Category Archives: Other Networking Products

Posts about other networking products that work well with Ayrstone products

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.

Getting the most out of your router, part 3

File not foundOnce you have your router set up properly, your devices on-line, and ports forwarded to those devices, there’s one more small problem: being able to reach your devices over the Internet. There are two problems: first, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) usually provide dynamic IP addresses, so your “home address” may change from time to time; second, IP addresses are hard to remember.

The solution is what is called “DDNS” – Dynamic Domain Name Service. Domain Name Service (DNS) is simply the service that translates a domain name (ayrstone.com) into an IP address (162.159.242.105) so you can access it. DDNS is a service that continually and automatically updates the IP address so that you can always reach your home network using a simple, easy-to-remember domain name.

There are two parts to DDNS: first, it involves a service, for which there is usually (but not always) an annual fee, and an “updater” that notifies the service when your IP address changes. Dyndns.com is the leader in this area; they used to offer a single DDNS account for free, but they have since gone to charging $25 a year. For this they offer a very good service with email support if you need it.

Using Dyndns.com is very easy: you typically sign up with a username (e.g. “ayrstone”) and you can select an extension on one of their “house” domains (e.g. ayrstone.dyndns.org – you can actually select up to 30 – or you can use a domain name you actually own). You then need to set up an “updater:”

  1. Many brands of routers have an updater “built in” for dyndns.com, or
  2. You can download a small program from http://dyn.com/support/clients/ that you run on a computer that is ONLY in use on your home network (it won’t help if it updates your domain name to point to Starbucks…) so it can automatically tell when your IP address changes and “tell” dyndns.com.

One of the advantages of using Dyndns.com is that many brands of router are pre-configured for them; all you have to do is fill in your credentials and go. Dyndns.com also has good, downloadable background programs to run on your home or office computer to update the IP address – this is actually how I use the service. My router doesn’t have a built-in Dyndns.com updater, but my office computer is always on here in the lab, so that’s the easiest way to keep Dyndns.com up-to-date on the lab’s IP address..

There are still a number of organizations that offer free DDNS, and here’s a nice article on Lifehacker that talks about them. The free DDNS services are generally not as convenient: many routers don’t even have a “generic” DDNS setup, but, if yours does, that’s what you’ll use if you want the router to update your IP address. If not, most of them have instructions how to set up a script on your home PC to update the address – entirely doable, but not as easy as just downloading an application. Also, most of the free services don’t have any technical support – they’ll typically have “FAQs” on their site, but you’re on your own. I use one of the free services at home, and it works just as well as Dyndns.com, but it was a bit tricky to set up.

Once you get it set up, accessing your home or office network is simple: just use the domain name you selected. For instance, here in the lab I have my desktop computer accessible via VNC accessible on port 7999, two IP cameras (ports 9005 and 9006), and a weather station on port 8000 (as well as my router on port 80). If the lab’s DDNS domain is ayrstone.dyndns.org (it’s not really, of course… even though everything here has a good password, I’m not inviting people to try to hack them), then I can VNC into my computer at ayrstone.dyndns.org:7999, view my IP cameras at http://ayrstone.dyndns.org:9005 and 9006 (I actually have IP Cam Viewer on my phone set up for those ports already), view my weather station at http://ayrstone.dyndns.org:8000, and re-configure my router at http://ayrstone.dyndns.org (port 80 is the default for http connections).

If your goal is to automate information-gathering and enable remote control for machinery on your farm, you need to have access to your farm’s network from wherever you are. DDNS is a way to make that much easier.

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

Getting the most out of your router – part 1

wrt54g

The venerable Linksys WRT54G – Courtesy of Linksys

The world of networking is complex, including that little bundle of technology sitting on your shelf – your router. It is actually a pretty amazing little device that can probably do more than you realize. In truth, the typical “consumer” router is a combination of three devices:

  1. A router – a router is a device with two or more ports that is used to connect two or more networks together. Typically, the consumer router has a “WAN” port that connects to the “Wide Area Network” of your Internet Service provider and “LAN” ports for your Local Area Network.
  2. An Ethernet switch – you may have noticed that your router doesn’t have two ports; most actually have five: one WAN port and four LAN ports. Inside the box is an Ethernet switch that turns the LAN port of the router into 4 LAN ports to which you can connect wired computers, servers, and even additional Ethernet switches if needed. Actually, it’s 5 LAN ports, because the fifth one is connected to…
  3. A WiFi Access Point – this is simply a wireless radio connected to an internal LAN port that provides a WiFi signal for computers, tablets, smartphones, IP cameras, entertainment systems, and all kinds of other things. This WiFi radio is usually optimized for short-range, indoor use, providing maximum throughput for a short distance.

One of the odd and important facts about a router is that it has two Internet Protocol (IP) addresses: one on the network to which its WAN port is connected (which should be a public IP address, visible from the Internet – e.g. 108.162.198.52, ayrstone.com’s address), and one on the LAN port, the network it creates for you (a private address, not usable from the Internet, e.g. 192.168.1.1). Its job is to take data packets from each network and move them to their destination network. So, if your computer is at 192.168.1.50 on the LAN, and it receives a packet on its WAN port destined for 192.168.1.50, it passes it to the LAN port where it finds its way to your computer. Similarly, if your computer creates a connection to 108.162.198.52, the router receives packets from your computer on its LAN port and routes them to the WAN port. When you print to your networked printer (at, say, 192.168.1.100), it receives packets from your computer and then just turns them around and sends them back down the LAN port, since they are not destined for the Internet.

The ability of the router to accept traffic on a single public IP address and enable several different computers at private IP addresses to have separate “conversations” with the Internet is called “Network Address Translation” or NAT. The way it does this is by using “ports” – simply numbers associated with every IP address.

Each IP address has 65,535 possible ports. Some ports have pre-assigned purposes, some are available for use by applications, and some are ephemeral – here’s a good explanation of which are which. NAT uses those ephemeral ports to keep the conversations between your network and the Internet straight; for instance, your computer’s conversation with this website might be using your public IP address’s port 55135, while another computer on your network might be having a conversation with another website on port 61234. To the two websites, it looks like the traffic is coming from a single computer, specifically your router. Your router then routes the responses from the websites to the correct computer based on the port on which the data comes in.

The private IP addresses on your network are usually assigned by your router using Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol or DHCP. When a computer connects to your network, it will ask the router for an address via DHCP, and the router will provide it one (assuming it has one to provide). The address is referred to as a “lease,” because it will expire at some point after the device leaves the network, so it can be used by another device. However, note that you can simply assign a static IP address to a device in your network, as long as (1) it is an IP address inside your network (usually meaning it has the same three first numbers as everything else on your local network, e.g. 192.168.1.x) and (2) it does not interfere with the DHCP settings on your router (if your DHCP server begins at 192.168.1.50 and your router is at 192.168.1.1, use static addresses between 192.168.1.2 and 192.168.1.49, and KEEP TRACK OF THEM WHEN YOU ASSIGN THEM!!!)

The first tip for getting the most out of your router is this: set up your router’s DHCP server carefully. I suggest setting your router’s IP address as 192.168.1.1 and setting your router’s DHCP range from 192.168.1.50 to 192.168.1.254 (204 addresses). The reason for this particular range is that, first, it allows for a large number of devices to automatically use your router, getting private IP addresses via DHCP (204) but still leaves you 48 addresses you can use for devices you want to statically assign. This gives you the flexibility to maintain, expand, and control your home network.

Click here to go to part 2

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“Drones”) and Wireless Farm Networks

OctocopterOne of the hottest topics in “Ag Tech” at the moment is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones) and the role they can play for the farmer. Drones are hot right now, in Ag and other industries, because technology has made them much more adaptable and much lower in cost.

The possible benefits are tantalizing: an automatic, self-flying platform that can loft things into the air, take them where you need them, and take actions you prescribe. Just a few of the things drones can conceivably do for you:

  1. Take visible-light, near-infrared, and infrared photographs of all your fields at much higher resolution and in less time than satellite
  2. Get instant thermocline and other weather data (pop up 1000′ and check the temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure, etc.)
  3. “Run and get it” service for small items (see the beer drone and Amazon Prime Air)

When I was at the World Ag Expo a few weeks ago, there were several companies showing off drones and talking about drone-based ag services. Please make note of the distinction between drones and drone-based services, because, at the moment, it’s important. Or maybe not. I’ll explain as well as possible.

The Federal Aviation Administration has had a long-standing rule against the use of UAVs for “commercial purposes” – anything involving making money. Now, you can buy model airplanes with very sophisticated self-flying and video systems for fun or research, but not for any money-making purpose. However, a number of people couldn’t help themselves in making use of these amazing machines to enhance their businesses, and they have been getting “cease and desist” letters from the FAA. One guy named Raphael Pirker actually was fined by the FAA, giving him the opportunity to challenge the fine. He appealed to the National Transit Safety Board, and the administrative judge there ruled that the FAA did not have in place any actual regulations for the use of UAVs in non-navigable airspace, and therefore could not enforce the fine against Pirker. There’s a good article about this in Scientific American.

So, apparently, one currently can use UAVs for commercial pursuits, with some (not entirely clear) limitations. I’ll bet if you take your drone anywhere near a commercial airfield, for instance, you’ll get to meet some members of law enforcement and spend time with them. I’ll bet if you take your drone near any government installation, you will get to spend a serious amount of time with members of law enforcement and/or the military. In either case I’ll wager you’ll get to contribute a good amount of money to the government. And there are undoubtedly some private citizens who will happily shotgun your UAV out of the sky on sight.

I’ll also wager that the FAA (or some other part of the government) will create some rules about UAVs to protect people from stuff falling out of the sky on top of people and property, and having our neighbors peeking in 2nd (or 102nd)-story windows. But, for the moment, it looks like the skies are open, particularly out in the rural areas, and I expect farmers to be the first to benefit from UAVs. Some people like Chad Colby are already talking publicly about the opportunities.

Honestly, I think the current “state of the art” is mostly a plaything: the drones that are currently available are mostly manually radio-controlled and focused on live picture-taking. UAVs I have seen that might be put to use on the farm must be charged, taken to the field, flown around the field, and then the pictures (or other data) downloaded off the UAV (by bluetooth, WiFi, or transfer from some kind of flash card). This is a significant commitment of time, which limits how often you can really use the drone. A crop scout may be able to save a lot of the time he would normally spend by using a UAV to survey fields, but there’s benefit to the grower having a drone or drones that would continually survey fields.

The reason I am particularly interested in Ag Drones is because I believe they can become an important part of the day-to-day information-gathering apparatus. To be truly useful, however, I believe they must be:

  • Autonomous: flying over your fields automatically without intervention. Ideally, they would have a “home” out in the field where they would stay, and they would do their flying at specific times with no human interaction needed.
  • Smart: able to recognize problems and take appropriate action – recognize if there is something different in the fields, avoid danger, and report back
  • Connected: automatically uploading data collected and sending alerts to you as needed. For instance, a drone flying over your fields taking infrared photos might use the wireless farm network to automatically upload the pictures to a service that automatically scans them for anomalies indicating crop stress.
  • Self-maintaining: self-charging and self-monitoring, needing little maintenance and letting you know when it needs “help”

My own vision is that an Ag drone should be programmed with pre-configured flight paths and connected via WiFi with a wireless farm network for constant (or at least mostly constant) communication. It should be able to download changes to its schedule and pre-configured flight paths off the network, and It should also be able to land on a platform that will automatically charge the drone’s batteries for the next flight. Set up this way:

  • The grower, scout, or agronomist doesn’t have to go out and mess around with the drone – it can just do its thing as often as it needs to (pending charging of the batteries)
  • The data can be automatically collected on the grower’s PC or on a central server (on the farm or on the Internet) – it can even be automatically processed and problems (plant stress, aberrant weather conditions, etc.) can be automatically reported to the grower
  • The drone works for the farmer, not the other way around.

All the pieces exist today to create drones that can meet these criteria, but I’m not aware of any pre-built planes or copters that are ready-to-use. However, there are open-source software projects that have built auto-pilot systems for drones and other robots (e.g. the ArduCopter), and there is discussion of induction charging of quadcopters in the “DIY” forums. And heavier-lift copters (capable of picking up fairly heavy items and transporting them) are also in the works. Imagine being able to get out your cellphone and “tell” your copter to bring you the parts you forgot back at the workshop, then hearing it whirring its way toward you a few minutes later. And then, when it delivers them, it DOESN’T TELL YOU YOU’RE AN IDIOT for forgetting the parts. For me, that would be nearly priceless.

In short, I think there are a lot of possible benefits from using UAVs on the farm, and I’m eager to see them start to deliver those benefits. However, I think a lot of the benefits are greatly enhanced by having the UAVs connected to a wireless farm network – I believe the two technologies will work hand-in-hand, each enhancing the value of the other.

Farm Security with SightHound

Security Cameras“Farm security” used to be synonymous with “watchdog” or maybe “shotgun,” but farms have gotten a whole lot bigger than even a big dog or a light sleeper can protect. And farm equipment and inventory haven’t gotten any cheaper to replace.

For that reason, I have long been a proponent of using cameras for both farm operations (e.g. being able to see what’s going on in a livestock barn while you’re in bed) and farm security.

For operational use, IP cameras are easy (as long as you have a network). Just hook up a camera, find its IP address on your router, and use a phone, tablet, or computer to take a look any time you want. If you want to see it when you’re off your network, port-forward to the camera from your router.

For security use, however, you want to watch it all the time. Staying up all night staring at the computer screen is not really practical, but there are some good alternatives. My favorite one is a program called “Sighthound.” It runs on your Windows PC or Mac, it’s reasonably priced ($250 as I’m writing this), As long as you have a machine that’s on 24×7 (like my desktop machine), it’s a great solution.

Sitehound has a number of attractive attributes:

  • Runs on either Windows or Mac
  • Works with a very broad variety of cameras
  • Very easy to set up and use
  • Object-based motion tracking instead of just motion detection

SitehoundThat last point deserves some explanation – simple motion detection (like the built-in detection on inexpensive IP cameras) just looks for pixels to change from frame to frame, and they “alarm” if a certain percentage of the pixels in the picture change. The problem is that a lot of the pixels change any time the lighting changes (sunup, sundown, sun going behind the clouds, etc.) so you get a lot of false alarms. Better systems allow you to specify “zones” for motion detection, so you are only considering the part of the picture you are actually concerned with. This reduces, but does not eliminate these “false positives.” But Sighthound uses a much more accurate (albeit processor-intensive) method to identify and track moving objects in the picture. In the picture here, Sighthound is tracking the dog walking through the living room – you can see the dog in the yellow box near the bottom of the screen. This video was recorded automatically from the moment the dog moved until she went out of sight. However, even on a day when clouds are crossing the sun and the light coming through the window is almost constantly changing, it doesn’t record unless the dog (or something else) moves.

Sighthound has a number of really nice features, including a built-in webserver which allows you to view it from another computer, tablet, or smartphone. You can port-forward to your computer and access Sighthound from anywhere on the Internet.

Sighthound is, of course, no better than the cameras and computer you are using – if they are poorly set up, unreliable, or have poor connections to the network, Sighthound will fail to work properly. But, if your computer, network, and cameras are reliable, Sighthound can provide outstanding monitoring and alerting for your farm or ranch.

 

A new take on the “WiFi vs. Cellular” question

Guy on the phone on a haybaleEvery so often I run into someone who asks, “Why would I want a WiFi network across my farm? I have a cellphone that will access the Internet anywhere I go…”

It’s kind of a funny argument, for a few reasons:

  1. If you have good cellular data access across your entire farm, you’re in the minority – most people in the rural U.S. and Canada have no or only very slow Internet access via the cellular network on some, most, or all of their properties.
  2. Even if you have Internet access via cellular, it’s almost always slower than WiFi. It’s been my experience that people appreciate WiFi a lot more after they get a smartphone.
  3. Having a local-area network (LAN) enables you to do more than just access the Internet – it allows you to use IP cameras, weather stations, soil sensors, and other devices to keep track of what’s happening on the farm, and even use network-connected relays, grain dryers, irrigation, lighting, and HVAC systems from anywhere on the farm

The cellular service providers (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) originally only used the cellular networks for both voice and data – but the data connections were at “modem-speed” – kilobits per second. Then smartphones (led by the Blackberry and Nokia phones) started to be capable of much more data usage – email and even some web browsing – and phone manufacturers started including WiFi connectivity. Later on, cellular providers offered faster cellular data options (“3G” and “4G”), but modern smartphones still use the cellular network for voice, and the voice network is still separate from the data network. The upshot is that, in many rural areas, you can make or receive voice calls and get or send text messages, but you may not be able to load a web page or send an email unless your have a nearby WiFi network.

A new article in Businessweek points out some new providers are actually turning that model on its head, introducing phones that use the WiFi network by default for voice and data, and only access the cellular network if there is no known WiFi network in range.

Now, I have a cellphone with a data plan, and I pay over $120 per month even though my phone is on WiFi about 90% of the time. If I weren’t traveling all over the place on Ayrstone business, I’d be very tempted to get one of these Republic Wireless or Scratch Wireless phones and save about $80-100 of that bill per month.

For people who have a Wireless Farm Networking system to provide farmwide WiFi, these new phone plans may be very tempting.

What do YOU want for Christmas???

Santa Claus with a big bagWe were curious about that question ourselves, so we commissioned a survey of growers across the corn belt.

We got over 100 responses to our call from Minnesota to Tennessee and Ohio to Nebraska, all across the Midwest.

All things wireless top the list of technology-related gifts that farmers want for Christmas this year. More than 40 percent of those surveyed are putting wireless remote cameras and wireless remote weather station / soil sensors on their lists. And nearly 50 percent would like a wireless farm network that extends up to 7.5 miles from their homes.

Farmers are also frustrated by the lack of connectivity on their farms. In fact, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said they are frustrated that their wireless network does not extend to sheds, grain bins or nearby fields.

Other technology-related gifts that farmers say they want according to the survey include wireless remote grain monitoring, an iPad or other tablet, a new router, and remote thermal imaging.

If you’re worried that Santa might not deliver this year, you might want to take care of yourself: go to ayrstone.com and start a new AyrMesh Network for yourself (or expand your existing network) so you have the wireless access you need!