I read a LOT about the “Internet of Things” (abbreviated IoT) is in the news lately; you probably have see it too, and there is a lot of excitement around it. And I would argue there’s good reason for that – it is going to change everything, perhaps more fundamentally than cellphones and, later, smartphones. But it is important to understand what the IoT is, what it is not, and how it will affect life on the farm.
Courtesy of Nest
The IoT is not a single thing or even a particular class of things; it refers to a new generation of devices that are connected to the Internet and perform some function, with little or no human interaction. There are already a LOT of good examples, from the Nest Thermostat to kid’s Arduino toys, from devices that can be handy almost everywhere like a network-connected lightswitch, to highly specialized devices like grain dryer controllers or irrigation controllers. I would argue that little of this stuff is new; the things we are seeing being touted as “IoT” devices are really the same as things we already have, just made smaller, smarter, and less expensive. Frequently a LOT smarter and a lot less expensive, which is important.
Belkin WeMo WiFi Outlet
But the profusion of little, inexpensive, smart things all over the place is having effects we can’t fully understand or appreciate yet. The one thing we can predict with some certainty is that the people who understand these devices and put them to use intelligently will see tremendous gains, just as those who started using computers intelligently saw huge benefits. The question, of course, is, “How do I use these devices?”
Technical knowledge is much less important at this phase than imagination – in all honesty, the most technically competent people miss a lot because they are too invested in how things ARE, so they cannot understand how things COULD BE. So I pose this question to you: what on the farm could be made better (faster, cheaper, more profitable, or more enjoyable) by little computers with accurate little sensors (for light, heat, moisture, position, motion, and lots of other things) and robust built-in data communications infrastructure (WiFi)? What could you monitor? What could you control remotely (or even automatically), especially using the data you are getting from monitoring?
We’ll explore this more in future blog posts, but I would like to hear what you have to say, as well.
There are all kinds of new technologies and products available for farming – these new “AgTech” products hold real promise to change the practice and the economics of farming. But you have to evaluate them realistically to understand how they will help you improve your profit: increase revenue or save costs.
AyrMesh was designed specifically to help save costs on the farm, so it provides increased profits no matter what happens to yields and crop prices. There are several ways in which AyrMesh helps you reduce costs, directly or indirectly:
Reduce the cost to simply move data – your cellphone (and maybe your tablet and/or laptop) has a cellular radio for data, and you pay a premium for using more than a minimal amount of data per month. By using the AyrMesh network, however, you can be disconnected from the cellular data network and save money you would have to send to the cellular companies.
Employ new technologies that can save money – because AyrMesh is a standard, Internet-Protocol (IP) network, you can avail yourself of off-the-shelf products that just connect to your network. Examples include things like networked weather stations and soil sensor systems, but also grain dryers and irrigation systems. As security becomes an increasing concern on the farm, having an AyrMesh network allows you to quickly and easily place IP cameras so you can keep an eye on distant parts of the farm
Be prepared for the future – new, time-saving and money-saving products are coming up fast, and you can be ready to put them to work. New autonomous vehicles, remote sensors, and remotely-operated machinery will be able to magnify the effort you put in on the farm, just like tractors and combines did in the late 1800s, increasing the profitability of farms.
But be careful: a lot of products being sold come with a “small monthly fee” to pay for a cellular modem to move data from the device to the company’s cloud servers. It’s a business model that works and it makes it easy to install new products, because the vendor doesn’t have to worry about setting up a network. However, as you adopt more and more of those products, the number of small monthly fees is going to add up fast, and none of them will work in fields without cellular connectivity.
Look, electronics and data aren’t going to grow the crops. But the information they can provide you can help you make better decisions, both season to season and day to day, to save money and increase yields. Smart investment in AgTech begins with thinking about the data – what you can use, how you will use it, and, most importantly, how you will get it from where it is generated to where it is useful. We are here to help with that last bit.
I have been saying for some time that the AyrMesh network is the vital element for enabling the “Internet of Things” (IoT) on the farm. Because of this, I supported the Edyn Kickstarter campaign, and my Eden Sensor finally arrived on Friday in a box about the size of one of my shoes. i have been eagerly awaiting it, because I believed the combination of the Edyn system and the AyrMesh network would be a very powerful one for the home gardener or small farmer.
I pulled the box open and pulled out the device – I was very impressed by its relatively small size and apparent toughness – it feels nice and solid. I continued to pull apart the box to find the instructions and found… nothing else. Just cardboard. No instructions at all. Oops…
I took a look at the Edyn website and found very little, so I went back to the Kickstarter page and found the FAQ. It stated that the device is associated to the WiFi signal through the Edyn app, which is available for iOS or Android.
I pulled out my Android phone, went to Google Play, searched for Edyn, and found… nothing. (Note: that has changed in the last few days: the Edyn app is now in Google Play for Android devices).
So then I grabbed my wife’s iPad, opened the app store, searched for Edyn, and found… again, nothing. Then I realized it was only looking for iPad apps; I set it to look for iPhone apps and found it.
I should point out, of course, that none of these things deterred me in any way: I’m the crash test dummy for new devices like this, so I expect it to be rough when I first see it. My goal is to experience these rough spots so you don’t have to!
The device itself just comprises a molded plastic top, with a visible solar panel, and a metallic bottom probe with discs of metal and plastic at the bottom for the actual sensing application.
When I finally got the app installed on the iPad and got it started, I was taken through the process of creating an account and configuring the Edyn Garden Sensor. The Edyn is built with a VERY clever WiFi device called an “Electric Imp.” There is, obviously, no keyboard on the Sensor, so you have to get the WiFi configuration onto it somehow, and the Electric Imp uses a process called “Blinkup.” On the botton of the Sensor is a button and a small light sensor; you join the WiFi network (your AyrMesh WiFi network) on your phone or tablet, then type in the encryption passkey (from AyrMesh.com) in the Edyn app. You then hold the screen of the phone or tablet close to the bottom of the Sensor, and the screen blinks to send the WiFi credentials to the Sensor. The Sensor then joins the network, checks into Edyn’s servers (much like the AyrMesh devices do) and then appears in the Edyn app.
I must mention that, in my case, the Blinkup process was not entirely smooth… the Sensor accepted the password from the iPad, and it actually associated itself with my Hub just fine – I saw it appear in my router’s DHCP table. However, it gave me an error message saying “Uh-Oh. There’s a problem on our end. Please try again.” I tried several times with the same result, then fired off a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. They wrote back the following day, and, by that time, whatever the problem was was fixed and my sensor showed up in the Edyn app.
My Edyn sensor has been working just fine in my backyard for several days now – I have it in a pot with a palm I’m trying (unsuccessfully, so far) to revive. A few notes:
I hope they’ll at least include a QR code somewhere in or on the box that leads to some setup instructions. It’s odd to pull the device out of the box and find absolutely no supporting documentation.
The outside temperature sensor appears to be inside the case. In the final screen below, you’ll see it indicates 102 degrees, but the ambient air temperature was about 80. The humidity sensor seems to work OK, though.
I don’t have enough information to judge whether or not the soil information being provided is accurate. It seems to indicate an increase in soil moisture when I water and it indicates it dries out when I don’t. I haven’t had the soil tested to verify its accuracy about fertility.
Edyn also has an irrigation valve product that connects to a garden hose for automatic irrigation. I don’t have one, so I cannot test that piece – it’s relatively simple technology, so I’d assume it would work well and setup would be the same.
The Edyn system is currently really designed for gardening, not farming. If you have a garden or even a small vegetable farm, for instance, it might be quite useful, but I don’t think it would be very useful on a large, production farm.
The Edyn system is supposed to be on sale in Home Depot and other gardening centers soon.
There is no question about it: the Edyn and AyrMesh systems work well together and should be of significant benefit to gardeners and even smaller farmers.
Here are the screens I went through in the setup process:
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, 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.
FarmMap’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.
This 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:
gThrive 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.
gThrive 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.
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.
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
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
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:
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.
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 – 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
Some camera vendors like Vivotek, GeoVision, 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:
It runs on either Windows or Mac computers;
it is very easy to install, configure, and use; and
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
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:
They currently only make indoor cameras; there is no outdoor option, and the cameras are not designed for outdoor temperatures.
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)
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@example.com.” 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!
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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:
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
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
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.
I mount the Hub on the flagpole with a zip-tie, and connect the long Ethernet cable to the Hub.
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.
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
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.
Many 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.
If 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.
A 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.
Putting 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 126.96.36.199 (it’s not, but let’s pretend…), so I just need to point a browser to http://188.8.131.52:9001 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.
It 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:
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.
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.
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:
2.4 GHz only – for lower dispersion and best penetration of solid objects
SISO – focusing the radio signal (the spectral density) into a single beam for maximum range
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.