Category Archives: Farm Networking

Posts specific to farm networking

The state of the art in soil sensors – Farmx

As mentioned in an earlier post, we have been working with the RoyseLaw AgTech Incubator. One of the benefits of the program has been the ability to work with some of the most innovative companies coming up. This is one of those companies.

farmx_sensorFarmX, based in Tulare, CA, has launched its FarmMap solution in CA and is introducing FarmMap with special pricing for existing Ayrstone customers. To take advantage of this offer, please complete this form.

FarmMap is a low-cost smart farm automation tool that uses scientific grade instrumentation to give you access to all the information you need about your farm in simple, secure, all-in-one tool. The FarmMap’s cloud platform gives you constant, secure access to your data, recommendations and field health.

iphone_map_notificationsFarmMap’s system of soil probes gathers information across your acreage with 1 probe for every 10 acres and connects your farm to the cloud. Each FarmMap sensor probes captures key environmental, soil and plant health data in real-time.

FarmMap uses state-of-the-art machine learning techniques to uncover opportunities to improve productivity and reduce the cost of inputs, such as water and fertilizer. FarmMap gives you the confidence to make accurate decisions quickly, accurately, saves you time and gets rid of guesswork.

FarmMap BenefitsThis is another example of the kind of technology that is available at very low cost when you outfit your farm with an AyrMesh network – each field can be outfitted with a FarmMap gateway device to communicate with their soil sensors, and you can connect the gateways to AyrMesh components (Hubs, Receivers, or Bridge radios, depending on your network) to connect them to your network.

Click below for more information about FarmX and FarmMap:

farmx_logo2

An interesting new company – gThrive

ppt logogThrive is one of the companies I have been watching for a while, because I thought their technology was interesting. I think that the use of sensors for monitoring soil conditions is an excellent example of what technology can do for agriculture, but the existing solutions out there are simply too expensive for use outside of very high-value crops.

OnegStake_STK-51615-001gThrive took the approach of using modern sensor and microprocessor technology and mating it with low-cost packaging to create a new soil sensor with more “intelligence” at lower cost than anything currently available on the market – hundreds of dollars per probe instead of thousands of dollars, with more sensors on the probe than had previously been possible.

The probes are simply plastic stakes, each of which has several sensors, a low-power CPU, a battery, and a low-power data radio, which communicates with their gLink base station. The gLink base station must be connected to the Internet via either a cellular connection or WiFi. This means, of course, that it can be easily added to your AyrMesh network, allowing you to have soil probes in multiple fields without having to rack up massive cellular data bills.gThrive_CustomInstallation-001

All data from the stakes are uploaded through the network to gThrive’s web site, which you can access from anywhere with any Internet-connected device. It’s a simple, clean, efficient system, and they have just started selling their system at the recent World Ag Expo.

Seeing products like this come to market validates the reason we started the AyrMesh product line – to help farmers get more data, faster and cheaper, and be able to do more on the farm. Products like this can dramatically add to the value of your AyrMesh Wireless Farm Network, and vice-versa. We wish gThrive all the best and look forward to working with them and other companies bringing new network-connected products to the ag market.gThriveKit_ACPowered-001

(All pictures courtesy of gThrive)

Long Range WiFi: two approaches

AyrMesh HubWe didn’t invent the idea of putting WiFi on farms and ranches, although I think we’ve done a lot to popularize it. And it’s not really WiFi that’s important, it’s just having a farmwide network that you can connect to and move data with.

When we started, we realized there were two ways we could build out the farm wireless network, and that we’d need to support both ways. However, we had to start somewhere, and we knew that the best short-term “proof of concept” was using the mesh network approach: a bunch of high-power WiFi Access Points that are connected to the Internet and talk to each other using a meshing protocol. That’s what gave rise to the AyrMesh Hub.

Because the Hubs can be up to 2.5 miles apart, it allows you to extend your network out quite a ways from your home place, and that’s useful for a lot of people. It also allows you to “get in the game” for a minimal investment – a few hundred bucks for a Hub and a little time putting it up high and out in the clear gets you WiFi across your farmyard and out into your fields. Then you can extend the network from there with additional Hubs.

However, sometimes you just want to connect someplace into your network, and you don’t need to have WiFi. For those cases, a different approach is optimal: point-to-point microwave links, also known as “bridges.”

AyrMesh BridgeA bridge can use WiFi or a WiFi-like signal to connect two locations and pass data between them. Typically they are “Layer 2” devices, meaning that they work just like a long, wireless Ethernet cable. You plug one radio into your network (typically your router) and then plug the other radio into whatever you want to put on your network (a computer, IP camera, WiFi access point, etc.), and everything works just like it was plugged into your router.

The AyrMesh Bridge uses microwave radios that use the 5.8 GHz. band (used for 802.11 WiFi “a,” “dual-band n,” and “ac”), but they use a special “narrow-band” microwave signal that increases the range, reduces the effects of interference, and makes the signal invisible to WiFi “sniffers.”

Of course, if you are just connecting some distant device or devices into your network, you can also use an AyrMesh Hub and an AyrMesh Receiver. It will actually work the same way; the differences are:

  • The AyrMesh Bridge is just a wireless Ethernet cable that doesn’t provide a wireless signal usable by anything else. The AyrMesh Hub provides WiFi that other devices can use.
  • The AyrMesh Bridge is a “1-to-1” system, but you can have several Receivers talking to one Hub.
  • The Receiver can be up to 2 miles from the Hub, but the Bridge radios can be up to 5 miles apart.

It’s not necessarily an “either/or” thing. Several AyrMesh users are using the AyrMesh Bridge to reposition their Gateway Hub to the top of large structures (e.g. grain legs) to give the Hubs maximum range. A couple of people are using their Hubs for WiFi but providing connectivity to other buildings using Bridges (with the Hub and the Bridge radio mounted next to each other on top of the house or office). And you can use a Bridge connected to a Remote Hub to connect a device several miles away from the Hub.

There are a lot of folks out there selling wireless bridges – we think the AyrMesh Bridge is the best for one important reason: it’s the easiest to set up and use. No configuration is needed: you just connect both radios in the Bridge to your router. They download your configuration from AyrMesh.com and then all you have to do is mount them outside pointing at each other.

IP Cameras on the Farm: Part 3 – Using IP cameras for security

QNAP_NVR

QNAP NVR, courtesy of QNAP

Now you know how to select an IP Camera, set it up on your farm, and view it from wherever you are, on or off the farm, which may give you a greater sense of security by itself.

However, you can’t watch what’s going on 24×7, and, with most cameras, you can’t go back and see what happened a couple of minutes ago (or last week). If you want to incorporate cameras as part of a security system (which may also include things like driveway sensors, indoor motion sensors, window/door open sensors, and other devices), then you should, at a minimum have some sort of recording, and probably some sort of motion detection on the cameras. What I have found to be best is some sort of system that is continuously monitoring the cameras, and, when motion is detected, it records the previous several seconds of video and keeps recording until after the motion stops. That way, I find, I get a nice, clear video of the mailman coming up to the box every single day (and, if I choose, a text and/or email with a picture of the mailman within a few seconds of his arrival).

But, seriously, if you are having trouble with intruders (people breaking into your storage sheds or stealing Anhydrous), getting notification and pictures of them is a good idea. For that, you need a Network Video Recorder (NVR). An NVR is a device that plugs into your network and monitors your IP cameras, allowing you to view several cameras at once and go back to see what happened at a particular time. Most modern NVR systems also have motion detection and multiple alarm functions (including email and tripping a relay to set off an alarm).

Swann DVR with cameras, courtesy of Swann

Swann DVR with cameras, courtesy of Swann

An NVR is different from a Digital Video Recorder (DVR), although both can be useful tools for farm security. A DVR typically has a number of coaxial inputs for cameras, so you can attach 4, 8, or 16 cameras to the unit using coaxial cable and it will continuously record the video from those cameras. Most modern DVRs also have an Ethernet port so you can connect them to your network and monitor the cameras from wherever you are. A DVR can be very useful anywhere you want several cameras in a single physical location, like your home, workshop, or storage shed, where you don’t mind stringing wires. Most newer DVRs can also detect motion send you an email or other form of alarm when they do.

Foscam indoor camera with storage - the little microSD slot under the antenna - courtesy of Foscam

Foscam indoor camera with storage – the little microSD slot under the antenna – courtesy of Foscam

Some newer IP cameras even have the NVR capability built-in, usually via an SD card slot. They store either still images or video to the SD card continuously so you can just “back up” while you’re viewing the cameras.

Almost all IP cameras have some form of motion detection, but many of them are effectively useless. There are three types of motion detection:

  1. Overall picture motion detection – this just looks for the number of pixels changing in the frame and alerts if that number rises above a certain level. Unfortunately, this is almost entirely useless, because, if the sensitivity is high, it will “alarm” every time the lighting changes slightly, and if the sensitivity is set too low, it won’t alarm at all.
  2. Setting a "zone" so the camera will alarm when the door is opened - courtesy of networkwebcams.com

    Setting a “zone” so the camera will alarm when the door is opened – courtesy of networkwebcams.com

    “Zoning” motion detection – this allows you to put rectangles into the camera’s frame and only alarm if there are changes inside those rectangles. This works better, but you still get a lot of “false alarms.”

    Object detection, courtesy of Sitehound

    Object detection, courtesy of Sitehound

  3. Object detection – this is an algorithm that can pick out moving objects in the video stream and distinguish them from changes in the background. This means that you only get an alarm when something moves, and you can set the size of the object that will set an alarm so you don’t get called every time a gnat flies by.

Most inexpensive cameras use the first type of motion detection, which means the on-camera detection is worthless. Almost all other cameras use the second type of detection, which is not useless but still not great. Some high-end cameras can do object detection, but they’re pretty expensive.

The better idea is to have your NVR software do the detection and alarming, rather than the camera. There are two ways to do this: using a dedicated NVR (a small computer running embedded NVR software) or running an NVR program on a desktop computer that’s on 24×7. There are advantages to either approach.

Using a dedicated NVR is simple: you set it up, add the cameras to it through the onboard user interface, and forward a port to it on your router so you can access it while you’re away. QNAP is a vendor that makes a large range of standalone NVRs that are compatible with a wide variety of cameras. In all honesty, I have never been able to evaluate one, but customers have reported good results with them. Synology has developed a pretty good reputations, also – both brands are generally available on Amazon.

The downside to the dedicated NVR is that only some cameras are supported (although the brands mentioned above support a huge number of brands) and that it is difficult to evaluate the software to tell how well it will work for you. The vendors don’t really provide much detail about how they detect motion, what options are available, and what the units can do.

Ubiquiti Cameras and NVR, courtesy of Ubiquiti Networks

Ubiquiti Cameras and NVR, courtesy of Ubiquiti Networks

Some camera vendors like VivotekGeoVision, and Ubiquiti sell both cameras and NVRs to work with their cameras in an integrated package. Going that way makes it easier to know your cameras will work the the NVR, but more difficult to evaluate whether you have the right cameras and NVR for your operation.

The other option for an NVR is to use an NVR program on a computer that’s running all the time. There are several of these programs, but the two most popular are BlueIris and SightHound.  BlueIris is less expensive and runs on any Windows PC; SightHound is more expensive, but has a number of important advantages:

  1. It runs on either Windows or Mac computers;
  2. it is very easy to install, configure, and use; and
  3. it features an advanced object-detection motion detection.

I’m an unabashed fan of SightHound – I have written about it before on this blog – although I have used BlueIris and it is also very good. I also like the Ubiquiti system (Note: Ubiquiti builds the hardware for the AyrMesh system), although I find their software to be a bit too complex for most users. It also integrates with their mFi sensors and switches for security and automation.

Dropcam - courtesy of Dropcam

Dropcam – courtesy of Dropcam

There is actually a third option – a camera that automatically loads its video to a “cloud-based” NVR. Dropcam is a system that uses nice, small, relatively inexpensive indoor cameras, which automatically send their video stream to their cloud servers, without the need for port-forwarding. I have also written about Dropcam before on this blog. The big advantages with Dropcam is that they are VERY easy to set up and use, and the company is now part of Nest (maker of the Nest thermostat), which is part of Google – they have the resources to keep this going and expand those products to do a lot more in the future. The disadvantages are:

  1. They currently only make indoor cameras; there is no outdoor option, and the cameras are not designed for outdoor temperatures.
  2. They charge on a per-camera basis for the recording function. They charge $10 per month/ $99 per year for the first camera and $5 per month/ $50 per year for each additional camera (that’s for 7 days of recording; they charges for 30 days of recording are 3x higher)
  3. There is no way to directly view the camera – the only way to view it is through the Dropcam website. This is not a big problem practically, but it does bug me a little. Even without a subscription, you can view the camera through their website and get notices when motion is detected, which is nice.

Whatever cameras and NVRs you choose, you’ll need to connect the cameras to the network, connect the NVR to the network, and make sure the NVR is “talking” to the cameras. You can then port-forward to the NVR (remember about this from the router series?) in order to access it from the Internet; that way you don’t have to port-forward to each of the individual cameras. You’ll need to fine-tune the sensitivity of each camera in order to get appropriate “alarms” for movement. You’ll also need to set the alarms up so they contact you appropriately. Setting up an email alarm is relatively easy, and all the cellular phone providers give you an email address that goes through as an SMS text message – for instance, on Verizon, if the phone number is 555-123-4567, you can email “[email protected]” That way you can get a text message on your phone whenever motion is detected.

So, now you have cameras set up in the critical parts of your farm, which you can view through your NVR, and you are set up to get alerts any time something moves in the field of view of those cameras. All of this, of course, is made possible because of your AyrMesh Network, covering your farm with powerful IP connectivity.

And there’s still a lot more you can do with the network… stay tuned!

IP Cameras on the farm: Part 2 – different kinds of cameras

Security Cameras

Sorry to use this picture again…

There are a wide variety of IP (network) cameras available, ranging from the very inexpensive to the very good. That’s not to suggest that inexpensive cameras are not useful; it just means that you want to know which camera to use where.

If you just want to be able to see what’s happening on part of your farm, a cheap 640×480 (VGA size) camera will do a nice job. You can bring it up on your phone or tablet from anywhere on the farm, or port-forward to it to see what’s going on when you’re away. These cameras can be VERY inexpensive – from about $35 on Ebay – and they can work well for some applications; some are very small for indoor use, and some are built for outdoor use. The build quality on the very inexpensive ones is generally not great: one very inexpensive outdoor camera I purchased had the IC board held in place inside the housing with dabs of hot glue. That said, I still have it and it still works.

One thing to be aware of is that some inexpensive IP cameras require Internet Explorer to view the image on the camera. While this works with your laptop, it may keep you from seeing the camera on your phone or tablet (or they may offer a reduced-quality video stream for your phone or tablet), and it may prevent the camera from being integrated with a Network Video Recorder into an overall security system. If Internet Explorer is one of the requirements for the camera, I generally recommend against its use.

There are three major factors contributing to the quality of an IP camera:

Camera sensor chip

Camera sensor chip

1.) Image sensor – the size (1/4”, 1/3”, or larger) of the sensor and its resolution (640×480, 1024×720, 1280×960 or 1280×1024) – in general, the larger the better.

Camera lens

Camera lens

2.) Optics – good optics make a big difference. A full-HD (1280×1024) camera with a crummy lens is less useful than a VGA (640×480) camera with a sharp lens. Unfortunately, it is impossible to evaluate the quality of a lens from the specifications of the camera – the price of the camera is a reasonable, but not entirely reliable, proxy. Some cameras offer different “sizes” of lens – for instance, a 3.6 or even 2.8 mm wide-angle lens or a 6 or 8 mm telephoto lens. Obviously, what you are watching will determine what kind of lens you need.

Firmware

Firmware

3.) Firmware – the software running on the camera itself determines how easy it is to use and the features available. For instance, inexpensive cameras may offer MJPEG video streams and motion detection based on the entire scene the camera is surveying, while better cameras will offer h.264 streaming (which uses less bandwidth and better framerates – frames of video per second), and the ability to detect motion in specific zones of the camera’s picture.

The internal electronics and build quality of the camera make a difference, of course, but that is generally only an issue with the lowest-cost cameras – my own experience is that any name-brand camera costing more than $100 has adequate hardware and good build quality.

Here are three examples of IP cameras that I have purchased and evaluated, with specific comments on each.

Cheap Ebay Camera

Cheap Ebay Camera

View through the cheap camera

View through the cheap camera

1.) No-name $35 Outdoor WiFi Camera from Ebay (China). This little camera is actually one of my favorites. It has an adequate lens, a good, strong case, 640×480 resolution, and uses MJPEG for video. It sends about 4-5 frames per second, which is adequate for most purposes. It also has infrared (IR) LEDs in front for nighttime illumination. The biggest advantage this camera brings is that I can use it as a “scout” camera to see if I want to put a better camera in a particular place, and, if it gets kicked or dropped or destroyed, I won’t cry over it – I typically buy then 3 or 4 at a time and, if they have problems, I just throw them away.

 

Agasio camera

Agasio camera

View through Agasio Camera

View through Agasio Camera

2.) Agasio outdoor WiFi Camera. The specs on this camera are identical to the “no-name” camera above (WiFi, 640×480, MJPEG), but with more IR LEDs for better nighttime performance and a mechanical IR filter for better color in low light conditions. I am not actually sure the IR filter is that useful (and Foscam sells an identical camera without the IR filter), because it can fail in cold weather and make the picture look very odd as the filter clicks continuously in and out). I consider this (and the similar Foscam camera) the “workhorse” – it’s inexpensive and it works well, and Agasio/Foscam (they’re the same company) has an office in Houston you can call if you have trouble. I use these at my house to keep an eye on the yard, but I don’t use the motion detection capabilities because it’s very difficult to use effectively: if you turn the sensitivity down, you won’t capture motion when it happens, but, if you turn it up, you’ll be getting alarms every sunrise, sundown, and every time a cloud crosses the sun.

Axis indoor camera

Axis indoor camera

View from Axis camera

View from Axis camera

3.) Axis indoor WiFi camera M1031-W. Axis is generally acknowledged to be the highest-quality IP camera vendor, and appropriately priced. This is their lowest-cost unit, but it clearly shows the difference between their quality standards and those of the lower-cost cameras. Even though this camera has only a 640×480 sensor and a tiny lens, the picture is excellent and the firmware is very easy to use yet feature-filled. It offers several different kinds of streaming (MJPEG, h.264) and the ability to detect motion in “zones” you can select with a little Java applet on the camera. I use these cameras to protect my house, although I do get false alarms from it.

That’s a quick overview of the “cheap and the good” of the IP camera world. If you are just looking to have a camera on your farm that will allow you to see some critical item when you need to, I generally recommend one of the Foscam WiFi or Ethernet cameras. For more critical tasks, such as keeping an eye on a foaling mare, I generally recommend an appropriate Axis camera.

Outdoor Point-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) camera

Outdoor Point-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) camera

One handy thing you can do is have a camera way up on a pole or tower that you can swivel around and zoom in in any part of the farm. The Axis outdoor Point-Tilt-Zoom cameras can give you an amazing view of your property, but you’ll need to connect them to your network with an Ethernet cable (or an AyrMesh Hub, Receiver, or Bridge), because they don’t have WiFi. You’ll also need to mount them to something secure, because movement in the camera will make the quality of the picture moot.

Next, we’ll look at putting together a system of cameras for home and farm security, including cameras and Network Video Recorders – see part 3 here.

Providing Internet Coverage in Distant Fields

field

The AyrMesh network can stretch out a long ways – with the AyrMesh Bridge, Hubs, Cab Hubs, and Receivers, you can extend your network for miles and miles.

But, no matter what, it seems that there is always at least one field your AyrMesh Network won’t reach. I’ll show you what I do to provide WiFi coverage in distant fields.

When I am testing the AyrMesh components, I am usually working remotely. A little while ago I picked up a few things:

  • TP-Link router

    TP-Link router

    A TP-Link MR-3040 portable router

  • FreedomPop USB adapter

    USB cellular adapter

    A USB Cellular adapter (mine is from FreedomPop, because they provide good coverage where I work and are extremely inexpensive, but I also have a Verizon one I use in more remote areas)

  • A 20′ telescoping flagpole – these are available from lots of places; mine is from Harbor Freight Tools because it was inexpensive. There are better-quality poles (and longer ones) available.

The way I set it up is like this:

  • Power extender

    Power extender

    Inside the cab of my truck, I use a 2-way utility plug extender plugged into the “always on” utility plug.

  • Router plugged into USB power, with USB dongle

    Router plugged into USB power, with USB dongle

    I plug a USB charger unit into one of the plugs. The router runs off USB power, so it plugs right into the charger, and the USB cellular “dongle” plugs into the router.

  • Inverter, Hub power supply, and Ethernet cables

    Inverter, Hub power supply, and Ethernet cables

    I then plug a small inverter into the other power plug, and plug the Hub’s power supply into the inverter. I run a short Ethernet cable from the “LAN” port on the Hub’s power supply to the Ethernet port on the router, and plug a 30′ Ethernet cable into the “PoE” port of the power supply

  • I then run the long (orange) Ethernet cable out through the side window of my truck so it can be connected to the Hub.

    ethernet_cable

    Ethernet Cable

  • Flagpole stand

    Flagpole stand

    I built a mount for the back of my pickup, using a piece of steel, a length of PVC pipe, and a couple of hose clamps. Some people also use a “drive on” flagpole stand, or a hitch receiver flagpole stand.

  • I mount the Hub on the flagpole with a zip-tie, and connect the long Ethernet cable to the Hub.
  • Hub mounted on pole

    Hub mounted on pole

    After making sure the Hub is on and connected to the Internet, I push the mast up to maximize the range of the Hub.

Pole extended, ready for use.

Pole extended, ready for use.

I can then set up a Cab Hub in a vehicle and use the Internet while I’m working, up to 2.5 miles from my truck.

This setup is not perfect for use on very windy days, because the flagpoles can move around and reduce the effectiveness of the Hub.

The other caveat is that you’ll want to locate the Hub at a high location so it receives a good cellular signal and maximizes the Hub’s WiFi signal. This only works well if you have a place with good cellular coverage and good “line of sight” to your fields.

Recently I have swapped out the power inverter and power supply for a power plug and a “passive PoE injector,” which actually makes the setup a little simpler. I also have a Verizon USB “dongle” that I sometimes use when I’m testing.

Setup with PoE injector and Verizon dongle

Setup with PoE injector and Verizon dongle

This setup is frequently very handy for me, and it can be very useful for you to use in remote fields. You lose the advantages of being connected to your “home” network (being able to browse files on your local machines or print to networked printers), but you should have good Internet connectivity for collecting data to the “cloud,” browsing the Internet, checking email, etc.

 

 

IP Cameras on the Farm: Part 1

Security_camMany people start building an AyrMesh network on their property to provide Internet access across their acreage. However, having an Internet Protocol (IP) network across your property gives you the opportunity to connect devices on the property to help you be more productive, more efficient, safer, and happier.

When I ask people what else they’d like to do with their AyrMesh Network, the first thing that usually comes up is cameras – the ability to see their property remotely.

There are two distinct reasons for putting cameras on your property: the first is what I call “situational awareness” – being able to bring up a view of some part of your farm any time you want. The second is for security – automatically monitoring some view of your property and alerting you when something happens.

pigletsIf you have animals on the farm, you probably worry about them – especially if your livelihood is tied up in them. One of the most common uses for cameras on the farm is to be able to check on the animals, whether it’s just so the kids can see the horses when you’re away or if you need to check on farrowing sows, calving cows, or foaling mares to protect your investment.

drivewayA lot of people also just want to be able to view some part of the property, like the driveway or the kid’s play area, so they can know what’s going on any time. Sometimes these cameras may be dual-purpose, serving both a security function and for situational awareness.

tablet-with-drivewayPutting a camera on your property gives you a “view” – you get the IP address of the camera from your router and you can bring up that view from anywhere on your property. Then you can do what’s called a “port forward” on your router to make your camera viewable from the Internet, wherever you may be. For instance, I always forward port 9001 to a camera in my living room. I can look at my public IP address on AyrMesh.com and find that it’s 99.100.101.102 (it’s not, but let’s pretend…), so I just need to point a browser to http://99.100.101.102:9001 and log into my camera (note: you HAVE to have a good, strong password on your camera).

Next we’ll talk a little about the different kinds of IP cameras and the tradeoffs and compromises you can make – see part 2 here.

WiFi standards – 802.11a to 802.11z

WiFi routersIt seems like every time you look around there’s a new crop of WiFi routers offering unbelievable speeds and ranges due to the use of a new WiFi standard. Years ago, WiFi started out with 802.11a (back in the last millenium) and then 802.11b, which gave way to 802.11g, which was replaced by 802.11n, and new routers use 802.11ac. And, if you’re wondering, yes, of course there’s a new one on the way, currently called “802.11ax.”

There are also many ancillary standards associated with these, even an 802.11z standard (having to do with extensions to Direct Link Setup, whatever that means). The “a,” “b,” and, to some degree, “g” standards are, for all intents and purposes, obsolete, because nobody has built equipment using those standards for a long time. On the other hand, all the standards are “backwards-compatible,” so the newest equipment can still interoperate with the oldest “a” and “b” equipment.

For us here in the Ayrstone labs, the amusing thing about all these advancements since 802.11g in 2003 is that they are squarely centered on one thing: improving indoor WiFi performance. The reason that amuses us, of course, is that it’s exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do, improve outdoor WiFi performance. There has been almost nothing done to improve outdoor long-distance WiFi since the 802.11g standard.

Here’s a quick rundown of the various WiFi standards:

  • 802.11 – 1997 – up to 2 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and InfraRed with WEP encryption
  • 802.11a – 1999 – up to 54 Mbps on 5 GHz
  • 802.11b – 1999 – up to 11 Mbps on 2.4 GHz
  • 802.11g – 2003 – up to 54 Mbps on 2.4 GHz, WPA/TKIP encryption
  • 802.11n – 2009 – up to 600 Mbps using both 5 Ghz and 2.4 GHz, MIMO, WPA2/AES-CCMP encryption, wide channels
  • 802.11ac – 2013 – over 1 Gbps using both 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz and extra-wide channels, MU-MIMO

802.11g was the standard that made WiFi useful (effective data rates of over 20 Mbps) and safe. The original WEP encryption standard in 802.11b was fatally flawed and easily broken – we now consider it “anti-security,” because it gives the uninitiated the illusion of security but does not actually deliver any, much like having a door made of paper painted to look like steel. WPA/TKIP encryption is still considered unbreakable (when used with strong passwords), so 802.11g WiFi devices are still perfectly useful.

802.11n added even more unbreakable security (WPA2/AES-CCMP), which is designed for large networks and organizations. It also added MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output), a way of using multiple antennae to increase the bandwidth and increase the range of the WiFi signal, especially indoors. A single antenna senses “multipath” (signals bouncing off the walls and other solid objects) as noise, because they are slightly out of synchronization with signals coming directly from the other station. MIMO antennas can “correct” and re-synchronize those multipath signals, improving indoor performance dramatically in some cases. 802.11n also introduced dual-band capability, using both the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands to increase throughput, and “wide” channels – increasing the amount of electromagnetic spectrum used from 20 MHz per channel to 40 MHz. Wide channels increase bandwidth, but at the sacrifice of range. So you can get faster data speeds close to the WiFi Access Point, but speeds will drop off quickly as you move away.

802.11ac is the latest standard, and it adds on top of 802.11n. Specifically, it allows for extra-wide channels (80 or even 160 MHz in the 5 GHz band) and MIMO improvements. In particular, it adds “MU-MIMO” or Multiple-User MIMO to expand the advantages of MIMO to multiple users of a WiFi access point, as well as increasing the number of spatial streams (from 4 to 8) and offering improved modulation techniques on the wider channels (256-QAM).

So the improvements to WiFi since 2003 can be roughly broken down into 3 areas:

  1. 5 GHz – The higher the frequency of a radio signal, the more it behaves like light, so the more it is affected by solid objects. 5 GHz. signals disperse more in air, and pass through solids even more poorly than 2.4 GHz. signals (which don’t do very well). So, with some notable exceptions (very focused point-to-point links with very clear line-of-sight), 5 GHz is only useful indoors and for very short distances.
  2. MIMO – MIMO is one of the most exciting improvements to WiFi, because it can dramatically improve indoor performance. Of course, both the access point (e.g. wireless router) and the client device (e.g. laptop) have to have MIMO to make the best use of it, but can really improve both range and throughput indoors. Outdoors, however, where there aren’t walls that signals can bounce off of, the value of MIMO is very limited.
  3. Wide channels – I sometimes explain that radio signals are a lot like plumbing. If you have a water hose with a constant pressure, you can put a narrow nozzle on it and push a little water a long ways, or you can put a wide nozzle on it and push a lot of water a little ways. Wide channels are like a wider nozzle: more bandwidth that doesn’t travel as far.

The key to getting maximum range outdoors is to “squeeze” the stream down as much as possible to force it out toward the horizon. The AyrMesh Hubs do this by going somewhat against the “trend” in WiFi:

  1. 2.4 GHz only – for lower dispersion and best penetration of solid objects
  2. SISO – focusing the radio signal (the spectral density) into a single beam for maximum range
  3. Narrow channels – focusing the radio signal into the smallest channel width for maximum range

When we introduced the AyrMesh Hub2n, we noted that it uses 802.11n technology. However, while it does comply with the 802.11n standard, it is, essentially, using the 802.11g features present in 802.11n and almost nothing unique to the 802.11n standard.

That’s not to say that we’re not keeping close tabs on the improvements to WiFi and trying to figure out ways to improve our products. By moving to 802.11n, we picked up WPA2/AES-CCMP encryption, which is actually more efficient on many WiFi radios equipped with hardware encryption, and new modulation methods which may provide marginally better performance. Right now we don’t see any improvements from MIMO, for instance, but we may yet find a way to make use of it. We also have hope that new, more efficient modulation methods could provide us new ways to increase the range and throughput of outdoor WiFi.

We also made use of another WiFi standard in the Hub2n: 802.11s, the new WiFi meshing standard. Time will tell, of course, but we hope that adopting this standard will enable us to introduce new Hub models and other equipment without changing the meshing, effectively “future-proofing” the Hubs.

What this means is that now is the perfect time to build your Wireless Farm Network using WiFi: the technology is extremely well-proven, inexpensive, and reliable. There are lots of contenders to take the place of WiFi for outdoor connectivity, from Super-High-Frequency radio to “White Space” radios (using the unused frequencies in the Television band). None of them are going to offer anything close to the price/performance you can get today out of outdoor WiFi, at least for a very long time. So you can build your network well-assured that there isn’t something waiting in the wings to make your investment obsolete. There will never be a better time to build out your Wireless Farm Network.

Bringing WiFi into your Cab – the new AyrMesh Cab Hub

crowded_cabThere’s a lot of data being collected by monitors in the cabs of tractors, sprayers, and combines, and getting that data someplace it can be used can be critical to your operation. Today we are introducing a way to connect your tractors, sprayers, combines, and trucks to your AyrMesh Network: the AyrMesh Cab Hub.

The AyrMesh Cab Hub is a combination of three things: our trusty, patent-pending AyrMesh Hub2n, a cable that allows the Hub to be powered from a normal 12 volt utility “cigarette lighter” plug, and an external magnetic-mount antenna to get the Hub’s antenna outside and up in the clear.assembled-2_small

When it is all set up, the AyrMesh Hub2n rides inside the cab of your vehicle, protected from shock and vibration, but mounted where you can see the “signal lights” if you need to. The cable is plugged into one of the 12v utility outlets, and the antenna is put on a ferrous surface on top of the cab. The Hub connects to the other Hubs in your AyrMesh network, giving you WiFi connectivity in your cab.cig_lighter_sm

Antenna on roofHub_mounted_smThe most valuable data on the farm, and some of the hardest data to move to where it can be effectively used, are the data trapped in the monitors on your machines: as-seeded, as-applied, and harvest data. Getting that data out has been laborious (moving Compact Flash cards) or expensive and uncertain (using cellular links), so we’re trying to make it easier with the AyrMesh Cab Hub.

By using the AyrMesh Cab Hub, you’ll have a strong WiFi signal in your Cab whenever you’re in range of one of your other AyrMesh Hubs – up to 2.5 miles away. This means you can use your smartphone, tablet, or laptop from the cab of your tractor, sprayer, combine, or truck. It also makes it easy to transfer data from your WiFi-equipped in-cab monitors, like an AgLeader monitor with their AgFinity adapter, using your AyrMesh network. If your equipment doesn’t currently have WiFi, talk to your dealer about it – vendors are rolling out new products all the time.

If your monitor supports WiFi data transfer, you can use your AyrMesh network to transfer data from your monitor without having to rely on expensive and unreliable cellular links.

Please let us know what you think of this new product from Ayrstone Productivity!

Getting the most out of your router – part 2

RT-N66U

The ASUS RT-N66U – a modern, high-end home wireless router

In the last article in this series, I discussed what a home router is and a little bit about how it works, as well as providing guidance on how to set up the DHCP server.

IP addresses on your LAN are assigned one of two ways: either by the router’s DHCP server, which provides them out of the DHCP address pool (which I suggested should be 192.168.1.50 to 192.168.1.254) or by statically assigning them yourself (which I suggested should be out of the remaining 192.168.1.2 to 192.168.1.49 addresses). Assigning static addresses is very seldom necessary on modern routers, however, because most modern routers have a feature called “DHCP Reservations.” This allows you to specify the MAC address of a device and make sure it is assigned the exact same address via DHCP every time it is connected to the router. Using DHCP reservations, you can ensure that your laptop always gets the same IP address without having to configure a static address for it (which is a pain, since you’d have to re-configure it every time you go to the coffee shop).

Using either static addressing or DHCP reservations, you may want to make sure that “infrastructure” on your home network, like file servers, entertainment systems, or security devices always have the same IP address.

Your router’s NAT usually automatically closes off all the ports on your public IP address, making it impossible to access anything on your LAN from the Internet. In most cases, that’s a good thing – you don’t want the Internet able to reach your private network. But, in some cases, you want to make devices on your network available from the Internet (ALWAYS protected with strong passwords, of course!). The classic example is the IP camera set to watch something important on the farm – it could be the front drive, livestock, or your machine shed – you want to be able to access it from wherever you are so you can check up on it. But you might also want to be able to check and operate machinery like your grain dryer, pumps, irrigation systems, HVAC systems, etc. from a distance.

firewall1

The IP camera has a webserver that uses port 80 (usually) for its interface, so the trick of port forwarding is to open one port on your public IP address and tell your router to “forward” all packets coming to that port automatically to port 80 (or whatever port you configure) on the camera. So you “knock a brick” out of the router’s firewall by specifying one port on the public side (I like to use ports 7001-7099, because very few services use these ports) and forward that public port to a port on your camera.

firewall2

The way you do this varies from router to router, but the drill usually entails going to the “port forwarding” interface on your router and specifying the incoming or public port (7001), the device that’s receiving the packets (your camera’s IP address – 192.169.1.something), and the port on the device that will receive the packets (port 80). Then, if your public IP address is 101.102.103.104, you can access your camera on the Internet at http://101.102.103.104:7001 (the IP address, a colon, and the port number). Some routers allow you to specify only certain incoming IP addresses that can access the camera, but that’s usually not a good idea because, for instance, if you want to look at the camera from your smartphone, you won’t know the IP address of the smartphone.

NOTE: some routers (stupidly, in my opinion) require that the port numbers on the public side and the private side be the same – they won’t forward port 7001 on the public side to port 80 on your camera. If you have a router like that, you’ll need to reconfigure your camera (or whatever device you have) to the appropriate port (e.g. 7001) port before you can do the port forward. You shouldn’t forward ports under 1024 unless you know exactly what you’re doing, because you might be disabling something your router needs to function properly. Forwarding extremely popular ports like 80, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, etc. can also attract password crackers and other undesirable elements to your network.

Let me emphasize at this point the importance of a strong password on anything that’s exposed to the Internet – if you can access it, so can anyone else, so make sure it’s locked down.

On my own home network, I have several ports forwarded to different IP cameras around my property, as well as ports forwarded to my desktop Windows machine (using VNC so I can access it easily when I’m away) and my Linux development machine (using SSH). I can actually access any of those devices using my smartphone, so I can stay on top of things anywhere I have an Internet connection.

Click here to go to Part 3