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Home automation device runs Linux on BeagleBone

Sep 25, 2013 — by Eric Brown 11,148 views

Starting in early October, Ninja Blocks will ship another 1,000 units of its redesigned open source Linux based home automation device kit. The $199 Ninja Block Kit incorporates a BeagleBone SBC and an Arduino-compatible microcontroller, and offers remote access via smartphone apps and a cloud service for access to sensor inputs including motion detectors, contact closures, temperature and humidity sensors, and pushbuttons.

Like the OpenROV underwater robot, the Ninja Block is a developer-oriented open source kit that runs Linux on a BeagleBone single-board computer (SBC). It was similarly born of a highly successful Kickstarter launch in 2012.

Ninja Block home automation device
(click images to enlarge)

The Ninja Block that shipped to Kickstarter backers in May of that year looked more toy-like than the current version. In December 2012, Sydney, Australia-based Ninja Blocks announced the second generation model with support for off-the-shelf wireless sensors and actuators, and quickly sold out its 500-unit run.

The most recent iteration with its more buttoned-down look, appeared earlier this year, and once again rolled out in limited runs. The company sold out a run that shipped in August, and is now planning to ship the latest run of 1,000 devices in early October, with over 300 pre-orders still available.


The Ninja Block is similar to a number of other Linux- or Android-based modular home automation systems targeting the low end of the market, including the BlackSumac Piper and the WigWag. Ninja Block’s firmware and hardware designs are freely available under open source licenses, and are supported by community features including a forum. The open source credo is reinforced with a “Hack Me” tag, which sticks out from the device to offer easy access to internal components.

BeagleBone Black and Arduino with a dash of the Ninja Cloud

The latest Ninja Block iteration steps up to the newer, faster BeagleBone Black. This credit card sized SBC, which uses a 1GHz, ARM Cortex-A8, TI Sitara processor, works in tandem with an Arduino-compatible microcontroller located on an add-on board. Although BeagleBone add-on boards are normally called “capes,” the Ninja Block’s add-on board is known as the “Ninja Shield.”

Opening it up: BeagleBone Black SBC; Ninja Shield add-on board
(click images to enlarge)

The Ninja Shield provides a 16MHz Atmel ATmega328 microcontroller with 32KB flash, and a 433MHz RF wireless transceiver for controlling sensors. Three LEDs, two with PWM interfaces, form the Ninja Block’s signature “eyes.” According to the Ninja Block website, “if you want to get your coding hands dirty, the Ninja Block contains an Arduino compatible microcontroller, that you can program using the official Arduino IDE.”

The Ninja Block is further supplied with WiFi, an Ethernet port, a microSD slot and card, and a USB port designed to hook up USB-based cameras. A 5VDC 3-Amp power supply is also provided.

Wireless sensors that communicate with the Ninja Block include a motion sensor, a door/window contact sensor, a temperature and humidity sensor, and a door-bell button. The latest feature, added in June, is a temperature probe. The system also supports third-party devices including Philips’s Hue digital lights. All these sensors can be monitored via Android and iOS apps.

Contact, motion, and temperature/humidity sensors; wireless button
(click images to enlarge)

The three currently available free apps — Remote, Security, and Thermometer — are written with an “API for Atoms” that includes a REST API and a Rules Engine. The latter, available as an app of its own, enables IF-THEN constructs like turning the light on when you get home, receiving an alert when the wash cycle is finished, uploading a photo from a connected camera when someone enters a room, or remotely turning devices on and off.

Ninja Block apps
(click images to enlarge)

The REST API is implemented as JSON over HTTP using GET/POST/PUT/DELETE verbs. Each resource — including a rule, block, device, or user — is given its own URL and can be manipulated in isolation.

Ninja Block Rules Engine app
(click image to enlarge)

The Ninja Block APIs are also integrated with an emerging set of Ninja Cloud services. Ninja Cloud communicates with the smartphone apps, as well as sites including Twitter, Facebook, and Dropbox for notifications.

According to a May report in Pandodaily, new CEO and former investor Peter Moore is focusing on selling mediator services around Ninja Cloud more than pushing Ninja Blocks as a consumer device. He’s also hoping to move beyond home automation to energy and various touch-related technologies. According to the story, Ninja Blocks has already licensed its technology to other manufacturers, and is charging for raw API use and connectivity as a service. At the time, the company had about 2,000 registered developers, 500 of whom were active users, and had sold about 3,500 developer kits, according to Pandodaily.

The latest run of Ninja Blocks is available for pre-order now for $199, including the BeagleBone Black and cape and a full range of sensors, with shipments due in early October. Accessories for those who want to hack their own Ninja based designs include an $18 Ninja Breakout Kit and a $40 Ninja Shield (a cape for the BeagleBone Black). More information, and pre-orders, may be found at the Ninja Blocks website. Various Ninja Block-compatible sensors can be found here.

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One response to “Home automation device runs Linux on BeagleBone”

  1. Alessandro Benedetti says:

    Do you know Almadomus? It’s a new home automation product, simple, cheap, and perfect for developers. It is the first small ARM computer with a Linux operating system that fits in a single gang back box. Take a look at its crowdfunding campaign: (disclaimer: I’m one of the founders of the project).

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