Phil has worked as a web and software developer for 10+ years. He is passionate about sharing knowledge and promoting experiential learning.
Who / What is Alexa?
For those of you who haven't heard yet, Alexa is the name of Amazon's voice-controlled assistant. Initially only available through Amazon's own 'Echo' device range, but now in a range of devices from other manufacturers too, she can help you turn on the lights, turn up your AC or heating, play music, wake you up in the morning, tell you the news or the weather, and many more things. In fact, you can even build your own Alexa 'skills' to her make her do even more and if you add in some custom electronics to the mix then perhaps you could say that the only limit is your own creativity!
Personally, I regularly use many of Alexa's available skills; from turning on and off Philips Hue (Signify) lights to checking train times or traffic on my commute. But sometimes I hit a roadblock, not on my commute since I already checked the traffic... but a metaphorical one. One such roadblock was when I wanted to be able to control my Smart TV with Alexa. At that time my specific TV didn't support it. Well, I wasn't about to take "Hmmm, I can't do that" for an answer! So naturally, as a bit of a geek, I proceeded to devote far too much time to find a way to make it work. Fortunately for you, one of the projects in this will show you how to use Alexa to control practically any TV!
Let's take a look at 10 cool projects that combine DIY electronics and Alexa. I encourage you to pick some that you like the look of and try your hand at building them.
Echo Dot (Alexa-device)
1. Alexa, Water the Plants
Project: Herb Box Eco System
For those of us who like the idea of growing some of our own food/herbs but live in a city or don't have a garden or allotment, the good old windowsill planter is a common sight in our homes. However, the solution isn't perfect:
- Tricky to maintain optimum soil moisture/humidity levels
- Access to natural light may be limited
This project helps to overcome these common issues by monitoring and logging soil humidity and automatically irrigate. It also includes a plant growing lamp which can be controlled with Alexa and Arduino. And you can ask Alexa to give you information on the status of the system at any time (based on data logged from the sensors).
2. Alexa, Turn on the Shop Sign
Here's a project on 'Instructables' which you could adapt in many ways. The original creator needed a sign to tell customers who enter his shop that he was out back in the workshop. Using IFTTT, Arduino, and Alexa (as well as some LEDs, a custom cut lightbox and a few other components) was his means of accomplishing this task and the result is a bright, attractive and functional little sign letting everyone know he's "In the Shop".
Perhaps you don't run a shop though, or maybe you'd like to be able to display a different message. You could just cut different words out of the lightbox. But what if you want the ability to display any message you tell Alexa? Well, maybe you could add an LED matrix and display it that way instead!
See This Project in Action
3. Alexa, Feed the Cat
Project: "Alexa, Feed Toto"
There are commercially available automated pet feeders, but it would appear that very few, if any, come with Alexa integration/voice activation. Not to mention the fact that they command high prices for what really is a relatively simple bit of kit...so why not just build your own? Following this project on the Arduino website will let you do just that!
As the creator admits, they did go "all MacGyver" for this project. You could do the same or you could make yours the object of envy of all the cats in the neighbourhood and go for a high-end finish. If you have access to a 3D printer, you could easily make parts for this project to accomplish that classy look (as classy as an automated pet feeder can be). Of course, the original project is for a cat, but you could really apply the same idea to feeding most pets.
4. Alexa, Run My Distribution Warehouse
Anyone who knows me knows that I love robots. I also think voice control is pretty cool. This project, which combines the two, is inevitably something that gets me pretty excited. Remember, the fundamental principles learned are often more important than the end result with many of these sorts of projects. You can view them as prototypes of something bigger.
You'll be building your own "warehouse" robot to navigate to and fetch crates at your command; think of it as a miniature Amazon warehouse.
You'll need a bit more kit for this one, including a LEGO EV3 robot (one of my top 5 recommended robotics kits) and access to a 3D printer would be helpful, on top of Alexa — no Arduino or Raspberry Pi required for this one though.
5. Alexa, Turn on the TV
Let's be honest, watching TV is all about sitting back, chilling out, and... being lazy. Yeah, I said it. You can try to argue otherwise, but ultimately the fact is: nobody wants to get out of their chair to look for the remote.
Enter Alexa and Arduino, the saviours and enablers of our laziness — fortunately, you'll have to put a little bit of effort in first and hopefully learn a few things along the way before you can pass out in front of the TV.
This project uses an IR blaster on an Arduino to effectively emulate your own TV's remote, so it'll work on basically any TV, 'smart' or not.
6. Alexa, Who's at the Door?
This project combines another interest of mine with Alexa...Computer Vision! Using a Raspberry Pi, camera module, and Amazon Rekognition (for facial recognition), you can get Alexa to tell you who's at your door when someone comes calling.
If you have a 'smart lock' you could even use the response to determine if you want to open the door and let that person in. Although, personally I would still rather not let someone into my house unless I had physically seen them first. It's also important to be aware of existing security vulnerabilities in smart home products when considering where and when to use them. Always, do your research!
7. Alexa, Bring Me My Drink
Project: Autonomous Home Assistant Robot
Robotics, computer vision, and Alexa all in one project, pretty awesome!
This project incorporates quite a lot, including a robotic arm, Arduino board, Kinect, various other components and actuators, code libraries, and of course Alexa. The creator has programmed it to feed their fish amongst other tasks, but you could program it to do much more and truly turn it into a robot assistant.
It's fair to say that building this project is a fairly significant undertaking and will require a decent investment of time and money. That said, not only is there a lot to learn when completing this project, but there is huge potential in what more you can do with it...besides who doesn't want a helping hand dealing with the household chores?
See This Project in Action
8. Alexa, Where Are My Keys?
Project: Alexa, Where Are My Keys?
Are you always losing your keys / phone / wallet / <insert frequently misplaced item>? Well with this project, maybe Alexa can help out!
You can, of course, buy an off-the-shelf product and sign up to use the manufacturer's app to help you retrieve lost belongings at home but there are a couple of flaws and concerns with this. Typically these solutions require you to have access to your phone...but what if your phone is what you're looking for? Personally, I hate using my phone around the house, especially for controlling smart home devices, which is why I like Alexa! Additionally, perhaps you don't feel like sharing the data for privacy reasons.
By hacking low-cost Bluetooth beacons attached to your belongings, Alexa can help you find whatever it is you're looking for without the need to use any smartphone app!
9. Alexa, Close the Blinds
The day the first Echo Dot I purchased arrived at my home, one of the first things I wanted to do was figure out a way of automating my blinds with it. At the time, I had lovely Roman shades on large windows. But as attractive as they looked, they were a pain in the neck to open and close completely. I had a look at commercially available solutions and found that they were typically pretty expensive, so naturally, I started looking at how I could build my own system and integrate with Alexa.
The route to automation here will depend on the style of window coverings you have. This project on Instructables manages to integrate all the motors and circuitry to control Venetian blinds, for a clean look. But there are also a number of other projects out there now for different styles of window coverings. Of course, if you can't find an existing project, why not try to invent your own solution — don't forget to share it afterward!
See This Project in Action
10. Alexa, Turn On Everything!
You can already buy all sorts of smart products for your home which will seamlessly integrate with Alexa. But these are often much more expensive than their "dumb" counterparts and maybe you don't want to replace all the devices, lights, and appliances in your home with smart versions.
This project/tutorial on provides incredibly useful information on how you can build a DIY home automation system that can integrate with Alexa and uses minimal materials (at a significantly lower cost than buying tons of smart devices).
Watch the Project Demo
Alexa, What Else Can I Do?
Alexa might be able to tell you some skills and commands you can try, but she doesn't know everything! You could also look up a long list of commands on the internet to try out, but honestly, the real fun is in creating something for your specific use case. I hope these projects were useful to you and will serve as an inspiration to go further and create your own projects and Alexa skills.
Don't forget to vote for your favourite project in the poll below. If you know of any other great projects or have your own ideas then share them in the comments below too!
Maybe you know someone else who recently acquired an Alexa device (maybe you gave it to them) — be sure to share these projects and more with them!
What Do You Think?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Phil Hobbs