Tag Archives: Iot

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.

The Internet of Things (IoT) on the Farm – Part 2

arduinoIn Part 1, I talked a little bit about the vision for the internet of things, but I didn’t really define what I meant by the internet of things.

What I’m talking about when I talk about the Internet of Things is a profusion of small devices that are all connected to the network and therefore to the Internet. Whereas most of the things in your home that are connected to the network have keyboards and screens and are meant for you to interact with, I’m talking about things that instead have sensors and relays and actuators. In most cases, you won’t interact with them at all. They’ll just work automatically in the background either gathering data for you or controlling equipment. Most of these things you’ll set up and never touch them again, but they’ll be working quietly in the background for you day and night.

Ibm_pc_5150If you are as old as I am (and I hope you’re not!), you remember the first wave of personal computers: the Apple II, the CP/M machines like the Kaypro and Osborne, and the original IBM PC – these were amazing because they were real computers that could do useful things (spreadsheets, word processing, and calling bulletin board systems) but were small (the size of a suitcase, more or less) and inexpensive (a few thousand dollars – in the 1980s) enough for home use.

Raspberry Pi Zero - $5

Raspberry Pi Zero – $5

The kinds of computers that we are talking about here are significantly smaller (typically the size of a credit card) and significantly less expensive (most under $100, many of them less than $10), even though they have 10-100x the computing power of those early personal computers. Instead of keyboards and screens, they have network ports and connections for various sensors and/or actuators; most can run for hours or days on a small battery – some can run for months. They can sit in in a tiny place, collecting data and transmitting it to the network, or waiting for a command to do something, for years.

temp_sensor

Simple Air Temperature Sensor

Decagon Soil Sensor

Decagon Soil Sensor

There are also a wide variety of sensors available, from simple temperature or humidity sensors to weather sensors like anemometers and rain buckets to advanced soil sensors that can measure soil temperature, moisture, and electrical conductivity. There are even sensors for UV radiation, leaf wetness, and chemicals in air and water.

relay

Simple small relay

But these little devices can do more than just sit passively measuring conditions. Devices can also be connected to allow them to take action, from simply turning something on to controlling complex machinery automatically. For instance, it is fairly simple to use a simple, small relay to turn an electrical machine on or off.

Raven PWM Valve

Raven PWM Valve

Multiple relays can be used for multiple devices, and relays come from very small, low-power devices to very high-power solid-state relays for switching very heavy loads. Many of these computers, however, also have the ability to output Pulse-Width Modulated (PWM) signals to control variable-rate devices like valves (control pressure through a water valve for irrigation or a hydraulic valve for controlling machinery) and pumps.

75 Amp Solid-State Relay

75 Amp Solid-State Relay

What ties it all together, of course, is two things: a network and software (both on the device and acting as some sort of “back end” to store and manage the data coming from these devices). Without software, any computer, even a $5 one, is just dead weight; without a network, it’s just sitting out in the field collecting data it can’t move to someplace it can be useful.

We know how to build the network – what Ayrstone does is give you the ability to build a strong, standards-based wireless network across your farm – and in part 3 we’ll consider the software part.

 

The Internet of Things (IoT) on the farm – part 1

tag_cloudI read a LOT about the “Internet of Things” (abbreviated IoT) is in the news lately; you probably have see it too, and there is a lot of excitement around it. And I would argue there’s good reason for that – it is going to change everything, perhaps more fundamentally than cellphones and, later, smartphones. But it is important to understand what the IoT is, what it is not, and how it will affect life on the farm.

nest_thermo

Courtesy of Nest

The IoT is not a single thing or even a particular class of things; it refers to a new generation of devices that are connected to the Internet and perform some function, with little or no human interaction. There are already a LOT of good examples, from the Nest Thermostat to kid’s Arduino toys, from devices that can be handy almost everywhere like a network-connected lightswitch, to highly specialized devices like grain dryer controllers or irrigation controllers. I would argue that little of this stuff is new; the things we are seeing being touted as “IoT” devices are really the same as things we already have, just made smaller, smarter, and less expensive. Frequently a LOT smarter and a lot less expensive, which is important.arduino

Belkin_wemo_outlet

Belkin WeMo WiFi Outlet

But the profusion of little, inexpensive, smart things all over the place is having effects we can’t fully understand or appreciate yet. The one thing we can predict with some certainty is that the people who understand these devices and put them to use intelligently will see tremendous gains, just as those who started using computers intelligently saw huge benefits. The question, of course, is, “How do I use these devices?”

Technical knowledge is much less important at this phase than imagination – in all honesty, the most technically competent people miss a lot because they are too invested in how things ARE, so they cannot understand how things COULD BE. So I pose this question to you: what on the farm could be made better (faster, cheaper, more profitable, or more enjoyable) by little computers with accurate little sensors (for light, heat, moisture, position, dream_farmmotion, and lots of other things) and robust built-in data communications infrastructure (WiFi)? What could you monitor? What could you control remotely (or even automatically), especially using the data you are getting from monitoring?

We’ll explore this more in future blog posts, but I would like to hear what you have to say, as well.

You can find Part 2 here, as well as a good post about sensor networks.

AyrMesh and the IoT: the Edyn Garden Sensor

I have been saying for some time that the AyrMesh network is the vital element for enabling the “Internet of Things” (IoT) on the farm. Because of this, I supported the Edyn Kickstarter campaign, and my Eden Sensor finally arrived on Friday in a box about the size of one of my shoes. i have been eagerly awaiting it, because I believed the combination of the Edyn system and the AyrMesh network would be a very powerful one for the home gardener or small farmer.edyn_box_small

I pulled the box open and pulled out the device – I was very impressed by its relatively small size and apparent toughness – it feels nice and solid. I continued to pull apart the box to find the instructions and found… nothing else. Just cardboard. No instructions at all. Oops…edyn_unboxed_small

I took a look at the Edyn website and found very little, so I went back to the Kickstarter page and found the FAQ. It stated that the device is associated to the WiFi signal through the Edyn app, which is available for iOS or Android.

I pulled out my Android phone, went to Google Play, searched for Edyn, and found… nothing. (Note: that has changed in the last few days: the Edyn app is now in Google Play for Android devices).edyn_alone_small

So then I grabbed my wife’s iPad, opened the app store, searched for Edyn, and found… again, nothing. Then I realized it was only looking for iPad apps; I set it to look for iPhone apps and found it.

edyn_in_hand_smallI should point out, of course, that none of these things deterred me in any way: I’m the crash test dummy for new devices like this, so I expect it to be rough when I first see it. My goal is to experience these rough spots so you don’t have to!edyn_top_small

The device itself just comprises a molded plastic top, with a visible solar panel, and a metallic bottom probe with discs of metal and plastic at the bottom for the actual sensing application.

edyn_bottom_smallWhen I finally got the app installed on the iPad and got it started, I was taken through the process of creating an account and configuring the Edyn Garden Sensor. The Edyn is built with a VERY clever WiFi device called an “Electric Imp.” There is, obviously, no keyboard on the Sensor, so you have to get the WiFi configuration onto it somehow, and the Electric Imp uses a process called “Blinkup.” On the botton of the Sensor is a button and a small light sensor; you join the WiFi network (your AyrMesh WiFi network) on your phone or tablet, then type in the encryption passkey (from AyrMesh.com) in the Edyn app. You then hold the screen of the phone or tablet close to the bottom of the Sensor, and the screen blinks to send the WiFi credentials to the Sensor. The Sensor then joins the network, checks into Edyn’s servers (much like the AyrMesh devices do) and then appears in the Edyn app.

I must mention that, in my case, the Blinkup process was not entirely smooth… the Sensor accepted the password from the iPad, and it actually associated itself with my Hub just fine – I saw it appear in my router’s DHCP table. However, it gave me an error message saying “Uh-Oh. There’s a problem on our end. Please try again.” I tried several times with the same result, then fired off a note to [email protected] They wrote back the following day, and, by that time, whatever the problem was was fixed and my sensor showed up in the Edyn app.

My Edyn sensor has been working just fine in my backyard for several days now – I have it in a pot with a palm I’m trying (unsuccessfully, so far) to revive. A few notes:in_garden1_small in_garden_2_small

  1. I hope they’ll at least include a QR code somewhere in or on the box that leads to some setup instructions. It’s odd to pull the device out of the box and find absolutely no supporting documentation.
  2. The outside temperature sensor appears to be inside the case. In the final screen below, you’ll see it indicates 102 degrees, but the ambient air temperature was about 80. The humidity sensor seems to work OK, though.
  3. I don’t have enough information to judge whether or not the soil information being provided is accurate. It seems to indicate an increase in soil moisture when I water and it indicates it dries out when I don’t. I haven’t had the soil tested to verify its accuracy about fertility.
  4. Edyn also has an irrigation valve product that connects to a garden hose for automatic irrigation. I don’t have one, so I cannot test that piece – it’s relatively simple technology, so I’d assume it would work well and setup would be the same.
  5. The Edyn system is currently really designed for gardening, not farming. If you have a garden or even a small vegetable farm, for instance, it might be quite useful, but I don’t think it would be very useful on a large, production farm.
  6. The Edyn system is supposed to be on sale in Home Depot and other gardening centers soon.

There is no question about it: the Edyn and AyrMesh systems work well together and should be of significant benefit to gardeners and even smaller farmers.

Here are the screens I went through in the setup process:

setup0

setup1 setup2 setup3 setup4 setup5 setup6 setup7 setup8 setup9 setup10 setup11 working