Tag Archives: wireless

Long Range WiFi: two approaches

AyrMesh HubWe didn’t invent the idea of putting WiFi on farms and ranches, although I think we’ve done a lot to popularize it. And it’s not really WiFi that’s important, it’s just having a farmwide network that you can connect to and move data with.

When we started, we realized there were two ways we could build out the farm wireless network, and that we’d need to support both ways. However, we had to start somewhere, and we knew that the best short-term “proof of concept” was using the mesh network approach: a bunch of high-power WiFi Access Points that are connected to the Internet and talk to each other using a meshing protocol. That’s what gave rise to the AyrMesh Hub.

Because the Hubs can be up to 2.5 miles apart, it allows you to extend your network out quite a ways from your home place, and that’s useful for a lot of people. It also allows you to “get in the game” for a minimal investment – a few hundred bucks for a Hub and a little time putting it up high and out in the clear gets you WiFi across your farmyard and out into your fields. Then you can extend the network from there with additional Hubs.

However, sometimes you just want to connect someplace into your network, and you don’t need to have WiFi. For those cases, a different approach is optimal: point-to-point microwave links, also known as “bridges.”

AyrMesh BridgeA bridge can use WiFi or a WiFi-like signal to connect two locations and pass data between them. Typically they are “Layer 2” devices, meaning that they work just like a long, wireless Ethernet cable. You plug one radio into your network (typically your router) and then plug the other radio into whatever you want to put on your network (a computer, IP camera, WiFi access point, etc.), and everything works just like it was plugged into your router.

The AyrMesh Bridge uses microwave radios that use the 5.8 GHz. band (used for 802.11 WiFi “a,” “dual-band n,” and “ac”), but they use a special “narrow-band” microwave signal that increases the range, reduces the effects of interference, and makes the signal invisible to WiFi “sniffers.”

Of course, if you are just connecting some distant device or devices into your network, you can also use an AyrMesh Hub and an AyrMesh Receiver. It will actually work the same way; the differences are:

  • The AyrMesh Bridge is just a wireless Ethernet cable that doesn’t provide a wireless signal usable by anything else. The AyrMesh Hub provides WiFi that other devices can use.
  • The AyrMesh Bridge is a “1-to-1” system, but you can have several Receivers talking to one Hub.
  • The Receiver can be up to 2 miles from the Hub, but the Bridge radios can be up to 5 miles apart.

It’s not necessarily an “either/or” thing. Several AyrMesh users are using the AyrMesh Bridge to reposition their Gateway Hub to the top of large structures (e.g. grain legs) to give the Hubs maximum range. A couple of people are using their Hubs for WiFi but providing connectivity to other buildings using Bridges (with the Hub and the Bridge radio mounted next to each other on top of the house or office). And you can use a Bridge connected to a Remote Hub to connect a device several miles away from the Hub.

There are a lot of folks out there selling wireless bridges – we think the AyrMesh Bridge is the best for one important reason: it’s the easiest to set up and use. No configuration is needed: you just connect both radios in the Bridge to your router. They download your configuration from AyrMesh.com and then all you have to do is mount them outside pointing at each other.

Introducing the AyrMesh Bridge

AyrMesh BridgeToday we are pleased to announce the availability of the AyrMesh Bridge.

The AyrMesh Bridge is a simple, wireless, point-to-point bridge. It serves a single purpose – to connect a distant device to your local network – a 5-mile long wireless Ethernet cable.

Wireless bridges have been around for a long time, and we had initially rejected the idea of adding a wireless bridge to the AyrMesh product line. If you have the Hubs and Receivers, why do you need a Bridge?

AyrMesh Bridge mounted

Testing in California

However, several customers have come to us in the last year with the same problem: their Gateway Hubs are on top of their homes or offices, but they would be better placed on top of a grain leg or another building with a better “view” of the surrounding fields.

In these cases, it would be possible to use one Hub near their routers to feed a Hub on the high location, but that would limit the ultimate range of the AyrMesh network (because we recommend only using up to three “hops” across Hubs).

The truth is that there are a lot of places the AyrMesh Bridge can be used:

  • Connecting an isolated outbuilding to your network (if you don’t want or need WiFi – if you want or need outdoor WiFi, of course, the Hub and a Receiver is a better solution)
  • Connecting a non-WiFi device that is more than 2 miles from a Hub or Receiver
  • Any other situation where you think “I wish I had an Ethernet cable that long.”

We are using a special radio signal for the AyrMesh Bridge to maximize the range. It is a narrow-band 5 GHz. signal, which is hidden and fully encrypted. Although it uses the 5 GHz WiFi band, it does not register with any WiFi equipment because it is a narrow-band signal. This minimizes interference with 5 GHz. WiFi  signals, but does not completely eliminate it. If you are using 5 GHz WiFi equipment (802.11a, ac, or dual-band n), you’ll want to use different channels for your AyrMesh Bridge than your WiFi equipment.

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Contents of the AyrMesh Bridge package

The AyrMesh Bridge comes complete with two radios (one for each end of the Bridge), power supplies, and 10′ Ethernet cables. Like all Ayrstone AyrMesh products, each radio is initialized by plugging it into your router until it shows up on AyrMesh.com, then it can be installed.

Like all AyrMesh devices, the Bridge radios are controlled by AyrMesh.com, ayrmeshas shown here. There is only one control for the Bridge – the 5 GHz. channel can be set to 149 (the default), 153, 157 (as shown here), 161, or 165. Note that these are distinct channels; unlike the 2.4 GHz. WiFi channels they do not overlap.

The AyrMesh Bridge is the simplest way to connect a device to your network at a considerable distance. Please contact us if you have any questions or comments about it.

 

 

WiFi standards – 802.11a to 802.11z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Myths about Wireless Farm Networking

dragon

Myths are fun, but this guy won’t help you get the work done.

We have been talking about the myths of Wireless Farm Networking lately, and I wanted to add my own two cents worth here.

The article about the myths is excellent and stands on its own – I strongly suggest you read it. I thought I’d add a little about the topic here, by focusing on three aspects: Wireless, Farm, and Networking.

Wireless – I have seen “wired” farm networks – a number of livestock producers have trenched and buried fiber lines to their livestock buildings (Ethernet can only go 100 yards) for monitoring and control. However, it’s much cheaper now to go wireless, and it gives you much more flexibility. To build a good wireless network on your farm, you have to learn about “line of sight” (or, more correctly, Fresnel Zones) and position equipment so it has both power available and good radio signal from the rest of the network. It used to be that having a private wireless network across your farm was either technically impossible or cost-prohibitive, but we are proving that wrong every day.

Farm – A farm is pretty much defined as being in a rural area, and we’ve all seen that what works in town doesn’t necessarily work on the Farm, and vice-versa. The AyrMesh network is designed for farm use – relatively few people and machines spread out over a relatively large area. There are lots of good solutions for networking in town, where there are a lot of people in a small area, but they will never work as well as a solution designed specifically for the farm.

Network – The Internet Protocol (IP) network is the single, unified data communications medium for this century. I have seen farms that had a wireless link for their weather station, another wireless link for their GPS corrections, a home WiFI system and cellular coverage. Getting rid of the “point-to-point” solutions and putting everything on the network enables you to collect and transmit the data you need more easily, deliver what you need over the Internet, and gives you the option of adding new technologies to your operation quickly and easily.

Some people think this is revolutionary, but I would argue nothing could be further from the truth: this is the result of a clear evolution over time. In the 1970s academicians started tying computers together and transferring data over the first networks. In the 1980s networks came out of academia and started being used for business and even personal purposes; in the meantime, ham radio operators and researchers were starting to send digital data over radio waves. In the 1990s companies started to network their offices to share files and printers, as well as sending emails. Building-to-building microwave links became relatively common, and Industrial Automation moved to IP networks. In the 2000s the consumer internet became a reality, as did WiFi for wireless data, and we all got “on the net.” Now, in the 2010s, we have the Internet of Things and the low cost of high-power wireless networking, making this the decade of Wireless Farm Networking. The ability to monitor farm data and even control farm operations using a local network connected to the global internet will change agriculture forever.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (“Drones”) and Wireless Farm Networks

OctocopterOne of the hottest topics in “Ag Tech” at the moment is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones) and the role they can play for the farmer. Drones are hot right now, in Ag and other industries, because technology has made them much more adaptable and much lower in cost.

The possible benefits are tantalizing: an automatic, self-flying platform that can loft things into the air, take them where you need them, and take actions you prescribe. Just a few of the things drones can conceivably do for you:

  1. Take visible-light, near-infrared, and infrared photographs of all your fields at much higher resolution and in less time than satellite
  2. Get instant thermocline and other weather data (pop up 1000′ and check the temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure, etc.)
  3. “Run and get it” service for small items (see the beer drone and Amazon Prime Air)

When I was at the World Ag Expo a few weeks ago, there were several companies showing off drones and talking about drone-based ag services. Please make note of the distinction between drones and drone-based services, because, at the moment, it’s important. Or maybe not. I’ll explain as well as possible.

The Federal Aviation Administration has had a long-standing rule against the use of UAVs for “commercial purposes” – anything involving making money. Now, you can buy model airplanes with very sophisticated self-flying and video systems for fun or research, but not for any money-making purpose. However, a number of people couldn’t help themselves in making use of these amazing machines to enhance their businesses, and they have been getting “cease and desist” letters from the FAA. One guy named Raphael Pirker actually was fined by the FAA, giving him the opportunity to challenge the fine. He appealed to the National Transit Safety Board, and the administrative judge there ruled that the FAA did not have in place any actual regulations for the use of UAVs in non-navigable airspace, and therefore could not enforce the fine against Pirker. There’s a good article about this in Scientific American.

So, apparently, one currently can use UAVs for commercial pursuits, with some (not entirely clear) limitations. I’ll bet if you take your drone anywhere near a commercial airfield, for instance, you’ll get to meet some members of law enforcement and spend time with them. I’ll bet if you take your drone near any government installation, you will get to spend a serious amount of time with members of law enforcement and/or the military. In either case I’ll wager you’ll get to contribute a good amount of money to the government. And there are undoubtedly some private citizens who will happily shotgun your UAV out of the sky on sight.

I’ll also wager that the FAA (or some other part of the government) will create some rules about UAVs to protect people from stuff falling out of the sky on top of people and property, and having our neighbors peeking in 2nd (or 102nd)-story windows. But, for the moment, it looks like the skies are open, particularly out in the rural areas, and I expect farmers to be the first to benefit from UAVs. Some people like Chad Colby are already talking publicly about the opportunities.

Honestly, I think the current “state of the art” is mostly a plaything: the drones that are currently available are mostly manually radio-controlled and focused on live picture-taking. UAVs I have seen that might be put to use on the farm must be charged, taken to the field, flown around the field, and then the pictures (or other data) downloaded off the UAV (by bluetooth, WiFi, or transfer from some kind of flash card). This is a significant commitment of time, which limits how often you can really use the drone. A crop scout may be able to save a lot of the time he would normally spend by using a UAV to survey fields, but there’s benefit to the grower having a drone or drones that would continually survey fields.

The reason I am particularly interested in Ag Drones is because I believe they can become an important part of the day-to-day information-gathering apparatus. To be truly useful, however, I believe they must be:

  • Autonomous: flying over your fields automatically without intervention. Ideally, they would have a “home” out in the field where they would stay, and they would do their flying at specific times with no human interaction needed.
  • Smart: able to recognize problems and take appropriate action – recognize if there is something different in the fields, avoid danger, and report back
  • Connected: automatically uploading data collected and sending alerts to you as needed. For instance, a drone flying over your fields taking infrared photos might use the wireless farm network to automatically upload the pictures to a service that automatically scans them for anomalies indicating crop stress.
  • Self-maintaining: self-charging and self-monitoring, needing little maintenance and letting you know when it needs “help”

My own vision is that an Ag drone should be programmed with pre-configured flight paths and connected via WiFi with a wireless farm network for constant (or at least mostly constant) communication. It should be able to download changes to its schedule and pre-configured flight paths off the network, and It should also be able to land on a platform that will automatically charge the drone’s batteries for the next flight. Set up this way:

  • The grower, scout, or agronomist doesn’t have to go out and mess around with the drone – it can just do its thing as often as it needs to (pending charging of the batteries)
  • The data can be automatically collected on the grower’s PC or on a central server (on the farm or on the Internet) – it can even be automatically processed and problems (plant stress, aberrant weather conditions, etc.) can be automatically reported to the grower
  • The drone works for the farmer, not the other way around.

All the pieces exist today to create drones that can meet these criteria, but I’m not aware of any pre-built planes or copters that are ready-to-use. However, there are open-source software projects that have built auto-pilot systems for drones and other robots (e.g. the ArduCopter), and there is discussion of induction charging of quadcopters in the “DIY” forums. And heavier-lift copters (capable of picking up fairly heavy items and transporting them) are also in the works. Imagine being able to get out your cellphone and “tell” your copter to bring you the parts you forgot back at the workshop, then hearing it whirring its way toward you a few minutes later. And then, when it delivers them, it DOESN’T TELL YOU YOU’RE AN IDIOT for forgetting the parts. For me, that would be nearly priceless.

In short, I think there are a lot of possible benefits from using UAVs on the farm, and I’m eager to see them start to deliver those benefits. However, I think a lot of the benefits are greatly enhanced by having the UAVs connected to a wireless farm network – I believe the two technologies will work hand-in-hand, each enhancing the value of the other.

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…

The hard part of wireless networking: the wires.

iStock_000009813431XSmallIt’s actually an old joke in the wireless networking world: what’s the worst part of wireless networking? The wires!

(OK, it’s an old dumb joke…)

While having WiFi all over the farm is incredibly useful, the only way to make it happen is using Ethernet cables. While Ethernet cables are very simple devices, there are an amazing number of variations and types of Ethernet cables, an choosing the wrong ones (or using them poorly) can cost you time and money.

What is an Ethernet cable?

Cat_5

Courtesy of WikiMedia

Ethernet cables all have some common characteristics: they contain 4 pairs of wires, with each pair twisted around each other (so they are called “twisted-pair” cables). They have an outer sheath to protect the wires inside and they use RJ-45 connectors to connect to networking devices.

The 4 pairs of wires inside the sheath are usually colored green, brown, blue, and orange – one solid and one striped for each color. The wires are usually 100% copper, but some cheaper cables are made of alloys. Alloy cable works OK for short lengths, but should not be used for cables longer than 25 feet. There is sometimes an uninsulated wire running down the middle of the cable called a “drain wire” – this is meant to provide a common ground for the equipment the cable is connected to.

The wires are usually about 24 gauge (AWG), but some cheaper cables use 26 gauge wire, and some more expensive cables use 22 gauge wire. Obviously, the bigger the wire the better, as long as it’s pure copper, but bigger wire also makes heavier cables. It makes a difference if you’re hauling it up a ladder, believe me.

Kinds of Ethernet Cables

Under the sheath, some cables have a shield made of metallic braid or foil. This shield keeps outside noise from penetrating the cable and disrupting the signal on the wires. Unshielded cables are designated as “UTP” (Unshielded Twisted Pair), while shielded cables are designated “STP” (Shielded Twisted Pair). Our experience shows that any cable over 25 feet should be shielded to prevent corruption of the data on the wires and maintain the speed of the data.

You will see, shopping for Ethernet cables, that there are several “Categories” of cable – Cat 5, Cat 5e, and Cat 6 are the common ones available now. The differences are in the speed rating of the cables – Cat 5 can pass data at 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps, Cat 5e can pass data at 10, 100, or 1000 Mbps, and Cat 6 can go up to 10 Gbps. Any of these will work well with AyrMesh equipment – we usually buy Cat5e cables because they are less expensive and widely available. The main physical differences in the cables is how tightly the wire pairs are twisted together.

Finally, the sheath itself can differ quite widely. The normal sheath is usually a form of polyolefin, which does not burn easily. “Plenum-rated” and “Riser-rated” sheaths are coated with a low-smoke PVC, which makes them even more flameproof and reduces the toxicity of the smoke if they do catch on fire. “Direct burial” cables generally have a very thick and heavy sheath, and they may contain a gel that prevents a nick or cut in the cable from admitting water into the cable. Obviously, if water gets into the cable, the wires can corrode and the cable will go bad, but direct burial cables are usually very stiff and very heavy, making them extremely difficult to work with.

Whichever cable you choose, it is imperative that you handle it correctly. Because the cable consists of a bunch of small wires, it is really no stronger than any of those wires. It’s very easy to get a kink in a cable when you’re pulling it through a hole, for instance, and break one of the wires. When that happens, the cable is generally useless.

General Guidelines for Ethernet cables used with AyrMesh products

  • Make sure the cables are all-copper and shielded (STP) if they’re 25 feet or longer.
  • Try to get 24 or 22 AWG wires in the cable.
  • Get plenum-rated or riser-rated cables for use indoors, but don’t use direct burial cables unless you’re going to bury them – they’re too hard to manage.
  • ALWAYS leave a “drip loop” when you’re bringing a cable run from outside to inside a building so water doesn’t run down the cable and ruin equipment!
  • Be VERY careful pulling cables – they are more fragile than they seem!

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

A little technical talk about WiFi

Adam Gittins has published another terrific post on his Precision Ag Explained blog about problems he ran into getting his AyrMesh network up and running.

It reminds me that WiFi isn’t entirely straightforward, and some explanations of the vagaries are in order.

As Adam points out, interference is potentially a huge problem on WiFi. One problem is that the 2.4 GHz. WiFi band was partitioned out into 11 channels (in the U.S. and Canada), but most of those channels actually OVERLAP each other. There are only THREE DISTINCT CHANNELS: 1, 6, and 11 – all the other channels overlap at least one of these three (and each other). For a good explanation with graphics, I always recommend Wikipedia.

As he points out, if you have your “indoor” WiFi and your “outdoor” WiFi on the same channel, they’ll interfere with each other, reducing the range and bandwidth of both. Even if they are less than five channels apart this will happen to some degree. The AyrMesh network always comes by default on channel 6, so you can either change your home router’s channel to 1 or 11, or change the AyrMesh channel using your account on AyrMesh.com.

InSSIDer

InSSIDer – courtesy of MetaGeek

We use and recommend a couple of tools to help discover WiFi interference. InSSIDer for Home is a free program that run on Windows, Mac, or Android, and shows all of the WiFi Access Points in range of the computer and a pretty good estimate of the signal strength of those Access Points. (NOTE: It has recently been pointed out that getting InSSIDer for Home from the Mac App Store actually costs $4.99)

WiFi Analyzer

WiFi Analyzer for Android, Courtesy of farproc

WiFi Analyzer is another free app that runs on Android. It’s a little simpler and quicker than InSSIDer, and has become my “go-to” solution for taking a “quick look around” on my phone.

It’s worth noting that there is no analogous app for the iPhone because Apple doesn’t allow direct access to the WiFi card. However, there are similar apps available if your iPhone is jailbroken.

chanalyzer31sample

Chanalyzer Spectrum Analysis, courtesy of Metageek

Just to make it a bit more interesting, however, I have to point out one more fact: WiFi is far from being the only thing using the 2.4 GHz radio band. Cordless phones, baby monitors, wireless surveillance cameras, certain radars, and microwave ovens all use the same spectrum, so they can all potentially interfere with your WiFi. This is, in fact, precisely why Metageek gives away InSSIDer – they sell tools called “Spectrum Analyzers” – their “Wi-Spy” Spectrum Analyzers are excellent and relatively inexpensive. They can show not just WiFi interference, but all the interference in the 2.4 GHz. band. They even offer a very nice “Wi-Spy mini” bundled with their “InSSIDer for Office” product for only $199.

You probably won’t need a spectrum analyzer for your AyrMesh network. Out in the country there’s very little interference, and it takes a while to learn how to use a spectrum analyzer effectively, even with Metageek’s excellent software.

However, getting a copy of InSSIDer and/or WiFi Analyzer is something I recommend to everyone who’s curious about their local WiFi environment.