25 January 2011

A simple wireless sensor network

A lot of pieces come together in this project.  It seems to be working well; I'm pretty happy with it.  I'll jump right in and give a high level description of the pieces.

I started this blog with digital clocks and this project starts with one as the sensor unit.  It consists of a Arduino Pro Mini 328 (check the size of that guy!), a "Chronodot" Real-Time Clock (RTC) module from Macetech based on the Maxim DS3231 chip, and an XBee ZigBee module from Digi International (part no. XB24-Z7WIT-004).  Just for fun and to generate a little more data to collect, I connected a simple Cadmium-Sulfide (CdS) photocell to one of the Arduino's A/D inputs to measure light intensity wherever the sensor unit happens to be.  The readout is a 16x2 LCD from Sparkfun.  See the picture below.

Sensor Unit.  L to R: Arduino, RTC, XBee, Photocell and XBee status LEDs, power supply.

A few words on the parts.  The Arduino Pro Mini has the same ATmega328 microprocessor and basic specs as the Arduino Uno, but is much smaller!  I soldered on headers so it would plug into a breadboard.  What it doesn't have is a power supply or a USB interface.  Both Sparkfun and Adafruit make nice little breadboard power supplies that work great and accept the same wall wart input as the Uno.  As for the USB connection, you'll need an FTDI breakout board (about the size of a small postage stamp) and FTDI drivers to do the interface.  Once you have that (and it's pretty easy), the USB interface works pretty much the same as the Uno.

The DS3231 RTC is pretty cool too.  If you keep it between freezing and about 100°F, it will keep time within two parts per million, which is about a minute per year.  It accomplishes this by monitoring its own temperature (a major cause of oscillator drift) and switching capacitors in and out of the crystal oscillator circuit to trim the frequency.  The crystal itself is on-chip which also helps accuracy.  A very sweet piece of engineering.  In addition to the date and time, we can also read the temperature from it (in °C to the nearest quarter degree).

Last we have the XBee module, which uses the ZigBee specification, based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.  These modules are low power and don't offer terribly high bandwidth, which is just fine for sensor networks which tend to send very small amounts of data at any one time.  The really neat thing is that XBee modules form themselves (with just about zero help from you!) into self-healing mesh networks.  They can be configured either as network coordinators, routers, or end devices.  Every network must have exactly one coordinator.  Routers can do anything an end device can, plus forward messages between devices.  End devices cannot route traffic, and must do all their business through a parent node which is either a coordinator or a router.  Additionally, end devices can sleep in a low-power mode which would be very good for battery-powered remote sensors.  If an end device is sleeping, its parent node will store traffic for it.  The XBee in my sensor module is configured as a router.

Now we come to what I call the "base" unit.  This consists of an Arduino Uno, with an Ethernet shield added on top and connected to my internet router.  Also we have an XBee module, configured as the network coordinator, and a seven-segment LED display.

Base unit. Arduino and Ethernet shield at top. XBee, status LEDs, temperature display on breadboard.

The whole thing works like this.  Once a minute, the sensor unit sends the temperature and light intensity data to the base unit.  The base unit sends the data to Pachube (click here to go to the Pachube feed for this project) and displays the temperature on the LED display.  We can then download the data from Pachube, or have it create charts like below.  These are live charts and will refresh every few minutes (not sure how often exactly, haven't found the spec on Pachube yet).  So if you refresh this page, you will see current data, assuming that a cat hasn't chewed through any wires on my end in the meantime.

DS18B20 Temperature Sensor

It would be straightforward to add additional sensor units to this project.  One idea I have in mind is to measure the temperature of my wood stove with a thermocouple.  Maybe send a text message to my mobile phone if it got over a certain temperature.

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