📞 Interoperate with 'MQTT' Message Brokers with R
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Interoperate with ‘MQTT’ Message Brokers


‘MQTT’ is a machine-to-machine (‘M2M’)/“Internet of Things” connectivity protocol. It was designed as an extremely lightweight publish/subscribe messaging transport. It is useful for connections with remote locations where a small code footprint is required and/or network bandwidth is at a premium. For example, it has been used in sensors communicating to a broker via satellite link, over occasional dial-up connections with healthcare providers, and in a range of home automation and small device scenarios. It is also ideal for mobile applications because of its small size, low power usage, minimised data packets, and efficient distribution of information to one or many receivers. Tools are provided to interoperate with ‘MQTT’ message brokers in R.

What You Need To Get This Working

You need to install the mosquitto libraries and ensure they’re on your system PATH so R can find them. This will be easier in the future, but coarse for the moment.

For macOS, that’s as easy as:

brew install mosquitto

For Debian/Ubuntu, it will be something like:

sudo apt install libmosquitto-dev libmosquittopp-dev

For Windows folks: install Linux or get a mac ;-) Seriously, I’m hoping to have support for that soon.


I had neglected to commit the code that makes the default client-id unique. So if you had tried this just after the blog post and were getting wonky results, that’s the cause. The default client id will always be unique, now, but you should use your own, unique client ids in production.

Experimenting with a DSL workflow

I don’t have much need for these IoT queues yet but have been pondering what an “R-like” way of working with them would be. Here’s one idea for a domain-specific language workflow for watching many topics. We’ll use an example of watching 3 different BBC subtitle topics simultaneously, coloring each diffrently to tell one from the other.


sensor <- function(id, topic, payload, qos, retain, con) {
  if (topic == "bbc/subtitles/bbc_two_england/raw") {
    cat(crayon::cyan(topic), crayon::blue(readBin(payload, "character")), "\n", sep=" ")

# NOTE: Use a unique name vs `hrbrunique`
mqtt_broker("hrbrnique", "test.mosquitto.org", 1883L) %>%
  mqtt_silence(c("error", "log")) %>% 
    function(id, topic, payload, qos, retain, con) { # regular anonymous function
      if (topic == "bbc/subtitles/bbc_one_london/raw")
        cat(crayon::yellow(topic), crayon::green(readBin(payload, "character")), "\n", sep=" ")
    }) %>%
  mqtt_subscribe("bbc/subtitles/bbc_news24/raw", ~{ # tilde shortcut function (passing in named, pre-known params)
    if (topic == "bbc/subtitles/bbc_news24/raw")
      cat(crayon::yellow(topic), crayon::red(readBin(payload, "character")), "\n", sep=" ")
  }) %>%
  mqtt_subscribe("bbc/subtitles/bbc_two_england/raw", sensor) %>% # named function
  mqtt_run() -> res
  • The only time anything is evaluated is when mqtt_run() is executed and it handles the main loop.
  • Provide connection info with mqtt_broker() & mqtt_username_pw() (WIP — certs TOTO).
  • Silence any default callback messages you want (WIP — need to add all events).
  • Subscribe to a topic, providing a handler function in one of three ways (each way requires you to use a specific signature for the function):
    • regular anonyous function (e.g. fuction() {...})
    • tidyeval-esque tilde formula-function (e.g. ~{})
    • normal function reference (e.g. fname)

The signature must be:

function(id, topic, payload, qos, retain, con) {}

The first five are mosquitto-required params, but con provides access to the lower-level object the DSL wraps, so you can, say, publish something right after you receive a message (i.e. perform a calculation or lookup and publish that as a response). For example, convert a temperature value:


mqtt_broker("hrbrnique", "test.mosquitto.org", 1883L) %>%
  mqtt_silence(c("error", "log", "publish")) %>% 
  mqtt_subscribe("random/temperature", ~{
    if (topic == "random/temperature") {
      payload <- readBin(payload, "character")
      cat(crayon::cyan(topic), crayon::white(payload), "\n", sep=" ")
      resp <- weathermetrics::celsius.to.fahrenheit(as.numeric(payload))
      resp <- as.character(resp)
      con$publish_chr(0, "hrbrmstr/pub/tof", resp, 0, FALSE)
  }) %>% 
  mqtt_run() -> res

Lots more to do / ponder before this is even really ready for 0.1.0 status.

Simplest / Original Functionality

You can subscribe to a topic on a server over plaintext. No authentication methods are supported (yet) and no ability to use encryption exists (yet).

When you subscribe, you should pass in a “callback handler”. Said handler should have the same “signature” as the built-in default one, which is:

mqtt_default_message_callback <- function(id, topic, payload, qos, retain)

Those parameters are:

  • id: the message id
  • topic: the message topic
  • payload: the message payload (raw)
  • qos: the effective qos for the message
  • retain: is this message marked as “retain”?

payload is a raw vector. The example below shows how to work with this data.

If you return “quit” from this function, the subscription will be closed and control return to R.

I can see that publishing data to an MQTT broker would be useful for R so that is on the TODO.

PLEASE file an issue and/or PR if you have ideas in mind for this. I have more “evil” notions in mind (quantifiying expousure of sensitive data on public MQTT channels). I suspect others have “real” needs for this.

What’s Inside The Tin

The following functions are implemented:


  • mqtt_broker: Provide broker connection setup information
  • mqtt_username_pw: Set username & passwords for the connection
  • mqtt_silence: Silence log and/or error or more callbacks
  • mqtt_subscribe: Subscribe to a channel identifying a callback
  • mqtt_run: Run an MQTT event loop
  • mqtt_begin: Initiate an MQTT connection
  • mqtt_end: Close an MQTT connection
  • mqtt_loop: Run an mqtt loop iteration


  • mqtt_default_connection_callback: mqtt default connection callback function
  • mqtt_default_disconnection_callback: mqtt default disconnection callback function (does - nothing)
  • mqtt_default_message_callback: mqtt default message callback function
  • mqtt_silent__callback: mqtt silent callback function (does nothing)
  • topic_subscribe: Subscribe to an MQTT Topic





# current verison
## [1] '0.2.0'
# internal function to see which mosquitto library is being used
## [1] "1.4.14"

Live subtitles

For whatever reason, someone is using the public test.mosquitto.org plaintext broker to push out live subtitles. It’s strangely mezmerizing to watch it slowly scroll by. Let’s see the next 50 (as of the time this Rmd ran):

# We are going to cap it at 50 so we have to initialize a global we'll update
x <- 0

# Now, we need a callback function. This will get called everytime we get a message.
# the `topic` string will be passed in so you can compare that quickly.
# the `payload` is a raw vector since this can be pretty strange data (esp if you 
# subscribe to a wildcard).
# You can use `rawToChar()` if you know it's going to be safe, but `readBin()` is
# a tad safter. Ideally, the package will have some sanitizing functions to make
# this easier and more robust.
my_msg_cb <- function(id, topic, payload, qos, retain) {
  if (topic == "bbc/subtitles/bbc_news24/compacted") { # when we see BBC msgs, we'll cat them
    x <<- x + 1
    cat(readBin(payload, "character"), "\n", sep="")
  } else {

  return(if (x==50) "quit" else "continue") # "continue" can be "". anything but "quit"

# now, we'll subscribe to a topic at `test.mosquitto.org` on port 1883. 
# those are defaults in `topic_subscribe()` to make it easier to have some quick
# fun with the package.
topic_subscribe(topic="bbc/subtitles/bbc_news24/compacted", message_callback=my_msg_cb)
## Default connect callback result: 0

##  to unite the ANC and lead it to
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##  Reporting on the election of a new
##  leader of the ANC and we expect the
##  outcome of the postal ballot, secret
##  ballot, many which have taken place
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