Now that the code and the hardware for the automated cat feeder are coming together, let’s see what it takes to build reproducible releases for installation on the Raspberry Pi.

Following on from the last post where I was using the proximity sensor and the servo separately, they are now both connected at once:

ElixirProximitySpinny from Wendy Smoak on Vimeo.

This involved soldering a few more pins into the Servo HAT and attaching the proximity sensor to them with female-to-female jumper wires.

The parts shown in the video are:

  • Raspberry Pi 2 Model B
  • Adafruit PWM/Servo HAT
  • FiTech FS5103R continuous-rotation servo
  • VCNL4010 Proximity Sensor
  • 5V 2A power supplies (2)
  • header pins
  • female-to-female jumper wires

The other two cables are the HDMI video and USB to a powered hub which has an Ourlink wireless adapter plugged in. Neither is required for this example.

See this Adafruit Wishlist for the parts list. As you can see, it’s over $100 already and it doesn’t do anything useful yet! This could be done with much cheaper components, I’m sure.

Up to this point I’ve been developing directly on the RPi2, either by connecting a keyboard and monitor, or by SSH’ing into it. That’s one reason the RPi2 makes a great platform for getting started, but with truly embedded applications, it isn’t always possible.

In addition to remote development, I wanted a reproducible way to build releases to be installed into the device. Enter Nerves and Bake (and exrm and buildroot and erlinit and many other things behind the scenes).

I was first introduced to Nerves in Garth HitchensEmbedded Elixir in Action talk at ElixirConf 2015. If you’ve never heard of Nerves before, go watch that talk. I’ll wait.

Nerves and Bake are all about building firmware for embedded devices, without the pain of maintaining a virtual machine and cross-compiling for the target platform.

With a few commands we can retrieve a toolchain and system, create a firmware image, and write it to a micro-SD card that can be popped into the RPi.

Starting from the project I had developed directly on the Raspberry Pi, I cloned the source on my Mac and followed the instructions on

Note: This post has been updated for bake 0.1.0 as of Jan 12, 2016. The project is undergoing rapid changes right now, so if things seem not to work, check the Bakeware site for updates.

1: First, install Bake. I encourage you to grab the script and review it before just pasting in the command to download and execute it. A quick read will reveal that it installs the bake, fwup and squashfs utilities. At the moment, it’s a Ruby script but it may get converted to Elixir eventually.

$ wget
# examine install file contents, then go ahead:
$ ruby -e "$(curl -fsSL"

Note: This is currently Mac only, but support for Linux and Windows are planned.

2: Add a Bakefile to the root of the project. In this case we’re only targeting one platform, the Raspberry Pi 2. Specifying a default_target in the Bakefile allows us to avoid adding --target rpi2 on every command.

use Bake.Config

platform :nerves
default_target :rpi2

target :rpi2,
  recipe: {"nerves/rpi2", "~> 0.1"}

3: Download a “system” and a “toolchain”. Because we included a default_target in the Bakefile, we don’t have to specify it here. If you need more than one, use --target all with each command.

$ bake system get
$ bake toolchain get

You can find the files it downloaded in your home directory under ~/.nerves. I can’t find documentation on what exactly is in these or how they get created, but I’m sure it’s coming.

4: Compile the firmware for your target platform, including your project code. Again it will pick up the default target automatically.

$ bake firmware

This will create a file under _images named {your_project}-{platform}.fw. For example, I get _images/cat_feeder-rpi2.fw. And it is tiny. Under 18MB for Linux, Erlang, Elixir and my project code:

$ ll _images
-rw-r--r--   1 wsmoak  staff  17846793 Jan 10 17:23 cat_feeder-rpi2.fw

This file needs to be written to a micro-SD card and inserted into the Raspberry Pi.

Writing that micro-SD card on your own can be a challenge. Have a look at the instructions on the Raspberry Pi website. The good news is that @fhunleth has written a utility called fwup (firmware update) to make it very easy. The only trick is that it needs elevated privileges in order to mount and overwrite the card.

$ sudo fwup -a -i _images/cat_feeder-rpi2.fw -t complete

After that, you should have a good image on the micro-SD card that you can insert into the RPi.

After inserting the micro-SD in your RPi, you get another gift when you power it up– it boots and starts running your program in about five seconds.

ElixirProximitySpinnyBoot from Wendy Smoak on Vimeo.

From my perspective, this is all AMAZING. I am not an embedded developer. I expect things to Just Work when I turn them on. And because of all the hard work by the Nerves and Bakeware teams, it did exactly that!

Interested in learning more? Request an Invitation to Elixir’s Slack team and then come find us in the #nerves and #robotics channels. There is also a Nerves Google Group but it’s pretty quiet.

Now I just need something for the servo to turn to dispense the cat food. I’m eyeing this Augur-based Cat Feeder project on Thingiverse, but also considering just buying one such as this replacement augur for a Sephra chocolate fountain.

Copyright 2016 Wendy Smoak - This post first appeared on and is CC BY-NC licensed.