Our DoorBot Has Been Decommissioned: Part 1Michael Graves | March 12, 2014
One of the realities of my life as a home office worker is that deliveries can be important. Moreover missing deliveries can be extremely inconvenient. On January 1st I installed a DoorBot at our front gate, intent upon giving it a try as the way that we are notified about visitors and more significantly, deliveries.
Our is a fenced yard with a gate at the front. The fenced yard is important for our two Labradors. They have the run of the place when I’m working. A dog door gives them access into my office in the garage apartment. Located in the back of the property it’s not always possible to know when someone is at the gate.
Until January 1st we had been without a doorbell at the gate for over a year. On the mail box there a label advising people to call my cell phone number to reach me.
With respect to deliveries, our usual Fedex and UPS drivers know that if they dogs come to “greet” them that I’m definitely home. The delivery drivers often call me to tell me that they’re waiting, especially if they need a signature. All of this sets up the logic of why something like DoorBot had such appeal. There’s a very real need.
In mid-February I came to realize that I had developed the ability to differentiate the sound of the various delivery vehicles from the school and city buses that can be heard hereabouts. Further, I had camped out on our front port more than once awaiting a late delivery that I could not afford to miss. These facts pointed to the unavoidable reality that DoorBot had failed in its mission at our house. Shortly thereafter I removed it from it’s perch at the front gate.
I share our experience with DoorBot not because I wish to criticize the product company or its staff. I like the idea of the product, to the extent that I ordered one a year before they shipped. However, I believe that our requirements are not uncommon. Given the failure of device to meet our needs, highlighting the limits that we discovered may save others the cost, effort and disappointment that we have experienced. It may give them the motivation to seek another solution, now that others are in the space.
The primary reason that DoorBot has failed to live up to our expectations can be traced to a matter of RF design. The device simply does not stay reliably connected our local Wifi network. There are a number of factors involved in this matter. I’ll start by considering the state of our home & network.
We have a substantial local network on the property. It’s more involved (evolved?) than a typical residential network. We don’t use one of the more common consumer-grade Wifi routers. After quite a bit of trial-and-error we’re settled upon a Ubiquiti PowerAP-N as our Wifi AP. The PowerAP-N is in bridge mode, acting solely as a Wifi access point.
The PowerAP-N has been the single best Wifi AP that we’ve used and we see no reason to replace it at present. Our opinion seems to be backed up be a mass of reviews on Amazon.com Sadly, the PowerAP-N is no longer manufactured.
The PowerAP-N is located in a central closet in the house. From it’s location to the front gate is 51 feet, through one interior and one exterior wall. This is perhaps not quite inline with the typical DoorBot use case, as frequently pictured on the companies Facebook page, where the device is mounted right at the house.
If we mounted DoorBot right at the front door it would be only 21 feet from the AP. But then again, if it were at the front door visitors would need to risk an encounter with the dogs. In truth, we’re more worried about the dogs having an unfortunate encounter with the visitor, given some related and very poorly conceived legislation here in Texas. As ever, I digress.
To conserve power DoorBot goes to sleep when it’s idle. It powers down its radio. This is part of the magic to the claim of up to one entire year of battery life, even without external power.
When the button is pushed the device wakes up and must quickly get itself back on the wireless network, then log into the companies server to send the alert. There’s a particular behavior that DoorBot exhibits when it cannot get back on-net. The LED-lit ring around the button flashes for 10 seconds then stops.
When it became apparent that the DoorBot was not getting back online successfully I used an Android Wifi Analyzer app to take some RF signal strength measurements at the gate. Here’s what I found:
Clearly the Wifi signal strength is decent. I had not anticipated Wifi signal strength as being an issue. Nor did it appear that it should be a problem. In fact, in the past I’ve used one of my Squeezeboxes to stream music into the front yard. Thus I had some confidence in the reach of the Wifi.
Nonetheless, DoorBot was as yet unreliable and its behavior suggested that it was falling off-net. In an attempt to address this matter I added a TPLink WA850RE Wifi range extender. This is located inside the house at the outlet nearest to the front door.
With the range extender in place here’s what I measure at the gate.
While the strength of the primary signal (the Power AP-N) remains constant there’s a clear indication that the repeater is acting to bump the signal closer to –40, about a 10 db improvement over the previous situation. Happy that I had improved things, I left DoorBot installed for another few weeks.
While along this path of discovery I was engaging the DoorBot team. I emailed them my findings with respect to the Wifi signal environment. They advised me about issues in development for a software release that was pending for late in January.
Further, one of the Team DoorBot support staff noted from an image in an earlier post that our DoorBot is mounted to a metal post. With the exception of the top & bottom it also has a metal body. Thus it is in some way challenged to reach our WLAN. The post and the case itself forming something of a Faraday cage. It seems that our application was just a perfect storm of unfortunate factors in this regard.
There is a Google Doc form where the team took requests from people who had issues relating to the Wifi signal strength. I filled out that form back in January, but have not seen any result to date. Revisiting the form this week I see that it now has images of a DoorBot with an external “rubber ducky” style antenna affixed to its top. Given our Wifi issues I again completed the form.
Having adequately described the installation I’ve come to the end of part one. Part 2 looks at the state of our Wifi to see if it should be able to support Doorbot. Part three details our experience with the device and the related client application.