Introduction: Autonomous Surveillance Camera

Picture of Autonomous Surveillance Camera

I would like tell you about a DIY surveillance camera I have built. It is quite different from anything out there on the market. It works for up to a month on a single charge and emails surveillance updates over cellular network. All you need to do is send it an email and the camera would reply you with a picture of your home, country house or car.

Here is a video of how it all fits together: 

The device checks pre-defined email mailbox once an hour. If a new email is received the camera takes a picture, saves it on a SD-card and emails the image to its owner.

Making of the camera was also an interesting journey I would like to share. 

Step 1: Required Parts

Picture of Required Parts

I have used following basic components for the device:

MultiTech MTSMC-G2-IP
This GSM modem is great because of its built-in POP3 and SMTP support. Although these protocols are not very complicated to implement having them implemented saves some time.

LinkSpite JPEG Camera
This is a great little device. Built-in JPEG compression support saves a lot of development effort. The camera produces a 640x480 image. The image is around 50K; it is small enough to rapidly transmit over a cellular network.

Sparkfun's microSD Shield
Although there are a few SD card circuits available I decided to go with this one because it is very easy to work with both in software (Sparkfun provides great APIs) and in hardware (again, thanks Sparkfun for built-in voltage conversion).

ATmega 328P
This micro-controller was a natural choice. Arduino Uno uses this chip, so there are plenty of libraries and examples out there. Unfortunately, Arduino Uno itself consumes too much power when it is in a sleep mode, so I had to build a board with more efficient power supply system myself.

TPS2020 and LM2936
TPS2020 is a great power distribution IC. It allowed me turning circuit components on and off as I needed it. LM2936 is an awesome regulator with really low quiescent current. Combination of the two parts allowed my circuit to consume as little as 0.14mA in sleep mode. It stretches battery life for up to a month on a single charge; the camera is powered by 5V from two CR123A batteries.

Step 2: Assemble Breadboard

Picture of Assemble Breadboard

A proto-prototype breadboard layout would help to debug the circuit. It would also transform your table into a small cyberpunk jungle.

I would highly recommend laying out everything on the breadboard before assembling it.

Step 3: Programming

I would recommend using Eclipse with AVR Eclipse Plugin. You would also need a programmer to flush your program on to the chip. I've used a standard AVRISP mkII, which worked great with my OS X).

Source code for the project could be found at google code.

Step 4: Circuit Assembly

Picture of Circuit Assembly

I assembled the circuit with the simplest way I could think of: just solder everything on the prototype boards. It ended up looking like a sandwich with Adafuit boards on the outside and Sparkfun MicoSD card in the middle.

It takes about a day of soldering, cursing, un-soldering and soldering again to put all components together.

Step 5: Body Design

Picture of Body Design

Enclosure Motivation

Unfortunately, not all DIY projects have nice looking enclosures. I believe that a project is fully finished when it fully finished and the circuit, the program and the enclosure are in harmony. So, I decided to use 3D printing service to achieve a look I want.

CAD Tool

After struggling quite a bit with 3D CAD tools, I have discovered a great program OpenSCAD. It is a great script-based CAD editing software. Instead of using mouse to draw 3D shapes one just types in commands. For example, a sphere with radius of 5 would be sphere(r=5). Awesome, right?

Body Design
I decided to go with a clean sphere design. Body constists of three parts: top part that hosts the camera, bottom part that hosts primary circuit and batteries and a middle "holder" piece that binds top and bottom. The design was inspired by an 8-ball from any toy store.

Caliper and OpenSCAD allowed to make precise models of both circuit components and body parts. Source for the CAD files could be found under enclosure folder in the project source.

Step 6: 3D Print

Picture of 3D Print

I have used Ponoko printing service to print my 3D enclosure. I should note outstanding quality of the print.

Step 7: Assemble

Picture of Assemble

Once 3D printed case arrives components fit nicely in their places. I have used a combination of screws and double-sided adhesive tape to put everything together.

Step 8: Result

Picture of Result

If everything fit together nicely the camera should be working and carefully surveilling your house. Even though emailed image resolution is not HD, it is quite enough to tell if everything is fine at home.

I am using AT&T GoPhone as a network plan. It costs about 8 cents to check an email and about 70 cents to send an email with a picture.


Light_Lab (author)2012-04-14

This is a great piece of work and the ability to program it via the arduino makes it very versatile, perhaps more versatile than your final application of home surveillance requires.
It does make me wonder though, you say "....quite different from anything out there on the market..." it would help to see your design's advantages contrasted with a standard IPCam.

crackHacker (author)2012-04-06

you should paint it gray and put lines on it to make it really look like the deathstar. A+ just because it pretty much does thus far.

Dream Dragon (author)2012-03-26

I'm not normally a fan of the Arduino System, but this is a really good project that actually does need something like that to make it work. I particularly like the 3D printed project case. That's something I'm going to have to look into. How does it compare to "El Cheapo Project Box" from electronics retailer? No Doubt it's more expensive, but 2 or 3 times as expensive for an infinitely more appropriate and interesting package might be worth the additional expense.

Well Done and many thanks for sharing your project.

brokey (author)2012-01-04

I love this project, I wish I were this knowledgable and creative!

What changes would have to be made to use an iPhone 4 (or other cellphone) camera? It could theoretically output 5MP+ photos.

How about replacing the cellular radio with a WiFi module?

What would be needed to turn this project into an "HD IP Camera?"

megakacktus (author)2011-06-12

I want to see one that looks like HAL 9000.

"Open the pod bay doors, Hal."
"I can't do that, Dave."

jadronx (author)megakacktus2011-12-24

love it!!!!!!!!!!

hjartland (author)2011-10-12

This is really cool! I am not at your level of techie, but I can solder w/ the best of them. :)

What would you suggest building for my problem.

I have a workshop in an area with a lot of break-ins.

I'd like to have a camera that would call and send me a photo every time the sensor is tripped. That way I can see the burglars and call the police!

Not just have a blaring alarm that no one will check out.

Great work!

Primeshaw (author)2011-08-11

This is a great for this project, Google Star Wars Death Star Projector.

pobturtle (author)2011-08-02

about how much does this cost???

basil.shikin (author)pobturtle2011-08-02

About 100$ for cell radio, 100$ for other electric components and 250$ for the body.

Q-ro (author)2011-06-01

This is amazing, too bad i cannot find any arduino stuff here, i wish i could "build" the parts, maybe then i could do this cam, also, it would be nice if you could integrate a motion sensor so it will email to you when someone pass by.

DrSpider (author)2011-05-31

I would think that by its very nature, being a surveillance camera and all, it would be autonomous. Great project and Instructable though. A bit too "techie" for my skills/talents though! Now if only someone could help me figure out where I put that Wild Turkey!!

tresspaser (author)2011-05-29

It looks like the Death Star from Star Wars.

photographer_ivan (author)2011-05-26

Прикольно :) уже читал про камеру на ХАБРЕ :)

I don't understand...

basil.shikin (author)Kasm2792011-05-26

I think it might be a bad encoding of Russian characters. It says something like "Cool. I've already read about this camera on HABR". I believe it reffers to a Russian website where I published translation of the article.

oh, it looked like a random series of emotes to me...

Kasm279 (author)leggomylegoeggo2011-05-28

Yeah, I thought it was someone trying to be 1337

DragonDon (author)2011-05-26

This is a really cool project. With the components, it can be used in any form really. A nice 'piece of mind' for those truly paranoid but can't afford the more expensive setups.

I'm sure a zombie might like a "piece" of mind! Sorry, I just couldn't resist.

basil.shikin (author)DragonDon2011-05-26

These were exactly my thoughts when I was building it. You know, sometimes these paranoia moments hit me: "is home ok?", "did I unplug the iron?", etc. Everything is usually fine but pease of mind is priceless.

mastiffman (author)2011-05-27

Love it; well done

Lindie (author)2011-05-27

I love this! I wish someone Wouk make it for me....hint, hint. Lol

dhjshi (author)2011-05-26

All I can say is wow. One of the most well written and lucid 'ibles I've seen on this site. keep up the good work.

airrob (author)2011-05-26

I love your project and your willingness to share.

If you are looking for seed money with out giving up any interest in your business check out It is a place where people agree to fund a project and give you a jump start in exchange for recognition, a free product once it rolls out ... Great work, makes me proud to be apart of this community.

Take care,


basil.shikin (author)airrob2011-05-26

Thank you for the advice. I think turning it into a small business is a very interesting idea. Do not be alarmed if you ever see a Death Star project on kickstarter.

bwoodfield (author)2011-05-26

Thats no moon.....

icefloe01 (author)bwoodfield2011-05-26


mdgnys (author)bwoodfield2011-05-26

My thought exactly.

NewYorkRob (author)2011-05-22

The device clearly looks like a camera. I would think an intruder would anonymously body-slam that thing onto the floor.

opiesan (author)NewYorkRob2011-05-26

Since it looks so much like a DeathStar anyway, why not conceal it in plain site as a DeathStar? Paint it black, adjust the casing so the camera doesn't stick out quite so far, or even make the camera hole where the death ray would be. Add in some appropriately sized Star Wars toys around it and voila! Instant geek fan camouflage....."This isn't the camera you're looking for. Move along"

@apple_fan - Very cool project. When it comes to the GSM access, did you use a pay as you go chip or set up a monthly account?

opiesan (author)opiesan2011-05-26

And nevermind about my question on what GSM chip/plan you used. I see you already provided that info in Step 8. Extremely affordable bandwidth.

Zovits (author)2011-05-26

It's not hard to see the Apple-influenced style ;)

burnerjack01 (author)2011-05-26

Pretty cool. Put some telescopic legs on it and you're pretty close to the robotic killer spider from Johnny Quest. Anyone else remember Johhny,Race and Haji?

Kasm279 (author)burnerjack012011-05-26

Best cartoon ever!

tinker234 (author)2011-05-21

any one still on i think that the cam is good can you make it autonomous to report
damage or intredurs

basil.shikin (author)tinker2342011-05-21

I think it is a valid concern. I would try to embed a motion detection sensor in the next iteration of the device. My only worry is false positives: a light breeze might result in a large phone bill...

timsmith0 (author)basil.shikin2011-05-26

If you put in a wifi chip could you use wifi network instead of phone network this would save you money and allow quicker sending of images or video (in future models) also you could put a power point on it and power from a wall socket. Obviously the above changes are for permanent placement like home or office etc. Cheers T

Scumm7 (author)2011-05-22

Really interesting build Apple_fan! Anyone with a little imagination could conceal this well. Have you considered salvaging a couple solar lights to recharge the cells when in sleep mode?

basil.shikin (author)Scumm72011-05-22

Thank you. I was thinking about including solar panels into the design, but I ended up not doing it, as the device would almost never be exposed to direct sunlight. It spends most time in middle of the living room and window shades are closed.

However, I would love to know if there are any really efficient solar panels available!

abraxas1 (author)basil.shikin2011-05-26

Great project, and great write-up too.
there are some big advances in energy harvesting these days.
it's possible to switch to a tiny LiPO battery (greener then throwing away button cells) and at least extend life time with indoor ambient solar energy collection.
i'm anxious to test this myself. in reading it seems reasonable, need to see it for myself though.
try this article describing one LTC3588.
of course, your device could easily email you when the battery is low, and other status reports, like how the solar charging is keeping up with the usage rate....
Fun Stuff! well done indeed.

nitai108 (author)2011-05-26

Well done!
It would be great if the camera had a motion detector and would send and save pictures every time it detects movement.

macgyverfan (author)2011-05-23

looks like an albino death star to me.
Very cool.


afrey (author)2011-05-23

I can see a great use for this..
From my time living in college dorms, it was always frustrating to walk to the cafeteria and not know how long i'd be waiting in line.
No-one wants to wait, so the times with lines and the length would fluctuate a lot.
With this device you could know how long the line is at a given instant.

rimar2000 (author)2011-05-21

This is a BIG PROJECT! Congratulations.

I have two suggestions, but I don't know how difficult is to implement them:

1) I think an hour may be too time at some situations. Maybe the problem are batteries, you must analize it.

2) You should enhance some photos. I reduced Gamma Factor to those of step 6 and could see some details not showed before. If you want them, I will send you by PM.

basil.shikin (author)rimar20002011-05-22

Thank you for your suggestions. Primary reason for hour intervals was to try to reduce on power consumption. I understand that this device can not detect robbery in progress, but at least it can calm its owner down if nothing has happened.

I have updated pictures for step 6. I hope they look more contrasty now.

rimar2000 (author)basil.shikin2011-05-23

Yes, now they are much better.

tinker234 (author)2011-05-21

yah hey what about email it is free

Kiteman (author)2011-05-21

That's a great idea, not least because it looks like a Death Star.

(I wonder if a version could be created that takes a short video and emails that? Maybe as the camera pans from left to right?)

basil.shikin (author)Kiteman2011-05-21

A video would be a great addition to this contraption. However, I am a bit concerned with an increase in power consumption; capturing video, sending larger file, powering motors might effect device's lifetime.

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