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Laid off from job, man builds tweeting toilet

Patrick Thibodeau | Sept. 11, 2014
Technology, like comedy, uses improvisation.

Technology, like comedy, uses improvisation.

Take Thomas Ruecker's project. With parts from an electric motor, a few household items, an open-source hardware board running Linux, and some coding, he built a connected toilet that Tweets with each flush.

The first reaction to the Twitter feed at @iotoilets may be a chuckle. But the idea behind this and what it illustrates is serious. It tracks water usage, offers a warning about the future of privacy in the Internet of Things, and may say something about the modern job hunt.

Ruecker built his device on a recent long weekend after he was laid off as an open source evangelist at a technology firm undergoing "rightsizing," as he put it. He lives in Finland, and was interviewed via a video Skype session.

Ruecker is fluent in three languages, German, English, and Polish, and has a background in electrical engineering, computer science and management, with particular expertise in open source. He is seeking a job in engineering management or project management. If @iotoilets draws some attention to his experience, skills and creativity and leads to job prospects, so much the better, he said.

The genesis of the project began with a series a Tweets from a manager at his former firm, Taneli Tikka, a "successful serial entrepreneur," said Ruecker.

Tikka wrote: "Silly sensor IoT question: does anybody know about "smart toilets & sinks" something that measure liquid flow? # of flushes? etc. :)"

Ruecker Tweeted back and said he could.

"I enjoyed this little engineering challenge, as I was constrained to whatever I had at home and thus had to come up with a creative solution to the problem," he said.

Ruecker gutted a servo motor to get its potentiometer, a resistor used to control a device, and created a plastic arm using zip tie cut to length. Styrofoam acts as the float in the tank.

"The arm translates water level inside the tank into a circular motion that can then be read as a function of the resistance of the potentiometer," said Ruecker.

A BeagleBone Black, an open source board with an ARM based processor running Linux, was another component. He wrote the code for the device, and enabled it to use IPv6 and MQTT (Message Queue Telemetry Transport), a machine to machine protocol.

The device is capable of precise measurements, but the Twitter feed is only showing rounded off usages. Ruecker said he plans to improve the accuracy of the reported values.

From an environmental perspective, the idea of knowing how much potable water is being flushed away may be a good thing. Many European toilets have mechanisms that allow for variable flushes.


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