Tag Archives: farm wifi

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.

IP Cameras on the Farm: Part 3 – Using IP cameras for security

QNAP_NVR

QNAP NVR, courtesy of QNAP

Now you know how to select an IP Camera, set it up on your farm, and view it from wherever you are, on or off the farm, which may give you a greater sense of security by itself.

However, you can’t watch what’s going on 24×7, and, with most cameras, you can’t go back and see what happened a couple of minutes ago (or last week). If you want to incorporate cameras as part of a security system (which may also include things like driveway sensors, indoor motion sensors, window/door open sensors, and other devices), then you should, at a minimum have some sort of recording, and probably some sort of motion detection on the cameras. What I have found to be best is some sort of system that is continuously monitoring the cameras, and, when motion is detected, it records the previous several seconds of video and keeps recording until after the motion stops. That way, I find, I get a nice, clear video of the mailman coming up to the box every single day (and, if I choose, a text and/or email with a picture of the mailman within a few seconds of his arrival).

But, seriously, if you are having trouble with intruders (people breaking into your storage sheds or stealing Anhydrous), getting notification and pictures of them is a good idea. For that, you need a Network Video Recorder (NVR). An NVR is a device that plugs into your network and monitors your IP cameras, allowing you to view several cameras at once and go back to see what happened at a particular time. Most modern NVR systems also have motion detection and multiple alarm functions (including email and tripping a relay to set off an alarm).

Swann DVR with cameras, courtesy of Swann

Swann DVR with cameras, courtesy of Swann

An NVR is different from a Digital Video Recorder (DVR), although both can be useful tools for farm security. A DVR typically has a number of coaxial inputs for cameras, so you can attach 4, 8, or 16 cameras to the unit using coaxial cable and it will continuously record the video from those cameras. Most modern DVRs also have an Ethernet port so you can connect them to your network and monitor the cameras from wherever you are. A DVR can be very useful anywhere you want several cameras in a single physical location, like your home, workshop, or storage shed, where you don’t mind stringing wires. Most newer DVRs can also detect motion send you an email or other form of alarm when they do.

Foscam indoor camera with storage - the little microSD slot under the antenna - courtesy of Foscam

Foscam indoor camera with storage – the little microSD slot under the antenna – courtesy of Foscam

Some newer IP cameras even have the NVR capability built-in, usually via an SD card slot. They store either still images or video to the SD card continuously so you can just “back up” while you’re viewing the cameras.

Almost all IP cameras have some form of motion detection, but many of them are effectively useless. There are three types of motion detection:

  1. Overall picture motion detection – this just looks for the number of pixels changing in the frame and alerts if that number rises above a certain level. Unfortunately, this is almost entirely useless, because, if the sensitivity is high, it will “alarm” every time the lighting changes slightly, and if the sensitivity is set too low, it won’t alarm at all.
  2. Setting a "zone" so the camera will alarm when the door is opened - courtesy of networkwebcams.com

    Setting a “zone” so the camera will alarm when the door is opened – courtesy of networkwebcams.com

    “Zoning” motion detection – this allows you to put rectangles into the camera’s frame and only alarm if there are changes inside those rectangles. This works better, but you still get a lot of “false alarms.”

    Object detection, courtesy of Sitehound

    Object detection, courtesy of Sitehound

  3. Object detection – this is an algorithm that can pick out moving objects in the video stream and distinguish them from changes in the background. This means that you only get an alarm when something moves, and you can set the size of the object that will set an alarm so you don’t get called every time a gnat flies by.

Most inexpensive cameras use the first type of motion detection, which means the on-camera detection is worthless. Almost all other cameras use the second type of detection, which is not useless but still not great. Some high-end cameras can do object detection, but they’re pretty expensive.

The better idea is to have your NVR software do the detection and alarming, rather than the camera. There are two ways to do this: using a dedicated NVR (a small computer running embedded NVR software) or running an NVR program on a desktop computer that’s on 24×7. There are advantages to either approach.

Using a dedicated NVR is simple: you set it up, add the cameras to it through the onboard user interface, and forward a port to it on your router so you can access it while you’re away. QNAP is a vendor that makes a large range of standalone NVRs that are compatible with a wide variety of cameras. In all honesty, I have never been able to evaluate one, but customers have reported good results with them. Synology has developed a pretty good reputations, also – both brands are generally available on Amazon.

The downside to the dedicated NVR is that only some cameras are supported (although the brands mentioned above support a huge number of brands) and that it is difficult to evaluate the software to tell how well it will work for you. The vendors don’t really provide much detail about how they detect motion, what options are available, and what the units can do.

Ubiquiti Cameras and NVR, courtesy of Ubiquiti Networks

Ubiquiti Cameras and NVR, courtesy of Ubiquiti Networks

Some camera vendors like VivotekGeoVision, and Ubiquiti sell both cameras and NVRs to work with their cameras in an integrated package. Going that way makes it easier to know your cameras will work the the NVR, but more difficult to evaluate whether you have the right cameras and NVR for your operation.

The other option for an NVR is to use an NVR program on a computer that’s running all the time. There are several of these programs, but the two most popular are BlueIris and SightHound.  BlueIris is less expensive and runs on any Windows PC; SightHound is more expensive, but has a number of important advantages:

  1. It runs on either Windows or Mac computers;
  2. it is very easy to install, configure, and use; and
  3. it features an advanced object-detection motion detection.

I’m an unabashed fan of SightHound – I have written about it before on this blog – although I have used BlueIris and it is also very good. I also like the Ubiquiti system (Note: Ubiquiti builds the hardware for the AyrMesh system), although I find their software to be a bit too complex for most users. It also integrates with their mFi sensors and switches for security and automation.

Dropcam - courtesy of Dropcam

Dropcam – courtesy of Dropcam

There is actually a third option – a camera that automatically loads its video to a “cloud-based” NVR. Dropcam is a system that uses nice, small, relatively inexpensive indoor cameras, which automatically send their video stream to their cloud servers, without the need for port-forwarding. I have also written about Dropcam before on this blog. The big advantages with Dropcam is that they are VERY easy to set up and use, and the company is now part of Nest (maker of the Nest thermostat), which is part of Google – they have the resources to keep this going and expand those products to do a lot more in the future. The disadvantages are:

  1. They currently only make indoor cameras; there is no outdoor option, and the cameras are not designed for outdoor temperatures.
  2. They charge on a per-camera basis for the recording function. They charge $10 per month/ $99 per year for the first camera and $5 per month/ $50 per year for each additional camera (that’s for 7 days of recording; they charges for 30 days of recording are 3x higher)
  3. There is no way to directly view the camera – the only way to view it is through the Dropcam website. This is not a big problem practically, but it does bug me a little. Even without a subscription, you can view the camera through their website and get notices when motion is detected, which is nice.

Whatever cameras and NVRs you choose, you’ll need to connect the cameras to the network, connect the NVR to the network, and make sure the NVR is “talking” to the cameras. You can then port-forward to the NVR (remember about this from the router series?) in order to access it from the Internet; that way you don’t have to port-forward to each of the individual cameras. You’ll need to fine-tune the sensitivity of each camera in order to get appropriate “alarms” for movement. You’ll also need to set the alarms up so they contact you appropriately. Setting up an email alarm is relatively easy, and all the cellular phone providers give you an email address that goes through as an SMS text message – for instance, on Verizon, if the phone number is 555-123-4567, you can email “[email protected]” That way you can get a text message on your phone whenever motion is detected.

So, now you have cameras set up in the critical parts of your farm, which you can view through your NVR, and you are set up to get alerts any time something moves in the field of view of those cameras. All of this, of course, is made possible because of your AyrMesh Network, covering your farm with powerful IP connectivity.

And there’s still a lot more you can do with the network… stay tuned!

IP Cameras on the farm: Part 2 – different kinds of cameras

Security Cameras

Sorry to use this picture again…

There are a wide variety of IP (network) cameras available, ranging from the very inexpensive to the very good. That’s not to suggest that inexpensive cameras are not useful; it just means that you want to know which camera to use where.

If you just want to be able to see what’s happening on part of your farm, a cheap 640×480 (VGA size) camera will do a nice job. You can bring it up on your phone or tablet from anywhere on the farm, or port-forward to it to see what’s going on when you’re away. These cameras can be VERY inexpensive – from about $35 on Ebay – and they can work well for some applications; some are very small for indoor use, and some are built for outdoor use. The build quality on the very inexpensive ones is generally not great: one very inexpensive outdoor camera I purchased had the IC board held in place inside the housing with dabs of hot glue. That said, I still have it and it still works.

One thing to be aware of is that some inexpensive IP cameras require Internet Explorer to view the image on the camera. While this works with your laptop, it may keep you from seeing the camera on your phone or tablet (or they may offer a reduced-quality video stream for your phone or tablet), and it may prevent the camera from being integrated with a Network Video Recorder into an overall security system. If Internet Explorer is one of the requirements for the camera, I generally recommend against its use.

There are three major factors contributing to the quality of an IP camera:

Camera sensor chip

Camera sensor chip

1.) Image sensor – the size (1/4”, 1/3”, or larger) of the sensor and its resolution (640×480, 1024×720, 1280×960 or 1280×1024) – in general, the larger the better.

Camera lens

Camera lens

2.) Optics – good optics make a big difference. A full-HD (1280×1024) camera with a crummy lens is less useful than a VGA (640×480) camera with a sharp lens. Unfortunately, it is impossible to evaluate the quality of a lens from the specifications of the camera – the price of the camera is a reasonable, but not entirely reliable, proxy. Some cameras offer different “sizes” of lens – for instance, a 3.6 or even 2.8 mm wide-angle lens or a 6 or 8 mm telephoto lens. Obviously, what you are watching will determine what kind of lens you need.

Firmware

Firmware

3.) Firmware – the software running on the camera itself determines how easy it is to use and the features available. For instance, inexpensive cameras may offer MJPEG video streams and motion detection based on the entire scene the camera is surveying, while better cameras will offer h.264 streaming (which uses less bandwidth and better framerates – frames of video per second), and the ability to detect motion in specific zones of the camera’s picture.

The internal electronics and build quality of the camera make a difference, of course, but that is generally only an issue with the lowest-cost cameras – my own experience is that any name-brand camera costing more than $100 has adequate hardware and good build quality.

Here are three examples of IP cameras that I have purchased and evaluated, with specific comments on each.

Cheap Ebay Camera

Cheap Ebay Camera

View through the cheap camera

View through the cheap camera

1.) No-name $35 Outdoor WiFi Camera from Ebay (China). This little camera is actually one of my favorites. It has an adequate lens, a good, strong case, 640×480 resolution, and uses MJPEG for video. It sends about 4-5 frames per second, which is adequate for most purposes. It also has infrared (IR) LEDs in front for nighttime illumination. The biggest advantage this camera brings is that I can use it as a “scout” camera to see if I want to put a better camera in a particular place, and, if it gets kicked or dropped or destroyed, I won’t cry over it – I typically buy then 3 or 4 at a time and, if they have problems, I just throw them away.

 

Agasio camera

Agasio camera

View through Agasio Camera

View through Agasio Camera

2.) Agasio outdoor WiFi Camera. The specs on this camera are identical to the “no-name” camera above (WiFi, 640×480, MJPEG), but with more IR LEDs for better nighttime performance and a mechanical IR filter for better color in low light conditions. I am not actually sure the IR filter is that useful (and Foscam sells an identical camera without the IR filter), because it can fail in cold weather and make the picture look very odd as the filter clicks continuously in and out). I consider this (and the similar Foscam camera) the “workhorse” – it’s inexpensive and it works well, and Agasio/Foscam (they’re the same company) has an office in Houston you can call if you have trouble. I use these at my house to keep an eye on the yard, but I don’t use the motion detection capabilities because it’s very difficult to use effectively: if you turn the sensitivity down, you won’t capture motion when it happens, but, if you turn it up, you’ll be getting alarms every sunrise, sundown, and every time a cloud crosses the sun.

Axis indoor camera

Axis indoor camera

View from Axis camera

View from Axis camera

3.) Axis indoor WiFi camera M1031-W. Axis is generally acknowledged to be the highest-quality IP camera vendor, and appropriately priced. This is their lowest-cost unit, but it clearly shows the difference between their quality standards and those of the lower-cost cameras. Even though this camera has only a 640×480 sensor and a tiny lens, the picture is excellent and the firmware is very easy to use yet feature-filled. It offers several different kinds of streaming (MJPEG, h.264) and the ability to detect motion in “zones” you can select with a little Java applet on the camera. I use these cameras to protect my house, although I do get false alarms from it.

That’s a quick overview of the “cheap and the good” of the IP camera world. If you are just looking to have a camera on your farm that will allow you to see some critical item when you need to, I generally recommend one of the Foscam WiFi or Ethernet cameras. For more critical tasks, such as keeping an eye on a foaling mare, I generally recommend an appropriate Axis camera.

Outdoor Point-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) camera

Outdoor Point-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) camera

One handy thing you can do is have a camera way up on a pole or tower that you can swivel around and zoom in in any part of the farm. The Axis outdoor Point-Tilt-Zoom cameras can give you an amazing view of your property, but you’ll need to connect them to your network with an Ethernet cable (or an AyrMesh Hub, Receiver, or Bridge), because they don’t have WiFi. You’ll also need to mount them to something secure, because movement in the camera will make the quality of the picture moot.

Next, we’ll look at putting together a system of cameras for home and farm security, including cameras and Network Video Recorders – see part 3 here.

Providing Internet Coverage in Distant Fields

field

The AyrMesh network can stretch out a long ways – with the AyrMesh Bridge, Hubs, Cab Hubs, and Receivers, you can extend your network for miles and miles.

But, no matter what, it seems that there is always at least one field your AyrMesh Network won’t reach. I’ll show you what I do to provide WiFi coverage in distant fields.

When I am testing the AyrMesh components, I am usually working remotely. A little while ago I picked up a few things:

  • TP-Link router

    TP-Link router

    A TP-Link MR-3040 portable router

  • FreedomPop USB adapter

    USB cellular adapter

    A USB Cellular adapter (mine is from FreedomPop, because they provide good coverage where I work and are extremely inexpensive, but I also have a Verizon one I use in more remote areas)

  • A 20′ telescoping flagpole – these are available from lots of places; mine is from Harbor Freight Tools because it was inexpensive. There are better-quality poles (and longer ones) available.

The way I set it up is like this:

  • Power extender

    Power extender

    Inside the cab of my truck, I use a 2-way utility plug extender plugged into the “always on” utility plug.

  • Router plugged into USB power, with USB dongle

    Router plugged into USB power, with USB dongle

    I plug a USB charger unit into one of the plugs. The router runs off USB power, so it plugs right into the charger, and the USB cellular “dongle” plugs into the router.

  • Inverter, Hub power supply, and Ethernet cables

    Inverter, Hub power supply, and Ethernet cables

    I then plug a small inverter into the other power plug, and plug the Hub’s power supply into the inverter. I run a short Ethernet cable from the “LAN” port on the Hub’s power supply to the Ethernet port on the router, and plug a 30′ Ethernet cable into the “PoE” port of the power supply

  • I then run the long (orange) Ethernet cable out through the side window of my truck so it can be connected to the Hub.

    ethernet_cable

    Ethernet Cable

  • Flagpole stand

    Flagpole stand

    I built a mount for the back of my pickup, using a piece of steel, a length of PVC pipe, and a couple of hose clamps. Some people also use a “drive on” flagpole stand, or a hitch receiver flagpole stand.

  • I mount the Hub on the flagpole with a zip-tie, and connect the long Ethernet cable to the Hub.
  • Hub mounted on pole

    Hub mounted on pole

    After making sure the Hub is on and connected to the Internet, I push the mast up to maximize the range of the Hub.

Pole extended, ready for use.

Pole extended, ready for use.

I can then set up a Cab Hub in a vehicle and use the Internet while I’m working, up to 2.5 miles from my truck.

This setup is not perfect for use on very windy days, because the flagpoles can move around and reduce the effectiveness of the Hub.

The other caveat is that you’ll want to locate the Hub at a high location so it receives a good cellular signal and maximizes the Hub’s WiFi signal. This only works well if you have a place with good cellular coverage and good “line of sight” to your fields.

Recently I have swapped out the power inverter and power supply for a power plug and a “passive PoE injector,” which actually makes the setup a little simpler. I also have a Verizon USB “dongle” that I sometimes use when I’m testing.

Setup with PoE injector and Verizon dongle

Setup with PoE injector and Verizon dongle

This setup is frequently very handy for me, and it can be very useful for you to use in remote fields. You lose the advantages of being connected to your “home” network (being able to browse files on your local machines or print to networked printers), but you should have good Internet connectivity for collecting data to the “cloud,” browsing the Internet, checking email, etc.

 

 

IP Cameras on the Farm: Part 1

Security_camMany people start building an AyrMesh network on their property to provide Internet access across their acreage. However, having an Internet Protocol (IP) network across your property gives you the opportunity to connect devices on the property to help you be more productive, more efficient, safer, and happier.

When I ask people what else they’d like to do with their AyrMesh Network, the first thing that usually comes up is cameras – the ability to see their property remotely.

There are two distinct reasons for putting cameras on your property: the first is what I call “situational awareness” – being able to bring up a view of some part of your farm any time you want. The second is for security – automatically monitoring some view of your property and alerting you when something happens.

pigletsIf you have animals on the farm, you probably worry about them – especially if your livelihood is tied up in them. One of the most common uses for cameras on the farm is to be able to check on the animals, whether it’s just so the kids can see the horses when you’re away or if you need to check on farrowing sows, calving cows, or foaling mares to protect your investment.

drivewayA lot of people also just want to be able to view some part of the property, like the driveway or the kid’s play area, so they can know what’s going on any time. Sometimes these cameras may be dual-purpose, serving both a security function and for situational awareness.

tablet-with-drivewayPutting a camera on your property gives you a “view” – you get the IP address of the camera from your router and you can bring up that view from anywhere on your property. Then you can do what’s called a “port forward” on your router to make your camera viewable from the Internet, wherever you may be. For instance, I always forward port 9001 to a camera in my living room. I can look at my public IP address on AyrMesh.com and find that it’s 99.100.101.102 (it’s not, but let’s pretend…), so I just need to point a browser to http://99.100.101.102:9001 and log into my camera (note: you HAVE to have a good, strong password on your camera).

Next we’ll talk a little about the different kinds of IP cameras and the tradeoffs and compromises you can make – see part 2 here.

RAM mounts for the AyrMesh Cab Hub

RAM-in-tractor-1 (NOTE: all the pictures in this post can be clicked to see at full-size).

One of the questions we get from time to time is, “What’s the best way to mount the Cab Hub in the cab?”

It’s important to be able to mount the Hub high, because the cable to the magmount antenna is relatively short, and it’s important to be able to mount it securely so it’s not banging around inside the cab. The Hub is not designed for vibration and shock, so it is also useful to isolate the Hub from the cab somewhat.RAM mount in tractor

Our friends at RAM Mounting Systems, Inc. offered to help. I’m a big fan of RAM mounts, and I eagerly accepted their offer to help out. I have a RAM mount in my truck with their “X-Grip” mount for my smartphone and a suction cup. I tried mounting the Hub in it, and it did work, but it did not hold the Hub as firmly as I’d like.

The folks at RAM asked one question: “Is it affected by strong magnetic fields?” When I told them it was not, they said, “then let’s try a magnetic mount.” I told him I had a suction cup base in the truck but I didn’t want to use that in a tractor, so he sent me a “Tough-Claw” to attach to the rack in a tractor. But he also sent me a beefier suction cup for use in the truck and elsewhere.

They sent me a package consisting of the following items:

RAM_mount_NHI was able to test this setup on a number of different vehicles. I went to Coastal Tractor in Salinas and they gave me the use of a New Holland T-9 4WD tractor. It was extremely easy to mount the Hub on the tractor’s rack, as shown on the left. The pieces were very simple to assemble and attach to the tubing on the tractor. Here’s a closeup of the mount:RAM-mount-close-1Antenna on T9

As you can see, it’s attached with nice, large wingnuts. It was not loose and did not slip, but the rubber in the Tough-Grip and the articulation balls on the mount mean that little vibration would be transmitted to the Hub.

I put the Cab Hub Antenna on top of the tractor and plugged it into the utility power plug in the cab, and the installation was complete – it took about 10 minutes (because I had to get out and climb the other side of the tractor to install the antenna).power_plug_tractor

While I was there, I also tried mounting it successfully on an open-cab tractor they had, and put the antenna on the ROPS cage.antenna_on_ROPS

I had not brought along any zip-ties so I could secure the antenna cable to the ROPS, but the power cord plugged easily into the utility plug under the dashboard.mounted_open_tractor2

One of the most intriguing uses I have seen for the AyrMesh Cab Hub is actually for use on an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV), so I  went over to GPSports to take a look at what would be involved. They had one in the service bay they said I could mess with, so I mounted the Hub on it.RAM-mount-ATC2 RAM-mount-ATC1The Tough-Grip was again easy to use on the tubing – the only problem was that there was no place to put the antenna where it would be high, because this ATV had no roll bar. In the parking lot, however, they had some “side-by-side” models, so I made sure the magnetic antenna worked on the roll cage.

My final test was back in the truck – I traded the Tough-Grip for the suction cup and attached the mount to the back window of my “extended cab” pickup. It has been on there for several days now, and has not yet moved. RAM-mount-suction-truck3RAM-mount-suction-truck2

 

 

The bottom line on all this is that a small investment in RAM mounts can make mounting your AyrMesh Cab Hub VERY easy in any Vehicle.

Once again, Ayrstone would like to thank the good folks at RAM Mounting systems, Coastal Tractor, and GPSports.

WiFi standards – 802.11a to 802.11z

WiFi routersIt seems like every time you look around there’s a new crop of WiFi routers offering unbelievable speeds and ranges due to the use of a new WiFi standard. Years ago, WiFi started out with 802.11a (back in the last millenium) and then 802.11b, which gave way to 802.11g, which was replaced by 802.11n, and new routers use 802.11ac. And, if you’re wondering, yes, of course there’s a new one on the way, currently called “802.11ax.”

There are also many ancillary standards associated with these, even an 802.11z standard (having to do with extensions to Direct Link Setup, whatever that means). The “a,” “b,” and, to some degree, “g” standards are, for all intents and purposes, obsolete, because nobody has built equipment using those standards for a long time. On the other hand, all the standards are “backwards-compatible,” so the newest equipment can still interoperate with the oldest “a” and “b” equipment.

For us here in the Ayrstone labs, the amusing thing about all these advancements since 802.11g in 2003 is that they are squarely centered on one thing: improving indoor WiFi performance. The reason that amuses us, of course, is that it’s exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do, improve outdoor WiFi performance. There has been almost nothing done to improve outdoor long-distance WiFi since the 802.11g standard.

Here’s a quick rundown of the various WiFi standards:

  • 802.11 – 1997 – up to 2 Mbps on 2.4 GHz and InfraRed with WEP encryption
  • 802.11a – 1999 – up to 54 Mbps on 5 GHz
  • 802.11b – 1999 – up to 11 Mbps on 2.4 GHz
  • 802.11g – 2003 – up to 54 Mbps on 2.4 GHz, WPA/TKIP encryption
  • 802.11n – 2009 – up to 600 Mbps using both 5 Ghz and 2.4 GHz, MIMO, WPA2/AES-CCMP encryption, wide channels
  • 802.11ac – 2013 – over 1 Gbps using both 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz and extra-wide channels, MU-MIMO

802.11g was the standard that made WiFi useful (effective data rates of over 20 Mbps) and safe. The original WEP encryption standard in 802.11b was fatally flawed and easily broken – we now consider it “anti-security,” because it gives the uninitiated the illusion of security but does not actually deliver any, much like having a door made of paper painted to look like steel. WPA/TKIP encryption is still considered unbreakable (when used with strong passwords), so 802.11g WiFi devices are still perfectly useful.

802.11n added even more unbreakable security (WPA2/AES-CCMP), which is designed for large networks and organizations. It also added MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output), a way of using multiple antennae to increase the bandwidth and increase the range of the WiFi signal, especially indoors. A single antenna senses “multipath” (signals bouncing off the walls and other solid objects) as noise, because they are slightly out of synchronization with signals coming directly from the other station. MIMO antennas can “correct” and re-synchronize those multipath signals, improving indoor performance dramatically in some cases. 802.11n also introduced dual-band capability, using both the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands to increase throughput, and “wide” channels – increasing the amount of electromagnetic spectrum used from 20 MHz per channel to 40 MHz. Wide channels increase bandwidth, but at the sacrifice of range. So you can get faster data speeds close to the WiFi Access Point, but speeds will drop off quickly as you move away.

802.11ac is the latest standard, and it adds on top of 802.11n. Specifically, it allows for extra-wide channels (80 or even 160 MHz in the 5 GHz band) and MIMO improvements. In particular, it adds “MU-MIMO” or Multiple-User MIMO to expand the advantages of MIMO to multiple users of a WiFi access point, as well as increasing the number of spatial streams (from 4 to 8) and offering improved modulation techniques on the wider channels (256-QAM).

So the improvements to WiFi since 2003 can be roughly broken down into 3 areas:

  1. 5 GHz – The higher the frequency of a radio signal, the more it behaves like light, so the more it is affected by solid objects. 5 GHz. signals disperse more in air, and pass through solids even more poorly than 2.4 GHz. signals (which don’t do very well). So, with some notable exceptions (very focused point-to-point links with very clear line-of-sight), 5 GHz is only useful indoors and for very short distances.
  2. MIMO – MIMO is one of the most exciting improvements to WiFi, because it can dramatically improve indoor performance. Of course, both the access point (e.g. wireless router) and the client device (e.g. laptop) have to have MIMO to make the best use of it, but can really improve both range and throughput indoors. Outdoors, however, where there aren’t walls that signals can bounce off of, the value of MIMO is very limited.
  3. Wide channels – I sometimes explain that radio signals are a lot like plumbing. If you have a water hose with a constant pressure, you can put a narrow nozzle on it and push a little water a long ways, or you can put a wide nozzle on it and push a lot of water a little ways. Wide channels are like a wider nozzle: more bandwidth that doesn’t travel as far.

The key to getting maximum range outdoors is to “squeeze” the stream down as much as possible to force it out toward the horizon. The AyrMesh Hubs do this by going somewhat against the “trend” in WiFi:

  1. 2.4 GHz only – for lower dispersion and best penetration of solid objects
  2. SISO – focusing the radio signal (the spectral density) into a single beam for maximum range
  3. Narrow channels – focusing the radio signal into the smallest channel width for maximum range

When we introduced the AyrMesh Hub2n, we noted that it uses 802.11n technology. However, while it does comply with the 802.11n standard, it is, essentially, using the 802.11g features present in 802.11n and almost nothing unique to the 802.11n standard.

That’s not to say that we’re not keeping close tabs on the improvements to WiFi and trying to figure out ways to improve our products. By moving to 802.11n, we picked up WPA2/AES-CCMP encryption, which is actually more efficient on many WiFi radios equipped with hardware encryption, and new modulation methods which may provide marginally better performance. Right now we don’t see any improvements from MIMO, for instance, but we may yet find a way to make use of it. We also have hope that new, more efficient modulation methods could provide us new ways to increase the range and throughput of outdoor WiFi.

We also made use of another WiFi standard in the Hub2n: 802.11s, the new WiFi meshing standard. Time will tell, of course, but we hope that adopting this standard will enable us to introduce new Hub models and other equipment without changing the meshing, effectively “future-proofing” the Hubs.

What this means is that now is the perfect time to build your Wireless Farm Network using WiFi: the technology is extremely well-proven, inexpensive, and reliable. There are lots of contenders to take the place of WiFi for outdoor connectivity, from Super-High-Frequency radio to “White Space” radios (using the unused frequencies in the Television band). None of them are going to offer anything close to the price/performance you can get today out of outdoor WiFi, at least for a very long time. So you can build your network well-assured that there isn’t something waiting in the wings to make your investment obsolete. There will never be a better time to build out your Wireless Farm Network.

Getting the most out of your router, part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing WiFi into your Cab – the new AyrMesh Cab Hub

crowded_cabThere’s a lot of data being collected by monitors in the cabs of tractors, sprayers, and combines, and getting that data someplace it can be used can be critical to your operation. Today we are introducing a way to connect your tractors, sprayers, combines, and trucks to your AyrMesh Network: the AyrMesh Cab Hub.

The AyrMesh Cab Hub is a combination of three things: our trusty, patent-pending AyrMesh Hub2n, a cable that allows the Hub to be powered from a normal 12 volt utility “cigarette lighter” plug, and an external magnetic-mount antenna to get the Hub’s antenna outside and up in the clear.assembled-2_small

When it is all set up, the AyrMesh Hub2n rides inside the cab of your vehicle, protected from shock and vibration, but mounted where you can see the “signal lights” if you need to. The cable is plugged into one of the 12v utility outlets, and the antenna is put on a ferrous surface on top of the cab. The Hub connects to the other Hubs in your AyrMesh network, giving you WiFi connectivity in your cab.cig_lighter_sm

Antenna on roofHub_mounted_smThe most valuable data on the farm, and some of the hardest data to move to where it can be effectively used, are the data trapped in the monitors on your machines: as-seeded, as-applied, and harvest data. Getting that data out has been laborious (moving Compact Flash cards) or expensive and uncertain (using cellular links), so we’re trying to make it easier with the AyrMesh Cab Hub.

By using the AyrMesh Cab Hub, you’ll have a strong WiFi signal in your Cab whenever you’re in range of one of your other AyrMesh Hubs – up to 2.5 miles away. This means you can use your smartphone, tablet, or laptop from the cab of your tractor, sprayer, combine, or truck. It also makes it easy to transfer data from your WiFi-equipped in-cab monitors, like an AgLeader monitor with their AgFinity adapter, using your AyrMesh network. If your equipment doesn’t currently have WiFi, talk to your dealer about it – vendors are rolling out new products all the time.

If your monitor supports WiFi data transfer, you can use your AyrMesh network to transfer data from your monitor without having to rely on expensive and unreliable cellular links.

Please let us know what you think of this new product from Ayrstone Productivity!

Getting the most out of your router – part 1

wrt54g

The venerable Linksys WRT54G – Courtesy of Linksys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to go to part 2