There is a lot of talk about these technologies – every time I turn around it seems like I’m reading about or hearing an analyst who is saying that these technologies will revolutionize farming with “Internet of Things” devices. And they are exciting.
The attraction for carriers to these technologies is that they can be added easily to an existing cellular (or other wireless) network, using existing backhaul, billing, and other infrastructure. Some of the technologies, like LTE-NB and Cat M1 (which Verizon and AT&T are reportedly testing) just require changes to the LTE station firmware (supposedly).
The appeal of all cellular technologies for solution providers, of course, is that they are easy to install – as long as there is a signal, they just put in an appropriate client radio and a SIM card, and the device starts sending data to a server.
The problem, of course, is that rural cellular networks don’t offer any data services to large parts of the rural U.S. today, and there are areas without even voice service. So there’s a significant investment needed on their part to make these technologies usable across rural America.
But that’s the problem: if you’re the company investing in deploying these technologies, you want to put them where the greatest concentration of potential users are, and that’s in cities. Every power meter, gas meter, water meter, parking meter, flow meter, streetlight, traffic sensor, etc. will be able to connect to the network – there are literally hundreds or thousands of potential connectors per acre in the city, vs. one to ten per acre in the country (except, perhaps, Napa). So, if I’m a shareholder for a cellular company, I do NOT want to hear they are building out rural infrastructure for LoRA or something else – I want them to concentrate in the cities, where those networks are most profitable.
Now, rural WISPs, telephone co-ops, etc. may choose to piggy-back one or more of these technologies on their networks to server local customers. Which WISPs? Which co-ops? Which technology? Your guess is as good as mine, although it is worth mentioning that Senet is a company that’s rolling out LoRA in a few rural areas, for instance. However, their coverage map makes it clear they are concentrating on cities, towns, and some farming areas in Missouri, Arkansas, and California.
Note also that, where there is connectivity, the carriers will want to charge a monthly fee for each device – that’s OK if you have a few devices, but, eventually, believe it or not, you will want to have hundreds of devices on your farm. I am already hearing from growers in specialty crops who have monthly cellular bills of over $1000.
Bottom line: I don’t see these technologies providing any real help to the majority of U.S. growers for the next 5 years, if ever. They will show up in some places as a local option, but it doesn’t pencil out on a national scale.
What does make sense is to put some sort of high-bandwidth wireless network on the farm/ranch (e.g. WiFi of some sort, like AyrMesh) and then, as needed, use WiFi-enabled sensors or run local 802.15.4 networks (e.g. Zigbee, 6LowPAN, Threads, etc.) in the fields for sensor connectivity. The sensors are cheaper, the networks are controlled by the growers, so they cover what needs to be covered, and, since it’s all on the farmer’s LAN, the data can easily be directed to a local server and needn’t leave the farm.
(Note: I’m not actually crazy about ZigBee, but it’s the best and cheapest we have available right now. I’m hoping for better in the future: something like Google’s Threads, but at 900 MHz.)
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, as well as the associated posts on the ezeio and sensor networks, I have focused primarily on IoT hardware: the part you can see and touch, and that touches your farm.
However, in many ways, software is much more important than the hardware. As I observed in Part 2, modern technology products are remarkably similar: a CPU, some memory, some storage, and some peripherals. If the peripheral is a relay, you have a device that can turn things on and off (like a remote-controlled power plug, or a WebRelay). If the peripheral is an “Analog to Digital Converter” (ADC) then the device can monitor sensors and report the values from those sensors. Some devices like the ezeio have both (and even more).
Of course, nothing happens on these devices without software. And software is involved in at least two important places: the software that is running on the devices themselves, sometimes referred to as “firmware,” and the software running on back-end computers (local or cloud servers, PCs, or even your phone or tablet) that is used to store and interpret the results from the devices.
These two pieces of software have to be able to “talk” with each other, and we’ll assume* they do so over your network, with the device connected to your AyrMesh network and the “back-end” software on some sort of cloud-based server on the Internet. Note that the “back-end” software COULD reside on a server on your property if you are using AyrMesh.
What the devices themselves do depends on both the hardware and the firmware on the device – in most cases, that firmware will collect readings from the sensors, upload that information to the back-end server, and, if appropriate, take commands from that server and take action, from turning on a light to starting a pump or a grain auger.
In most cases, that firmware is a closed system – there is no way for you to collect data off or communicate with the device directly, or to direct it to a location other than the vendor’s cloud server. It doesn’t have to be that way, but (1) it’s simpler, and (2) that gives the vendor much more control over the data.
The back-end server usually stores the data and presents it to you (either through a web page or a mobile app, or both). What data you see, how you see it, and what you can do with it depends on that back-end software. It may just present a time series of observations in the field as a graph, it may let you set up simple or complex rules (if the soil moisture is at this level or below, turn on the irrigation system), and it be able to present data in many useful ways (different graphs, superimposed on maps, etc.) and enable very complex control of your farm machinery.
The back-end server is usually a closed system, as well – most times it can only accept data from the vendor’s own devices. Sometimes it may have an “Application Program Interface” (API) that allows it to exchange data with other programs. It may also have the ability to upload data into it for tracking and presentation, or to download data from it for importation into another program. These APIs and import/export mechanisms may be very good, well-written, and well-documented, making them extremely useful. Or they may not. APIs are generally only useful for programmers – it takes code to make them work – but well-written and well-documented APIs can enable even relatively inexperienced programmers to create custom programs to do exactly what you want, and that can be extremely valuable.
On the other hand, back-end software without good APIs and/or import/export features is a “closed box” – what you get is just what you get, and there’s no way to get more or less. Understand, of course, that a closed system like this may do EXACTLY what you need, but, if your needs change, it may suddenly become useless.
Of course, there is also the issue of your data and what happens to it. The terms and conditions for the service may be very clear about what happens to your data, or they may be quite vague. Many of the data services will anonymize and sell the data that you store on their servers (the most unethical may not even anonymize it – beware!). This may concern you or not, depending on the nature of the data and how closely tied to your operation it is. For instance, it is generally valuable to share weather data – if your neighbors do so as well, you can gain a much better insight into the local weather patterns. On the other hand, you may not want to share geo-referenced harvest data – that tells too many people exactly what your land and your harvest is worth. “Fuzzing up” the geo-reference, however, might make it a lot more shareable.
When you are considering new devices to collect data and/or control machinery on the farm, these distinctions between “open” and “closed” systems, and the availability if good, usable APIs may seem abstract. Salespeople for “closed” systems will do their best to minimize the importance of these issues, but it’s absolutely critical. Openness in the device’s firmware means that the devices can be re-purposed to work with another system if you don’t like the vendor’s services, and openness in the back-end database means you can easily get your data and move it where it can be combined with other data and used (e.g. providing it to your agronomist for analysis, or storing it in a system where it can be combined with other data for decision-making).
Being smart about buying new technology for your farm can save you a lot of money in the long term, and a lot of frustration in the short term. We’ll keep an eye out for and report on interesting products that help you on the farm using open technologies.
*some devices connect directly to the network using WiFi or Ethernet, and some devices will have low-power networking (e.g. Zigbee or Google Threads) that use a “gateway” device to connect them to your network (or directly to a public network via cellular or satellite). There are even some that don’t talk to the network at all, using either Bluetooth or an embedded WiFi server to communicate directly with your phone, tablet, or laptop. And, of course, there are still devices that use some sort of flash memory and “sneakernet” (taking the flash memory off the device and walking it to a computer).
A few months ago, I was approached by the folks at eze System, who wanted to know if their ezeio product would work with AyrMesh to help farmers measure conditions on farms and control equipment.
They were kind enough to send me one of the ezeio products so I could try it out. Insofar as it is a standard Ethernet (802.3) product, I had no doubt it would work perfectly with AyrMesh, and, of course, it did – I just connected it to an AyrMesh Receiver with an Ethernet cable and it appeared on my network.
What is cool about the ezeio is that it is a complete package – hardware, firmware, and back-end software – completely integrated and ready to plug in and go. It includes connection points for up to 4 analog inputs (configurable for 0-10V, 4-20mA current loop, S0-pulse, or simple on/off), Modbus devices, Microlan (1-wire) devices, and up to two relay outputs (up to 2 amps). This makes it a very versatile unit for both detecting and controlling things on the farm.
I set mine up on a table to see how it worked. The good folks at eze System included a Microlan temperature probe, so I set up my unit with that connected to the Microlan connector and a couple of LEDs (with a battery) connected to one of the relay outputs.
I then went to their web-based dashboard and started setting things up. It’s pretty simple – you get a login on the dashboard, and you add your ezeio controller. You can then set up the inputs (in my case, the temperature probe) and outputs (the relay) and then set up rules to watch the inputs and take appropriate actions. If you want to see the details, I have put together a slide show for the curious so I don’t have to put it all here.
The bottom line is that I was able to quickly and easily set up a system that checked the temperature continuously and, when the temperature dropped below a certain level, lit up an LED. Big deal, I hear you say, BUT – it could easily have been starting a wind machine or an irrigation pump or some other machine, and it could have been triggered by a tank level switch or a soil moisture sensor or some other sensor or set of sensors. It also enables me to control those devices manually over the Internet, using a web browser, without having to “port forward” on my router.
The ezeio is a very powerful yet easy-to-use device which, in conjunction with the web service behind it, enables you to very easily set up monitoring and automation on your farm. For the do-it-yourselfer, it is a great way to get started on employing the Internet of Things (IoT) on your farm. Even if you’re not inclined to take this on yourself, any decent networking technician can easily set up your AyrMesh network and the ezeio to help around the farm.
In Part 1, I talked a little bit about the vision for the internet of things, but I didn’t really define what I meant by the internet of things.
What I’m talking about when I talk about the Internet of Things is a profusion of small devices that are all connected to the network and therefore to the Internet. Whereas most of the things in your home that are connected to the network have keyboards and screens and are meant for you to interact with, I’m talking about things that instead have sensors and relays and actuators. In most cases, you won’t interact with them at all. They’ll just work automatically in the background either gathering data for you or controlling equipment. Most of these things you’ll set up and never touch them again, but they’ll be working quietly in the background for you day and night.
If you are as old as I am (and I hope you’re not!), you remember the first wave of personal computers: the Apple II, the CP/M machines like the Kaypro and Osborne, and the original IBM PC – these were amazing because they were real computers that could do useful things (spreadsheets, word processing, and calling bulletin board systems) but were small (the size of a suitcase, more or less) and inexpensive (a few thousand dollars – in the 1980s) enough for home use.
Raspberry Pi Zero – $5
The kinds of computers that we are talking about here are significantly smaller (typically the size of a credit card) and significantly less expensive (most under $100, many of them less than $10), even though they have 10-100x the computing power of those early personal computers. Instead of keyboards and screens, they have network ports and connections for various sensors and/or actuators; most can run for hours or days on a small battery – some can run for months. They can sit in in a tiny place, collecting data and transmitting it to the network, or waiting for a command to do something, for years.
Simple Air Temperature Sensor
Decagon Soil Sensor
There are also a wide variety of sensors available, from simple temperature or humidity sensors to weather sensors like anemometers and rain buckets to advanced soil sensors that can measure soil temperature, moisture, and electrical conductivity. There are even sensors for UV radiation, leaf wetness, and chemicals in air and water.
Simple small relay
But these little devices can do more than just sit passively measuring conditions. Devices can also be connected to allow them to take action, from simply turning something on to controlling complex machinery automatically. For instance, it is fairly simple to use a simple, small relay to turn an electrical machine on or off.
Raven PWM Valve
Multiple relays can be used for multiple devices, and relays come from very small, low-power devices to very high-power solid-state relays for switching very heavy loads. Many of these computers, however, also have the ability to output Pulse-Width Modulated (PWM) signals to control variable-rate devices like valves (control pressure through a water valve for irrigation or a hydraulic valve for controlling machinery) and pumps.
75 Amp Solid-State Relay
What ties it all together, of course, is two things: a network and software (both on the device and acting as some sort of “back end” to store and manage the data coming from these devices). Without software, any computer, even a $5 one, is just dead weight; without a network, it’s just sitting out in the field collecting data it can’t move to someplace it can be useful.
We know how to build the network – what Ayrstone does is give you the ability to build a strong, standards-based wireless network across your farm – and in part 3 we’ll consider the software part.
Much has been written about the use of remote sensors in farming, with soil sensors leading the way. I think it’s worthwhile to understand how these sensors work and what options are available
We have highlighted some of these products (gThrive, Farmx, Edyn), and there are others coming up including Cropx and AgSmarts that we have not been able to evaluate in depth yet, although they are very promising and appear to be more focused on “mainstream” agriculture rather than specialty crops.
The soil sensor people understand that, to have soil sensors near the plants, you have to have sensors that are battery-powered (because you don’t get enough sun under the canopy to use solar). Because of that, most soil sensors use a low-power radio system; many use a “Personal-Area Network,” usually based on the 802.15.4 low-power, low-bandwidth meshing standard. These networks allow the sensors to use very little power so the batteries can last for months or even years. Additionally, the bandwidth (the amount of radio spectrum they use) is so low that they can transmit a very long distance with minimal power – frequently hundreds of yards – and the meshing capability means they can cover a very large area in a couple of hops. So these sensor networks actually ARE practical for gathering data from sensors, even in a very large field.
gThrive sensors and gLink gateway – Courtesy of gThrive
However, these systems, just like your home WiFi network, require a “gateway” device out in the field to connect them to the larger network (your AyrMesh network or the Internet). The Edyn sensor is an exception, because it connects directly to your WiFi network, but it is primarily aimed at gardeners, not commercial agriculture. Davis Instruments uses the weather station as the Gateway device, which makes it simple, but it does not use a meshing system, which limits how many sensors you can deploy. For almost all systems, sensors are not directly on your network or the Internet – the field network is a special network that only “talks” to the gateway device, and the gateway device “talks” to a normal Internet Protocol network – and that is usually a cellular modem connected to the Internet.
A Gateway device for your sensor network (possibly multiple gateway devices if you want sensors in multiple fields), and
Cellular subscriptions for each gateway device.
This is a lot of “commitment” before you even figure out how to effectively use the sensors and the data that comes from them – thousands of dollars just to get started plus a monthly or annual commitment to get the data. These systems are being marketed primarily to folks growing wine grapes in California or vegetables in Arizona – high-value crops with severe water costs and restrictions.
There are changes coming, of course, but there are also ways to get started now with less commitment.
First, if you’re growing a few acres of cut flowers, organic vegetables, or other high-value, high-intensity crops, the Edyn system may be very useful. Put an AyrMesh Hub near your field and deploy the Edyn sensors and valves controllers. You don’t have to save a lot of time and water to justify the expense.
Davis Weather Envoy, courtesy of Davis Instruments
Second, Davis Instruments has a nice system that they don’t advertise much. Their Wireless Weather Envoy datalogger can be connected to any Ethernet network (e.g. a Remote AyrMesh Hub, an AyrMesh Receiver, or an AyrMesh Bridge) using their Weatherlink IP module. It can then connect to their Soil Sensor Station, which has up to four soil moisture and soil temperature probes. It will also connect to a Vantage Vue wireless weather station, which is a very high-quality, low-cost, integrated weather instrument cluster that you can put up in any field in a matter of minutes. There’s a small annual fee for their cloud-based Weatherlink service, but it makes the system VERY easy to use.
If you need more soil sensors, they also build an Envoy 8x, which has the ability to simultaneously “talk” to up to 8 stations – weather stations or soil stations – within about 1000 yards.
Either the Wireless Weather Envoy or the Envoy 8x can be tucked into the cabinet of the Tycon remote power system we recommend for field Hubs, Receivers, or Bridge radios, and powered from the auxiliary power output on that system.
Third, if you do want to deploy many soil sensors using a system like gThrive or Farmx, you can connect the gateways in each field to an AyrMesh devvice to avoid exorbitant cellular fees for each gateway device. Their gateway devices have Ethernet ports, so they can be connected directly to an AyrMesh Remote Hub, Receiver, or Bridge unit, and you can skip the cellular bills.
We’ll have more on weather and soil sensors – if you have questions or comments, please leave them here (for public response) or contact us.
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: