automation Archive

Folks, this is a guest post from Kerwin Lumpkins who is working on a cool project he put on Kickstarter (there’s a video there too), check it out!! He has built a prototype and would like to have it funded to produce more of these. As we’re always happy to share cool projects made by others as well, here you go :)

The Ard-Vark is a basic electronics box that has wifi built in to allow easy remote control through a mobile app, and has the following features:

  • Arduino compatible (can use the Arduino IDE as is, based on Leonardo platform)

  • USB connection to PC for serial or re-programming

  • Mobile app available for download (iPhone/iPad/iPod/Android)

  • Built in wifi for wireless remote control (Roving Networks RN-171)

  • 4 servo motor headers

  • 2 small DC motor headers

  • Built in light sensor

  • Built in temperature sensor

  • 3 analog sensor inputs with ground and 5V power supplied

  • 3 digital I/O headers with ground and 5V power supplied

  • LED

  • Speaker

  • Can be powered by 9V battery or 9V AC adapter plug

  • Mounted in a durable plastic case, cutouts for headers, silkscreen labeling of ports


Tech details of the Ard-Vark Prototype

Figure 1 shows a block diagram of the Ard-Vark prototype. Blocks in green are parts that are exposed on the outside of the case. Blue are parts that are covered up inside the case. For clarity, I didn’t have a block for the level shifting from wifi module to the microcontroller, but those parts can be seen on the front of the circuit board. The numbers show how many lines were needed to implement that function.


Figure 1: Block diagram of the Ard-Vark

For the prototype, I designed a board in EAGLE that would allow me to solder on Sparkfun’s Pro Micro (5V) and RN-XV module that uses the RN-171 module from Roving Networks. If the project is funded, the parts on the Pro Micro board and the RN-171 module will be surface mount soldered onto a single circuit board. This will lower the price.

All pins accessible?: “Will there be headers for all pins on the micro?” – Yes. The Ard-Vark will not load the headers, but I will place the holes on the circuit board. I intend to put the standard Arduino header pattern on the board for those that want to use that as well.

About the Arduino IDE: The pro micro (and hence also the Ard-Vark) is based on the ATMega 32U4 microcontroller, which is supported for the Arduino under the Leonardo model. Arduino has not fully released this yet, but I had no problem using the standard Arduino IDE after making some simple changes in the boards.txt file and downloading Sparkfun’s driver. Look at the Pro Micro page for a tutorial if you’re interested. For the final version, I will write up a manual that has installation instructions, schematics, source code, suggestions for hacking, etc.

The prototype Ard-Vark has a Pro-Micro board with headers that solder onto the main board. The RN-XV module similarly solders onto the main board. Then the main board has header connectors, the AC power plug, 5V regulator (beefy one that can power all 4 servos at once), etc. In photo below, the surface mount 5V regulator is mounted on the bottom side of proto board. You can see rework (yellow tape) where I used a through hole electrolytic cap. I didn’t allow enough room for a SM cap on the top side. So I put the reg and cap on bottom. Final version will fix this little error.


Fig2. Ard-Vark with the back cover removed


Fig. 3 Proto Board top side with servo headers, etc. Speaker is at bottom right.

More rework is evident on the top side of board. I realized that the the power indicator LED was too close to the light sensor (could influence the reading if in a dark room), so I moved the LED to right of the power switch. The yellow tape insulates leads of a through hole resistor. I also had to solder some wires onto the blue LED (just to left of the speaker) since the LED is too far below the hole. Final version will use a through hole LED to solve this. Light sensor (TMP-36 from analog devices) is the TO-92 through hole package part at top right. In the center of the board are surface mount parts that do level shifting for the RN-171 module. It runs at 3.3V while the microcontroller runs at 5V. One more problem I got sick of dealing with.

Finally, not shown is a motor control circuit. I decided after I built this proto board that offering DC motor control built in would be a good feature. Final version will make use of a motor control IC like the L293D. So the motors can only draw at max about 1 Amp. This will be fine for small motors like those used on small mobile robots.


Fig.4 Proto board back side showing the Pro Micro and RN-XV modules from Sparkfun and power plug.

On the bottom side of the board are the two modules from Sparkfun, power plug and (temporarily), the 5V regulator.


A view showing the “front” of the Ard-Vark. Note that this board has the USB micro connector missing. The micro B surface mount connector on the Sparkfun Pro Micro broke off after 10 or so plug/unplugs. I put it back on with super glue, but it came off again (hence the nasty looking mess in the middle). One change I’ll make in final board is to use a mini B through hole connector for improved strength.

The Story of the Ard-Vark (for those that are interested)

I made the Ard-Vark because I frequently like to add motion to projects using servo motors; from animatronics projects at holidays to building something that’s actually useful, to making something to scare co-workers when they sit down in their cubes. I grew tired of re-inventing and building this kind of thing again and again. So I finally designed a circuit board that would allow me to integrate wifi and Arduino controller and servo headers and motor controller and 2 wire motor headers and speaker, etc, all into one design. I also got tired of having projects stop working because exposed copper caused shorts, handwired solder joints came loose from strain, etc so I designed a case. And I got tired of having to power it with a USB cable to a PC, so I designed in a 9V battery and an AC adapter plug. And then I wrote a mobile app to allow me to control it remotely. All of that, I called the Ard-Vark.

Some friends were interested in getting one, so I thought I would list it as a project on to see if there was enough interest to produce them in quantity to make the price reasonable. If I made one or two of these at a time, it would cost about $120 in parts and 2-3 hours to build and test one. I don’t have time to sit and build these. It just wouldn’t be worth my time. But if I can make several hundred of them at once, it brings the price down to a reasonable $100.

Who would use the Vark?

There are three types of people using things like the Ard-Vark out there today:

  1. Creative and technically talented folk that DO want to deal with electronics and motor control and highly technical stuff. DIY’selfers, beginning electronics class students, etc.

  2. Creative people that hate technical stuff but that want to build projects using electronics.

  3. People that for one reason or another, do not want to fool with building the electronics base and just want to get going on a project.

Group 3 sounds like it’s just group 2 stated in a different way. But I’m in group 3. I’m an electrical and software engineer with over 15 years experience building projects both professionally and for hobby. I’m highly technical.

Group 1 are the do it yourself types. They do this kind of work because they want to learn this stuff and building and soldering and tinkering IS the whole point of what they do. But at some point, Group 1 folk turn into Group 3 folk. Like me. I changed into Group 3 guy after about 7 years. Sometimes, I just want to pick up a box, plug in some servos, turn it on and go. And that’s why I made the Ard-Vark.

Group 2 are becoming more prevalent today. Artists that want to add motion and interactivity to their creations. But they want to concentrate on their creative project, not on learning technical stuff.

This article is written for Group 1 folk that are interested in what is under the hood of the Ard-Vark, viewing it as just another project. The source code will be open and free to use, so the vark can be modifed to work in your project as you want it. The vark is very flexible in that it can provide “it just works” functionality out of the box, but can also be reconfigured.

It’s very exciting for us to see all the noise (& reposts) or the ARM® Cortex™-M0+ processor (aka. the “flycatcher”) that was unveiled yesterday. Branded as the world’s most energy-efficient microprocessor it is optimized to deliver high performance (with a 32 bits architecture!) for a very low power consumption, which makes it the ideal chip for intelligent sensors and smart control systems in a broad range of applications. In other words, the ideal chip to power the Web of Things.

It seems to me a great thing, but a chip itself won’t make the IoT a reality, just like one swallow doesn’t make a summer. The greatest impediment here is still a lack of support for more people to start playing around this chip and learn how to use it. In other words, not just an Arduino-like approach, but literally a twine-like approach. Of course, fridges manufacturers now have yet another weapon to significantly augment the user experience of food storage. Obviously consumer electronics, automotive and other industries do have the budget/time/expertise to embed the flycatcher intro their products, but there are reasons it didn’t happen yet, and I doubt it’s purely financial.

I do believe this is not the right way to drive innovation as it doesn’t consider consumer as potential innovators. Most printers & routers today have a micro controller and wireless connectivity, and could easily offer a programmable interface (so that we’re not stuck with the awful Web-based user interfaces those devices have), but somehow they just don’t. And I do believe this is where it all will start: just like most Web-based services today do have a (ideally RESTful) API, our consumer electronics should also offer an API (obviously in addition – not replacement – to the ready-made Web-based UX). This way, the user experience to “average” users of these devices remains identical, but coders and hackers that might (and most often do) have better ideas on how to digitally augment consumer electronics will be able to create custom apps by leveraging, well… the Web to create new, disruptive, intriguing use cases for your printer (or fridge, or car…) the manufacturer didn’t think of. This in turn could lead to an app store for “any” of your electronic products, where you could download and install new apps for your fridge, car, or printer (e.g. “the new york times app that will print every morning at 6am a fresh 1-page of your personalized news stories that you can read on your short ride to work” anyone?).

As a final thought, it’s not a super powerful low-power CPU that is literally going to change the market landscape, but what one does with these chips. This is because we’re not limited by technology itself, but what we do with it. And more importantly: what we allow consumers to do with the products they buy.

What do you think we need for making the internet of things a reality? More importantly, how can we best send the message to manufacturers: “hey, put an API on that machine, coz we need one”?

I know we covered them not so long ago, but our friends from Koubachi finally released their first product a few days back, it’s live finally and available! They have even already covered on Techcrunch and Gizmondo! Great job guys!

For 148$, give your plant a voice and get one of these:

The design of that WiFi dongle is pretty gorgeous and sleek (I wouldn’t dare saying Apple-y!)
Wondering if they already have an API and we hack these and do something totally unexpected with it? Hmmm… What would you use these toys for, any ideas?

As Google recently announced their plans to move in the home automation world with Android at home (and we are still wondering why they waited so long to do it), I thought I would share my view on that. I do believe there are many opportunities ahead for the “home operating system” domain. The combination of cheap, yet powerful networked digital appliances in the house (NAS, networked media players, WiFi routers, etc) along with an extensible application framework, and a market place for buying new applications (or installing drivers, etc) – will be a killer combo for home automation to take off, especially for building management systems (I’m not yet convinced the market is ready for consumer home automation – unless you’re millionaire and want to show off by turning off lights by clapping hands). But I do believe the Web of Things in this vision can be a solid innovation enabler by making it easy to integrate all kinds of devices and develop new home automation mashlets (mashup & applets – does this even exist? or should we call these phy-ma-les = PHYsical MAshup appLEtS? no? ok…. fine…).

But for this to happen, “we need a hub to receive all the sensors” according to a recent blog post. I disagree. We don’t need one hub, we need many hubs. But even more so, we need the ability to establish direct connectivity between anything electronic and applications. Exactly in the same way as one can search and download specific stuff from particular users that have it in a p2p network.

We have been exploring the field of home automation since the early days of WoT, and we have prototyped several versions of a fully web-based “smart home gateways” that allows the integration of heterogeneous embedded devices into high-level interactive, mobile, and event-driven Web applications. Our first iteration was built with Samuel Wieland [4,5] project, and then superseded by Aparat [3,6], done by another former student Vlatko Davidovski with whom we designed a modular framework (based on OSGi) to easily create applications, develop new devices drivers, that supported Web-based messaging (both pubsubhubbub and Comet), microformat-based resource and device discovery over HTTP, among other features. With another student (Andreas Kamilaris) we have designed in 2009 HomeWeb, a Web-based framework for integrating sensor networks on the Web and afterwards extended it to the home automation domain [1]. We also recently published a journal paper on this work as well [2].


As we’re nearing to IPv6 (dooms)day (actually passed it), more and more routers and networks will be switching (or at least supporting) it, and this will pave the way to better adoption and ripening of the market for Wi-Fi and other IP-enabled consumer electronics. On top of this ecosystem of interconnected devices, a Web-based framework that facilitates development and distribution of applications will clearly unlock the potentials and an open market that drive us away from the currently dictatorial and closed solutions in this domain. At least this is what we hope for.

Clearly, the biggest challenge ahead (and one that I keep seeing only marginally addressed in our research field so far) is security, authentication, and devices sharing. If your whole house is connected to the Web, there are major risks involved as virtually one could entirely control your house (turn off security systems), spy by monitoring all your movements (or hot summer nights via surveillance cameras), or do even more critical things such as lock elevators, close doors, and so on.

The security issue leads us to the following question as to what would be best? An open source security solution that everyone knows and can improve upon by eliminate bugs (thousands pair of eyes are better than a few), with the risk that any hacker can find out exactly how the whole system works? Or a black-box proprietary closed-source system that is hard to analyze and crack, which might be in fact more bugged? Also, how one can combine various modalities for securing that you are really “you” and you are at your home (RFID can hacked, mobile phones can be lost, pin codes can be transmitted). Also, what will be the role of biometric ID solutions (retina scanners, etc)? As long as authentication data is sent by an application over the network, then it can be forged with another “software emulation”, how this could be prevented?

We would love to have your opinion on these questions and feel free to join our discussion in the comments (or on our LinkedIn or facebook pages). We’d really appreciate if you would share with us projects and services that you think can solve this issue.

  1. Andreas Kamilaris, Vlad Trifa and Adreas Pitsillides. The Smart Home Meets the Web of Things. Int. J. of Ad Hoc and Ubiquitous Computing, 7(3), 2011. [pdf]
  2. Andreas Kamilaris, Vlad Trifa and Andreas Pitsillides. HomeWeb: An Application Framework for Web-based Smart Homes. In Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Telecommunications, Ayia Napa, Cyprus, May 2011. [pdf]
  3. Vlatko Davidovski (M.Sc. thesis at ETH Zurich). A Web-oriented Infrastructure for Interacting with Digitally Augmented Environments.
  4. Samuel Wieland (M.Sc. thesis at ETH Zurich). Design and Implementation of a Gateway for Web-based Interaction and Management of Embedded Devices.
  5. Vlad Trifa, Samuel Wieland, Dominique Guinard and Thomas Michael Bohnert. Design and Implementation of a Gateway for Web-based Interaction and Management of Embedded Devices. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop on Sensor Network Engineering (IWSNE’09), Marina del Rey, CA, USA, June 2009. [pdf]
  6. Vlad Trifa, Dominique Guinard, Vlatko Davidovski, Andreas Kamilaris and Ivan Delchev. Web Messaging for Open and Scalable Distributed Sensing Applications. In Proc. of the 10th International Conference on Web Engineering (ICWE 2010), Vienna, Austria, June 2010. [pdf]

The transcript of my talk at LIFT this afternoon. Thought it would be a good intro to WoT (although very high level), so I shared it here. Thoughts & feedback more than welcome! Yeah, it’s a lot of text, and it’s ugly to read on a blog, so I also made a pretty PDF you can print or read later.

Vlad Trifa
(via alchemy1best on flickr)

[update] Also, see the talk here:

liftconference on

As a PhD student at ETH Zurich and SAP, I have been exploring the Internet of Things (IoT), which is the vision of a world where all electronic devices are connected together to form a single, coherent network of heterogeneous devices. In theory, such a large network could collect real-time data from the physical world that can be used to solve all our problems, improve traffic in large cities, reduce pollution and energy consumption, take better care of the elderly and so on.

All this sounds nice in theory, but the reality is unfortunately different.

Early in my research, I realized that the Internet of Things is merely a scam – it is a leaky concept. On the one hand we have academic research that is not really concerned with standardization issues, therefore many incompatible solutions/projects have been explored by diverse research groups pretty much in isolation. On the other hand, we have the industry which is very interested by standards, as many companies that want to lead the IOT, so hundreds of protocols to communicate with devices have been created, proposed, even standardized. But are these standards really used? I mean by more than a few thousands IT experts in a very specific domain?

Let me illustrate this with a small sample of such standards commonly used in home automation and machine-to-machine communication. How many of you know and can develop using one of these protocols? Humm… yeah… This is exactly what I mean by leaky concept. Such a messy world where all of these protocols – or non-standard standards as I like to call them – co-habit, cannot become a unique Internet of Things. The reality today is that we have built many Intranets of things. Yes they work and do the job, but they remain isolated islands of a few connected devices. These islands have practically no way to interact with each other, and this observation reduces the classic vision of Internet of Things to merely an utopia. The status quo, makes it hard to share and reuse solutions, as for each new deployment tons of things need to be developed over again from scratch.

This is a huge waste of time and resources.

In fact, there is already a single standard out there to bind them all. We all know it and use it everyday: the Web.

It is efficient and works well, and the reason the Web has become so successful is because it was free, open, flexible, and designed to be massively scalable. But above all, the main reason it has worked is because it was so simple, open, free, so anyone could use it. You became part of the Web by designing your first Web page using Frontpage and cheesy animated GIFs. Anyone could be part of it. All you needed was a computer, a modem and a text editor. This aspect is so fundamental that with my colleague Dom, we have explored how to adapt this magic recipe for electronic devices. They have a right to be part of the Web too, and as I will explain in this talk there are many reasons why they should be. Beyond obvious business opportunities by web-enabling devices, we have accumulated two decades of knowledge in building massively scalable, secure, and efficient Web sites. We have built a wealth of expertise for distributed caches, replicative DBs and so on. Why not reuse all that for devices too? Why do we need to reinvent wheels?

My argument here is that there is not a single world wide web, but 5 of them. We can see them as various trends, or facets of the Web as we know it today, and we all know and understand them. But, at the intersection of these 5W, when all these pieces are put together, a whole new, unknown territory emerges, and brand new possibilities to solve old problems are unlocked. This design space there is what we call the Web of Things. But first, let’s first focus a little more on the physical Web and programmable Web.

Once upon a time, electronics and programming was reserved to the highest social class of our civilization, geeks. However, one day processing and Arduino appeared. This explosive cocktail has revealed to the world the conspiracy nerds were setting up, by demystifying our virtues and showed to the world how easy it actually is to program. Since then, countless designers and other people who were not meant to touch technology were suddenly empowered to create digital artifacts easily, on their own.These tools are an incredible example of how simple tools can democratize programming, by lowering the barrier for fast prototyping physico-digital artifacts.

How many of you can program processing/arduino?Not enough.

We want more people to be able to access and use real-time data. Not just raw sensor readings. I’m talking about data people care about. Data that can make our lives easier. Data that could make us happier. We believe the Web of Things to be the next evolution of the Web by enabling the democratization of programming and active citizenship. We believe this because the Web offers the lowest possible access barrier to simply create something that you can share with the world. Now how many of you have already made a Web page? Or setup a blog? Get my point? Everyone is a potential developer for the Web of Things. And you will be able to access and integrate real-time data from all kinds of sensors, simply by pasting some HTML code on your web page.

I would like to share the vision of a large ecosystem of ubiquitous digital services roaming around, freely accessible. Imagine an ecosystem of reusable and shareable sensors, devices, and services that can be accessed simply via a Web API, using simply your facebook login information. Just by sending HTTP POST/GET request to a device, you read a sensor, you open a door. There are two ways to interact with this ecosystem: 1) “READ”: collect data they record automatically and analyze it, or 2) “WRITE”: pop up your phone, browse the space you’re in for example query for an empty restaurant, call a cab, turn on lights, music or AC.

Mobile ad-hoc interaction

Let’s start directly the WRITE aspect first through an example. Imagine you go to a hotel in Japan, it’s freezing and you’re handed a remote like this. Chances are the accompanying translation such as this one is not included. What do you do? Why can’t you just pop out your phone and control the AC directly with it? Or setup your alarm or book a tennis course offered by the hotel? Or even better, discretely ordering some champagne and caviar for your lady and play some romantic music while dimming the light? In a hotel room in Japan you’ve never been!!

Now… what if I told you that for less than 10 dollars, you can buy a simple chip with a Wi-Fi antenna that could turn anything into a Web server? This means, any electronic thing can be connected to the Web and can be controlled via a Web API, and you would literally browse around the “physical” page of your room and find about the things in the physical world you could control? And just like most Websites in the world, it would recognize the language your phone and give you the room page in this same language.

Niwea is a term coined out by my friend hannes gassert, and stands for Native Interoperable WEb Apps (I wrote a bigger post about this earlier). If you’re in the software industry, chances are a client or your boss told you “we need an iphone/symbian/windows mobile/android app”. Of course, many self-respecting developers might reply “no, you don’t really. You can do this apponly need a simple HTML/Javascript app that uses CSS style sheets to render your applications on these diverse mobile phones”. So you only develop once a Web app, and it’ll run on many devices. After this simple suggestion, the contra-argument generally goes along the lines of “bla bla want iphone app bla bla!!”. Sencha, jQTouch, iui are some of those frameworks. They are not great yet, but it’s only the beginning. Think about it: how many of you have made an iPhone app? Should I ask again about Web apps? iPhone developers: few and expensive (won’t even mention code maintenance), Web developers: cheap & easy (and we got lots of ‘em).

If you need performance or support for the native platform (GPS, camera, audio, etc), the N of niwea kicks in. Using phonegap, you can transform your Web app into a real, native app that will look, feel, and work just like the real thing. Only that it took you a few hours and $$ to make.

I do believe many more frameworks for fast prototyping Web apps (especially mobile) will appear and mature in the next years. Hopefully, more complete IDEs such as Flash) for developing interactive mobile Web apps with a few clicks. There is so much potential there!

Real-time cities

Now let’s look at the other interaction mode, the “READ” aspect. O’Reilly has just organized STRATA, a conference that looks into data science – that is how to address this big question: how to efficiently analyze tons of raw data to extract meaningful information that could improve business process, marketing, etc.

But what if the data in question is physical data? I spent the last couple of months exploring this possibility with the Senseable City Lab at MIT, on a project called LIVE Singapore! Let’s take a city, for example Singapore. Lot of digital data traces are generated there every second via cameras, sensors of all kinds, radars & electronic road pricing, people with mobile phones, etc.

All this data represents a goldmine for everyone, if only it were to be used. Unfortunately, different companies collect it only to ensure everything works fine, and that’s it. It’s then stored behind closed doors – or worse, deleted – but rarely thoroughly analyzed. If only one could access it, so much valuable information could be extracted from it – valuable both for the company who could improve their processes or optimize their operations and citizens at large.

According to this excellent blog post from libellium (worth reading):

Optimizing water used to irrigate parks, managing the lighting in a smart way, providing an information system of free parking spaces or water leaks in pipes are problems common to most cities: they all could be treated with an intelligent monitoring system that would help in the daily management of resources.

There is a lot of information there that could be used to build a more efficient city, and using new technologies to collect this data represents a massive potential to build more efficient cities. In the LS project we are building a massively scalable platform that allows to collect hundreds of streams of raw data from various agencies in real-time and process all that to infer higher-level information that can be dispatched to various agencies to optimize joint efforts.

I do believe a company that is very active in this area is IBM, via their Smarter Planet initiative. I am not affiliated to IBM and the ideas I express here are only mine. But they are a great case study because they are a global company that embrace the internet of things not just as a gadget or research topic, but as a concrete product that can solve major challenges our civilization faces. Recently they partnered with the city of Rio de Janeiro to build a new operations center that operates independently of any agency while receiving data from several of them, running it through a battery of algorithms to monitor, predict, and visualize vital information in real-time to decide how best to respond, and answer optimally things such as: “Which streets will require the most troops? Which hills are most prone to mud slides? Are there shelters that have vacancies? Which hospitals have beds available? What is the best way to exit from a soccer match at the Maracana? How should officials direct traffic coming from the Copacabana Beach? Where are police cars, emergency, ambulances? Where they should go?”

Water management

Drinking water is an increasingly valuable resource throughout the world, and as cities get bigger, efficiently distributing water is becoming a major issue. Current infrastructure is aging, pipe failures are fairly common (leaks, bursts) and various reports show that on average 30% of drinkable water is lost during transmission, the system operation and management itself is often inefficient, water can be contaminated biologically or chemically. These problems have tremendous effects! First, financially it’s a lot of investments and profits that go down the drain… literally. Besides, an exploding pipe in downtown costs lots of money to repair and degrades public image. Finally – and most importantly – it is a major public health concern, as in case of water shortage the energy costs to keep up with water demand will explode. Today, we know what comes in and what comes out, but the spatial and temporal resolution of data collected within the system is very low: we just know there’s a leak but we don’t know where and when exactly it happened.


New water management strategies and technologies are a major challenge we need to address, and the sooner the better. This is another project my colleagues from CENSAM are working on in Singapore. Called Waterwise, this project aims to monitor continuously the drinking water distribution systems using sensors distributed throughout the water distribution system. Connected via a 3G connection, they are able to monitor in almost real-time the various conditions inside the pipe system such as pressure temperature, and analyze the chemical and biological composition to detect abnormalities. Firstly, the ability to quickly detect, localize leak/burst, and react quickly can reduce the amount of water lost through leakage, reduce customer disruption and minimize the extent of pipe repairs. Secondly, on-line hydraulic modeling and calibration of a water system gives an accurate, up-to-date picture of the hydraulic state of a system (flow and pressure) and the estimated consumption/demand patterns within a water distribution system.

Real-time logistics

Some people might still wonder “Ok great, but can I actually make money with this WoT thingie”? The answer is yes, and tons of it. A use case we have worked on while at SAP was how to build much more flexible BI application that tap the power and flexibility of the Web. There are many important bits of information in an RFID-based supply chain, the 5W (what, when, where, who, which), and we need to integrate them efficiently and in real-time in other operations.

  • The “what”: what tagged products (EPCs) were read.
  • The “when”: at what time were the products read.
  • The “where”: where were the products read, in terms of Business Location (e.g. “Floor B”).
  • The “who”: what readers (Read Point) recorded this trace.
  • The “which”: what was the business context (Business Step) recording the trace (e.g. “Shipping”).

The EPCIS network (stands for Electronic Product Code Information System) is a set of tools and standards for tracking and sharing RFID-tagged products. It is there and used by many companies, and built by many global vendors such as SAP, oracle, IBM sell, or even the open source implementation, called Fosstrack. However, much of this data remains in closed networks and is hard to integrate. Obviously the existing products are pretty expensive and not for the average consumer.


Dominique has been exploring how to make it easier to use all this data, to integrate it into various applications, and especially how to build more flexible, scalable, global application for better logistics. We create an EPC appliance in the cloud (Amazon EC2) and we we build Web APIs for accessing every standard in the cloud. With this, one can create:

1) a scalable, distributed DB for the RFID events (readings),

2) Business intelligence widgets using the EPCIS REST API,

3) Mobile Web Apps that can be used to monitor readers in-situ (HTML5 push for the actual implementation),

4) RFID / Sensors / Business apps (e.g., ERP) Web mashups (even people can do that, e.g., what to do when an object gets stolen?)


Over the years, we have received much criticism about building such an Orwellian society where everything is interconnected, tagged, tracked, monitored. I can’t deny these fears are justified, but just like with any other technology it’s not good or bad. It’s essential to put in the place not only the technical, but also legal barriers to minimize misuse of all this data. So let me ask you something: Are your e-banking transactions publicly available over the web? no. Are your emails publicly available online? No, unless you hit the notorious “reply all” button. Can I access your company’s intranet? Of course not.

We have been building sufficiently secure websites for almost two decades, and in the Web of Things, these well-known mechanisms would come for free. I’m not insinuating these are perfect, but that they are good enough for most use cases. So why not just leverage them for physical devices?


  1. WoT is here and it matters, but it is not the best solution for everything.
  2. Think about niwea when you think mobile
  3. Stop talking, start prototyping

I hope that I’ve been able to explain what is the Web of Things, why is it different from the Internet of Things, and in what this difference matters. Hopefully, as more people understand the value and potential of sharing data for not only themselves, but for all of us, we’ll see more such projects emerge. This in turn will accelerate innovation and allow us to build more efficient and sustainable cities, without sacrificing the quality of life.

We would like to thank once more here all the people who helped and supported us (financially and psychologically) throughout our research. Of course our professor Friedemann Mattern and our colleagues and students at the distributed systems group at ETH Zurich. Then SAP research and the EU projects socrades and sensei that have funded half of our phd. Then you all, the community that inspired us and reminded us that what we do actually matters, you’re all great!

After the last draft released in december, the COAP folks just released a few days ago a more refined version of the COAP draft, with additional thoughts on coap-http mapping, RESTful verbs for constrained environments, and pub/sub notifications, and more.


This document specifies the Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP), a specialized RESTful transfer protocol for use with constrained networks and nodes for machine-to-machine applications such as smart energy and building automation. These constrained nodes often have 8-bit microcontrollers with small amounts of ROM and RAM, while networks such as 6LoWPAN often have high packet error rates and a typical throughput of 10s of kbit/s. CoAP provides the REST Method/ Response interaction model between application end-points, supports built-in resource discovery, and includes key web concepts such as URIs and content-types. CoAP easily translates to HTTP for integration with the web while meeting specialized requirements such as multicast support, very low overhead and simplicity for constrained environments.

Definitely worth looking at it and try to reuse as much as possible from there in your designs. I’ll be analyzing it soon and give my thoughts on it later.

J.P. Vasseur from Cisco (IETF ROLL co-chair, IPSO tab chair) and Adam Dunkels have written a book on IP-based sensor networks called Interconnecting Smart Objects with IP – The Next Internet. The book covers IP-based sensor networks from the link layer and up, and covers network architecture (IPv6, transport, web services, …), technology (RPL routing, 6lowpan IPv6 802.15.4 adaptation, hardware, software, uIP,…), and applications (smart grid, industrial automation, home automation, smart cities, …).


The foreword is written by Vint Cerf. The book will be available in June 2010, but is already available for preorder from amazon. This is great news and very likely a solid reference for future research direction for the Web of Things, and more generally to extending the internet to smart devices (& written by – could I say – the inventor of IP-enabled sensor nets). In my wish list (& my birthday is soon, so you know what to offer me).

I’ve presented yesterday in Los Angeles a talk on the gateways I’ve been talking about for months. Okay, actually I didn’t physically present it for logistical reasons, as I’m totally in Europe. But the paper is supposed to be out in the proceedings, so I thought I should share it with you.

For now still not much code to play with :(

Read the abstract:

Wireless Sensor Networks provide unprecedented possibilities for monitoring and interacting with the real-world. Unfortunately, the lack of open and simple standards for ad-hoc collaboration between heterogeneous embedded devices makes it difficult to build large-scale deployments; every particular application requires complex integration work, and therefore technical expertise, effort and time. Inspired by the success of Web 2.0 mashups, we propose a similar lightweight approach for interacting with networked devices. In particular, we describe a gateway architecture that enables to access sensor nodes through a RESTful interface. With this approach, interacting with a sensor node becomes as easy as typing a URI in a Web browser. By reusing the architectural principles of the modern Web, we show how one can built a loosely coupled infrastructure for the Web of Things that scales well and extends the current Web to the real world.

Maybe that makes you want to know more about it. We’ll hopefully present more in details the prototypes one can build on top of this gateway in the next few months, so keep watching. And very likely release some code when it reaches a more solid form.

Download it here!!!!

Here is the BibTeX:

Address = {Marina del Rey, CA, USA},
Author = {Vlad Trifa and Samuel Wieland and Dominique Guinard and Thomas Michael Bohnert},
Booktitle = {Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop on Sensor Network Engineering (IWSNE’09)},
Month = {June},
Title = {Design and Implementation of a Gateway for Web-based Interaction and Management of Embedded Devices},
Year = {2009}}

As mentioned in some previous post, I attended a couple of weeks ago homecamp in London. The event was awesome and I had good times discussing with the folks over there. I loved the un-conference form as it allows people to show up, set up a demo (like I did ), do a talk (like I did). On the other hand, as it is very chaotic we don’t really know what’s going on and when. I wished to have had the opportunity to discuss more in detail with the people in a more relaxed way, though. Thanks for the organizers for the effort they put to make it happen!

Joe Baguley has shown the beta setup of Green Energy Options, where you can connect to your home through the Internet, turn on/off devices (his house is here). He jokingly said he can switch off the TV of the kids remotely, and know when his wife is home (ahemm, what happens if you put vibration sensors on the bed instead of energy meters???). It has a cute Web interface (like many others), and you can remotely monitor your house.

Paul Tanner proposed a community approach for shareable data, benchmark vs. demographic, refactoring behavior and hardware. He used pachube for storage and presentation of the data and asked how to get more loads of smart meter for gas and water. There are huge opportunities, if one could build a device that you can just plug and play, then people would buy it. If you need to pay for an installer, then maybe not. Another barrier to adoption do not only concern the devices directly – many companies have been doing that for years – but the way data is exported and reused. Indeed, I’ve seen so many More and more trends also about gas and water monitoring (gardening for example, where you adapt watering to humidity). In Singapore, electricity bills can fluctuate by 25% (source: informal talk with one guy), but when people are “hurt” economically by the costs of energy, then they’ll change their minds about it.

I also enjoyed the presentation of Flukso. They are building an energy monitoring using a hacked fonera which is actually a wifi access point with openWRT onboard, and an arduino that is connected to an energy sensing board they designed.

Two folks from AMEE did a cool presentation, where they showed they new gadgets and API functions (for example data format conversion, etc). From what I see they’re going right in the same direction as pachube as they want to allow not only to share energy data but others as well, so it will soon be hard to tell the difference with pachube. Their API is RESTful, which seems interesting to check more out in the future.

ONZO showed their beta prototypes, 2 energy monitoring units. The boring one is a simple LCD display that you can clip on a fridge and shows energy consumption, doesn’t seem more than just that, so it looked boring (okay, a cutely designed little box, sure). The cool one is a clipper that uses induction to recharge the batteries in it, and transmit data over wireless. Hmm, I’ve heard that energy optimizers have that already, gotta check that out too.

Pachube rocked the world as always, and it was lovely to chat with Usman about the pachube apps (one of them being the pachube explorer build by Rick Bulotta from Burning Sky software, one of our previous bosses at SAP). They will soon release a php library that allows people to interact with pachube with a few lines of code, and I totally share their vision on that. Seems like I never have enough time to chat with Usman.

I had the chance to have a nice but short chat with Nigel Crawley (one of our fans) who is into building ambient devices. He showed a demo of his OSC-enabled cute nano-ambient-orb. I was impressed by how cool the touchOSC iPhone application actually is, and I realized that I could use that right away with our prototypes, given that our gateway software has direct support for OSC. On our side, I did a quickie talk (totally à l’arrache, as we say in French), and showed a demo of some of the things we work on. We demonstrated the gateway software we’ve been building for months with my students, integrated a RFID reader and an arduino that emulates a plogg gateway software Dom used to talk about. Soon will be blogging about the famous gateway.

In the end I definitely enjoyed the event, and I was amazed by seeing so many people interested into spending their nights working on open source projects around energy and water conservation, and the motivation was often not only “peace-and-love-save-the-planet”, but actually economic. It’s amazing to see the incentives behind this topic, and really looking forward the next years, and see what people will build in this area (hint: as you have guessed, we’ll soon be in that field as well ;). Okay, sorry for the delay, and as you see lots of things to check out for me (hence the delays in posting :).