In my last blog post we talked about automating meter readings, and how to send the data from a computer to Fiix through the use of a program. The kink though was that you still need people taking those meter readings, and so the execution is still messy. Today, let’s talk about Arduino, or the Arduino Uno board specifically. This powerful little chip is called a single-board microcontroller, and it enables hardware-to-software communication. What this means is all the dials and sensors that are taking readings on machines could just as easily give that data to a computer, no middle-man required.
How It Works
The Arduino Uno connects to a computer through a USB cord, and sends all of its data through that cable. From the board itself, you can wire various circuits using the many input and output pins, both analog and digital, and even supply five volt or three-point-three volt power. Essentially, this means that you can connect the Arduino Uno to just about any simple sensor. We tested it with a photocell and a potentiometer, to check how bright the office was and to have a controlled variable for testing. After a little tinkering and a crash course on basic circuits, there was a clean stream of information going from the Arduino to its connected computer. The only issue was catching all this new data we had. The solution we came up with is a simple program called the Labs Serial Port Reader. It was designed with the Arduino in mind, but can be used for any device that sends data to a serial port. To clarify, a serial port is pretty much a slot on your computer to plug stuff into. For example, USB slots can be used as serial ports, so anything you can plug in through the USB port, you can read with this program.
The Arduino Uno board maintains enough processing power and versatility to handle whatever we tossed at it, which was everything and the kitchen sink. At times there were knobs, temperature sensors, ball switches, and LED light shows hooked up to the board. A device like this enables a lot of possibilities, and with the Serial Port Reader, one of those possibilities is truly automated meter readings. By setting the program to a specific asset and unit, all readings from the sensors connected to the Arduino go straight to Fiix, triggering any scheduled maintenance or events like the previous Automated Meter Reading File Handler does. Once it’s set up it runs indefinitely, so readings are transmitted day and night until someone comes by and turns it off.
Sadly, this Serial Port Reader can only handle one type of meter reading per Arduino. Making it handle multiple sensors, using various units of measurement, would require a somewhat more complex program. When dealing with data as precise and fickle as what goes through a serial port, things can become increasingly challenging, so for the sake of keeping the program usable by non-developers, the Labs Serial Port Reader can only do so much. The far greater potential is its general ability to connect physical objects to digital information. We’ve just provided the tools to build a system with, not the system itself. An Arduino can be programmed to read multiple sensors, and with some work could even be used to generate spreadsheets of data to just go into the Automated Meter Reading File Handler instead. Even other microcontrollers could be used to send your meter readings through the cloud. No more time wasted walking around looking at dials. No more carrying around a pile of spreadsheets with outdated information. No more “if I had checked it an hour earlier” accidents. Instead, technicians can dedicate themselves to repairing and maintaining what actually needs their focus, no hours lost doing all the tiny extras that programs can do for them. This future is steadily becoming the present, so are you ready to pick up an Arduino?