Incubator build: Part 0 – Introduction

I want to build an incubator for chicken/duck/general fowl eggs. More than that, I want to actually finish the project (hatch out birds) AND I want the incubator to not suck. All 3 of these goals are particularly challenging for me, as I tend to lose interest in a project once it’s ~80% complete and never actually get to the part where it works, or it will kinda work but be fragile and miss the target. Additionally, the difference between the MVP of something and a version that is “nice” is absolutely massive. Part of that is generally re-starting some aspect, as now you actually understand the problem you’re trying to solve. The last few years are littered with the corpses of projects I have abandoned at various stages, most of them depressingly expensive (in both time and money) and depressingly incomplete.

I started trying to build an incubator over 2 years ago. The very first incubator-looking code I produced was from March of 2018. For people who know anything about electronics or hardware, that’s a bit preposterous. It’s really not that hard – incubators are pretty simple. Unless, of course, you know nothing about electronics, or soldering, or embedded development or incubating or… That’s where I started.

Through a whole bunch of trial and error, the first ever version kind of worked. I was starting with the ESP32 microcontroller. Knowing nothing about anything, I started with the Arduino wrapper for ESP32. This got me up and running pretty quickly, and there’s some kind of library for virtually every sensor you’re likely to come across. That said, the quality of some of the libraries can be pretty suspect, and the interface exposed by them often is not quite what you want. Of course, good luck determining the wheat from the chaff when you have no idea what you’re doing.

Overall, the theme of the project seems to have been: even if you’re peripherally familiar with something, having to actually implement it and make it robust from a hardware/electronics perspective means you have to actually UNDERSTAND it. Not necessarily all the way down to the physics of it, but way more intimately than what is required for web application development (which I’m familiar with). Some of the stuff I either encountered for the first time, or actually had to start trying to understand at a practical level:

  • voltage, resistance, current, power, grounding, and (much, much later on) capacitance
  • soldering, crimping, terminals, solid vs. stranded wire, wire gauge, breadboards, prototoboards
  • power supplies, stepper motors, logic level shifting, transistors, regulators, mechanical and solid state relays
  • analog sensors, digital sensors, serial communication, SPI, I²C
  • volatile vs. non-volatile memory, microcontroller power management
  • Arduino environment, ESP-IDF, cmake
  • MQTT, Eclispe Mosquitto, Postgres (TimescaleDB), Grafana, CAD, 3D printing

I fully realize people successfully hatch eggs with a cooler, an incandescent light bulb, and a container of water. As I stated at the beginning; I wanted to do this, I wanted to do it well, and I wanted to finish it. That meant a significant portion of this was straight up learning.

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