Arduino gets new remote management possibilities

Telefonica's service for the open source DIY microcontroller is met with skepticism by some users

Users of the Arduino open-source platform for home electronics do-it-yourselfers can now sign up for a communication service from the Spanish mobile phone provider Télefonica that lets them manage their projects remotely.

The service also requires an updated Arduino GSM/GPRS Shield that allows users to establish TCP communication with their boards over a GPRS network. The updated version of the shield was announced at Campus Party, an electronic entertainment event being held in Berlin Friday and Saturday. The shield will be shown at Campus Party but does not yet appear to be available for sale.

Arduino is an open-source hardware platform based on a microcontroller board as well as a development environment for writing software. Enthusiasts use it for building and controlling small home electronics projects that can have many purposes.

A geeky gardener who is worried about keeping up with watering the plants for instance can use Arduino to control sensors that help care for an indoor garden. An Arduino-based system can water the plants only when they're thirsty, turn on supplemental lights based on how much natural sunlight is received and alert the gardener if the temperature drops below a plant-healthy level.

But an Arduino board can just as well be used to control a Twitter-enabled coffee pot that lets its owner make a pot of coffee from anywhere they have cell phone reception.

The new shield, a further development in an initiative presented in the spring of 2011, will allow asynchronous use, meaning that Arduino is freed up to perform other tasks while the shield is communicating, Télefonica said. Arduino users using the shield can sign up to a communication service provided by Telefónica through which they can manage their Arduino remotely from the BlueVia website.

The service includes its own Telefónica Machine-2-Machine SIM cards, which will allow access from E.U. countries, the U.S. and almost all of South America, said Télefonica.

Télefonica did not announce a price for the new Shield, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This led to some skepticism in the Arduino community that consists mostly of hobbyists. "My impression is [that] this is geared more toward corporate use than hobbyists," said Ragnorok, a user in the Arduino IRC channel, who added that as far as he knew, GPRS requires per-device charges which makes it too expensive for most hobbyist level applications. But if this machine-to-machine communication strategy means a fixed cost for all devices, it sounds intriguing, he added.

There are already GPRS modems available that work with Arduino, said user buZz on IRC. Those alternatives typically can vary in price between approximately US$60 and $100. There are cheaper ways to connect to an Arduino board using a mobile network, buZz said. "Just buy a Nokia 5110, connect serial to Arduino, bam, GSM modem," buZz said.

The hobbyists found it quite hard to think of a use for the shield. "I've got some difficulty coming up with ideas," said Yotson on IRC, who added that remote monitoring comes to mind. But remote areas could lack GSM coverage, and "that kind of defeats the purpose because anything not remote surely has an Internet connection," Yotson said.

Another possible problem is the use of Télefonica's API. The Arduino users in the IRC channel said they would rather not be tied to a proprietary API that is run by a for-profit telecom provider.

"It all depends on cost. If the shields aren't much more than a standard GSM shield, and it doesn't take an uber expensive data plan per device, it could work if they ditch that proprietary API," Ragnorok said.

Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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