Advanced warning, this may not be the most professional or business-centric blog post for Gibson Engineering's Support Community. I wanted to share an automation application and the associated story that may entertain some of our readers.
Earlier in the year, as we went into coronavirus quarantine and our kids were sent home from school, my wife decided it was a great time to get chickens. I've shrugged off this idea for a couple of years now. However, I came home one night to three excited children making chicken noises before informing me about the "family decision" they had made that day. The family decided to get chickens. They just forgot to consult me first. At this point, I had no say in the matter. I thought I'd have a few weeks or even months to research and build a chicken coop, run, and whatever else I may need for the chickens. Meanwhile, the next day I was texted pictures of my three children holding a dozen baby chicks.
After some online research and generating a BOM for my DIY chicken coop, I realizing that it was far less expensive to buy a coop than build one. I soon learned that backyard chickens were experiencing a surge in popularity because of COVID-19. Buying a chicken coop now meant a lead time of 6-9 months which was far beyond the date our chicks needed to move outdoors. Shortly after contacting a few places, I got a call back from a coop builder suggesting that if I wanted to pay in Bitcoin, he would expedite my coop! I'd never dealt with bitcoin before, but for the discount and expedited delivery he was offering, I rolled the dice. I create my Coinbase account, and after a short delay, my cash was converted to cryptocurrency, and the downpayment was funneled to a guy I'd never met in New Hampshire. He apparently has little faith in our federal reserve but he has a kind heart and a knack for building chicken coops. A portion of the sale from every coop he sells is donated to charities bringing food, water, and electricity to impoverished people worldwide and saving children from human trafficking.
The coop made it to our home in MA after my son and I picked it up with a rented trailer and moved it into place on some PVC pipes. The chicken run (the outside area) still needed to be built. I then learned the recent popularity of chickens apparently created a shortage of hardware mesh which I'll describe as the Fort Knox version of chicken wire. There was no way my family would let me use standard chicken wire to protect our new family members from the fisher cats, fox, raccoon, coyotes, and hawks that may find them tasty. A combination of amazon and curbside pickup at multiple local Tractor Supply Stores got me enough hardware mesh to complete the job but it was a close call.
Now for the automation part that makes this blog at least slightly relevant for Gibson's Support Community. Letting out and then safely closing in a dozen chickens every day and night proves to be painful, in particular, if you aren't home. We entrusted our teenage neighbor to open the door and let the hens out for food and water for a few mornings, that was all we needed to decide an automated door was neccesary. This is where my son Jackson and I put our heads together. After learning about the multiple hundreds of dollars, you could spend on fairly archaic automatic chicken coop doors; my 8-year old son Jackson and I decided we had a better solution.
Our plan was to automate the existing door and, of course, integrate some safety to make sure we didn't decapitate a curious hen that may stick her head in or out as that door is closing with 22 pounds of force generated by an open-loop DC brush motor and lead screw. We looked for actuators first. As robust and high performance as Intelligent Actuator RoboCylinders are, these industrial actuators I am familiar with were overkill for our application. We found a compact 6-inch stroke actuator with integrated motor and limit switches for about $25 online. Then we researched wifi-enabled relays for home automation. We found a $15 multiple channel relay module with built-in interlocking capabilities to ensure we weren't trying to open and close at the same time. The wifi module was compatible with a free open source app for any smartphone and included scheduling capabilities. We really didn't want to crush our hens in the door so we added another $6 relay module and a Sick retroreflective H18 sensor to detect any chickens across the door opening that would cut power to the DC motors and stop any motion. It isn't exactly "safety-rated," but we are talking about chickens, not humans here.
Once we had all our components, I spent some of a completely unscheduled COVID weekend drawing electrical circuits with my son. I explained the 12vdc power supply for the actuator versus the 5vdc supply on the wifi relay module. We talked about what interlocked meant and how wifi works. We covered series and parallel circuits, and my 8-year-old Jackson son was thrilled to cut and strip some wires, see some lights illuminate, and control electricity to the point he could make something open and close. Last, we added a couple of really cost effective WYZE cams to check in on the chickens anytime we wanted.
I never thought I'd say we owned and raised chickens. It's particularly odd when I think about that statement, "We got chickens during a global pandemic, purchased the coop with cryptocurrency, and then my son and I added IIoT devices and automated it!"
At Gibson Engineering, we've talked about the personal and professional silver linings through this pandemic. This COVID-driven chicken undertaking has been a silver lining for me and my family. My kid got to see baby chicks grow from fragile little peeping birds to full-grown clucking, egg-laying hens, each with their own personalities. They see where their food comes from, take responsibility for some shared chores (sort-of), and spend more time together taking care of the chickens.