I was interested to read about the new partnership between John Deere and SpaceX to provide Starlink connectivity to John Deere machinery in the U.S. and Brazil.
On one level, it makes good sense – Starlink is already providing high-bandwidth connectivity for farmers across the U.S., so extending that to their farm equipment makes perfect sense.
In point of fact, we have been connecting customers’ machines to Starlink for several years – the AyrMesh system of stationary AyrMesh Hubs and mobile AyrMesh Cab Hubs can connect any Internet access – including Starlink – to your machines, regardless of what brand machines you use.
One of the stated goals of this effort is to better enable autonomy for John Deere’s equipment. This is a good idea for a single machine out in the field, as is currently the usual case in small grains, corn, and soybeans.
However, it’s easy to imagine a future in which multiple machines are working in the same field, in which they have to communicate with each other. If they have to communicate through the satellite, even though SpaceX’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites offer much lower latency than the older geosynchronous satellites, it’s much higher latency than a terrestrial solution. For minimum latency, of course, the key is to keep the data moving on the farm without moving it through the Internet at all, which is only possible using a high-speed, high-bandwidth Local Area Network (LAN). Using a solution like the AyrMesh network is the only way to keep that latency to a minimum.
My other critique of this is that it adds another subscription (for the Starlink terminal), adding to operational cost. I think this is an important advantage we bring to this: AyrMesh is a purchased system, so it helps growers keep operational costs at a minimum.
Criticism aside, I’m very encouraged that Deere is thinking much more seriously about the importance of having their machinery on the Internet, and using Starlink is a bold and intriguing way to accomplish it. As autonomous devices make their way into the mainstream of agriculture, we’ll be there to help make it practical and affordable.
Years ago when we were starting Ayrstone, we introduced the idea of “Beyond the last mile.” There was (and continues to be) a lot of talk about the “last mile problem,” because it’s very expensive to run cable, wire, or fiber from a major line to each house in rural areas. Wireless ISPs, cellular carriers, and satellite Internet providers have filled in quite a bit to solve the “last mile,” with results of varying quality. But getting broadband Internet to the home or business office – solving the “last mile” problem – doesn’t fulfill the needs of most farmers, ranchers, and others working in rural environments – they need broadband access beyond that “last mile.” Back in the early days of Ayrstone, one of our beta customers remarked: “We should have gotten together and bought the local spectrum and started our own cellular service.”
It’s an interesting idea, but probably would never have worked then – the carriers would probably have bid up the price of the local spectrum just to prevent anyone else from having it – in the early days of cellular broadband, no one knew exactly how valuable spectrum was going to be, and carriers paid some outrageous amounts for spectrum they never used.
Now the cellular market is much more mature and the carriers are much more careful about where they spend their money; in addition, the FCC set aside some spectrum in the 3.5 GHz. band called “CBRS” – Citizens Broadband Radio Service – also known as “LTE Band 48” – as “unlicensed” (although still regulated) spectrum that can be used to create private or public LTE and 5G networks.
This means that my friend’s idea of setting up a private cellular network is actually feasible – companies are doing it now to create private, hybrid, and public cellular networks for a variety of reasons. In particular, companies are building out private cellular networks to provide cellular service outside the enterprise network but still in a company-controlled network environment. It ends up being similar to a WiFi network – companies control the network and access to it – but using cellular technology.
There is another big upside to private cellular: because cellular equipment can use higher power and larger antennas, the cells can offer wider coverage and can be placed further apart than even high-power, high-gain WiFi access points like AyrMesh Hubs.
However, there are some rather extensive downsides for rural use:
Cellular equipment is much more expensive than WiFi equipment, as well as more complex and difficult to install and maintain. It requires significantly more planning and skill to set up and maintain a cellular network.
CBRS is in the 3500 MHz. band, while WiFi is in the 2400 MHz. band – higher frequencies are more prone to fading at distance and more susceptible to obstructions to the Fresnel zone.
While CBRS is unlicensed, it is still regulated. There are still licensed users (Priority Access Licenses, or PAL) in the spectrum, and you may be forced to move frequencies away from them if you use the free General Availability Access (GAA) license. If you are trying to set up a network across a large area, it may be desirable to get a license to keep others off the frequency.
You’ll need to deal with getting SIM cards for all the devices you want to allow on the private network, and manage the provisioning and access controls for those devices.
The “beyond the last mile” problem is a very real one for farming and ranching, as well as other rural enterprises. Private cellular is one of the solutions available IF you have access to the money and skills necessary to build and maintain a cellular network. WiFi, like Ayrstone’s AyrMesh, remains a more practical solution for most rural residents and businesses.
I have considered tillage to be the activity most ready for automation, so I had applauded Bear Flag’s emphasis on tillage and Deere’s decision to acquire them and offer an autonomous 8R for tillage. I’ll be interested to see how this goes… it’s coming at a time when no-till or strip-till is increasingly popular, but there’s still a lot of the world still digging up fields.
Planting and harvest are difficult, complex, and time-sensitive tasks, so I expect they will be the last to be automated, but that still leaves spraying and cultivating. GUSS out here in California is already out spraying orchards, and, again, I think Deere was smart to acquire Blue River for their vision-based weeding system. It’s not ready to be a blockbuster product this year, but I can certainly see a future where weeding (and possibly other pest control) is done by a self-driving machine. The autonomous farm won’t be a complete “rip-and-replace” operation – I expect we’ll see it come one piece at a time, slowly replacing human labor, just as it has for the last 200 years.
In truth, once you are liberated from having to drive the machine, of course, you can actually employ more machines. You can have multiple large machines, like the Deere 8R tractor or the Raven (now Case) Omnipower platform, working in different fields, or you could conceivably start replacing some of them with swarms of small, nimble machines like the prototype Fendt Xaver seeder or the Australian Swarmfarm sprayer.
However, having multiple machines in the field requires that they be able to communicate with each other and, possibly, with a central server. That communications must be both low-latency (to avoid delays and collisions) and high-bandwidth (to ensure that they can “speak freely” – at times they’ll need to communicate a lot of information). There are a lot of pundits out there telling us that “5G will solve everything” – and the technical specs tell us that could be absolutely true. That leaves only one important question: do you have 5G on your farm today?
If you’re in the 95% or so who answer “no” to that question, you might want to consider another solution – a solution that might even be better. Meshing WiFi was originally designed to enable “Mobile Ad-Hoc Networks” or “MANETs” – exactly what these devices are using in the field. Instead of waiting for a carrier (or several – many farmers I know require two or more phones, because one carrier covers one part of the farm and a different carrier covers another) to come and plant a 5G network on your property, you can start establishing a WiFi network across your property using AyrMesh Hubs and AyrMesh Cab Hubs for your vehicles.
The advantages of using WiFi include:
You control the network: what gets covered and who gets to use it
It uses your existing Internet connection – no extra charges
It connects to your existing LAN – you can put servers on your network so data need not leave your farm
It’s standard, so it works with everything, from your laptop to cameras to low-cost soil sensors and controllers… including robots
It will get better with time – new versions of WiFi will bring advantages.
This is an exciting time for farming – things are going to change pretty quickly, and there will be real advantages for those who adopt new technologies. The AyrMesh network provides a “backbone” that allows you to adopt those technologies easily, and we’re eager to work with the companies that are producing these new technologies to maximize the value they bring to farmers.
Every day here at Ayrstone we get calls from people whose AyrMesh Hubs, Bridges, or Receivers don’t work. And, in fairness, once in a while we have a dud – a device that escapes into the wild not working as it should. However, that’s not very common.
It’s far more frequent that the problem lies in the customer’s network – the network on one side or the other of the Hub, Bridge, or Receiver. And we want to help – we love to help – however, unfortunately, we are here and your network is there – we are very limited in the ways we can help.
The good news is that, in my opinion, networking is very much like plumbing. There are times to call a pro, but the vast majority of jobs can be easily and quickly done, and you don’t even have to invest in specialized wrenches. Knowing some basic network troubleshooting is useful whether you’re using AyrMesh or not – bad things occasionally happen, even to good networks.
There are three types of problems we most commonly run into on customer’s networks – I’ll explain them and how to fix them.
The first problem arises when a Hub, Receiver, or Bridge radio just fails to light up. An advanced case is where the radio lights up but, in the case of a Gateway, does not show up in the router’s DHCP table or, in the case of a Remote, the device shows up in AyrMesh.com and on the router’s DHCP table, but the devices connected to it cannot communicate with the Internet. The first suspect in these cases is a bad Ethernet cable.
If you look closely at the RJ-45 plug on the end of an Ethernet cable, you can see that the cable consists of 8 small wires. 4 of these wires carry the power to the device, if appropriate, and 4 of these wires are used for communications. If one of the wires is broken, either the device will not get enough power, or it will get power but won’t be able to communicate with what’s at the other end of the cable.
Happily, Ethernet cable testers are readily available online and at most home supply stores (Home Depot, Lowe’s, Menard’s, etc.). They are very easy to use: they have two pieces; each piece plugs into one end of the Ethernet cable and then it just sends electricity down each wire and shows whether or not it sees the electricity at each end. If one of the lights doesn’t light up, you know that the cable is bad.
One hint: the “badness” is most frequently at the RJ-45 plug – you can recover most cables from replacing the RJ-45 connectors. You need to have RJ-45 connectors and a crimping tool; inexpensive crimping tools require a LOT of strength to get a good crimp, and more expensive tools have ratcheting action to increase the mechanical advantage. One other hint: some rodents seem to like the taste of Ethernet cables.
The second case is when you are working on some device on the network and the network just suddenly stops – you can’t get to the Internet or any of your local devices. I’ll volunteer that this happens to me a lot, especially with some WiFi cameras, printers, and even some older laptops. I’ll have the device connected with an Ethernet cable, and I’ll go to configure the WiFi. I’ll put in the SSID and the encryption passkey and… everything stops. And it typically takes me a minute to think about it – I have the Ethernet connected to the network, and I just connected to the network with the WiFi… I have created a Network loop!
What happens is that the traffic between the device and your router suddenly starts going down both interfaces (Ethernet and WiFi), and the router starts acknowledging and answering that traffic down both interfaces. The device suddenly is getting twice as much information from the router, so it acknowledges that information, generating a multiple of the original data, and it goes on until the network reaches capacity and your router just stops. This is called a “broadcast storm” – because the traffic expands exponentially, it brings things to a halt remarkably quickly.
The solution, of course, it very simple: disconnect one interface, and the network will start working again. But, if you’re like me, it can take a few minutes to remember exactly what you did before everything stopped working.
Two notes: many newer devices automatically cut off traffic to the WiFi port if they detect that there is traffic on the Ethernet port, thereby preventing you from creating the network loop. However, network loops can be pretty subtle; for instance, having two Hubs or an AyrMesh Hub and an older AyrMesh Receiver (newer Receivers turn off the WiFi port if they’re connected to the router via Ethernet) connected to your router via Ethernet at once (for instance, initializing a device without unplugging your Gateway Hub) can cause a loop as they connect via their wireless, and other devices can surprise you as well. The strangest one we have seen was a user who had a low-power “Zigbee” type device to link to sensors in the field. He had a second device connected to an AyrMesh Receiver in another field to “talk” to the sensors in that field. However, the sensors were a meshing type, and could “talk” to each other, and sensors in the two fields would occasionally make contact with each other, causing a network loop. That took some time to figure out…
The last common problem we see is IP address conflicts – two or more devices on your local network with the same IP address.
Each device on your network must have a unique address. If your router detects two different devices with the same IP address, it will just shut down, or at least shut down one port. The good news here is that the AyrMesh equipment can’t CAUSE an IP address conflict; the bad news is that they also cannot PREVENT an IP address conflict.
There are a number of ways in which an IP address conflict can occur, but, by far, the two most common ways are:
Someone setting up equipment on the network provides a “hard-coded” or “static” IP address to a device (instead of that device using DHCP to automatically receive an address from the router), and they use an address that is (1) already in use, (2) in the range of addresses the router can use to assign to devices automatically via DHCP, known as the “DHCP range,” or (3) they use an address that is outside the router’s DHCP range and then, at some point, the router is reconfigured and the address is within the DHCP range. If the same address is given to two devices, then the network (or at least part of the network) halts immediately. If a static address is assigned within the DHCP range of the router, then, eventually, the router will assign that address to some other device, at which time there will be a conflict and at least port of the network will halt immediately.
Someone sets up a second router on the network that is configured to use the same IP subnet as the primary router. The router’s address (typically 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.1.1) may conflict directly with the primary router’s address, which will bring the network down quickly, or the router will eventually assign an IP address via DHCP that is identical to another device with an address assigned via DHCP by the primary router, and the network will come to a halt.
To the first point, we STRONGLY recommend against using static addresses on any equipment, because almost all modern routers enable “DHCP reservations” or “dynamic static addresses” or something like that, by which the router is configured to provide the same IP address to a particular device every time. This means that the router is aware of all the devices on the network and won’t accidentally give two of them the same IP address, but critical devices (e.g. IP cameras, grain dryers, etc.) always have the same IP address on your network, so you can do things like “port-forward” to them and know they’ll always respond.
To the second point, setting up a second router is not very difficult, AS LONG AS you understand the basics of IP addressing and IP subnets. For instance, if your main router has the LAN address 192.168.0.1, it is creating a network with the subnet 192.168.0.1 to 192.168.0.254 – the first three numbers are always the same, indicating they are all on the same network, and the third number is unique to each device. So the easy way to use a second router is to set it up with the address 192.168.2.1 (outside the IP subnet of the first network because the third number is different), so it will create a different subnetwork with addresses 192.168.2.1 to 192.168.2.254 – no conflicts!
You can also segment your IP subnet between the two routers by setting the first router to serve, for instance 192.168.1.1 to 192.168.1.128 and the second router serve 192.168.1.129 to 192.168.1.254, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this article.
This knowledge can help you debug the vast majority of problems you find on your network. We can offer a few simple rules based on this:
Make sure your cables are good. An old joke goes, “The hardest part of wireless networking is the wires!” It’s funny because it’s true… and you can now buy short, good Ethernet cables at home supply stores for testing. If you replace a cable with a short, known-good cable and the device works, you know the cable you replaced is bad, even without a cable tester.
When connecting devices, or changing from connecting via Ethernet to connecting via WiFi (like a WiFi camera), keep your wits about you. If the network stops, disconnect one interface.
Avoid using static IP addresses – use DHCP reservations for devices that need unchanging IP addresses.
Don’t use additional routers on your network. If you need WiFi in a remote location, use a WiFi access point (ASUS routers and some others can be configured in “AP mode” or “Bridge mode” to turn the routing part off). If you need additional Ethernet ports, use an Ethernet switch.
An AyrMesh user recently made me aware of a relatively new product that’s now available: StepsGMS. StepsGMS is a WiFi-capable Grain Bin Management System that works with the AyrMesh WiFi system. In talking to the folks at StepsGMS, I realized that we had a lot in common. In particular, we both want to bring high-quality products to the ag market at the lowest possible prices. We are both focused on helping farmers improve productivity, and we both want to help growers maintain control of their farm data.
Eli Troyer, owner of StepsGMS, is a veteran in grain bin management. He realized that current technology allowed him to develop a much lower-cost grain bin management system using WiFi. He didn’t even know about Ayrstone at the time, but realized it would not be that difficult to get WiFi out to most farmers’ grain bins. His initial thought was that you could even use a cellular “hotspot” device if there was cell coverage nearby.
However, if you have an AyrMesh network, you can use the StepsGMS products with your existing Internet connection and avoid any additional cellular subscriptions.
Although they are primarily focused on grain bin management, their products have uses well outside just that. Their WiFi Temperature Sensor can be used to measure temperatures anywhere on the farm or ranch: bins, tanks, piles (hay, silage, manure, compost etc.), even soil temperature. The Smart Switch (comes in Indoor or Outdoor packages) can be used to turn on and off anything on the farm – ventilation fans, lights, heaters, pumps, etc.
These products are controlled by their app (available for IOS or Android devices) – you can see demos of the app and what it can do on their Facebook page.
We are very proud to introduce the second member of our new “Compact” product line – the AyrMesh ReceiverC.
This new Receiver combines most of the power of our “regular” Receiver with a much smaller form factor. It performs at least as well as the “big” Receiver at distances under 1 mile, and still works well at distances up to 2 miles from the nearest Hub.
We were motivated to bring out the AyrMesh ReceiverC by observing that the vast majority of our customers were mounting AyrMesh Receivers within 1 mile of the nearest AyrMesh Hub, and the power from the AyrMesh Receiver was actually overwhelming the AyrMesh Hub. While we have the ability to reduce the transmit power of the Receiver (and the ReceiverC, by the way), the higher-gain antennae on the Receiver sometimes made it impossible to put it on outbuildings very near the Hub.
The ReceiverC is actually a more flexible version of the AyrMesh Receiver, and, as an added bonus, actually is a little less expensive. Please take a look at it for your next AyrMesh addition.
The Hub2x2C is something of a departure for us – a more compact, slightly lower-power Hub with lower-gain antennas, built not for absolute maximum range but to provide continuous WiFi for smaller to medium-sized rural operations.
The AyrMesh Hub2x2C is a response to a problem we have been seeing from our customers: the ability to put Hubs 2.5 miles apart is great for covering a lot of acreage, but the “normal” Hubs don’t work well if they are LESS than 1 mile apart – they overpower each other. However, at 1 mile or more apart, the Hubs are really providing “pools” of WiFi around them, because lower-power devices may only have a usable range of a few hundred yards. There are frequently areas between the Hubs that are, effectively, uncovered for a lower-power device.
The new AyrMesh Hub2x2C can be placed half a mile apart, meaning that even a device with a maximum range of 400 yards can have continuous coverage, passing cleanly from one Hub to the next at the extent of its range.
When we first developed the AyrMesh Hubs, the predominant WiFi device was a large, sturdy laptop, with a “normal” strength WiFi radio and fairly large (although hidden) WiFi antennas. We were actually surprised at how far the Hubs allowed a device like this to communicate – typically half a mile, sometimes further.
As WiFi cameras came out, they used similar WiFi adapters as laptops and generally had similar range. Many had (and still have) removable external antennas that can be replaced with higher-gain antennas to even longer range.
However, now the predominant WiFi device is the smartphone, which uses a lower-power WiFi radio to save battery power, and has smaller antennas to minimize their size. And, on top of that, we’re seeing a new generation of “truly wireless” cameras run off batteries – again, using lower-power WiFi radios and frequently without an option for a higher-gain antenna. While a standard laptop might be able to use the Hub from half a mile or more away, these low-power devices will typically only have about half that range – 400 yards or so.
In the fields of a large farm, the problem of limited WiFi range is solved by use of the AyrMesh Cab Hub2 – the Cab Hub2 is easily fitted to tractors, combines, sprayers, pickups – even utility vehicles – to keep the vehicle and occupants in touch with the stationary Hubs.
On smaller farms and rural businesses, however, workers are frequently on foot, so the Cab Hub is not very practical.
The new AyrMesh Hub2x2C Hubs can be placed as close as 800 yards apart (even closer in some instances – we can reduce the transmit power) to completely cover an area in WiFi. Note, however, that they can still be positioned up to 2 miles apart (with reduced bandwidth), and you can still put up to three “circles” of Hubs around the Gateway Hub. So the new Hub2x2C can still be used to “light up” thousands of acres.
One question that has come up is the range from the new Hub to “ordinary” WiFi devices – the answer is that, at least in our testing, it is unchanged relative to the “big” Hubs. The range to phones, tablets, laptops, etc. is primarily determined by the transmit power and antenna quality of the device, not the Hub – we actually found no measurable difference between the performance of the Hub2x2C and the Hub2x2 and Hub2T for WiFi – the only real difference is in meshing with other Hubs.
Please have a look at the new Hub2x2C – it’s a great option for most rural WiFi users!
We do occasional questionnaires and surveys to determine what our users want to do with their outdoor WiFi systems, and “security” and “cameras” have consistently been at the top of the list. So every few months I buy some new cameras and test them out here in the lab. I want to share with you my notes on the cameras we have sitting around here and what we’re still looking at. Spoiler alert: we haven’t found the perfect camera for farm/ranch security use yet.
The first category is “traditional IP cameras” – these are cameras that are pretty much self-contained and have more or less standard interfaces. They are “stand alone” devices that come up on your network and work. They are (mostly) very easy to integrate into an existing security system or home automation system, because they use standards like ONVIF and RTSP. These all require constant power, usually via a “wall wart” power supply, although some use Power over Ethernet (PoE).
Cheap Ebay Camera
Foscam cameras – these are simple, older IP cameras with VGA (640×480) resolution and WiFi. There were also many clones that were similar and used the same firmware, available cheap on Ebay. They aren’t available any more, as far as I know, and they’re quite outdated, the picture quality is not good, but they were very simple to use. You might still find some clones on Ebay, but I wouldn’t bother given the choices that area available now.
Ubiquiti Cameras and NVR, courtesy of Ubiquiti Networks
Ubiquiti AirCams – I used to have a couple of these, but I have never found a way to use them effectively. Ubiquiti created a whole “system” with an NVR and cameras, but it was (in my opinion) good but never great. Their cameras didn’t do WiFi (all wired), and I lost interest in them. Apparently Ubiquiti did, too, as they seem to have discontinued the entire product line. There are still a lot of them available online, and they are a good choice for a building with Ethernet infrastructure.
Axis indoor camera
Axis M1030 and M1031 cameras – Axis products are generally considered the “best” IP cameras available, but the low-cost “M” series are the only ones that are WiFi-capable. The models I have are old and have been replaced by updated versions, which are undoubtedly even better. These are my “workhorse” cameras that keep an eye on things inside our lab buildings, but they can’t be used outdoors at all. Axis makes a very broad variety of cameras, but none of the outdoor cameras use WiFi, so they have to be used with an AyrMesh Receiver. They are relatively expensive, but very, very good.
Amcrest cameras – Amcrest came out a few years ago with some remarkably high-quality, outdoor, WiFi-capable cameras. We have had one at our back door for a couple of years now, and it has been absolutely flawless and has a very nice picture. They are comparable to the low-end Axis cameras at a much lower price; in addition, they are outdoor and WiFi-ready. They use ONVIF and standard RTSP, so they are relatively easy to integrate into an existing NVR and/or security system. These are generally my “go-to” cameras – I recommend them quite a lot. The only shortcomings are that they are “traditional” IP cameras, requiring constant external power, so they’re not easily deployed away from a power source. However, they are my absolute favorite “traditional” IP camera for use where there is a source of power. You can easily buy them on Amazon.
Vivotek IB8369A camera
Vivotek– I have a nice outdoor Vivotek IB8369A camera. It’s a very nice camera, and Vivotek has a very large line of very high-quality cameras. I was interested because it was one of the first cameras I had seen that had more advanced “object detection” capability – much more accurate than the algorithm in most cameras at detecting people and animals moving into the scene. And it works well, but they do not make any WiFi-capable cameras. So the Vivotek has remained connecte to our network, but I don’t generally recommend them, especially now that advanced object detection is becoming available on other cameras.
The second category is “App-centric Cameras” – cameras that depend on an app to provide the “brains” of the camera.
The first of these was the “Dropcam,” which was acquired by Nest and Google. I was an “early adopter” of the Dropcam, later to become the Nest camera, and I found it to be very handy. However, it did not integrate into any home security system (until Nest introduced their own), they did not introduce an outdoor camera for years after the first, indoor camera, and the only way it can be used to detect motion and provide alerts is by paying a monthly fee to Google. Ring (now part of Amazon) came out with similar cameras, with similar shortcomings.
I bought a Wyze camera soon after they came out because I was intrigued by their price point: $20 for a good, simple, indoor camera, or $30 for one with pan-and-tilt capability. And I have been delighted with them: they can do motion detection and alterting, and you can easily access them through the very good Wyze app. They use a micro-SD card to store video on the camera, so you don’t have to have a subscription. They are currently my “go-to” for simple indoor cameras (e.g. folks who just want to see what’s going on in their house when they’re gone). They have introduced an outdoor camera, but it really belongs in the next category.
I also got a camera that touts itself as being much more capable in terms of locating motion: the SimCam Alloy 1S. This is a camera that uses a Passive InfraRed sensor to detect movement, and then uses advanced software techniques (which they call “artificial intelligence”) to identify people and other items in the camera’s view. So far, it has identfied me, the dog, and the cat next door as “person,” so I am not sure how well the person identification works. It’s a good little camera, and they have introduced a battery-operated indoor version. If they introduce a battery-operated outdoor version with a solar panel, I’ll certainly want to look at it.
The third category is “Battery-operated cameras” – these are app-centric cameras that can be installed remotely, without a power outlet. This is a very tricky category – there are a fair number of variations on this theme, but they are (so far) none that “look” like standard IP cameras. All are app-dependent, but most of them use local storage to avoid having to use “the cloud” to store video after a motion detection event. In order to minimize battery usage, they depend on a Passive InfraRed (PIR) sensor to detect movement, which then turns the camera on until the movement is done. You can get alerts through the camera’s app, and then access the video stored on the micro-SD card on the camera itself. However, none of these are currently capable of being integrated with a “traditional” security system, although some are able to integrate with popular home automation systems like Alexa and Google Assistant.
The first camera I used in this category was the Reolink Argus, which runs on four small “CR123” batteries. I was delighted with this camera for about 3 weeks (I had it mounted out where I was having some critter troubles, and it captured lovely video of a rat running around). I replaced the batteries, and, about 3 weeks later, it died. I then got some lithium 16340 batteries and a charger (the camera requires four). They lasted about 2 weeks between charges, and I was starting to get tired of changing the batteries when it had another problem: the latch holding the micro SD card broke, so it would no longer store video. It does not integrate with any “normal” security system, and it doesn’t have a way to integrate other power sources (e.g. a solar panel to keep the batteries charged), so it is currently sitting on a shelf.
I then saw a relatively inexpensive solar-powered camera on Aliexpress.com and decided based on the specifications to give it a try. There were two immediate downsides: first, it shipped with incredibly bad batteries – they died and would not hold a charge after only 2 days. I replaced the batteries with known-good 18650 batteries and it has worked fine ever since. The second problem is that it depends on an app which is published by someone who is unknown (at least to me) and does not seem to be of the highest quality. That said, it has been working pretty reliably for a few months now.
Reolink Argus Eco
Reolink then released their Reolink Argus Eco, which, when paired with the optional solar panel, is functionally very similar to the camera above. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast with the “generic” camera above. It was a little more difficult to mount, since the camera and solar panel are separate, but worked essentially the same. The app comes from Reolink, which I found encouraging.
As noted, the performance of these two cameras is very similar. When they have a tight view of a somewhat secluded area (e.g. looking at a door from across the yard) they work very well – they alert every time someone walks through the scene with very few false alerts. When they are looking at a wider area with a lot of different things in the picture, they both generate a lot of false alerts. For instance, I have the Reolink in my brother’s front yard, looking at his cars in the driveway, and I get almost constant alerts from it when the wind is blowing, because it “sees” the branches of the trees moving. I had tested the inexpensive Chinese camera in his back yard and saw the same problem. I put the inexpensive Chinese camera in my back yard and pointed it at the back door, however, and it worked perfectly.
There’s not a single camera I can recommend without reservations. The Amcrest cameras are very good traditional IP cameras, and they integrate well with many traditional home security systems, but they require constant power and careful consideration around IP address planning (including router configuration) if you want to use them with an NVR or from outside your network.
The Wyze indoor cameras are so good and so inexpensive that they’re definitely my current choice for indoor cameras if you don’t need to integrate in with a traditional home security system. Their app is very good, and provides good alerts on motion, as well as good “on-demand” viewing. Unfortunately, they recently introduced an outdoor camera that, due to its design and the reviews I have read, I’m going to decline to test. They are going in a lot of directions right now, and not all of them will be successful, and I hope they “double back” and build a good, simple, outdoor solar-powered camera without the complications of the “Gateway module” and yet another wireless network.
Similarly, I like the Reolink Argus Eco for use in outdoor locations where there’s no power. Just turn off the motion detection and notifications if you need to use it in an area where there’s likely to be a lot of extra motion due to wind or other factors. There are a huge number and variety of similar cameras coming out of China – perhaps we can modify one or more of them to optimize it for rural use.
I’m going to keep looking and testing cameras here with an eye toward what works on the farm or ranch. Of course, I’m always eager to hear about what you have found, what you are using, and what you’re not using any more (successes and failures). Next up for me is the “EyeCube” – I’ll let you know how it goes.
This is a bit of a departure from our other blog posts – I like to talk mostly about up-to-the minute practical stuff you can start using right away. Today, however, I’m going to point out some upcoming technology trends that appear to have no connection to farming, but I think will end up being profoundly useful.
WiFi 6 is the new marketing name for 802.11ax, the next generation WiFi standard. Briefly, we have seen 802.11b (2.4 GHz only, WEP security which did not turn out to be secure at all, up to 11 Mbps), 802.11a (similar to b, but on 5.8 GHz and up to 54 Mbps), 802.11g (2.4 GHz. with OFDM for up to 54 Mbps and WPA for real security), 802.11n (dual-band with MIMO for greater bandwidth and range and even better security with WPA2 – this is what the AyrMesh Hub2 series is based on – now re-named “WiFi 4”), and 802.11ac (also called “WiFi 5” – 5.8 GHz only with fallback to 802.11n for 2.4 GHz, with MU-MIMO at the access point to optimize bandwidth to more devices and wider channels to increase bandwidth over short range – not useful at all for long-range outdoor use).
802.11ax brings several improvements to WiFi that I think are important:
OFDMA and 1024-QAM modulation for greater bandwidth through the same channel bandwidth. For maximum range (given statutory limitations in total output power) you want to use the narrowest channel bandwidth possible. This allows us to push more data through the same channel bandwidth.
Breaking the channels into smaller pieces to make OFDMA work, called “Resource Units” or “RUs.” This also opens the possibility of using fewer RUs to create even narrower channels for longer-range, lower-bandwidth connections, similar to LPWAN networks like 802.15.4 (Zigbee, Threads, etc.) or LoRa.
Target Wake Time (TWT) – this is a trick borrowed from 802.11ah and LPWAN systems – it allows devices to sleep efficiently and coordinate with access points to shorten the amount of time the radio has to be on, drastically reducing the amount of power required, especially for devices that are transmitting small amounts of data at sporadic intervals (e.g. sensors and other IoT devices).
Download and upload MU-MIMO – maximizing the bandwidth between the AP and the client in both directions (not just transmitting from the AP to the client).
Taken together, these improvements in WiFi 6 will improve on-farm WiFi in two important ways:
Increasing the bandwidth available (through OFDMA and MU-MIMO) – just making everything faster and increasing the value of the network overall.
Being able to use the WiFi network as a low-bandwidth network like Zigbee or LoRa with battery-operated sensors and actuators, so a grower would only need a single wireless network for all their needs.
Now, the truth is that you can use your WiFi network for sensors and actuators today, and devices like the Espressif ESP-32 make that relatively easy and very inexpensive. But it still takes a lot more power to use a WiFi radio than, for instance, a Zigbee or LoRa radio, so you must have either much larger batteries or some form of external power (e.g. solar panels) for WiFi.
WiFi 6 should overcome these shortcomings, which makes us very excited about it. The 802.11ax standard has just been ratified by the IEEE, and we are seeing indoor equipment already available. As more specialized 802.11ax equipment becomes available (especially high-power products and products analogous to the ESP32) we will be watching very closely.
As I think everyone has seen, all data is now going to “the cloud” – servers on the Internet. This is generally a good thing – I want to make sure all the data I am going to need in the future is safely stored in a class 5 data center that’s not going to fail.
But there are two primary places this paradigm files: one is for cases where ANY latency (delay between sending a request to the server and getting a reply) will slow down operations, and the other is where Internet access is slow, intermittent, or not present. Both of these conditions apply to farming: low latency is vital for enabling farm machinery autonomy, and, despite all the talk about it, rural Internet connectivity is still, generally, awful.
At the same time, we are seeing the next generation of processors for mobile devices coming out that have higher performance than the “top-end” CPUs of a few years ago, while consuming tiny amounts of power. Since they dissipate so little power, they can be housed in more sturdy enclosures requiring little or no air circulation – in other words, deployable on the farm!
I can easily imagine a “farm server” that comes in a small, sturdy box that you plug into the wall and connect to your router and that provides services like:
Security- monitoring and recording scenes from cameras on your property, alerting you to events happening on the farm, turning lights on and off, and even locking and unlocking doors and gates.
Monitoring and automation – checking and storing readings on sensors, using rules to automate operations (starting an irrigation system, filling tanks, alerting when a grain bin or hay bale is too warm).
Communications – providing connection services for VOIP and/or messaging apps on phones.
Autonomy – providing coordination to autonomous vehicles operating in your fields.
This approach also has the advantage of increasing the grower’s control over data – it can stay on the farm’s server, be backed up to “the cloud,” or backed up the old way (to USB sticks, for instance).
I have alluded to this a few times in this article, but, living here in Silicon Valley, I see autonomous cars creeping around on public roads all the time. The problems of enabling autonomous vehicles on the farm are DIFFERENT, but not WORSE, than running autonomous cars on public roads.
The first problem is one of functional safety – ensuring that farm equipment is inherently safe. Very simply, farm equipment is dangerous, and a 50,000-lb. combine churning through a field or a sprayer buzzing along at 25 MPH constitute real threats to anything that gets in front of them.
However, LIDAR, RADAR, stereoscopic cameras, and other technologies can help machines “see” their environment very effectively, and the prices of those technologies (and the computing power to effectively combine their inputs in real time) is coming down dramtically. We are seeing some very interesting, practical examples in startup firms (GUSS, Swarmfarm, SmartAg, DOT), and we expect to see a lot more coming.
As I said at the beginning, this post is about stuff that’s not directly applicable to farming, but probably will be soon. Ten years ago I could have written about how smartphones will change life in farming, and a lot of people would have laughed at me. Now I don’t know anyone who doesn’t go out without a smartphone. What will be next?
We were intrigued and excited by a recent press release from Land O’ Lakes announcing that their retail operations would be installing WiFi for the use of their customers. In the best of times the rural ag retailer can be a lifeline for local farmers; in these difficult times, offering services to help local farmers and their families keep connected and work effectively, even if remotely is absolutely commendable.
We salute the Land O’ Lakes leadership and stand ready to assist any of their affiliated retailers in deploying WiFi on their rural locations.
Whether you’re a farmer needing to have connectivity in the farm office (and perhaps share your connection with a neighbor in need) or a rural business wanting to help your employees and rural communities stay online, Ayrstone can help. Just drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll work with you.