Tag Archives: sensors

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).

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.

 

Sensor networks

davis_soil_station

Courtesy of Davis Instruments

Much has been written about the use of remote sensors in farming, with soil sensors leading the way. I think it’s worthwhile to understand how these sensors work and what options are available

We have highlighted some of these products (gThrive, Farmx, Edyn), and there are others coming up including Cropx and AgSmarts that we have not been able to evaluate in depth yet, although they are very promising and appear to be more focused on “mainstream” agriculture rather than specialty crops.

The soil sensor people understand that, to have soil sensors near the plants, you have to have sensors that are battery-powered (because you don’t get enough sun under the canopy to use solar). Because of that, most soil sensors use a low-power radio system; many use a “Personal-Area Network,” usually based on the 802.15.4 low-power, low-bandwidth meshing standard. These networks allow the sensors to use very little power so the batteries can last for months or even years. Additionally, the bandwidth (the amount of radio spectrum they use) is so low that they can transmit a very long distance with minimal power – frequently hundreds of yards – and the meshing capability means they can cover a very large area in a couple of hops. So these sensor networks actually ARE practical for gathering data from sensors, even in a very large field.

gThriveKit_ACPowered-001

gThrive sensors and gLink gateway – Courtesy of gThrive

However, these systems, just like your home WiFi network, require a “gateway” device out in the field to connect them to the larger network (your AyrMesh network or the Internet). The Edyn sensor is an exception, because it connects directly to your WiFi network, but it is primarily aimed at gardeners, not commercial agriculture. Davis Instruments uses the weather station as the Gateway device, which makes it simple, but it does not use a meshing system, which limits how many sensors you can deploy. For almost all systems, sensors are not directly on your network or the Internet – the field network is a special network that only “talks” to the gateway device, and the gateway device “talks” to a normal Internet Protocol network – and that is usually a cellular modem connected to the Internet.

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

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

This is a lot of “commitment” before you even figure out how to effectively use the sensors and the data that comes from them – thousands of dollars just to get started plus a monthly or annual commitment to get the data. These systems are being marketed primarily to folks growing wine grapes in California or vegetables in Arizona – high-value crops with severe water costs and restrictions.

There are changes coming, of course, but there are also ways to get started now with less commitment.

in_garden_2_smallFirst, if you’re growing a few acres of cut flowers, organic vegetables, or other high-value, high-intensity crops, the Edyn system may be very useful. Put an AyrMesh Hub near your field and deploy the Edyn sensors and valves controllers. You don’t have to save a lot of time and water to justify the expense.

Davis Weather Envoy

Davis Weather Envoy, courtesy of Davis Instruments

Second, Davis Instruments has a nice system that they don’t advertise much. Their Wireless Weather Envoy datalogger can be connected to any Ethernet network (e.g. a Remote AyrMesh Hub, an AyrMesh Receiver, or an AyrMesh Bridge) using their Weatherlink IP module. It can then connect to their Soil Sensor Station, which has up to four soil moisture and soil temperature probes.  It will also connect to a Vantage Vue wireless weather station, which is a very high-quality, low-cost, integrated weather instrument cluster that you can put up in any field in a matter of minutes. There’s a small annual fee for their cloud-based Weatherlink service, but it makes the system VERY easy to use.

If you need more soil sensors, they also build an Envoy 8x, which has the ability to simultaneously “talk” to up to 8 stations – weather stations or soil stations – within about 1000 yards.

batteriesEither the Wireless Weather Envoy or the Envoy 8x can be tucked into the cabinet of the Tycon remote power system we recommend for field Hubs, Receivers, or Bridge radios, and powered from the auxiliary power output on that system.

Third, if you do want to deploy many soil sensors using a system like gThrive or Farmx, you can connect the gateways in each field to an AyrMesh devvice to avoid exorbitant cellular fees for each gateway device. Their gateway devices have Ethernet ports, so they can be connected directly to an AyrMesh Remote Hub, Receiver, or Bridge unit, and you can skip the cellular bills.

We’ll have more on weather and soil sensors – if you have questions or comments, please leave them here (for public response) or contact us.

 

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

The state of the art in soil sensors – Farmx

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click below for more information about FarmX and FarmMap:

farmx_logo2

An interesting new company – gThrive

ppt logogThrive is one of the companies I have been watching for a while, because I thought their technology was interesting. I think that the use of sensors for monitoring soil conditions is an excellent example of what technology can do for agriculture, but the existing solutions out there are simply too expensive for use outside of very high-value crops.

OnegStake_STK-51615-001gThrive took the approach of using modern sensor and microprocessor technology and mating it with low-cost packaging to create a new soil sensor with more “intelligence” at lower cost than anything currently available on the market – hundreds of dollars per probe instead of thousands of dollars, with more sensors on the probe than had previously been possible.

The probes are simply plastic stakes, each of which has several sensors, a low-power CPU, a battery, and a low-power data radio, which communicates with their gLink base station. The gLink base station must be connected to the Internet via either a cellular connection or WiFi. This means, of course, that it can be easily added to your AyrMesh network, allowing you to have soil probes in multiple fields without having to rack up massive cellular data bills.gThrive_CustomInstallation-001

All data from the stakes are uploaded through the network to gThrive’s web site, which you can access from anywhere with any Internet-connected device. It’s a simple, clean, efficient system, and they have just started selling their system at the recent World Ag Expo.

Seeing products like this come to market validates the reason we started the AyrMesh product line – to help farmers get more data, faster and cheaper, and be able to do more on the farm. Products like this can dramatically add to the value of your AyrMesh Wireless Farm Network, and vice-versa. We wish gThrive all the best and look forward to working with them and other companies bringing new network-connected products to the ag market.gThriveKit_ACPowered-001

(All pictures courtesy of gThrive)