The Independent Student Newspaper of Northern Kentucky University.

How Norse IoT Club builds humidity sensors for Griffin Hall

February 10, 2023

On the first Monday after the new year, Chris Brewer walked into Griffin Hall and could not believe how humid it was. Though the building was not as heavily impacted by flooding over a frigid winter break as some of the residence halls, puddles of water could still be seen near the second floor stairwell. Then the idea to have the Norse IoT Club build sensors that monitor humidity and temperature struck.

“This is just too humid to work in,” said Brewer, director of Innovation & Emerging Technology and faculty sponsor of the IoT Club. “It suddenly hit me that the IoT Club should build sensors to measure the humidity because it’s a health concern and a property concern. We’re all paying for this building with our tax dollars and tuition dollars.”

The IoT Club, whose name is an acronym for Internet of Things, developed the sensors from ESP-32 microcontrollers: tiny devices costing about $10 each but function like full computers, complete with storage, RAM, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth compatibility. The club hooked up these microcontrollers to DHT11 sensors, which actively read the humidity and temperature in a room, then store the resulting information on a Mac mini database. Anyone on the NKU NORSE-NET network—the dean, students, facilities management—can view and track this data on an online dashboard, though it is not available to the general public.

“When we built this thing, we just did it because it was an opportunity to do something we love to do,” Brewer said. He contacted College of Informatics Dean Kevin Kirby with the idea, who then sent it to several people involved with Griffin Hall building inspections. Brewer is currently working with the dean and facilities management to begin formal installations, for in their current state, the sensors are simply sitting on tables on five floors blinking light. A formal installation could place the sensors on the limited access sixth floor of Griffin Hall, which contains heating, ventilation and cooling systems.

Campus buildings have ventilation vents that open and close automatically to regulate the flow of fresh air. When the winter storm came, it was so cold that the open vents were frozen in place, allowing cold air to infiltrate the buildings for several days and freeze water pipes. For Griffin Hall, the sixth floor maintenance area was where the water damage originated, soaking the carpets and causing wet ceiling tiles to collapse.

Dean Kirby visited Griffin Hall three times over the break to check the damage. When he came in on Dec. 26, contractors had set up dozens of fans and dehumidifiers to dry out all five floors. The response was very quick, he said.

“We were very worried it would disrupt classes, especially the rooms on this south side of the building: the cybersecurity lab, some of the classrooms, the hallway,” Kirby added. “It did not disrupt classes; it disrupted some faculty and staff offices for a while unfortunately.”

Brewer believes that having working or redundant sensors could warn facilities management about the below freezing temperatures and whether the vents are properly closed or not.

“We dream of creating a very sensor-rich fabric across the campus because we think it would help the facilities operations have a real-time picture of what’s happening,” he said. “We would love to be able to build that system campus-wide in whatever capacity is needed, because that’s really our interest. We’re about building and managing devices that gather data more than the data itself. It’s up to the facilities to use the data to help their operations.”

The IoT Club is now working on an ultrasonic sensor project, though their dreams and possibilities range far and wide. Brewer mentioned, for example, parking garage sensors that can tell students parking spot availability and the optimal time to park, or a device that tracks waiting time at the food court.

“Obviously it’s a question of priorities,” said Con Godsted, junior Computer Information Technology (CIT) major and vice president of IoT Club. “What projects are more important? What things are students more interested in?”

Club members work with the devices that form the Internet of Things, a vast network of smaller embedded computer systems. Smartphones, smart homes, smart cars and smart fridges are IoT, so are traffic signals and even fog machines used in theatrical productions.

“IoT is traditionally not part of the curriculum. It’s cool because it’s where analog talks to digital. A lot of people think that informatics is just about digital, but it’s not. It’s about connecting digital to the real world, which is analog, and it’s so exciting,” Kirby said.

Every year there is always a certain club that rises to the top in terms of activity, the dean said, and IoT Club might be the fastest growing student organization at the College of Informatics at the moment.

“We are very much a student-driven club,” Godsted said.

The club meets every Monday and Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. and works on projects on Fridays at 2 p.m. Most members major in informatics and technology, though those in PR and other disciplines have come to meetings as well. Since its founding in the fall of 2022, a total of 120 students have attended the meetings. While they are heartened by the level of interest, money is always a challenge for the club because they have to maintain a sufficient amount of hardware for members to work with.

“When you buy hardware for the club, even hardware that is cheaper like these microcontrollers, if you’re getting them for multiple projects you start running out of money pretty quickly, so we try to fundraise as much as possible,” Godsted explained. Most of the club’s funding comes from donations and fundraising by selling discount pizza cards.

Still, Brewer’s goal for the club is that students emerge with practical experience. Given the level of interest, students might see special topic classes about IoT and projects with local companies in the future.

“I think it’s really important that folks understand that it’s a very inventive club,” he said. “I tell people just bring your brain. If you bring your brain, there’s nothing that you can’t build here, and there are just a lot of students who just want to do cool projects.”

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