Category Archives: Ayrstone Products

Posts about Ayrstone Products

Broadband in the Rural U.S.

Rural cell towerOne of the things that concerns us most at Ayrstone is the issue of broadband Internet connectivity in the Rural U.S.

AyrMesh, of course, doesn’t provide Internet connections – our business is helping you extend your Internet connection across your property ONCE YOU HAVE THAT CONNECTION. AyrMesh can help in some cases: for instance, having an AyrMesh network can let you use an Internet connection on one part of your property far from your home or farm office, and extend that connection all over your property. For instance, some of our users were only able to get satellite coverage at their homes, but bought AyrMesh products so they could connect to Cable at the other end of their property and extend that to their homes, offices, and other on-farm buildings. The result: fast, low-latency Internet coverage across their property.

But having that first connection to the Internet is critical, and there are large areas of the rural U.S. where there are no good options (and, in some cases, no options at all) for connecting to the Internet.

I want to quickly discuss some of the connectivity ideas that are being talked about now and talk about the pros and cons of each. NOTE: since we don’t provide Internet access, and we’re really not looking to get into the business, so we don’t have a dog in this race. So this is an unbiased and fairly dispassionate assessment of these products and technologies.

Whitespace radioWhitespace

I am continually encouraged that no less of a technology company than Microsoft is working on this problem, and has been for a few years now. But their “solution” (fixed wireless over “white space” – unused TV broadcasting frequencies) just expands the solutions available for Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) in rural areas with solutions that are unable or barely able to deliver the current definition of “Broadband” (25 Mbps). They all depend on UHF radio spectrum, which is strictly a “line of sight” (or, more technically correctly “>60% clear Fresnel zone”) medium. Now, whitespace UHF goes all the way down to under 500 MHz – lower than LTE at 700 MHz – which helps a lot with things like tree crown penetration. There have been breathless articles published with “helpful diagrams” showing whitespace radios effortlessly jumping over hills – just to be clear, that’s just not how radio works. The only way radio “jumps” over hills is to be bounced off the ionosphere, and only relatively long-wave radio signals (e.g. AM radio) can do that. The problem is that the data-carrying capacity of those signals is in the tens of bytes (bytes, not Kilobytes or Megabytes) per second, several orders of magnitude less than is needed for Internet access.

So – whitespace is a useful tool in the hands of rural WISPs for expanding fixed wireless coverage, but it’s not the magic bullet. And, unfortunately, if you define “broadband” as 100 Mbps or higher, it’s not even broadband.

Mobile phone towerCellular – 5G

I just laughed at a friend who told me that the rural wireless problem is solved, because we’ll have ubiquitous 5G cellular coverage soon. It’s a great story, and Cisco has been pushing it pretty aggressively (through their “5G Rural First” campaign, among other outlets), but, I’m afraid, it’s far from accurate.

First off, the real promise of 5G involves the use of “FR2” frequencies, which are 24 GHz. and up, with “perfect line-of-sight” ranges in the hundreds of yards and almost no ability to penetrate trees, walls, and other obstructions. Placing towers every few hundred yards across rural areas is not going to happen any time in the forseeable future.

Now, 5G also utilizes the existing cellular frequencies (700, 800, 1900 MHz. in the U.S.) and improves the efficiency of those frequencies to increase throughput up to 50%. So, if you have LTE (4G) access now, you could see the speeds increase when your carrier and you move to 5G, which is a good thing. But the coverage will not change appreciably, so it’s FAR from revolutionary.

Bottom line – cellular remains a valuable way of  accessing the Internet, both via mobile (cellphones, etc.) and fixed installations. We have numerous customers who have set up fixed cellular installations on a hill (with a solar power system and a yagi antenna pointed to the nearest cellular tower) and used AyrMesh to spread that connectivity across fields and to homes and farm offices, and 5G will help with that – a little, if you’re lucky.

LoRa GatewayLPWAN

One of the popular topics around rural wireless is the use of Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) like LoRa and Sigfox. These technologies are narrow-banded UHF data radios that can provide low-bandwidth (tens to hundreds of thousands of bits per second – under 1 Mbps) wireless signals over very large areas. The narrow bandwidth allows the signals to go much farther than wide-banded cellular or WiFi signals, but they don’t carry enough data to be anywhere near broadband. They are primarily aimed at enabling battery-operated sensor networks.

There are carriers deploying these technologies – Sigfox has a good coverage map (scroll all the way to the bottom of the list for the U.S.) and companies like Senet are rolling out LoRa coverage in rural California, for instance. However, what you see is that these are primarily urban technologies – there is just a lot more opportunity to connect things in urban environments, so that’s where the investment in infrastructure is going.

We also see some large ranches out in California setting up private LoRa networks for soil sensors. Those networks use some other form of Internet connectivity to move the data to the Internet, but it’s a way to get the sensors out in the fields without waiting for a company to set up towers and bring service. The LoRa gateways typically have an Ethernet port which can plug directly into the LAN port of a router or an AyrMesh device.

C-band dish antennaOther Fixed Wireless

Every so often I run across an article espousing some other wireless spectrum that can be used for rural wireless access – here’s one talking about using lightly-used satellite C-band frequencies. C-band is, roughly speaking, 4 GHz. to 8 GHz., so it is potentially a high-bandwidth solution (note that 5 GHz. WiFi like 802.11a, 802.11ac, and 802.11ax are within C-band) but also a very strictly line-of-sight technology. I would hate to see too many WISPs start using C-band, because some of the rural bars I hang out in use C-band antennas to pull in “Free-to-air” TV signals, and too many local C-band data links might fuzz up the picture of the Brazil-Uruguay soccer match. However, all these frequencies might eventually end up in use to help WISPs expand their reach into rural areas – a good thing, but, again, not revolutionary.

Satellite Internet dishSatellite

Today there are two main choices for satellite broadband internet coverage: HughesNet (EchoStar) and Exede (ViaSat). Both offer broadband coverage, as long as you have a good view of the southern sky, but both services suffer from two problems:

  1. Data caps – after you have transferred some amount of data, they will either charge you extra or limit your access speed, and
  2. Latency – it simply takes about 1.5 seconds to get the data up to the satellite and back down to Earth, which makes “real-time” applications like telephony difficult.

These services use Geostationary satellites that are far out in space so they can orbit the earth at the same speed that the Earth is turning, so they appear stationary relative to the planet’s surface. That way you can have the dish on the roof pointed to the south for constant connectivity. If there’s no WISP that can service your farm, satellite may be your best option.

There has, for some time, been a second form of Satellite internet access, using what are called “LEOs” – Low-Earth Orbit satellites. The old Iridium phones use a network like this network for very low-speed messaging and voice.

Lately, more companies have taken an interest in this – OneWeb and SpaceX are sending hundreds of satellites into orbit with the goal of providing terrestrial wireless Internet coverage, and there are many others who want to get in on this – both for high-bandwidth Internet connectivity and low-bandwidth IoT connectivity (like LoRa or SigFox, but without the towers…).

Will these become a viable option for the farm? I’ll bet one or more of them do… some day. Just not next week, or probably next year.

Optical fiberWires and Fiber

If you live close enough to town, you may have access to DSL or cable internet service, which can provide speeds of up to 100 Mbps (sometimes even more). And a lucky few rural residents have fiber access, which can provide up to 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) service, and potentially more.

For those who have access to fiber, it’s unquestionably the best option: high speed and lowest latency (time from your farm to the Internet). Cable and DSL are the next-best options. Fixed wireless (WISPs) and fixed cellular are the next-best options, and Satellite is generally the last choice for Internet access. That said, we have a LOT of AyrMesh customers with Satellite Internet access – it’s the ONLY option in a lot of rural areas.

So…where next?

Here’s the thing – cellular, fixed wireless, satellite, and even cable and DSL are barely able to reach modern broadband speeds of 25 Mbps, and few can reach 100 Mbps.

That’s not going to be enough very soon – 100 Mbps is going to be the absolute minimum, and everyone is going to expect 1 Gbps or faster Internet. LEO satellites may be able to provide that in the future, but, at the moment, the only option for that speed is fiber.

There are a lot of initiatives to improve rural broadband service – state, county, and even local governments have created incentives, and the USDA has had numerous programs over the years, with the 2019 program the biggest so far.

However, these programs have historically prompted existing service providers to extend their coverage, whatever it is, marginally into more rural land. That helps, but it’s not getting us to 100-1000 Mbps for all farms.

Putting fiber into rural roads is going to be disruptive and expensive, but it’s likely to be the only way to get the kind of bandwidth that will be required for modern homes and businesses. Many communities already have conduit placed under roadways, ready for fiber, and many areas have miles of “dark fiber” that can be utilized. Encourage local governments and businesses to utilize the resources available to bring true broadband (100 Mbps and more) out to rural farms – moving forward, it’s going to be as important as electricity in keeping our agricultural industry competitive, so this should be the equivalent of the Rural Electrification Project.

Whitespace, C-Band, and 5G may provide good stopgaps, depending on where you are, and LEO satellite Internet may (or may not) eventually provide gigabit speed wireless connectivity – obviously, I’m hoping it does, but it’s not going to be this year or next. Our recommendations are as follows:

  1. Get good Internet connectivity however and wherever you can.
  2. Use AyrMesh to “light up” your farm with WiFi (OK, that’s a bit self-serving, but, hey, it’s our blog…)
  3. Work in your community to bring optical fiber connectivity to your farm. If you’re close enough to the nearest fiber distribution center, it might not be too hard, but, in general, this is expensive.
  4. Hope the LEO satellite companies deliver.

This is probably not our last word on this topic…

The Future is Coming – Get Ready for the Robots…

There is an image of farming – bucolic, peaceful, unfettered by the concerns of the technological age. It’s lovely, and many of us indulge it to some degree… but it is patently false. Agriculture is an industry moving quickly on the technology curve as markets demand more, higher-quality, and cheaper food and grains. Specialized implements, higher-horsepower machines, GPS steering, variable rate planting and spraying, and the cellphone have all had an impact on farm productivity. But that’s not all.

Waymo (Google) Self-Driving Car

Courtesy of Waymo

The Robots are coming.

Look, anybody who has sat in a tractor or combine moving through the field by itself using AutoSteer has to have thought, “Do I really need to be here?” In various cities around the U.S., we have been witness to Google vehicles (and others) happily (if sometimes slowly) wheeling themselves around town, their human handlers typing away on their laptops. If they can run sedans on public roads, they can run a tractor down a row of corn. There are a lot of questions about what the first (big) bunch of farm robots will be doing, but the Japanese have been using almost completely autonomous mini-tractors for rice transplanting for years. There are a lot of people and companies testing robots around the world for farming – big ones and little ones.

Case autonomous concept vehicle

Courtesy of CNH

We have been interested in robots on the farm because we had a vague sense they need a lot more data connectivity than is available in most places now. So I read this article with interest; to quote: “Internet access is a problem,” [Scott Shearer, professor and chair of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Ohio State University] said. “We need 10 megabits per second connection speed.” Data-gathering tools today can capture gigabytes of information that must be able to flow back to the driverless machine quickly and easily; and the machine must be able to communicate to a central location too.

In some places, cellular connectivity may be enough, but, as discussed earlier in this blog, we don’t expect cellular service to improve dramatically in rural America. And it’s going to still be expensive.

Our modest proposal: set up an AyrMesh network on your farm today for long-range WiFi. And be ready for the robots!

ClearPath robot

Courtesy of ClearPath Robotics

 

Introducing the new AyrMesh IndoorHub

We are pleased to introduce the new AyrMesh IndoorHub, our new indoor meshing WiFi system.

The IndoorHub is the replacement for the AyrMesh IndoorAP – it’s a tiny but powerful indoor 2×2 access point with meshing. IndoorHubs can be used to fill a large building with WiFi without having to run Ethernet cables.

The IndoorHub works just like the IndoorAP to provide indoor WiFi in conjunction with the AyrMesh outdoor products. However, there are some significant improvements over the IndoorAP:

  • 2×2 MIMO on the IndoorHub vs. 1×1 on the IndoorAP – higher speed, better coverage
  • Meshing – use additional IndoorHubs to fill a large building or house.
  • Does not use an existing AyrMesh outdoor product’s power supply – runs off USB power, comes with its own power supply.
  • Can be used stand-alone (without other AyrMesh products) by just plugging into a router. For instance, you can use one or more IndoorAP in a large house or outbuilding with its own Internet connection.

The Hub2 and the IndoorHub
The AyrMesh IndoorHub uses the same KIND of meshing as the Hub2 products, but it offsets itself from the Hub’s channel in order to keep from interfering with Hub2 units. It also uses a different SSID (with “-IndoorAP” appended to the end) to reduce confusion. It normally connects to the LAN port of an AyrMesh Hub, Receiver, or Bridge radio, but it can also be uses with any Internet-connected router – for instance, to spread WiFi throughout a large house or a separately-connected outbuilding.

Just like the outdoor Hubs, the first IndoorHub is connected to your network with an Ethernet cable, and additional IndoorHubs just require power. The IndoorHubs can be up to 200′ apart with clear line-of-sight, or up to 2-3 “standard” walls apart.

The IndoorHub is available today from the Ayrstone Store. The IndoorHub is priced at $149.95, but, for a limited time, we are selling it for $99.95 – the same price as the IndoorAP.

A Whole New Kind of AyrMesh Hub – the Hub2x2

The new AyrMesh Hub2x2

After extensive research, testing, and development, we are pleased to announce the all new AyrMesh Hub2x2.

The AyrMesh Hub2x2 is our first Hub to use MIMO to dramatically improve the upload and download speed, both between the Hub and your devices and between the meshed Hubs themselves. The Hub2x2 can deliver up to twice the data speed of the Hub2T, enabling our customers to do things like:

  • Use high-definition security cameras
  • Download manuals, diagrams, videos, etc. up to twice as fast
  • Make and Receive video calls
  • Stream HD movies – even out in the garden

MIMO is a technology that allows a WiFi access point (like the AyrMesh Hubs) to use multiple antennas that receive and transmit multiple “spatial streams” of data simultaneously. Multiple antennas also help make the signal more readily available in difficult places like in trees and around buildings.

The use of MIMO represents a new strategy for AyrMesh Hubs. Previous AyrMesh Hubs traded off bandwidth to achieve maximum range. The Hub2x2 combines outstanding bandwidth and excellent range to normal WIFI-enabled devices, with a small sacrifice in Hub-to-Hub range.

The reason for this tradeoff is that we have found that most of our customers have their Hubs within a mile of each other, and are primarily interested in ensuring good WiFi coverage with excellent speed around their home, pool, gardens, farm office, workshop, barns, chicken coops, and stables. The new Ayrmesh Hub2x2 is designed specifically for those needs while still enabling you to expand your AyrMesh network out into fields and across thousands of acres.

The Hub2x2 vs. the Hub2T

The AyrMesh Hub2x2 is a perfect Gateway Hub for almost any AyrMesh network, because it provides long range and high bandwidth. The Hub2x2 is also a great Remote Hub up to a mile away, making it an excellent product for providing high-bandwidth WiFi around a rural home, farm, or estate. By placing Hubs a mile or less apart, you can ensure a continuous “cloud” of WiFi for your devices.

For Remote Hub installations more than a mile away, we recommend using the Hub2T. Its single antenna “focuses” its signal much more for longer-range applications, which provides better bandwidth at those distances than the Hub2x2.

The only time we will recommend the Hub2T as a Gateway Hub is when a Remote Hub will be positioned over 2 miles away from the Gateway. In this case, the Hub2T will provide better bandwidth to the Remote Hub2T than the Hub2x2 would.

One other point: the Hub2T has MUCH lower power requirements than the Hub2x2, so it is more suitable for solar/wind powered installations.

The new AyrMesh Hub2x2 – a new kind of AyrMesh Hub

As always, please let us know what you think!

 

Introducing the New AyrMesh Receiver

We are pleased to introduce the new model of the AyrMesh Receiver. This new model represents a significant improvement on the older model while maintaining complete compatibility with previous AyrMesh products. This product combines the proven software from our previous model AyrMesh Receiver with new, more capable hardware. The new AyrMesh Receiver is a bit larger than the old model, and offers several new features:

  • Bigger, stronger antenna for more solid links
  • Mounting tabs on the back for mounting to poles or flat surfaces
  • “Extra” external Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) port on the Receiver for connecting external PoE devices like Cameras
  • Standard 48V power injector/power supply so standard 802.3af devices can use the external PoE port

The ability to mount the Receiver on a flat surface (without additional hardware) is a feature that many users requested over the years, and the ability to add an outdoor PoE device will, we think, enable our customers to enhance security and operational awareness.

Overall, the new Receiver represents a significant improvement over the old model. While the old models will continue to work perfectly, you might want to consider replacing an older Receiver with the new Receiver if:

  • It is in a marginal location, where it is just getting enough signal to make the link – the new Receiver’s more powerful antennas can help; or
  • You want to have an external PoE device – like an outdoor PoE IP camera, connected to the Receiver.

As always, we welcome your thoughts, questions, and comments.

Introducing the New AyrMesh Hub2T

AyrMesh Hub2TWe are pleased to announce the new AyrMesh® Hub2T.

The AyrMesh Hub2T is a direct replacement for the Hub2n, but with some important differences. It meshes with the Hub2n and any other AyrMesh “Hub2” products.

First off, the Hub2T is a lot bigger than the Hub2n, with a much bigger antenna and a tougher stainless steel mounting bracket. The bigger antenna improves the performance of the Hub, while the new bracket just makes the entire Hub more stable and reliable, whether it is mounted on a pole or a flat surface.

Paradoxically, the new Hub2T has a little less radio transmitting power (about half a watt vs. almost a watt for the Hub2n), but it performs better than the more powerful Hub2n. Why? That big antenna! Reducing the transmitting power allows us to use twice as powerful an antenna, and (at least to a degree) a higher-gain antenna is better than more transmitting power. Power allows the Hub to “shout” longer distances, but a higher-gain antenna enable the Hub to both “shout louder” and “listen better” – resulting in better overall performance.

The other interesting change is the addition of a “gland” on the bottom of the radio. This gland makes it a bit trickier to install the Hub, but it protects it from water splashing up from below. This addresses concerns we have heard from some livestock operators who want to put Hubs near livestock pens or in milking parlors or farrowing houses, but worry about having to spray water around the Hub. We still don’t recommend spraying water directly up at the Hub, but this Hub will better withstand inadvertent sprays of water from below.

The Hub2T also uses less power than the Hub2n, so it is better for solar-powered field installations – if you have experienced “dropouts” in winter due to low batteries on the solar system, the Hub2T will work better (although that may also be a sign you need to replace those batteries…)

Should you replace your Hub2n with a Hub2T? In most cases, no – you’re not going to see enough of a difference in performance to make it worthwhile. The only exception is where there is a danger of water splashing up from beneath the unit.

But, if you are just starting your AyrMesh network, and as you expand, the AyrMesh Hub2T will be a low-cost, no-hassle workhorse, whether it’s on a building or out in the field.

Quick Note: “5G” technology on the farm

I have a Google Alert for “Wireless Farm” – I get about an article a week (and many of them are about wireless technologies for “server farms” and other odd things). But today I got a link to this article about “How 5G will impact the future of farming.” Intrigued, I clicked it to find a puff-piece about how Deere wants better wireless connectivity so that combines can “talk” to each other via “the cloud,” pointing out that it can take up to a minute with current technology for one combine to upload its data to the cloud, then the other combine to download that data and act on it. A couple of points here:

  1. “5G” mobile technology is based on “millimeter-wave” bands – over 20 GHz. (20,000 MHz.). Current LTE is based on 700 MHz. radios, and previous mobile data technologies (2G/3G) were “piggybacked” on existing 800 MHz. and 1900 MHz. radios. The range and, in particular, the ability of a signal to penetrate solid objects varies inversely with the frequency. So, to have 5G covering the areas cellular covers today requires a MUCH higher density of cellular towers than we have; to have it cover all of the rural U.S. will require thousands and thousands of new towers, a huge infrastructure investment
  2. As I have mentioned previously, the vast majority of cellular infrastructure investment is happening (and will continue to happen) within cities and towns, where the density of opportunities for subscriber revenue makes it profitable.
  3. Within the article, however, is this paragraph:

The term “5G” refers to the fifth-generation wireless broadband technology based on the 802.11ac standard. The packet of technology will bring speed and coverage improvements from 4G, with low-latency wireless up to 1GB/s.

802.11ac is WiFi, not mobile (cellular) technology. Specifically, it is the current generation of WiFI using the 5.8 GHz. (5,800 MHz.) radio band.

And here’s the point: “5G” mobile technology is not going to have an impact on farm operations in the forseeable future. But you can have multi-megabit WiFi technology on your farm TODAY – and you don’t have to wait for your friendly cellular carrier to put up a zillion towers. FURTHERMORE, since your AyrMesh system puts all the devices onto YOUR OWN Local-Area Network (LAN), everything on the system can just talk to each other – they don’t have to upload to the cloud and download from the cloud or anything like that. Your combines can “talk” to each other and your trucks, you can automate processes and enable autonomous vehicles – NOW – with an AyrMesh WiFi network.

 

The Internet of Things (IoT) on the Farm – Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, as well as the associated posts on the ezeio and sensor networks, I have focused primarily on IoT hardware: the part you can see and touch, and that touches your farm.

Firmware

However, in many ways, software is much more important than the hardware. As I observed in Part 2, modern technology products are remarkably similar: a CPU, some memory, some storage, and some peripherals. If the peripheral is a relay, you have a device that can turn things on and off (like a remote-controlled power plug, or a WebRelay). If the peripheral is an “Analog to Digital Converter” (ADC) then the device can monitor sensors and report the values from those sensors. Some devices like the ezeio have both (and even more).

Of course, nothing happens on these devices without software. And software is involved in at least two important places: the software that is running on the devices themselves, sometimes referred to as “firmware,” and the software running on back-end computers (local or cloud servers, PCs, or even your phone or tablet) that is used to store and interpret the results from the devices.

These two pieces of software have to be able to “talk” with each other, and we’ll assume* they do so over your network, with the device connected to your AyrMesh network and the “back-end” software on some sort of cloud-based server on the Internet. Note that the “back-end” software COULD reside on a server on your property if you are using AyrMesh.

What the devices themselves do depends on both the hardware and the firmware on the device – in most cases, that firmware will collect readings from the sensors, upload that information to the back-end server, and, if appropriate, take commands from that server and take action, from turning on a light to starting a pump or a grain auger.

In most cases, that firmware is a closed system – there is no way for you to collect data off or communicate with the device directly, or to direct it to a location other than the vendor’s cloud server. It doesn’t have to be that way, but (1) it’s simpler, and (2) that gives the vendor much more control over the data.

The back-end server usually stores the data and presents it to you (either through a web page or a mobile app, or both). What data you see, how you see it, and what you can do with it depends on that back-end software. It may just present a time series of observations in the field as a graph, it may let you set up simple or complex rules (if the soil moisture is at this level or below, turn on the irrigation system), and it be able to present data in many useful ways (different graphs, superimposed on maps, etc.) and enable very complex control of your farm machinery.

The back-end server is usually a closed system, as well – most times it can only accept data from the vendor’s own devices. Sometimes it may have an “Application Program Interface” (API) that allows it to exchange data with other programs. It may also have the ability to upload data into it for tracking and presentation, or to download data from it for importation into another program. These APIs and import/export mechanisms may be very good, well-written, and well-documented, making them extremely useful. Or they may not. APIs are generally only useful for programmers – it takes code to make them work – but well-written and well-documented APIs can enable even relatively inexperienced programmers to create custom programs to do exactly what you want, and that can be extremely valuable.

On the other hand, back-end software without good APIs and/or import/export features is a “closed box” – what you get is just what you get, and there’s no way to get more or less. Understand, of course, that a closed system like this may do EXACTLY what you need, but, if your needs change, it may suddenly become useless.

Of course, there is also the issue of your data and what happens to it. The terms and conditions for the service may be very clear about what happens to your data, or they may be quite vague. Many of the data services will anonymize and sell the data that you store on their servers (the most unethical may not even anonymize it – beware!). This may concern you or not, depending on the nature of the data and how closely tied to your operation it is. For instance, it is generally valuable to share weather data – if your neighbors do so as well, you can gain a much better insight into the local weather patterns. On the other hand, you may not want to share geo-referenced harvest data – that tells too many people exactly what your land and your harvest is worth. “Fuzzing up” the geo-reference, however, might make it a lot more shareable.

When you are considering new devices to collect data and/or control machinery on the farm, these distinctions between “open” and “closed” systems, and the availability if good, usable APIs may seem abstract. Salespeople for “closed” systems will do their best to minimize the importance of these issues, but it’s absolutely critical. Openness in the device’s firmware means that the devices can be re-purposed to work with another system if you don’t like the vendor’s services, and openness in the back-end database means you can easily get your data and move it where it can be combined with other data and used (e.g. providing it to your agronomist for analysis, or storing it in a system where it can be combined with other data for decision-making).

Being smart about buying new technology for your farm can save you a lot of money in the long term, and a lot of frustration in the short term. We’ll keep an eye out for and report on interesting products that help you on the farm using open technologies.

*some devices connect directly to the network using WiFi or Ethernet, and some devices will have low-power networking (e.g. Zigbee or Google Threads) that use a “gateway” device to connect them to your network (or directly to a public network via cellular or satellite). There are even some that don’t talk to the network at all, using either Bluetooth or an embedded WiFi server to communicate directly with your phone, tablet, or laptop. And, of course, there are still devices that use some sort of flash memory and “sneakernet” (taking the flash memory off the device and walking it to a computer).

Sensor networks

davis_soil_station

Courtesy of Davis Instruments

Much has been written about the use of remote sensors in farming, with soil sensors leading the way. I think it’s worthwhile to understand how these sensors work and what options are available

We have highlighted some of these products (gThrive, Farmx, Edyn), and there are others coming up including Cropx and AgSmarts that we have not been able to evaluate in depth yet, although they are very promising and appear to be more focused on “mainstream” agriculture rather than specialty crops.

The soil sensor people understand that, to have soil sensors near the plants, you have to have sensors that are battery-powered (because you don’t get enough sun under the canopy to use solar). Because of that, most soil sensors use a low-power radio system; many use a “Personal-Area Network,” usually based on the 802.15.4 low-power, low-bandwidth meshing standard. These networks allow the sensors to use very little power so the batteries can last for months or even years. Additionally, the bandwidth (the amount of radio spectrum they use) is so low that they can transmit a very long distance with minimal power – frequently hundreds of yards – and the meshing capability means they can cover a very large area in a couple of hops. So these sensor networks actually ARE practical for gathering data from sensors, even in a very large field.

gThriveKit_ACPowered-001

gThrive sensors and gLink gateway – Courtesy of gThrive

However, these systems, just like your home WiFi network, require a “gateway” device out in the field to connect them to the larger network (your AyrMesh network or the Internet). The Edyn sensor is an exception, because it connects directly to your WiFi network, but it is primarily aimed at gardeners, not commercial agriculture. Davis Instruments uses the weather station as the Gateway device, which makes it simple, but it does not use a meshing system, which limits how many sensors you can deploy. For almost all systems, sensors are not directly on your network or the Internet – the field network is a special network that only “talks” to the gateway device, and the gateway device “talks” to a normal Internet Protocol network – and that is usually a cellular modem connected to the Internet.

I generally discount analyst firms, but I have to reluctantly give kudos to Lux Research for hitting the nail right on the head: sensors are too expensive. With the exception of the Edyn, which you can buy at Home Depot (and connect to your AyrMesh network or other WiFi source), you have to buy:

  1. However many individual sensors you want,
  2. A Gateway device for your sensor network (possibly multiple gateway devices if you want sensors in multiple fields), and
  3. Cellular subscriptions for each gateway device.

This is a lot of “commitment” before you even figure out how to effectively use the sensors and the data that comes from them – thousands of dollars just to get started plus a monthly or annual commitment to get the data. These systems are being marketed primarily to folks growing wine grapes in California or vegetables in Arizona – high-value crops with severe water costs and restrictions.

There are changes coming, of course, but there are also ways to get started now with less commitment.

in_garden_2_smallFirst, if you’re growing a few acres of cut flowers, organic vegetables, or other high-value, high-intensity crops, the Edyn system may be very useful. Put an AyrMesh Hub near your field and deploy the Edyn sensors and valves controllers. You don’t have to save a lot of time and water to justify the expense.

Davis Weather Envoy

Davis Weather Envoy, courtesy of Davis Instruments

Second, Davis Instruments has a nice system that they don’t advertise much. Their Wireless Weather Envoy datalogger can be connected to any Ethernet network (e.g. a Remote AyrMesh Hub, an AyrMesh Receiver, or an AyrMesh Bridge) using their Weatherlink IP module. It can then connect to their Soil Sensor Station, which has up to four soil moisture and soil temperature probes.  It will also connect to a Vantage Vue wireless weather station, which is a very high-quality, low-cost, integrated weather instrument cluster that you can put up in any field in a matter of minutes. There’s a small annual fee for their cloud-based Weatherlink service, but it makes the system VERY easy to use.

If you need more soil sensors, they also build an Envoy 8x, which has the ability to simultaneously “talk” to up to 8 stations – weather stations or soil stations – within about 1000 yards.

batteriesEither the Wireless Weather Envoy or the Envoy 8x can be tucked into the cabinet of the Tycon remote power system we recommend for field Hubs, Receivers, or Bridge radios, and powered from the auxiliary power output on that system.

Third, if you do want to deploy many soil sensors using a system like gThrive or Farmx, you can connect the gateways in each field to an AyrMesh devvice to avoid exorbitant cellular fees for each gateway device. Their gateway devices have Ethernet ports, so they can be connected directly to an AyrMesh Remote Hub, Receiver, or Bridge unit, and you can skip the cellular bills.

We’ll have more on weather and soil sensors – if you have questions or comments, please leave them here (for public response) or contact us.

 

The “Third Wave” of AgTech

paydirtWe wanted to quickly share an article published recently that impressed us quite a bit.

This article in DTN/Progressive Farmer talks about how information technology is making a difference in farming and how that is likely to accelerate in the coming years.

There are a lot of unknowns in the “AgTech” field – most importantly, which vendors and technologies are going to be genuinely important and which will be forgotten. However, one thing is clear: the technology of agriculture, and particularly of agricultural data, is here to stay. And, where you have data, you HAVE to have a way to move it. And, finally, the way to move data is using networks.

So we are encouraged by this article (and others we have seen) that predict increasing importance for data on the farm – it just makes the AyrMesh network that much more valuable for our customers.