. They take inputs from switches and sensors and send signals to the output. Arduino is quite popular among makers, and as such has a big online community presence. This makes it a great choice for DIY hacks, because most projects have been tackled by others who can lend some advice. It also doesn't require soldering in most cases.
- Espressif ESP8266 WiFi Module - This tiny device was originally designed as a WiFi transceiver module, but its built-in computing capabilities make it a great platform for small robots.
- STM32 Nucleo Board - Compatible with Arduino Uno shields, this particular platform has different programming at its core. It's affordable and allows for the trying of new ideas quickly.
There are others, but these are the most commonly used for DIY projects.
Next, you need to decide what form of connectivity you will use. Will your robot or automation system be wireless or wired? Here are some considerations:
- Ethernet connectivity requires wires, which is not ideal for most applications but might cut costs.
- WiFi is best if integrating systems onto the web or within the web.
- Xbee and RF modules are a great solution.
- Bluetooth connectivity also works well, especially for home automation.
- Make sure the connectivity you choose is present on both the modules and the central processor.
After choosing your connectivity, you'll need to choose the interface. Here are your options:
- Use a central unit to run the interface and connect the modules directly to it. Web-based interfaces work well for this.
- Use an interface where data from modules is set to a cloud-based service. This provides the freedom to run your automation systems or robot remotely. Think about being able to check your security cameras while on vacation at the beach!
- Consider a combination of both to meet your needs and goals well.
Next, you need to choose a motor if the system will be mobile, as in the case of a robot. Some of your options include:
- Continuous DC - Easy control and wide availability makes these popular, but they do require gear reduction. In a continuous DC motor, the power causes continuous rotation of the motor.
- Stepper - A stepper motor is designed to rotate just a few degrees with the application of power, then stop. Pulsing power is required to create continuous rotation. Requires no gear reduction at low speeds, but doesn't work well under varying loads or on uneven surfaces.
- Servo Motor - The servo motor takes a continuous DC motor and adds a feedback loop to ensure the right positioning, which gives better angular control. This is a popular and affordable option.
Finally, you'll want to gather the basic tools you'll need for the project. Some items to gather include:
- Soldering gun
- Screwdrivers of various sizes
- Needle nose pliers
- Wire strippers and cutters
- Rotary tool
- Power supply
- Jumper wires
- Computer or tablet
For more information about setting up for your DIY job, visit:
Making a Plan
Once you have the tools in place, you're ready to make a plan for your build. Here are some tips and tricks to ensure your plan is going to get you where you want to go.
- Set a goal - Tinkering is fun, but you need to make sure you have an end goal in mind before you start. What is it you want your system or your robot to actually do? What problem do you want it to solve? Having a clear goal in mind will help guide the rest of your planning.
- Choose a platform - We've already discussed platforms, but your plan needs to include a logical platform and coding language choice for the task(s) at hand. Establishing this early will help you avoid complications along the way.
- Set a budget - How much do you want to spend? The answer will depend on your household budget, your goal, and whether you can buy something already built to do the same job. Also, you will need to decide if the process is part of your fun, because sometimes it's fun to do something that is an experience even if you could buy it cheaper.
- Consider the materials - You can make a robot out of a cardboard box or a home automation system that runs wires all over your ceiling, but this wouldn't be ideal. Consider the materials you want to use, and gather them before starting the project.
- Plan for all aspects - Make sure that your plan has covered all the basics. For instance, if you're going to automate the home's lighting, has the plan talked about how to handle wiring?
- Find a template - Any DIY robotics or home automation project you would wish to tackle probably has a basic template online. Find one, and let it guide your planning, even if you don’t adhere to it 100%. This will save quite a bit of time and frustration!
- Safety first - From wearing safety goggles when needed through testing electrical connections safely, set guidelines for safety throughout the build and testing process.
For more information about planning, and step-by-step planning guides, visit:
Is Your Initial Plan Good?
After you've gotten an initial plan, or found one online, you need to take a closer look to determine if it's the best way to do what you need it to do. Here's a checklist for planning that you can go through to determine if you've chosen the right plan.
- Does the plan have a practical function or job?
- Does the plan account for movement, if needed?
- Does the plan account for manipulation of items in the environment, if needed?
- How is the final project going to be powered?
- How will the robot sense the environment?
- Does the plan have clear instructions you can easily follow?
- Does the plan account for controlling the finished project?
- Is the control process straightforward and comfortable?
- Does the plan have enough detail to be easily followed?
- Does the design look good?
- Will the final product be safe?
- Do you have suitable materials, or can you get them?
- Will the final product cost more than buying a pre-made system?
- Does the design use an open source or readily accessible platform?
- Is it a platform you know or understand, or can you learn it?
- Does the design have any steps you can't accomplish?
What should you do if your design isn't up to par? Do a little more digging, as there are often many versions of the same project online. Or, use your knowledge to tweak the design. You can also consider consulting an online forum relating to your build or even a Reddit sub to get your collaborative tweak on.
Taking Your Game to the Next Level
So what can you do if you've already mastered basic programming, networking, system automation, and robot building?
If you're working on home automation, here are some strategies to take your game to the next level:
- Consider tackling a project that requires you to tap into the electrical grid of the home.
- Consider adding more devices to the automation system you've built.
- Consider automating a more complex system, like the audio, sprinkler or HVAC system.
- Consider trying a different platform.
- Consider designing an app to run your system.
For robotics, you may want to:
- Consider a project that requires you to learn a bit more coding.
- Consider building an autonomous robot.
- Consider building a robot for a new, more difficult function.
- Consider designing an app to run your robot.
- Consider designing a robot that runs on hydraulics for your home.
Here are some more ideas about advanced projects to tackle:
List of Projects
So now that you have a basic understanding of what it takes to build your own DIY hack or robot for your home, are you ready to get started? Here are some links to projects you can tackle. As always, remember to evaluate the plan well to ensure it's going to do what you want it to do and have tasks you can afford to tackle on your own.
Hacking Existing Systems
Do you already have a printer, doorbell, phone, DVD player, etc? Why not hack it so that it becomes automated or change it to enhance its overall function. Here are some ideas.
Building from Scratch
Maybe you're feeling adventurous and want to start your robotics or home automation project from scratch. Here are some ideas you can try to make it happen.
Robotics and automation should make your life easier. Whether they tackle a mundane function that you don't enjoy or make a task a little bit easier, with robotics and automation technology, you can better enjoy your home. Here are some projects that can do just that:
Not all automations and robotics projects are practical. Some are simply for entertainment. If you want to add some fun around your home and enjoy dabbling in robotics, consider these projects: