Sensor Node: Engineering Diary

Why Develop Sensor Node?

The answer to that question is very easy. It needed to be done.

According to health statistics, on average 20 children die and 28,000 are hospitalized every year in New Zealand from preventable diseases like asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis. A great inspiration for this work, Dr Lance O Sullivan writes in his autobiography : “giving people a prescription for asthma or a skin infection and sending them home to run down cold damp houses is like pouring money in the ground. And a missed opportunity for improved health outcomes.”

In his book, Dr O Sullivan talks about families living in unhealthy homes. He writes that “a healthy environment is the most potent intervention we can give some of these families with recurrent illnesses. It’s fair to say that out of everything I could possibly achieve, creating warm, safe homes for children would be the most effective.”

 
Inspiration For the Social Entrepreneur

Inspiration For the Social Entrepreneur

 

Engineering SPECIFICATION

As an engineer, I like to put things into engineering terms. For Sensor Node, our list of things we need to achieve looks something like this:

  1. Low cost. It must be achievable for less than $100.

  2. Very long range connectivity. We must be able to connect to a house anywhere in New Zealand without relying on WiFi or other private networks.

  3. Battery powered and long battery life. It must not rely on a wall socket and once installed must be self sufficient for a few years.

  4. Easy to use. Complexity is a barrier to usability. It must require no specialist knowledge to install, use and maintain.

  5. Accurate. To make it suitable for a wider audience, it must achieve at least 0.5 deg C accuracy and 2% Relative humidity.

So long as we achieve these core objectives, we will be in a position to determine whether a home is going to make people sick; perform impact assessments following interventions; and we will have a tool to contribute towards scientific research.

How good is Good enough?

The first rule of product design is stick to the specification! But the real danger for engineers is not under-delivering: it’s over-delivering. You should always keep in mind the question: “how good is good enough?” If you loose track of this, before you know it you’ve designed a $5,000 wrist watch, or a car that goes 300 kph, or another insane razor contraption with 8 blades on it. Engineers just can’t help it! Features that no one needs, or understands how to use.

I’m a firm believer in the Pareto Principal. Or the 80 / 20 rule. The idea is that you get about 80% of the benefit from about 20% of the cost or effort. To put into engineering terms, I’d define the benefit as the specification (the list of things we like). The engineer’s job is to minimise the down side, which is usually the cost.

And the best way to do this is to create a specification and stick to it. Change it if you like, just don’t get sucked into designing fancy features that no one asked for. Always keep in mind, “how good is good enough?” Don’t be tempted to spend hours optimising something beyond the point where it significantly improves the outcome.


Delivering the Goods

With the specification in mind, let’s have a look at a few aspects of the technical design:

  1. Front End Sensor.

  2. The Communications Protocol.

  3. The Mechanical Design.

  4. The Electronics.

  5. The App and Cloud solution.

Front End

We can measure pretty much anything. And there’s a very good chance someone has already done it! Water flow, electrical current, air Pressure, CO2... You name it: you can buy a sensor for it, off the shelf.

But remember that we want to measure the bare minimum that we need to achieve our goal. In this case temperature and humidity. We could add a carbon dioxide sensor, but immediately our current consumption goes up six-fold. And our cost more than doubles. It’s a perfect example of reaching for another 10% of functionality, but at disproportionate cost. So, let’s not do that! Temperature and Humidity it is. Done!

Communication Protocol

When we go to choose the communications protocol, there are a number of trade-offs to consider. We have range / power consumption / data rate / cost / latency / ease of integration. If we focus our minds on what we absolutely need and no more, we can see that we need Long Range; Low Power and Low Cost. We don’t really need Low Latency; High Data Rates or Easy Integration, although ease of integration is a bit of a given these days, since virtually everything is a piece of cake to build. If you can’t buy a module or an integrated circuit for it, its probably not worth doing!

 
Range Versus Data Rate

Range Versus Data Rate

 

So to achieve long range and low power (which goes hand in hand with low data rate), our best bet is Sigfox.

Mechanical Design

Since the mechanical design has virtually no impact on the quality of the data, I’m going to skip to the end and say, do whatever you like. I’m about 80% sure that no one cares. And that’s the 80% I’m interested in. Do the cheapest, easiest thing you can. The first batches are 3D printed. As soon as we reach higher volume production, we will move to injection molding.

Electronics

We need a low cost, low power … blah blah blah. Sorry, I can’t hear anything past this, because in the world of embedded microcontroller design, low cost, low power is synonymous with the Texas Instruments MSP430. So we’ll use one of those. They cost about a dollar, and they do everything we need without using any power at all. Moving on.

App and Cloud Solution

This is where it gets tricky. I would say that it has to be scalable. And possible to deploy and maintain ideally by a single developer. Based on those basic criteria, let’s go with AWS. It’s relatively easy to use, even for a complete novice, and it will scale way beyond anything I’ve got in mind. I’d say in terms of the 80 / 20 principal, there’s no point looking any further. You might be able to argue the case for Azure, in which case, use Azure. But it doesn’t really matter. Choose one. And get stuck in. Just don’t use both. That would be wasteful!

Outcome

Sensor Node achieves all of the specifications listed above. We plan to start selling it for $100 each, $80 at volumes of 200 units, $60 at volumes of 1,000. And offer further volumes discounts should demand exceed this.

We can reach over 95% of New Zealand homes.

Sensor Node will run for 3+ years on two AAA batteries.

The accuracy of the device is +/-0.2 deg C and +/-2% relative humidity (0 - 100 %).

Conclusion

Sensor Node as it stands forms a good basis for a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). We have focused on the 80%. Not the 20%. We want good enough, not perfection. The next steps will be continuous improvement and looking to provide custom integrations for larger business end users.

Sensor Node : Healthy Homes for Everyone

After about 6 months of development, Sensor Node is ready! It’s been a roller-coaster of technical and logistical challenges, but in every way, it has been worth it. Let me tell you how it came about.

This all started about 6-8 months back during a conversation with a friend of mine. This may or may not have taken place in the pub (actually, it definitely did). We were blowing off a bit of steam about work, as you do. The fellow in question happens to be a very passionate and well informed advocate for healthy homes and the conversation turned to cold and damp housing in New Zealand, and the current difficulty in measuring it. For my part, I was an electronics engineer, and had recently been working on a project monitoring Kākāpō for the Department of Conservation. Between us, we came to the realisation that if you can monitor what parrots are up to, on a remote Pacific Island, monitoring people’s houses should be a piece of cake. I had also recently read Lance O Sullivan’s autobiography, which was hugely inspirational. The idea was born.

Moreover, it really needed to be done. According to the health statistics, on average 20 children die and 28,000 are hospitalised every year in New Zealand from preventable diseases like asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis. What was needed above all was a means of recording the temperature and humidity in at risk homes, and a reliable means of generating real time notifications if certain conditions were not met. The main complication was that, for the most part, the target homes do not have an internet connection; 3G and the like are too expensive and power hungry. The answer was Low Power Wide Area Networking (LP WAN). Of the leading technologies currently available, the best suited to our needs was Sigfox, a 920 MHz IoT network, designed specifically for carrying small packets of data, with unparalleled receiver sensitivity. Which means you can send a small message a really long way, without draining your battery too much! Perfect!

Sensor Node was the result. After 3 spins of the PCB, and a quick refresher on RF design, it was ready. Sensor Node gives accurate, reliable readings of temperature and relative humidity even in homes that do not have an internet connection. It runs for 3-5 years on two standard AAA batteries, reporting data directly to the cloud. Data is available any time, anywhere using the simple mobile app. Set-up is as easy as scanning a QR code on the device.

Sensor Node was developed in collaboration with He Kainga Oranga, the Healthy Homes Research Programme, an incredible group of passionate, talented people.

I’m really excited to have come this far. It’s been a hectic journey, punctuated with successes, failures, one major operation and a lot of fascinating R&D. We know this is a worthy project. We hope you think so too. Please share the word. Monkeytronics is on the war path against cold and damp homes. But we need your support! Together we can have a positive impact for New Zealand.

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