The ProtoESP Will Take Your Next Embedded Project From Idea to Reality In a Snap!

Arsenijs' ProtoESP lets you work up a new project concept in a snap.

Tom Fleet
4 months agoHW101

Hardware hacker Arsenijs knows all too well the perils of trying to run a workshop with potential ghosts in the machine.

In fact, one of the most common gripes I've seen in feedback from practical hardware workshops is the frustration down to loss of time in trying to track down wiring, or assembly errors, or even just pain old use of the wrong part at the wrong time.

That's the thing with a workshop, you're likely teaching a new generation of makers, who may not have the knowledge that we, "seasoned" makers might find implicit and assume to be "common."

Troubleshooting is a learned technique, and it's not something you wish to be doing when working with something new.

Think about vendor offered development boards and EVKs. They are supplied in a known good state, proven designs with documentation for when the in-box leaflet proves lacking.

If you're looking to run a hardware workshop, or an introduction to any sort of hardware, well, it pays to make sure your hardware is heckin' tight.

The flip side of this development board argument is... well, the more seasoned solder slingers around here will all have the same box or drawer somewhere or other. You know the one. Filled with more application specific modules and boards than you can shake a stick at.

After all, most of these boards are built to showcase a specific slice of silicon, albeit in a sure-fire fashion. Once their use has been demonstrated, off to the box in the dark, dusty corner they go.

What would be nice for new hardware novices would be a solid and reliable platform of known good hardware, but one that is designed in such a way that it can be leveraged against a number of common use scenarios — not just the single purpose that a usual development board is tailored to showcase.

Something that won't have to sit in that box in the corner once the class is over.

Why choose between either?

Sparkfun first "snapped" up this idea wayyy back in the heady days of '07 (approx), with the SparkFun ProtoSnap PCBA.

Packing an Arduino Mini, a FTDI USB/Serial converter module, some simple snap-off sub-modules such as a Piezo buzzer, RGB LED, and an SMD tactile switch, this credit-card sized PCBA proudly places everything you need to pull off a good few Arduino projects, without ever needing to lift a soldering iron.

There are also a few, strikingly lovely looking LilyPad variants!

It's important to make the distinction — these boards are more than just a bunch of mouse-bite connected modules though.

If you pay attention to the silkscreen markings that fan out across the front face of the FR4, you will notice that they correspond to underlying tracking beneath — these modules are all connected, with tracking passing signals between the drilled holes that form the snappable board bridges.

It's a really clever idea. As supplied, you can get to grips with basic user I/O, analog sensing using the onboard ADC of the ATmega328P, even write a few basic chip tunes to be beeped out of the boards buzzer.

When the time is right, the brave new engineer can break the modules out of the FR4 frame, pick up a soldering iron, and use this prototyping board to platform future projects!

ProtoSnap progresses into ProtoESP

As we said, ProtoSnap popped on to the market some time circa 2007.

Things have come a very, very long way for makers since.

8-bit ATmega MCUs have made way for massively more powerful 32-bit modules, complete with on-chip wireless connectivity. We all love our lithium polymer cells, and power practically every project with them.

We can see where this is going — an updated ProtoSnap, with more modern components, for a more... civilized age?

The ProtoESP, from Arsenijs (a.ka. CRImier) is certainly an elegant design, that's for sure. Being comprised of 10 discrete modules, the fact that all of the detachable board sections are still interconnected makes the ProtoESP pretty impressive!

With the Wi-Fi and BLE capable ESP32-WROOM module present top left, we would think that there aren't many projects that will come up against the headroom offered by the dual-core, 240MHz 32-bit Xtensa CPU contained within the ESP32 SoC itself.

Looking at I/O in the schematic view above, it's users won't have to worry about pin conflicts, or not being able to use all of the ProtoESP modules — evenat the same time!

So let's take a look at what we can do with the ProtoESP board!

A few of these are self explanatory — though we'll touch on that assumption of mine in a bit.

Some of the more notable features to be found though are certainly worth a mention here! For starters, there's a battery charger for getting your projects portable — perfect for taking the ProtoESP on the road with you!

The inclusion of a 595 shift register is a great way to get some basic familiarization with (de)serialization of SPI, and a bytes worth of LEDs on the 595's output bus makes the idea even more appetizing.

Speaking of LEDs, we can also see the almost requisite RGB LED — really, what project doesn't have at least one — along with a photosensitive resistor (LDR), so that you can maybe keep the disco on the low down in the darkness!

The prototyping area is of particular interest, owing to it's clever interspaced grids of mixed PTH and SMD pads. If someone is going to start playing with SMD parts, little touches like this make life so much easier compared to say, trying to fit an 0603 resistor across a set of 0.1" PTH contacts!

No one knows it all.

Remember earlier on when I said that some of the bits on the ProtoESP are self explanatory?

That's a a dangerous assumption for anyone to make, on any topic of information!

To you and I, here reading this article, yeah, the various features found on the ProtoESP will feel fairly familiar, but they won't have at one point. And sometimes when we go to each others, even the most attentive of us will sometimes forget we are assuming our student shares our knowledge.

To that end, the ease of access of relevant information is key to effective learning, and when working with hardware, clarity is key. Just look at the silk screen on the rear of the board. Everything is there, perfect for when the board is inevitably split up into its component parts.

You could pick up this board and get going straight away. The pinouts are one thing, but look... closer...

See the smaller silk screen text in the middle block? Those references to "GP12," "GP36," etc? Those are the corresponding GPIO pins that the modules are mapped to.

With this much going on in the ProtoESP, this is a certainly a more direct way of displaying this information than tracing the corresponding tracking below.

It's a wonderful extra touch — the idea of "self documenting hardware" is a powerful tool when putting projects into the hands of other makers. If you wanted some pointers on the gold standard of how it's done, check out this beautiful board from the Open Book project, from Joey Castillo, below.

To be fair though Joey literally had enough PCB real estate to... well, write a book.

Get your hands on a ProtoESP, Pronto!]

With Arsenijs surely set to spin up more than a few of these ProtoESP board from the initial batch, some of you might want to get a head start, and get hands on this hardware even faster than that!

Don't worry, you're in good luck! There's a GitHub repo right here with all the good stuff — kicking off with the KiCad sources, and even signing off with a STEP file of the setup.

Bare board prices running somewhere around $2 for a quantity of 5 pcs, from the usual suspect(s) board houses, and a well chosen selection of components — the CH340 USB-UART converter, for example — means that this PCBA should be perfectly affordable, perfect for presenting to workshop attendees as a present or perk!

There's a great thread from Arsenijs (@CRImierTech) over on Twitter where they go into the details of why they have designed the ProtoESP, and where they walk through some of the key points of the design.

Tom Fleet
Hi, I'm Tom! I create content for Hackster News, allowing us to showcase your latest and greatest projects for the world to see!
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