Tag Archives: precision ag

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).

Quick link to video interview

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

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.

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!

A day at World Ag Expo, Tulare, CA

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.”

MorningThe 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.

John Deere, with the news vanThe “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.

RavenThere 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.

AgLeaderThe 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.

MeasureTekWith 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. PureSensePureSense, a company that provides not just monitoring but also control of irrigation systems for optimal water use, had a very busy booth. TandLirrigationT-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.AgWorld 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.

wae-crowdsTwo 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. WAE-berrypickersSecond, 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…

AyrMesh for Precision Ag – collecting precision data from cab monitors

Tractor cab

Lots of data here…

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.

Adam Gittins of HTSag has an interesting and thought-provoking blog post about collecting harvest data off his AgLeader console with the new AgFinity WiFi adapter. He is even able to see his harvest results when he’s not on the combine!

Thank you to Adam Gittins for this image

Great post on “Precision Ag Explained”

Not really Adam - just a picture I thought was funny.

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.

Farmer working on laptop

Wireless Farm Networking: what and why

A few years ago, we identified a real need in the agricultural market for more robust, internet-connected farm networks. This was driven by our work in precision agriculture; what we saw was that there was a glut of usable data that could be helping growers make better (and more profitable) decisions, but that data was mostly trapped on personal computers and in-cab monitors.

As we looked at this situation, we realized there were two equally important needs which were interrelated: the first is a comprehensive platform for turning all this raw data into actionable information, and the second was a facility for collecting the data and putting it to use. But there’s a “chicken and egg” problem here: if you don’t have the data, you can’t turn it into information, but there’s no good way to collect and use the data currently.

AyrMesh Hub

The AyrMesh Hub

So we decided to tackle the second problem: create an “Enterprise Network” for farmers and ranchers, so they could collect data from their farm operations effortlessly and use that data to make more informed decisions. We realized, of course, that a typical network was not going to work for the farm: everything is very far apart, so laying cable (or even fiber) is generally not a workable solution. Besides, the network should ideally encompass the tractors, sprayers, and harvesters out working in the fields, so wireless is the only option. This was the impetus that gave birth to the original AyrMesh Hub.

The idea was fairly simple: take some of the ideas used in the “Roofnet” project at M.I.T. and adapt them to building a low-cost wireless mesh network for farm use. The key requirements were:

  1. Use WiFi – other, proprietary mesh networks had been tried, but they require a wireless “client” device for anything you want to put on the network. Lots of things have WiFi today – it’s an easy, familiar, open technology
  2. Design the system for a farm – provide good bandwidth to relatively few “clients” spread over a very wide area. Most WiFi devices in the market today are designed for exactly the opposite: a metropolitan mesh network, where you have many people in a very small area and high bandwidth demands.

What we have seen is that, like all technologies, there is an adoption curve. The first step is the desire to use one’s Internet connection beyond the confines of the house. Especially with the advent of smartphones and tablet computers like the iPad, the ability to have instant information and communications everywhere you go on the farm can be a reality, even if cellular data is not available everywhere on your farm.

IP Camera

A WiFi Camera

The second step is connecting sensors to the network to “keep an eye out” on your farm. The most popular and demanded sensor, of course, is the IP camera. The ability to bring up a view of an area of your farm, whether to see the settings on the grain dryer, keep an eye on livestock (especially in the middle of the night), or as the basis for a security system, cameras seem to have a place on every farm. But, moving forward, putting network-connected environmental sensors in livestock buildings and distant fields can bring terrific pro

weather_station

A Weather Station at the edge of a field

ductivity gains. Knowing the temperature and humidity in your livestock barns can help optimize your HVAC usage, while knowing the wind and rainfall in a distant field can save a trip if it’s too windy or too wet to work.

Tractor cab

Lots of data here…

In addition, some of the precision agriculture vendors are starting to put WiFi into their in-cab monitors, so you can access the data on those monitors over the network instead of having to move cards or USB sticks around. Being able to access your “as applied” and harvest data allows you (or your agronomist) to much more easily determine your variable rate applications as you go through the season, potentially cutting your costs and maximizing your yield.

WebRelay

Network-controlled relay, courtesy controlbyweb.com

The third step is farm control: being able to actually get things done on the farm over the network. Grain dryers, pumps, irrigation systems, HVAC systems, and other equipment could be controlled over the network. This means that you can potentially control your grain dryer from the bedroom, or even while you’re running errands in town, since your network is connected to the Internet.

What we learned in the 1990s and 2000s when networks were becoming ubiquitous in the corporate world is that the presence of the network creates opportunities to improve the business in unexpected ways. We don’t pretend to know what all the uses are for a wireless farm network, but we’re very excited to see what they are. We’re here at the very beginning of farm networking, and the future is limitless.