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The Internet of Things (IoT) on the Farm – Part 3

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.

Firmware

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).

Security and the IoT

Security_camAs you know, I think that the “Internet of Things” (IoT) has enormous potential for the farm. But we have all been recently reminded of the problems we are facing as BILLIONS of new devices come on to the Internet – Friday October 21, the IoT literally broke the Internet.

This event has been called the “Mirai botnet attack.” This is an extremely important event, because it used IoT devices to effectively bring the Internet to a stop for several hours on Friday, October 21. Even Ayrstone was affected: we use Zendesk for our customer support portal, and it was unavailable off and on on Friday.

This attack was innovative in two ways: first, it did not attack the affected sites directly, but rather attacked the Domain Name Servers (DNS, the servers that turn domain names like ayrstone.com into IP addresses like 104.24.21.15) of Dyn.com, making a huge number of websites, including Zendesk, Twitter, and others unreachable, even though they were working just fine.

But the most important innovation was the way the attack was done – using a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack from IoT devices. DDoS attacks work by sending a huge amount of data to a server from a large number of devices on the Internet, overwhelming the server and causing it to fail. Up until now, the “botnets,” as the devices sending the data are known, have mostly been personal computers infected with viruses that allow a remote user to control them and cause them to send out streams of data to the target server.

As I mentioned, however, this attack was different, because it used IoT devices – IP cameras, routers, wireless networking devices, and other little devices that people don’t see as being “computers.” But your router or IP camera has a lot more computing power than the powerful desktop computer you had just a few years ago.

Hackers were able to access these devices and install “botnet” software on them because – and this is THE IMPORTANT THING – the passwords were NEVER CHANGED from the defaults. For instance, many devices come with a default username of “admin” and a default password of “admin” or “password.” If those are not changed and they are exposed to the Internet, they are an open invitation to hackers.

Now, most of the devices on your network are NOT currently exposed to the Internet – they are safely hidden from the Internet by your router’s NAT firewall. But it is still important to change the default password on devices, and, if you have “port-forwarded” to any devices to make it accessible via the Internet, it is DOUBLY important to make sure it has a STRONG password to protect it.

Ayrstone products, of course, are protected because the username and password for each device is set from AyrMesh.com. The only way an AyrMesh device can have the default username and password is if you don’t have an AyrMesh.com account, and we regularly disable devices that are not checking into an active account. However, even at that, AyrMesh devices should always be used behind a router’s firewall and not exposed to the Internet.

These devices are incredibly useful when used properly, but you have to take some minimal precautions to keep them safe. More information about the Mirai botnet attack and security of IoT devices can be found in this article and elsewhere.

This attack is a good reminder of three things:

  1. Make sure you always use good passwords (long, not a quotation or word) on ALL devices and keep those passwords secret,
  2. Don’t expose devices to the Internet unless you have to, and
  3. Purchase networking/IoT products from reliable vendors who can update the firmware to close vulnerabilities, preferably automatically and over the network. If not, make they make new firmware available to close holes as they are discovered, and install it regularly.

AyrMesh devices have firmware that is updated over the network. We issue several updates per year, and you needn’t do a thing – they happen automatically.

If you have any questions, of course, just let us know – [email protected]

 

Getting started with the IoT on the farm with ezeio

 

eze System

Courtesy of eze System

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.

ezeio-400px-300x239They 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.

setup_smallI 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.

loginI 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.

Sensor networks

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Courtesy of Davis Instruments

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.

gThriveKit_ACPowered-001

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.

I generally discount analyst firms, but I have to reluctantly give kudos to Lux Research for hitting the nail right on the head: sensors are too expensive. With the exception of the Edyn, which you can buy at Home Depot (and connect to your AyrMesh network or other WiFi source), you have to buy:

  1. However many individual sensors you want,
  2. A Gateway device for your sensor network (possibly multiple gateway devices if you want sensors in multiple fields), and
  3. 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.

in_garden_2_smallFirst, 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

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.

batteriesEither 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.

 

Saving money with AyrMesh

piggy-bank-1056615_640There are all kinds of new technologies and products available for farming – these new “AgTech” products hold real promise to change the practice and the economics of farming. But you have to evaluate them realistically to understand how they will help you improve your profit: increase revenue or save costs.

AyrMesh was designed specifically to help save costs on the farm, so it provides increased profits no matter what happens to yields and crop prices. There are several ways in which AyrMesh helps you reduce costs, directly or indirectly:

  1. Reduce the cost to simply move data – your cellphone (and maybe your tablet and/or laptop) has a cellular radio for data, and you pay a premium for using more than a minimal amount of data per month. By using the AyrMesh network, however, you can be disconnected from the cellular data network and save money you would have to send to the cellular companies.
  2. Employ new technologies that can save money – because AyrMesh is a standard, Internet-Protocol (IP) network, you can avail yourself of off-the-shelf products that just connect to your network. Examples include things like networked weather stations and soil sensor systems, but also grain dryers and irrigation systems. As security becomes an increasing concern on the farm, having an AyrMesh network allows you to quickly and easily place IP cameras so you can keep an eye on distant parts of the farm
  3. Be prepared for the future – new, time-saving and money-saving products are coming up fast, and you can be ready to put them to work. New autonomous vehicles, remote sensors, and remotely-operated machinery will be able to magnify the effort you put in on the farm, just like tractors and combines did in the late 1800s, increasing the profitability of farms.

But be careful: a lot of products being sold come with a “small monthly fee” to pay for a cellular modem to move data from the device to the company’s cloud servers. It’s a business model that works and it makes it easy to install new products, because the vendor doesn’t have to worry about setting up a network. However, as you adopt more and more of those products, the number of small monthly fees is going to add up fast, and none of them will work in fields without cellular connectivity.

Look, electronics and data aren’t going to grow the crops. But the information they can provide you can help you make better decisions, both season to season and day to day, to save money and increase yields. Smart investment in AgTech begins with thinking about the data – what you can use, how you will use it, and, most importantly, how you will get it from where it is generated to where it is useful. We are here to help with that last bit.

AyrMesh Field Hub – Solar powered to extend the network

frontWe have been asked multiple times how to extend the AyrMesh network beyond the availability of plug-in power. The key, of course, is solar panels and/or wind turbines, along with batteriessemi-front_closed to hold the power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

Tycon Power has solved this problem for us by developing an integrated system just for the AyrMesh products: Hub, Receiver, or Bridge radio. The product to use is their RPPL-1212-36-30 unit. You can buy it directly from Tycon at their store site. This system with the 30 Watt solar panel will work in most of the country that receives an average of 3.5 hours per day or more – the red and dark orange bands on the standard insolation map. For areas in the light orange or yellow areas on that map, you will need to add a second 30W solar panel (with mounting bracket) or a wind turbine to keep the batteries charged.batteries

Tycon also makes larger systems for multiple devices. The RPST-1212-100-70 system will provide power for two or three devices – for instance, a Bridge radio and a Hub or two “back to back” bridge radios.

As with the smaller system, if you get less than an average of 3.5 hours of sunlight per day, you’ll need to augment the power generation of that system with an extra 70W solar panel (and mounting bracket) or the wind turbine.

just_hub

Higher is better

What does it take to set this up? Two things: very rudimentary wiring skills to connect the batteries and the solar panel with the solar controller, and the ability to set up a strong mast or tower. In our tests, we used a 7′ tall free-standing pole, but, for practical use, you’ll want a much taller pole or tower, embedded into the soil with concrete. You need, of course, to get the radios up as high as practical, but at least 25 feet above any obstacles for maximum range. This may require the use of a pole with guy lines or even a tower.

semi-front_openThe system provides Power over Ethernet (PoE) for the radios, just like the power supplies that come with the AyrMesh products. The mechanical considerations (attaching the solar panel and battery pack to the pole or tower) is extremely simple, using either U-bolts or hose clamps.  Using this to extend your network out into your fields will enable you to use the AyrMesh Cab Hub to automatically move data off your in-cab computers and have WiFi coverage in your cab wherever you are on the farm.

If you have any questions about this, of course, please feel free to comment on this post or get in touch with us at [email protected].whole

The state of the art in soil sensors – Farmx

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click below for more information about FarmX and FarmMap:

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Ayrstone in the RoyseLaw AgTech Incubator

RoyseLaw_AgTech-012For the last few months, we have been fortunate enough to be part of the RoyseLaw AgTech Incubator. Our involvement in the incubator many benefits, including access to top people in California business and agriculture as well as the Silicon Valley venture capital community. We expect our involvement to result in many benefits to us as we move forward.

royseThe most important reason we wanted to be part of the incubator, however, was to associate ourselves with some of the most interesting up-and-coming companies in agricultural technology. I would encourage you to check them out to see where “Ag-Tech” is going today.

One other benefit of the incubator is that we are part of the second annual Silicon Valley AgTech Conference on May 11. If you are interested in the future of agricultural technology and you’re going to be in Northern California, please attend the conference. There will be AgTech companies (like Ayrstone), investors, growers, and others with an interest in agriculture and technology.

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Long Range WiFi: two approaches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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