IoT with Particle: a smooth experience

At ThingTank, the IoT brand of Xylos, we make our own IoT hardware which can be quite complex if you need to connect multiple sensors efficiently, or even multiple MCUs where each MCU has its own set of sensors. Most people that want to start with IoT (typically at home or for a small company proof of concept) use either Arduino or Raspberry Pi with one or two sensors connected. Both solutions are great in their own right but there are others! One such solution is Particle, a combination of both hardware, software and cloud. Let’s take a look at what they offer from a hardware and configuration perspective. Future posts will discuss their cloud offering and how to connect to other systems such as Azure IoT Hub.

Hardware

Particle sell their own hardware (like the Photon and Electron) but they also work with other hardware such as a Raspberry Pi. I bought a Photon from https://www.antratek.be/photon. It costs around 25€ which is not as cheap as some alternatives but still well worth the money.

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After unpacking, I mounted it on a breadboard and gave it power from a wall socket using an adapter I had lying around that I used in the past to power a Raspberry Pi. Although you can, you do not have to connect the Photon to a computer to configure it. Yes, you heard that right! You can configure the Photon using a mobile app and you can flash new firmware OTA (over the air) right from a web-based IDE called Build. Let’s see how initial configuration works…

Configuration

The Photon only comes with WiFi, compared to the Electron which comes with 2G/3G and a global SIM card. To connect the Photon to WiFi (one of five connections the device can remember), use the Particle app for iOS or Android (the easiest method):

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To configure a new device, the app guides you through the whole process. The Photon will create its own WiFi network. After connecting your phone to that network, you can configure the network you want the Photon to connect to:

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When the process is finished, the device can be seen in the Particle Console:

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As part of the configuration process, you can give the device a name. The device name (or device id) can later be used in HTTP calls or from the Particle CLI.

Tinker

This post will not discuss how to flash the device with a custom firmware (that’s for a later post). But even without a custom firmware, you can still start exploring the device and do useful things with the digital and analog ports using the mobile app and the out-of-the-box Tinker firmware. The Tinker firmware can always be flashed back to the device if needed.

In the mobile app, after selecting the device, you will see the port layout of the device:

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Without going into details here, know that there is an onboard LED connected to digital port D7. When you select D7, you will be asked what you want to do:

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In this case, we want to turn on the onboard LED so we obviously want to write to the port. After selecting digitalWrite, you can select D7 to set the port HIGH (3.3V) or LOW (GND). When the port is set to HIGH, the on-board LED will light up in blue. Cool no? Although not very useful, you have now configured the Photon to connect to the Particle back-end in the cloud and you can use their app to control the ports from the cloud as well.

Tinker works just a well with analogWrite. If you have an LED connected to D0, and a resistor from the other side of the LED to GND, you can send a value between 0 and 255 to the port which will light up the LED with varying brightness:

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Note: D0-D7 are digital ports but D0~D3 may also be used as a PWM output (PWM = pulse width modulaton); that’s why you can send values ranging from 0 to 255 to those ports as well (analogWrite)

Summary

Particle has gone out of its way to make it as easy as possible to get started. Setting up the device is super simple and getting started with the built-in Tinker firmware makes it easier for beginners to understand how to use the ports without having to start coding. In follow-up posts, we’ll have a look at some of the cloud functionality and we’ll connect some more useful sensors like a photoresistor and a PIR sensor… Stay tuned!!!

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