There is an image of farming – bucolic, peaceful, unfettered by the concerns of the technological age. It’s lovely, and many of us indulge it to some degree… but it is patently false. Agriculture is an industry moving quickly on the technology curve as markets demand more, higher-quality, and cheaper food and grains. Specialized implements, higher-horsepower machines, GPS steering, variable rate planting and spraying, and the cellphone have all had an impact on farm productivity. But that’s not all.
Courtesy of Waymo
The Robots are coming.
Look, anybody who has sat in a tractor or combine moving through the field by itself using AutoSteer has to have thought, “Do I really need to be here?” In various cities around the U.S., we have been witness to Google vehicles (and others) happily (if sometimes slowly) wheeling themselves around town, their human handlers typing away on their laptops. If they can run sedans on public roads, they can run a tractor down a row of corn. There are a lot of questions about what the first (big) bunch of farm robots will be doing, but the Japanese have been using almost completely autonomous mini-tractors for rice transplanting for years. There are a lot of people and companies testing robots around the world for farming – big ones and little ones.
Courtesy of CNH
We have been interested in robots on the farm because we had a vague sense they need a lot more data connectivity than is available in most places now. So I read this article with interest; to quote: “Internet access is a problem,” [Scott Shearer, professor and chair of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Ohio State University] said. “We need 10 megabits per second connection speed.” Data-gathering tools today can capture gigabytes of information that must be able to flow back to the driverless machine quickly and easily; and the machine must be able to communicate to a central location too.
In some places, cellular connectivity may be enough, but, as discussed earlier in this blog, we don’t expect cellular service to improve dramatically in rural America. And it’s going to still be expensive.
Our modest proposal: set up an AyrMesh network on your farm today for long-range WiFi. And be ready for the robots!
I have a Google Alert for “Wireless Farm” – I get about an article a week (and many of them are about wireless technologies for “server farms” and other odd things). But today I got a link to this article about “How 5G will impact the future of farming.” Intrigued, I clicked it to find a puff-piece about how Deere wants better wireless connectivity so that combines can “talk” to each other via “the cloud,” pointing out that it can take up to a minute with current technology for one combine to upload its data to the cloud, then the other combine to download that data and act on it. A couple of points here:
“5G” mobile technology is based on “millimeter-wave” bands – over 20 GHz. (20,000 MHz.). Current LTE is based on 700 MHz. radios, and previous mobile data technologies (2G/3G) were “piggybacked” on existing 800 MHz. and 1900 MHz. radios. The range and, in particular, the ability of a signal to penetrate solid objects varies inversely with the frequency. So, to have 5G covering the areas cellular covers today requires a MUCH higher density of cellular towers than we have; to have it cover all of the rural U.S. will require thousands and thousands of new towers, a huge infrastructure investment
As I have mentioned previously, the vast majority of cellular infrastructure investment is happening (and will continue to happen) within cities and towns, where the density of opportunities for subscriber revenue makes it profitable.
Within the article, however, is this paragraph:
The term “5G” refers to the fifth-generation wireless broadband technology based on the 802.11ac standard. The packet of technology will bring speed and coverage improvements from 4G, with low-latency wireless up to 1GB/s.
802.11ac is WiFi, not mobile (cellular) technology. Specifically, it is the current generation of WiFI using the 5.8 GHz. (5,800 MHz.) radio band.
And here’s the point: “5G” mobile technology is not going to have an impact on farm operations in the forseeable future. But you can have multi-megabit WiFi technology on your farm TODAY – and you don’t have to wait for your friendly cellular carrier to put up a zillion towers. FURTHERMORE, since your AyrMesh system puts all the devices onto YOUR OWN Local-Area Network (LAN), everything on the system can just talk to each other – they don’t have to upload to the cloud and download from the cloud or anything like that. Your combines can “talk” to each other and your trucks, you can automate processes and enable autonomous vehicles – NOW – with an AyrMesh WiFi network.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, as well as the associated posts on the ezeio and sensor networks, I have focused primarily on IoT hardware: the part you can see and touch, and that touches your farm.
However, in many ways, software is much more important than the hardware. As I observed in Part 2, modern technology products are remarkably similar: a CPU, some memory, some storage, and some peripherals. If the peripheral is a relay, you have a device that can turn things on and off (like a remote-controlled power plug, or a WebRelay). If the peripheral is an “Analog to Digital Converter” (ADC) then the device can monitor sensors and report the values from those sensors. Some devices like the ezeio have both (and even more).
Of course, nothing happens on these devices without software. And software is involved in at least two important places: the software that is running on the devices themselves, sometimes referred to as “firmware,” and the software running on back-end computers (local or cloud servers, PCs, or even your phone or tablet) that is used to store and interpret the results from the devices.
These two pieces of software have to be able to “talk” with each other, and we’ll assume* they do so over your network, with the device connected to your AyrMesh network and the “back-end” software on some sort of cloud-based server on the Internet. Note that the “back-end” software COULD reside on a server on your property if you are using AyrMesh.
What the devices themselves do depends on both the hardware and the firmware on the device – in most cases, that firmware will collect readings from the sensors, upload that information to the back-end server, and, if appropriate, take commands from that server and take action, from turning on a light to starting a pump or a grain auger.
In most cases, that firmware is a closed system – there is no way for you to collect data off or communicate with the device directly, or to direct it to a location other than the vendor’s cloud server. It doesn’t have to be that way, but (1) it’s simpler, and (2) that gives the vendor much more control over the data.
The back-end server usually stores the data and presents it to you (either through a web page or a mobile app, or both). What data you see, how you see it, and what you can do with it depends on that back-end software. It may just present a time series of observations in the field as a graph, it may let you set up simple or complex rules (if the soil moisture is at this level or below, turn on the irrigation system), and it be able to present data in many useful ways (different graphs, superimposed on maps, etc.) and enable very complex control of your farm machinery.
The back-end server is usually a closed system, as well – most times it can only accept data from the vendor’s own devices. Sometimes it may have an “Application Program Interface” (API) that allows it to exchange data with other programs. It may also have the ability to upload data into it for tracking and presentation, or to download data from it for importation into another program. These APIs and import/export mechanisms may be very good, well-written, and well-documented, making them extremely useful. Or they may not. APIs are generally only useful for programmers – it takes code to make them work – but well-written and well-documented APIs can enable even relatively inexperienced programmers to create custom programs to do exactly what you want, and that can be extremely valuable.
On the other hand, back-end software without good APIs and/or import/export features is a “closed box” – what you get is just what you get, and there’s no way to get more or less. Understand, of course, that a closed system like this may do EXACTLY what you need, but, if your needs change, it may suddenly become useless.
Of course, there is also the issue of your data and what happens to it. The terms and conditions for the service may be very clear about what happens to your data, or they may be quite vague. Many of the data services will anonymize and sell the data that you store on their servers (the most unethical may not even anonymize it – beware!). This may concern you or not, depending on the nature of the data and how closely tied to your operation it is. For instance, it is generally valuable to share weather data – if your neighbors do so as well, you can gain a much better insight into the local weather patterns. On the other hand, you may not want to share geo-referenced harvest data – that tells too many people exactly what your land and your harvest is worth. “Fuzzing up” the geo-reference, however, might make it a lot more shareable.
When you are considering new devices to collect data and/or control machinery on the farm, these distinctions between “open” and “closed” systems, and the availability if good, usable APIs may seem abstract. Salespeople for “closed” systems will do their best to minimize the importance of these issues, but it’s absolutely critical. Openness in the device’s firmware means that the devices can be re-purposed to work with another system if you don’t like the vendor’s services, and openness in the back-end database means you can easily get your data and move it where it can be combined with other data and used (e.g. providing it to your agronomist for analysis, or storing it in a system where it can be combined with other data for decision-making).
Being smart about buying new technology for your farm can save you a lot of money in the long term, and a lot of frustration in the short term. We’ll keep an eye out for and report on interesting products that help you on the farm using open technologies.
*some devices connect directly to the network using WiFi or Ethernet, and some devices will have low-power networking (e.g. Zigbee or Google Threads) that use a “gateway” device to connect them to your network (or directly to a public network via cellular or satellite). There are even some that don’t talk to the network at all, using either Bluetooth or an embedded WiFi server to communicate directly with your phone, tablet, or laptop. And, of course, there are still devices that use some sort of flash memory and “sneakernet” (taking the flash memory off the device and walking it to a computer).
Aaron Ault, who is the team lead for the Open Agriculture Data Alliance, was interviewed by Precision Farming Dealer. I think that data privacy and ownership is an extremely important issue (one of the benefits of the AyrMesh system is keeping data on the farm), and I though this was a terrific interview.
The video runs just under 6 minutes, and you can see it here: https://www.precisionfarmingdealer.com/articles/2650-deu
A few months ago, I was approached by the folks at eze System, who wanted to know if their ezeio product would work with AyrMesh to help farmers measure conditions on farms and control equipment.
They were kind enough to send me one of the ezeio products so I could try it out. Insofar as it is a standard Ethernet (802.3) product, I had no doubt it would work perfectly with AyrMesh, and, of course, it did – I just connected it to an AyrMesh Receiver with an Ethernet cable and it appeared on my network.
What is cool about the ezeio is that it is a complete package – hardware, firmware, and back-end software – completely integrated and ready to plug in and go. It includes connection points for up to 4 analog inputs (configurable for 0-10V, 4-20mA current loop, S0-pulse, or simple on/off), Modbus devices, Microlan (1-wire) devices, and up to two relay outputs (up to 2 amps). This makes it a very versatile unit for both detecting and controlling things on the farm.
I set mine up on a table to see how it worked. The good folks at eze System included a Microlan temperature probe, so I set up my unit with that connected to the Microlan connector and a couple of LEDs (with a battery) connected to one of the relay outputs.
I then went to their web-based dashboard and started setting things up. It’s pretty simple – you get a login on the dashboard, and you add your ezeio controller. You can then set up the inputs (in my case, the temperature probe) and outputs (the relay) and then set up rules to watch the inputs and take appropriate actions. If you want to see the details, I have put together a slide show for the curious so I don’t have to put it all here.
The bottom line is that I was able to quickly and easily set up a system that checked the temperature continuously and, when the temperature dropped below a certain level, lit up an LED. Big deal, I hear you say, BUT – it could easily have been starting a wind machine or an irrigation pump or some other machine, and it could have been triggered by a tank level switch or a soil moisture sensor or some other sensor or set of sensors. It also enables me to control those devices manually over the Internet, using a web browser, without having to “port forward” on my router.
The ezeio is a very powerful yet easy-to-use device which, in conjunction with the web service behind it, enables you to very easily set up monitoring and automation on your farm. For the do-it-yourselfer, it is a great way to get started on employing the Internet of Things (IoT) on your farm. Even if you’re not inclined to take this on yourself, any decent networking technician can easily set up your AyrMesh network and the ezeio to help around the farm.
There’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.
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.
The 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!
I spent the day of February 12 at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California – one of the biggest farm shows in the world, it’s a good place to see some new stuff and talk to some interesting people. Click on the pictures below to see them “full-size.”
The morning dawned clear, warm, and sunny, like it always is in California… JUST KIDDING! It was cool and so foggy I had to slow down to 35 miles an hour driving across the valley – the infamous “Tule Fog” that occasionally causes huge pileups on Highway 99. However, it burned off around noon and it actually did turn warm and sunny, making it a rare delight for this time of year. The winter in California has been surprisingly – distressingly – warm and dry, and I saw almond trees starting to bloom in the fields on my way across the valley, which is not very common in mid-February.
The “big guys” were there, but I seldom find anything interesting about what they are displaying at farm shows. I went through the Deere tents but they seemed mostly focused on selling t-shirts and caps, and they had equipment for the kids to fall off of. I thought it was funny that the news van was parked right outside the John Deere booth, so I took a picture of it. However, that was the only thing of note there.
There are two companies selling “in-cab” systems that now have network connectivity. Raven‘s new displays actually have an Ethernet port on them, so they can be connected directly to an in-cab AyrMesh Hub and be on the network that way. (They are designed for use with Raven’s “Slingshot” system)
Many of their displays also have USB ports, and I believe you can use a WiFi adapter with them, although I’m not completely sure.
We have not been able to determine exactly what can be done with the Raven displays if they are connected to the network, and Raven has not been very helpful. We’d be very interested in talking to any AyrMesh users who have Raven Envisio Pro or Viper 4 displays.
The other company that has embraced network-connected displays, as mentioned in previous posts, is AgLeader. They were here, showing their WiFi AgFiniti product, and their booth seemed to be very busy. It seems to me that they are a company that has “gotten it” on the importance of network connection and collecting data wirelessly from the cab, so it was gratifying to see so many farmers looking at their solutions.
I mostly like to go into the halls to see the “small booths” that are populated by newer, smaller companies. In California, you see things that are quite different from what you see in the Midwest – sometimes they are only interesting in the odd agricultural climate of the west, but sometimes new things show up that will have a large effect on the general agricultural industry.
With California in a severe drought, a whole slew of companies were there talking about water: measuring it, storing it, and controlling it. Weather stations, soil moisture sensors, and irrigation control. As Mark Twain famously said about the west, “Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over,” but the fighting is done and farmers are left to make do with what they can get. Companies like MeasureTek, shown at left here, and Western Weather, right next to them, are using “industrial grade” sensors to monitor weather and soil conditions. They have built “private cloud” solutions to capture the data from the sensors and present them to growers, and the sensor “pods” themselves can be connected to the Internet with cellular or satellite, or just connected to an AyrMesh Receiver or Remote Hub. PureSense, a company that provides not just monitoring but also control of irrigation systems for optimal water use, had a very busy booth. T-L Irrigation was also showing sensing solutions with their irrigation controllers, as well as displaying Internet control of irrigation systems. Valley, Reinke, and Lindsay were also there, but they were focused on irrigation equipment and controllers, less on tying in sensors to irrigation.
The other thing that caught my eye at the show was the flush of new companies that are getting into the Farm Management Software market. Of course, Trimble was showing their Connected Farm solutions, featuring FarmWorks software, and SST, a long-time player in this market, was there. However, FarmLogic did not seem to be in attendance, even though the program said they were. Newer, “cloud-centric” companies offer some unique advantages over the “old guard.” AgWorld is a company out of Australia; I saw them last year and thought they were interesting – theirs is a browser-based farm management application that runs on just about anything with a browser – computer, tablet, or phone. I can’t tell whether it’s really going to be a winner or not, but it has promise. OnFarm is another company that was displaying at WAE. Their premise isn’t to manage and store all your farm’s information, but rather to arrange and manage all the sources of your farm’s information. Once again, I think it’s too early to tell how useful it will be, but it is interesting. There are similar offerings, like FarmLogs, that are just as interesting (although I didn’t see them at WAE). While they all seem to be in their infancy, I expect some of them will “grow up” to be valuable tools for growers.
The one thing for sure is that they all increase the value of having a Wireless Farm Network like AyrMesh.
Two last notes about WAE: first, as shown at left, there are a LOT of people who come to the show. Not all are farmers, but most are connected to the ag industry in some way. Second, as shown at right, you see stuff here I don’t think you’ll see anywhere else, like these berry and grape harvesters. I think it’s a good day when you walk past something that makes you say, “What in the world is THAT???” We’re definitely not in Minnesota any more…
Both of the founders of Ayrstone Productivity have backgrounds in precision agriculture, and one of the motivations we had in starting Ayrstone was to help growers access and use the data generated by all those in-cab monitors by giving them a way to capture all that data wirelessly. The information on those computers is a potential goldmine if you can use it quickly and easily to make smarter decisions about your operation.
When we were doing research about data collection, however, we learned that the vast majority of growers just left the CF cards in the cab monitors all season, because it was just too much bother to pull out the card, bring it in, out it on the computer, dump the data, store it (so you can find it again), and then remember to take it back out and put it back in the monitor before you go out to work again. Some vendors were starting to put cellular modems into their cab computers, but they are expensive in the first place and carry a pretty hefty monthly service fee with them. Furthermore, there are pretty substantial chunks of rural America without good cellular data service (which is usually separate from the voice service signal).
We proposed that a mesh WiFi network (like the AyrMesh network) could be a much more effective way to collect that data so it can be used for decision support. It can be extended wherever it needs to go for data collection, it doesn’t carry a monthly charge, and a WiFi adapter, even a high-power outdoor one, is much less expensive than a cellular modem.
Not really Adam – just a picture I thought was funny.
Adam Gittins of HTS Ag got an AyrMesh Hub2n a few weeks back, and he has published a great post about it on the outstanding blog “Precision Ag Explained.” The post helps explain how Wireless Farm Networking is going to drive better and more efficient farm operations in his view.
Here’s hoping we can see a lot more from him in the future – we really appreciate having someone of his experience and expertise writing about Ayrstone.