We invited engineers, DIY hobbyists, and tinkerers to upcycle an obsolete item, computer, piece of electronic equipment, or appliance and make a cool new electronics project built around the Intel® Edison Kit for Arduino. Our winners created three great designs: an old clock that became a household IoT hub, a circa 1999 power distribution unit (PDU) modernized with IoT features, and a nixie tube impulse counter turned into a web-scraped value display device. We asked them some questions about their creations, and the overall experience of participating in an element14 Design Challenge. We spoke to Carmelito Andrade, who won 1st place, Jason Wier, the second place finisher, and Gerrit Polder, the runner up.
Q: Have you been using your award-winning Upcycled Clock, and how have you found it useful around the house?
Carmelito: Yes, I have been using it every morning as my alarm, and to get the weather conditions. The feature I use the most is the time to work estimator, which uses the Google distance matrix API, and I am happy to report that for the last couple of weeks the traffic panel on the clock has shown a mix or green and orange, which means low traffic! And it has been accurate. I am guessing that is because the schools are on holiday. And in the evening I mostly use the temperature at home feature, and listen to the Twitter readouts to spot if there is something interesting that I need to check out.
Q: What inspired your design for this challenge? How difficult was it for you to go from your concept to a practical design?
Jason: Many years ago, I used the APC PDUs and controlled them with SNMP. This was not the best solution, but it was the only one at the time. Now that I am into home automation with Home Assistant, I use MQTT in most of my automations, and I thought I would like to bring that to an APC PDU but make it keep that retro look. From concept to practical design was not too hard, and I knew it would not be that difficult, so I wanted to force myself into parameters where I can learn something new. I have used Node-Red before, but in very limited ways. For most projects in the past I switched back to Python or Node to implement what I needed to get done, rather than sticking with the Node-Red to learn it. That was the biggest challenge, and also dealing with space and the 1.8V Intel Edison GPIO.
Gerrit: I found this nixie counter in my attic just a few weeks before the challenge; I don't remember when and how it came into my possession. My original plan was to convert it to a digital clock by adding some logic in the form of an Arduino or one of the mbed's that are lying around on my desk. Before my plans could be executed, the Upcycle It challenge was announced. I immediately realized that this was a great opportunity to modify the nixie counter. Given the rich feature set and small footprint of the Edison, it was not a big deal to turn the concept into a practical design. Furthermore, due to those rich features I was able to add much more functionality than just a digital clock.
Q: Did working on this challenge make you think about trying to upcycle any other old items?
Carmelito: There are a couple of old box speakers that my parents own, I think they are as old as I am, or could be even older! They are currently being used as side table tops in the living room. The idea I had is to use an Intel Edison / Raspberry Pi Zero to run a Musicbox package like Mopidy (https://www.mopidy.com/), which my parents can access via an MPD-capable app or the web app on their phones / tablets. The idea is to have the music stored on an SD card, as all the songs combined would be fewer than 500MB . Also, I would like to have SoundCloud and Spotify integrated so that I can listen to my playlists when I go home for holidays.
In addition, I was following the Washing Machine Hydroponic Grower project by Fernando Hila closely, as I would have liked to try something similar with my old washing machine. Nando's blog posts have given me a good sense of what I would be getting myself into! I am hoping he keeps posting pictures and updates, and any other tips which he uses as the plants grow.
Q: What are you going to do with the prototype you built for the challenge?
Jason: I am planning on this being my power station for my workbench at the moment, after I make a few modifications. For example, I do not need eight outlets that are switched. I do like the fact that the fan comes on when the temperature gets too warm; when you're working on a project, and you are getting hot and not thinking about turning on the fan, then it just turns on and feels so good. But these changes will wait until the garden is done pumping out mega produce, at least for now!
Gerrit: The nixie counter has a prominent place on my desk, and currently shows me the outside temperature.
Q: What were some technical problems you ran into, and how did you solve them?
Gerrit: Software-wise, I switched from Arduino sketch, to Node-Red, and finally to Node.js, but this was more a search for the right tools and libraries than a real technical problem. The only thing I completely overlooked was the 1.8V output level of the mini breakout board. That issue was solved by carefully searching on the Internet for a level converter that is proven to work with I2C.
Q: How did the element14 Community aid you in your challenge submission?
Jason: The e14 Community was great. At one point I had a huge cluster of a node applications, and they pushed me, or maybe it was just a suggestion, to simplify it. So I did and it worked much better and was simpler to understand.
Gerrit: As I mentioned in my wrap-up, I got an enormous amount of help, positive remarks, and new ideas from fellow challengers and other element14 members. I learned a lot from my fellow challengers' blog posts, which directed me to software tools and libraries. Also, comments on my posts helped me to decide which functions to add. As an example, the question of jury member mcb1 - "How does someone know what the numbers represent?" - was a reason for me to make the display speak its function on a Bluetooth speaker.
Q: Carmelito, you mentioned connecting the Upcycled Clock to your air conditioner; can you describe in more detail how you’d achieve that in a future update to the project?
Carmelito: I live in an old apartment building, which has air conditioning units mounted on the walls, and you need to manually turn the knobs to get them to start. The idea I had is to keep the air conditioner on a high cool setting and have it connected to a power tail switch, which is connected to an ESP8266 to turn it on and off. Basically, instead of connecting another temperature sensor to the ESP8266, I plan to use MQTT to send a message from the Edison mounted on the clock, which has a temperature sensor connected to it. So the AC would turn on when the temperature is greater than 23C when I get home or I am at home, which is detected by another ESP8266 connected to the door sensor on my front door.
If all goes well I would also like to add the telegram bot functionality (https://github.com/python-telegram-bot/python-telegram-bot) with this, which would allow me trigger the air conditioner as I leave work using a telegram message, which means my apartment is nice and cozy when i get home.
Q: What would you like to have added to this project that you did not have time for?
Jason: The project will definitely continue. It will be a 12V/5V DC power station. I have even toyed with having it have variable voltage output, and also switching to two solid state relays to control the two remaining outlets for 120V. I was very happy with how the project turned out, and with the protoboards I put together it exceeded what I thought it would be.
Gerrit: Better web integration, so that I can set numbers or select functions from a web interface, either locally hosted on the Edison, or provided as dashboard by a third party.