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What if every time you run out of a product, the smart tag on it would instantly add it to your shopping list, at the touch of a button?
The system is very simple and everyone in your house can use it, from kids to the elderly, even visitors. The shopping list is updated dynamically in real time and the system can even be configured to automatically order things online. Scattered throughout the house there are small tags or panels called stokies. You can attach the tags to individual products or things that need them, while panels provide multiple buttons and are designed for places where multiple things are stored, like the pantry.
Modern world has advanced with the help of technology, but somehow a shopping list stayed the same. Paper based, on your smartphone or on the cloud, shopping lists are centralised and require you to reach them in order to add things. Cooking a steak and running out of your favourite spice? For the modern person it’s a bit difficult to get your smartphone, unlock it, find the app, search for the item and check it while your hands are still dirty. Etching a board and your ferric chloride could use a replacement – luckily there is a smart stockie label on it.
My goal is to create simple, small, low cost tags, that you can attach to a product or place nearby which together with the system will provide an automatic shopping list and delivery. These tags would enable a one button press add to the shopping list. Adding something is a simple and instant operation, this is why the tags need to be product centric or use centric, instead of a centralised list or an app on your phone. Such a system should be suitable for the elderly, kids or anyone else for that matter, including somebody visiting you. The list is always available for consultation and in the future, integration with online shop will allow items to be automatically delivered.
How it works
Throughout the house there are tags (1) and panels (2) that allow you to mark one item as running low with a simple push of a button. Tags are generally dedicated to one item while panels contain multiple buttons for objects clustered in specific places. When a button is pressed the tags and panels communicate through the gateway(3) which provides acces to the internet, reaching the server(4). This is where it all happens: a database keeps track of each tag of the users and applications provide extra functionality. Users(5) can consult the list(6) while shopping at the supermarket or even at home. Online stores(7) connected to the server can provide automatic delivery(8) of specific items.
Applications are not limited to your home, the system can be used in offices, hospitals, warehouses and even supermarkets, basically everywhere you need to keep a sure supply of something. The tags can be placed corresponding to items on shelves so that you can alert about missing items and have them supplied immediately.
History and inspiration
The inspiration arrived one early morning when I realized I was out of coffee, even though I had the intention to add it to my shopping list. I started pondering about ways to measure the available quantity of things around the house so that I could be alerted when something was running low. I instantly realized that this would be a fairly difficult task requiring different kinds of sensors which would prove complicated, costly and unreliable. But the real goal was actually easier to achieve: since almost everything is used by a person he/she can alert the system about things running low without the need of a high tech sensor.
I wanted the system to be tied to each individual product or right where it is used, such that the user can instantly notify of a low supply, without stopping the activity or having to remember to later add it to the list. Adding a tag for each product might be appear to be an expensive goal at first, but a quick check shows that I could build a one button tag for about 3 euro, even while buying parts in low quantity. The tag is even significantly lower in cost than the annual supply of most things. Still, tags with multiple buttons can be transformed into panels which I can place in cabinets or drawers where multiple things need to be monitored, further reducing the cost per item.
Hence, the first prototype is ready to be attached to the coffee machine. It will make sure I never forget to buy coffee, tea or milk.
The built is currently ongoing. Check the gallery for pictures of the progress.
As prototypes I will build 2 kinds of tags and the gateway. I have started with the small version, the coffee machine tag, which is intended for single items, but can contain up to three buttons. The larger version is intended for places where multiple items are stored, like the pantry, and will have a larger number of buttons.
First tag, fully assembled, this time using all three buttons available on the PCB
The coffee machine will receive the first tag: no more mornings without coffee
First module connected to the “umbilical” cord while in development
One of the first steps of the built is to achieve communication between the stockie tags and the main node which will be the gateway to the server. The tags are based around an attiny88 microcontroller and a NRF24l01+ radio module. The gateway will use a router coupled with an XMEGA micro controller along with a NRF24L01+ high power module and external antenna (here shown with a regular one). In this combination the communication range is sufficient throughout the house, including passing through two floors.
Low power design
The stockie tags need to operate from a coin cell for as long as possible. I have considered designing the tags with touch sensors instead of physical buttons but the sensors need to wake up periodically and consume power do do the readout. Supposed I would have designed a tag with 4 buttons and settled on a 250 ms response time(that is slow actually), then the circuit burns 28uA which means that the coin cell battery would last less than a year. By using buttons, the microcontroller sleep current goes down to 0.2uA which is far less than the self discharge rate of the battery. CR2032 batteries are rated at 1-2%/year self discharge, which combined with the microcontroller consumption should have a life or around 50(yes fifty) years, but I highly doubt that will happen in real life.
When a button is pressed the tag communicates with the gateway which communicates with the server and then returns a response which will be a red or green LED blink. Assuming a worse case scenario of 0.5s of wait time for answer from server and 0.5 seconds of total on time for the LED, I get an average current of 18.8mA for 1 seconds. This translates to about 40.000 operations from one battery.
With the extreme standby time and high number of operations I think the tags will have a practical life of more than 5 years on a battery.
The design of the tags and panels is rather similar, they differ just in the number of buttons. The tags have up to 3 buttons while the first panels have up to 10. The parts list is kept to the minimum, I have even omitted the LED current limiting resistors because the reduced drive strength of the micro controller at 3V will keep the current within levels. Schematics available in PDF: Tag and Panel and the gerbers are avilable here: Tag and Panel.
I have finally achieved simple functionality on the website. The whole project is hosted on my personal website, since I still have resources like databases available. The data is stored in a MySQL database which supports multiple users. There are a lot of features that I would like to have, but so far there are just a few things available: some diagnostics, user selection, simple error handling and most importantly a shopping list display. Apart from the user pages, there are a couple of others that will be accessed by the tags in order to change the status of the item or configure the tag. Here is how my list looks now, I have added just some random things:
The other functionality is to show the status of all the tags for a certain user. For now the information contained is the HW ID of the tag, status, battery status and when it was last changed by the tag or website
First panels are completed and can go online. Here are the first two assembled PCBs, one for development and one for actual usage in the kitchen.
The buttons are designed to come out of the box surface just enough so that they can be pressed through the front plastic panel that comes over them.
To make the prototypes easier to fit in the box I have used a trick: I have placed a proper sized hole into the PCB under the buttons and the LEDs. That way I can install the PCB in the box and use it as a template to drill the holes. It takes less than 2 minutes for the whole 11 holes required for the 10 button panel, but I bet I could do it faster with enough practice.
And here is the tag saying I still have enough coffee(green led not that visible due to flash):
Some terminals for debugging: top is the tag data, middle is data going through the gateway microcontroller and at the bottom is the router
I have assembled the hardware of the gateway. The gateway is made from a TL-WR710N(EU) router and a Xmega header board I have previously designed. The XMEGA32A4U microcontroller serves as interface between the radio and the router since there is no hardware SPI available on the router. Currently the data transfer between the microcontroller and router is done with a USB-serial adapter because I need the original router serial port for debugging. Once the development is finished, I will switch to the router serial port. There is an additional serial connection between the microcontroller and PC to monitor the data transfers and debug.
The two antennas, router and NRF, are perpendicular to minimize coupling, as the router connects to my Wi-Fi to get online. Alternatively, I could use an Ethernet connection, but that requires an extra cable and limits the place where I can put the gateway.
Let the software development commence: two serial ports for debugging: