The Joy of Smart Home Automation

Smart homes. They are always a hot topic that we in cybersecurity love to talk about. Either the positives of improving quality of life, or the negatives of adding cybersecurity vulnerabilities to crucial items in your home. A smart home brings more vulnerabilities than expected, really due to the fact that all of these devices are on your network and for some viruses, malware, and ransomware this means a big payday. I am a strong advocate for smart homes, or places advanced by technology. The increase in quality of life and independence it can bring to us when we are physically unable to complete some tasks is amazing. Normally, I am a fairly mobile able-bodied person who until fairly recently has never found themselves in a situation where I am unable to complete the basic tasks around my home. Something as simple as getting back up to turn off the lights after I have sat down or bending over to feed my cats were things I took for granted. I am an independent creature and hate to ask for help, so logically I looked for other things that I could do to make sure that I maintained my independence while living with a chronic illness.

My base in starting this smart home project was an Echo Dot, and a Raspberry Pi. This soon morphed into four Echo Dots, two full-fledged Echoes, three Raspberry Pis, and a partridge in a pear tree (Ring doorbell and security camera). Well I may have gone over the top with smart devices that I can speak to or communicate with, this can easily be achieved with just one Echo Dot and a Raspberry Pi W.

I had heard of Phillips Hue before, but I was afraid about what that would do on my network because I had heard horror stories of malware in a network pivoting around thanks to IOT devices. I’m a strong fan of network security, and I like organization. So I decided to take a good look at the things people had said online about how to set up Phillips Hue and similar WiFi related light bulbs for the security minded person. It was quickly determined that the best way to do this that required the least amount of effort would be to set up VLANs, and make sure everything that needed to communicate with my lights would reach my lights and vice versa. If I wanted to control my lights with both the application and my Echo, I needed to make sure that both were on the same subnet, and thus IoT (v)LAN(d) was born. I installed these light bulbs wherever I could in the house, but made sure to keep color bulbs in the important places like my bedroom and office. This solved my first problem, if I felt the need to sleep wherever I was at any given moment, I could tell Alexa to turn the lights out and that would be good to go!

Next, I had to tackle the issue of things that required I either bend over or spend a considerable amount of time on the floor. I hate vacuuming. A few months before I was diagnosed, I began tinkering with a few Roombas that I had purchased broken for $10-$20 on eBay. For anybody interested in learning about simple hardware I strongly suggest tinkering with a Roomba as it is tons of fun. I spent a considerable amount of time reading manuals searching for parts and putting them back together until I had one functioning Roomba. Now, this functioning Roomba was older, and I wanted one that required minimal interaction, so I chose to sell all of the extra parts I had lying around that did not make it in to this FrankenRoomba, and purchased an s7, which has its own trashcan and can be started, stopped, and programmed all from an app or Alexa. This also became my cat’s new favorite toy.

Speaking of cats, I mentioned earlier that feeding was also a pain point. A friend of mine suggested either a microchip pet feeder, or one of the automatic feeders sold on Chewy. The second option was more economical and looked to be a lot more fun. This pet feeder contained a camera, was WiFi enabled, and also was able to spit out treats. I did not do anything super special with this as it was not connected with Alexa, but I did give it its own VLAN out of my own paranoia. If you did not know, cats can be messy creatures, and while the Roomba can grab spilled litter or food, it’s a pain in the butt to clean up any liquid or steam messes that may occur. For example, one of my cats really loves knocking over coffee cups but only when they are full, never empty. To address this, I decided the most logical thing was to purchase the iRobot Braava. This is essentially a Swiffer Wet Jet in tiny robot form. It operates with pre-cleaner soaked pads and water and also connects to WiFi and Alexa. This meant as long as my home stayed reasonably clean, I did not need to interact with the wet Roomba which was perfect for me.

The next aspect of my smart home I decided to address was physical security. As somebody who cannot leave when having a flare up, I receive a large number of deliveries. I also receive a large number of deliveries because my favorite hobby is shopping. Now, I am not crazy enough, nor will I ever be comfortable enough to purchase and use a lock that will permit delivery drivers to drop off a package inside my house. However, I will happily interact with anybody who comes to my door via a Ring doorbell. There are days where I have not been able to make it outside of my door to pick up packages and I love the fact that I have a motion activated camera in front of my packages that has acted as the perfect deterrent for porch thieves. The longest I have gone without picking up a package is three days, and I will be honest, it was fine. Internally, I decided to finally invest some time and effort into the countless number of Pi Zero Ws, I have purchased from Micro Center. I purchased three cameras and their associated requirements and had my first soldering project in about three years. PSA: always be careful when soldering and always do it on a sufficient amount of sleep, or you may end up with a very messy board.

At this point, I have all the essentials covered, so at this point I started to add in some fun. 

First I decided to get a trashcan. But not any trashcan, no, a voice controlled WiFi trashcan. Because honestly, what is the first thing you think of when you think about trash? Is it WiFi? Definitely. There is no major functionality impact to this trash can, it is a glorified step trashcan that just makes me giggle every time I use it. I am a strong fan of anything that brings people joy and this trashcan, surprisingly enough, does a wonderful job.

At this point I will admit that I have an obsession with app enhanced or Alexa enabled devices. I purchased a Bluetooth egg tray that lets me know which egg to use next and will remind me when I am running low that it is probably time to restock. If only for my sisters look of disappointment, this was the best $10 I ever spent. Next I went ahead and purchased a few (possibly 12) smart plugs to control the majority of the rest of my electronics. I have my fan, the oil diffuser, my TV, my coffee maker, and the light fixtures that I was unable to use WiFi lighting in, all accessible via Alexa thanks to these plugs. At this point, simply to entertain myself, I purchased an Amazon Basics $40 microwave. And can you guess what it comes with? That’s right! Alexa! Now, it’s completely pointless. You still need to use the microwave like you do any other. The door does not magically open and close, it does not put the food in there, nor does it take it out. It does make an educated guess on the time that something may take to cook similar to microwaves that have a pizza button or a popcorn button. But, it just makes an educated guess and does not actually monitor what is inside. 

Over the last year, I have been utilizing if this then that (IFTTT) to automate as much as I can to make my life a bit easier. Something as simple as using a trigger phrase of ‘I’m overheating in the bedroom’ to turn on the fan to something as complex as ‘feed the cats on their schedule today, I’m not feeling well’. This second phrase is a bunch of nested if this then that triggers. This tells the pet feeder to release food at 7 AM, noon, 4 PM, and 10 PM. This will also release treats at noon because I believe that if I am not feeling well, that means I am a bit cranky and my cats deserve treats for dealing with me. Next, it will send a reminder to my parents Alexa device, to have them check in on me if they do not hear from me by the evening, and set an away message for my email.

One of my favorite ways to decompress when feeling like crap is with music and IFTTT is great for cataloguing new music. For many applications, IFTTT has created an integration that will create a spreadsheet for you based off of music you have recently listened to or liked that includes song title, artist, genre, and where it was found (playlists, specific radio station, browsing genre). I use the spreadsheet as an organization tool to recall artists and songs that I may enjoy, as well as create a record of every song I have enjoyed in the event that I ever lose my account, after Beat’s music ended in 2015, I have always wanted a backup and this was the perfect solution. Recently, I discovered a wonderful hive mind subreddit, and IFTTT has allowed me to link the two and automatically create a playlist based on the top posts.

I have automated as much as possible using IFTTT and the smart plugs, Alexa, geo-triggers, and creating routines to simulate the Smart Home from a 2003 Scooby Doo episode that may be at the root of my technology obsession. To date, I believe the most useful IFTTT created is one that will pause the Roomba upon doorbell Ring, flash my lights, since I often have headphones on, and pause my music. 

Lastly, I just want to say that if anyone is ever interested in smart homes, app enhanced devices, anything that improves somebody’s quality of life or accessibility around their house, let me know! If you have something you want to teach me or if there’s something you want to learn from me, I am more than happy to help you start your smart home, and welcome any improvements you can think of relating to mine. 


One thought on “The Joy of Smart Home Automation

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