I have considered tillage to be the activity most ready for automation, so I had applauded Bear Flag’s emphasis on tillage and Deere’s decision to acquire them and offer an autonomous 8R for tillage. I’ll be interested to see how this goes… it’s coming at a time when no-till or strip-till is increasingly popular, but there’s still a lot of the world still digging up fields.
Planting and harvest are difficult, complex, and time-sensitive tasks, so I expect they will be the last to be automated, but that still leaves spraying and cultivating. GUSS out here in California is already out spraying orchards, and, again, I think Deere was smart to acquire Blue River for their vision-based weeding system. It’s not ready to be a blockbuster product this year, but I can certainly see a future where weeding (and possibly other pest control) is done by a self-driving machine. The autonomous farm won’t be a complete “rip-and-replace” operation – I expect we’ll see it come one piece at a time, slowly replacing human labor, just as it has for the last 200 years.
In truth, once you are liberated from having to drive the machine, of course, you can actually employ more machines. You can have multiple large machines, like the Deere 8R tractor or the Raven (now Case) Omnipower platform, working in different fields, or you could conceivably start replacing some of them with swarms of small, nimble machines like the prototype Fendt Xaver seeder or the Australian Swarmfarm sprayer.
However, having multiple machines in the field requires that they be able to communicate with each other and, possibly, with a central server. That communications must be both low-latency (to avoid delays and collisions) and high-bandwidth (to ensure that they can “speak freely” – at times they’ll need to communicate a lot of information). There are a lot of pundits out there telling us that “5G will solve everything” – and the technical specs tell us that could be absolutely true. That leaves only one important question: do you have 5G on your farm today?
If you’re in the 95% or so who answer “no” to that question, you might want to consider another solution – a solution that might even be better. Meshing WiFi was originally designed to enable “Mobile Ad-Hoc Networks” or “MANETs” – exactly what these devices are using in the field. Instead of waiting for a carrier (or several – many farmers I know require two or more phones, because one carrier covers one part of the farm and a different carrier covers another) to come and plant a 5G network on your property, you can start establishing a WiFi network across your property using AyrMesh Hubs and AyrMesh Cab Hubs for your vehicles.
The advantages of using WiFi include:
You control the network: what gets covered and who gets to use it
It uses your existing Internet connection – no extra charges
It connects to your existing LAN – you can put servers on your network so data need not leave your farm
It’s standard, so it works with everything, from your laptop to cameras to low-cost soil sensors and controllers… including robots
It will get better with time – new versions of WiFi will bring advantages.
This is an exciting time for farming – things are going to change pretty quickly, and there will be real advantages for those who adopt new technologies. The AyrMesh network provides a “backbone” that allows you to adopt those technologies easily, and we’re eager to work with the companies that are producing these new technologies to maximize the value they bring to farmers.
We do occasional questionnaires and surveys to determine what our users want to do with their outdoor WiFi systems, and “security” and “cameras” have consistently been at the top of the list. So every few months I buy some new cameras and test them out here in the lab. I want to share with you my notes on the cameras we have sitting around here and what we’re still looking at. Spoiler alert: we haven’t found the perfect camera for farm/ranch security use yet.
The first category is “traditional IP cameras” – these are cameras that are pretty much self-contained and have more or less standard interfaces. They are “stand alone” devices that come up on your network and work. They are (mostly) very easy to integrate into an existing security system or home automation system, because they use standards like ONVIF and RTSP. These all require constant power, usually via a “wall wart” power supply, although some use Power over Ethernet (PoE).
Cheap Ebay Camera
Foscam cameras – these are simple, older IP cameras with VGA (640×480) resolution and WiFi. There were also many clones that were similar and used the same firmware, available cheap on Ebay. They aren’t available any more, as far as I know, and they’re quite outdated, the picture quality is not good, but they were very simple to use. You might still find some clones on Ebay, but I wouldn’t bother given the choices that area available now.
Ubiquiti Cameras and NVR, courtesy of Ubiquiti Networks
Ubiquiti AirCams – I used to have a couple of these, but I have never found a way to use them effectively. Ubiquiti created a whole “system” with an NVR and cameras, but it was (in my opinion) good but never great. Their cameras didn’t do WiFi (all wired), and I lost interest in them. Apparently Ubiquiti did, too, as they seem to have discontinued the entire product line. There are still a lot of them available online, and they are a good choice for a building with Ethernet infrastructure.
Axis indoor camera
Axis M1030 and M1031 cameras – Axis products are generally considered the “best” IP cameras available, but the low-cost “M” series are the only ones that are WiFi-capable. The models I have are old and have been replaced by updated versions, which are undoubtedly even better. These are my “workhorse” cameras that keep an eye on things inside our lab buildings, but they can’t be used outdoors at all. Axis makes a very broad variety of cameras, but none of the outdoor cameras use WiFi, so they have to be used with an AyrMesh Receiver. They are relatively expensive, but very, very good.
Amcrest cameras – Amcrest came out a few years ago with some remarkably high-quality, outdoor, WiFi-capable cameras. We have had one at our back door for a couple of years now, and it has been absolutely flawless and has a very nice picture. They are comparable to the low-end Axis cameras at a much lower price; in addition, they are outdoor and WiFi-ready. They use ONVIF and standard RTSP, so they are relatively easy to integrate into an existing NVR and/or security system. These are generally my “go-to” cameras – I recommend them quite a lot. The only shortcomings are that they are “traditional” IP cameras, requiring constant external power, so they’re not easily deployed away from a power source. However, they are my absolute favorite “traditional” IP camera for use where there is a source of power. You can easily buy them on Amazon.
Vivotek IB8369A camera
Vivotek– I have a nice outdoor Vivotek IB8369A camera. It’s a very nice camera, and Vivotek has a very large line of very high-quality cameras. I was interested because it was one of the first cameras I had seen that had more advanced “object detection” capability – much more accurate than the algorithm in most cameras at detecting people and animals moving into the scene. And it works well, but they do not make any WiFi-capable cameras. So the Vivotek has remained connecte to our network, but I don’t generally recommend them, especially now that advanced object detection is becoming available on other cameras.
The second category is “App-centric Cameras” – cameras that depend on an app to provide the “brains” of the camera.
The first of these was the “Dropcam,” which was acquired by Nest and Google. I was an “early adopter” of the Dropcam, later to become the Nest camera, and I found it to be very handy. However, it did not integrate into any home security system (until Nest introduced their own), they did not introduce an outdoor camera for years after the first, indoor camera, and the only way it can be used to detect motion and provide alerts is by paying a monthly fee to Google. Ring (now part of Amazon) came out with similar cameras, with similar shortcomings.
I bought a Wyze camera soon after they came out because I was intrigued by their price point: $20 for a good, simple, indoor camera, or $30 for one with pan-and-tilt capability. And I have been delighted with them: they can do motion detection and alterting, and you can easily access them through the very good Wyze app. They use a micro-SD card to store video on the camera, so you don’t have to have a subscription. They are currently my “go-to” for simple indoor cameras (e.g. folks who just want to see what’s going on in their house when they’re gone). They have introduced an outdoor camera, but it really belongs in the next category.
I also got a camera that touts itself as being much more capable in terms of locating motion: the SimCam Alloy 1S. This is a camera that uses a Passive InfraRed sensor to detect movement, and then uses advanced software techniques (which they call “artificial intelligence”) to identify people and other items in the camera’s view. So far, it has identfied me, the dog, and the cat next door as “person,” so I am not sure how well the person identification works. It’s a good little camera, and they have introduced a battery-operated indoor version. If they introduce a battery-operated outdoor version with a solar panel, I’ll certainly want to look at it.
The third category is “Battery-operated cameras” – these are app-centric cameras that can be installed remotely, without a power outlet. This is a very tricky category – there are a fair number of variations on this theme, but they are (so far) none that “look” like standard IP cameras. All are app-dependent, but most of them use local storage to avoid having to use “the cloud” to store video after a motion detection event. In order to minimize battery usage, they depend on a Passive InfraRed (PIR) sensor to detect movement, which then turns the camera on until the movement is done. You can get alerts through the camera’s app, and then access the video stored on the micro-SD card on the camera itself. However, none of these are currently capable of being integrated with a “traditional” security system, although some are able to integrate with popular home automation systems like Alexa and Google Assistant.
The first camera I used in this category was the Reolink Argus, which runs on four small “CR123” batteries. I was delighted with this camera for about 3 weeks (I had it mounted out where I was having some critter troubles, and it captured lovely video of a rat running around). I replaced the batteries, and, about 3 weeks later, it died. I then got some lithium 16340 batteries and a charger (the camera requires four). They lasted about 2 weeks between charges, and I was starting to get tired of changing the batteries when it had another problem: the latch holding the micro SD card broke, so it would no longer store video. It does not integrate with any “normal” security system, and it doesn’t have a way to integrate other power sources (e.g. a solar panel to keep the batteries charged), so it is currently sitting on a shelf.
I then saw a relatively inexpensive solar-powered camera on Aliexpress.com and decided based on the specifications to give it a try. There were two immediate downsides: first, it shipped with incredibly bad batteries – they died and would not hold a charge after only 2 days. I replaced the batteries with known-good 18650 batteries and it has worked fine ever since. The second problem is that it depends on an app which is published by someone who is unknown (at least to me) and does not seem to be of the highest quality. That said, it has been working pretty reliably for a few months now.
Reolink Argus Eco
Reolink then released their Reolink Argus Eco, which, when paired with the optional solar panel, is functionally very similar to the camera above. I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast with the “generic” camera above. It was a little more difficult to mount, since the camera and solar panel are separate, but worked essentially the same. The app comes from Reolink, which I found encouraging.
As noted, the performance of these two cameras is very similar. When they have a tight view of a somewhat secluded area (e.g. looking at a door from across the yard) they work very well – they alert every time someone walks through the scene with very few false alerts. When they are looking at a wider area with a lot of different things in the picture, they both generate a lot of false alerts. For instance, I have the Reolink in my brother’s front yard, looking at his cars in the driveway, and I get almost constant alerts from it when the wind is blowing, because it “sees” the branches of the trees moving. I had tested the inexpensive Chinese camera in his back yard and saw the same problem. I put the inexpensive Chinese camera in my back yard and pointed it at the back door, however, and it worked perfectly.
There’s not a single camera I can recommend without reservations. The Amcrest cameras are very good traditional IP cameras, and they integrate well with many traditional home security systems, but they require constant power and careful consideration around IP address planning (including router configuration) if you want to use them with an NVR or from outside your network.
The Wyze indoor cameras are so good and so inexpensive that they’re definitely my current choice for indoor cameras if you don’t need to integrate in with a traditional home security system. Their app is very good, and provides good alerts on motion, as well as good “on-demand” viewing. Unfortunately, they recently introduced an outdoor camera that, due to its design and the reviews I have read, I’m going to decline to test. They are going in a lot of directions right now, and not all of them will be successful, and I hope they “double back” and build a good, simple, outdoor solar-powered camera without the complications of the “Gateway module” and yet another wireless network.
Similarly, I like the Reolink Argus Eco for use in outdoor locations where there’s no power. Just turn off the motion detection and notifications if you need to use it in an area where there’s likely to be a lot of extra motion due to wind or other factors. There are a huge number and variety of similar cameras coming out of China – perhaps we can modify one or more of them to optimize it for rural use.
I’m going to keep looking and testing cameras here with an eye toward what works on the farm or ranch. Of course, I’m always eager to hear about what you have found, what you are using, and what you’re not using any more (successes and failures). Next up for me is the “EyeCube” – I’ll let you know how it goes.
There is an image of farming – bucolic, peaceful, unfettered by the concerns of the technological age. It’s lovely, and many of us indulge it to some degree… but it is patently false. Agriculture is an industry moving quickly on the technology curve as markets demand more, higher-quality, and cheaper food and grains. Specialized implements, higher-horsepower machines, GPS steering, variable rate planting and spraying, and the cellphone have all had an impact on farm productivity. But that’s not all.
Courtesy of Waymo
The Robots are coming.
Look, anybody who has sat in a tractor or combine moving through the field by itself using AutoSteer has to have thought, “Do I really need to be here?” In various cities around the U.S., we have been witness to Google vehicles (and others) happily (if sometimes slowly) wheeling themselves around town, their human handlers typing away on their laptops. If they can run sedans on public roads, they can run a tractor down a row of corn. There are a lot of questions about what the first (big) bunch of farm robots will be doing, but the Japanese have been using almost completely autonomous mini-tractors for rice transplanting for years. There are a lot of people and companies testing robots around the world for farming – big ones and little ones.
Courtesy of CNH
We have been interested in robots on the farm because we had a vague sense they need a lot more data connectivity than is available in most places now. So I read this article with interest; to quote: “Internet access is a problem,” [Scott Shearer, professor and chair of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Ohio State University] said. “We need 10 megabits per second connection speed.” Data-gathering tools today can capture gigabytes of information that must be able to flow back to the driverless machine quickly and easily; and the machine must be able to communicate to a central location too.
In some places, cellular connectivity may be enough, but, as discussed earlier in this blog, we don’t expect cellular service to improve dramatically in rural America. And it’s going to still be expensive.
Our modest proposal: set up an AyrMesh network on your farm today for long-range WiFi. And be ready for the robots!
After extensive research, testing, and development, we are pleased to announce the all new AyrMesh Hub2x2.
The AyrMesh Hub2x2 is our first Hub to use MIMO to dramatically improve the upload and download speed, both between the Hub and your devices and between the meshed Hubs themselves. The Hub2x2 can deliver up to twice the data speed of the Hub2T, enabling our customers to do things like:
Use high-definition security cameras
Download manuals, diagrams, videos, etc. up to twice as fast
Make and Receive video calls
Stream HD movies – even out in the garden
MIMO is a technology that allows a WiFi access point (like the AyrMesh Hubs) to use multiple antennas that receive and transmit multiple “spatial streams” of data simultaneously. Multiple antennas also help make the signal more readily available in difficult places like in trees and around buildings.
The use of MIMO represents a new strategy for AyrMesh Hubs. Previous AyrMesh Hubs traded off bandwidth to achieve maximum range. The Hub2x2 combines outstanding bandwidth and excellent range to normal WIFI-enabled devices, with a small sacrifice in Hub-to-Hub range.
The reason for this tradeoff is that we have found that most of our customers have their Hubs within a mile of each other, and are primarily interested in ensuring good WiFi coverage with excellent speed around their home, pool, gardens, farm office, workshop, barns, chicken coops, and stables. The new Ayrmesh Hub2x2 is designed specifically for those needs while still enabling you to expand your AyrMesh network out into fields and across thousands of acres.
The Hub2x2 vs. the Hub2T
The AyrMesh Hub2x2 is a perfect Gateway Hub for almost any AyrMesh network, because it provides long range and high bandwidth. The Hub2x2 is also a great Remote Hub up to a mile away, making it an excellent product for providing high-bandwidth WiFi around a rural home, farm, or estate. By placing Hubs a mile or less apart, you can ensure a continuous “cloud” of WiFi for your devices.
For Remote Hub installations more than a mile away, we recommend using the Hub2T. Its single antenna “focuses” its signal much more for longer-range applications, which provides better bandwidth at those distances than the Hub2x2.
The only time we will recommend the Hub2T as a Gateway Hub is when a Remote Hub will be positioned over 2 miles away from the Gateway. In this case, the Hub2T will provide better bandwidth to the Remote Hub2T than the Hub2x2 would.
One other point: the Hub2T has MUCH lower power requirements than the Hub2x2, so it is more suitable for solar/wind powered installations.
The new AyrMesh Hub2x2 – a new kind of AyrMesh Hub
We are pleased to introduce the new model of the AyrMesh Receiver. This new model represents a significant improvement on the older model while maintaining complete compatibility with previous AyrMesh products. This product combines the proven software from our previous model AyrMesh Receiver with new, more capable hardware. The new AyrMesh Receiver is a bit larger than the old model, and offers several new features:
Bigger, stronger antenna for more solid links
Mounting tabs on the back for mounting to poles or flat surfaces
“Extra” external Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) port on the Receiver for connecting external PoE devices like Cameras
Standard 48V power injector/power supply so standard 802.3af devices can use the external PoE port
The ability to mount the Receiver on a flat surface (without additional hardware) is a feature that many users requested over the years, and the ability to add an outdoor PoE device will, we think, enable our customers to enhance security and operational awareness.
Overall, the new Receiver represents a significant improvement over the old model. While the old models will continue to work perfectly, you might want to consider replacing an older Receiver with the new Receiver if:
It is in a marginal location, where it is just getting enough signal to make the link – the new Receiver’s more powerful antennas can help; or
The AyrMesh Hub2T is a direct replacement for the Hub2n, but with some important differences. It meshes with the Hub2n and any other AyrMesh “Hub2” products.
First off, the Hub2T is a lot bigger than the Hub2n, with a much bigger antenna and a tougher stainless steel mounting bracket. The bigger antenna improves the performance of the Hub, while the new bracket just makes the entire Hub more stable and reliable, whether it is mounted on a pole or a flat surface.
Paradoxically, the new Hub2T has a little less radio transmitting power (about half a watt vs. almost a watt for the Hub2n), but it performs better than the more powerful Hub2n. Why? That big antenna! Reducing the transmitting power allows us to use twice as powerful an antenna, and (at least to a degree) a higher-gain antenna is better than more transmitting power. Power allows the Hub to “shout” longer distances, but a higher-gain antenna enable the Hub to both “shout louder” and “listen better” – resulting in better overall performance.
The other interesting change is the addition of a “gland” on the bottom of the radio. This gland makes it a bit trickier to install the Hub, but it protects it from water splashing up from below. This addresses concerns we have heard from some livestock operators who want to put Hubs near livestock pens or in milking parlors or farrowing houses, but worry about having to spray water around the Hub. We still don’t recommend spraying water directly up at the Hub, but this Hub will better withstand inadvertent sprays of water from below.
The Hub2T also uses less power than the Hub2n, so it is better for solar-powered field installations – if you have experienced “dropouts” in winter due to low batteries on the solar system, the Hub2T will work better (although that may also be a sign you need to replace those batteries…)
Should you replace your Hub2n with a Hub2T? In most cases, no – you’re not going to see enough of a difference in performance to make it worthwhile. The only exception is where there is a danger of water splashing up from beneath the unit.
But, if you are just starting your AyrMesh network, and as you expand, the AyrMesh Hub2T will be a low-cost, no-hassle workhorse, whether it’s on a building or out in the field.
I have a Google Alert for “Wireless Farm” – I get about an article a week (and many of them are about wireless technologies for “server farms” and other odd things). But today I got a link to this article about “How 5G will impact the future of farming.” Intrigued, I clicked it to find a puff-piece about how Deere wants better wireless connectivity so that combines can “talk” to each other via “the cloud,” pointing out that it can take up to a minute with current technology for one combine to upload its data to the cloud, then the other combine to download that data and act on it. A couple of points here:
“5G” mobile technology is based on “millimeter-wave” bands – over 20 GHz. (20,000 MHz.). Current LTE is based on 700 MHz. radios, and previous mobile data technologies (2G/3G) were “piggybacked” on existing 800 MHz. and 1900 MHz. radios. The range and, in particular, the ability of a signal to penetrate solid objects varies inversely with the frequency. So, to have 5G covering the areas cellular covers today requires a MUCH higher density of cellular towers than we have; to have it cover all of the rural U.S. will require thousands and thousands of new towers, a huge infrastructure investment
As I have mentioned previously, the vast majority of cellular infrastructure investment is happening (and will continue to happen) within cities and towns, where the density of opportunities for subscriber revenue makes it profitable.
Within the article, however, is this paragraph:
The term “5G” refers to the fifth-generation wireless broadband technology based on the 802.11ac standard. The packet of technology will bring speed and coverage improvements from 4G, with low-latency wireless up to 1GB/s.
802.11ac is WiFi, not mobile (cellular) technology. Specifically, it is the current generation of WiFI using the 5.8 GHz. (5,800 MHz.) radio band.
And here’s the point: “5G” mobile technology is not going to have an impact on farm operations in the forseeable future. But you can have multi-megabit WiFi technology on your farm TODAY – and you don’t have to wait for your friendly cellular carrier to put up a zillion towers. FURTHERMORE, since your AyrMesh system puts all the devices onto YOUR OWN Local-Area Network (LAN), everything on the system can just talk to each other – they don’t have to upload to the cloud and download from the cloud or anything like that. Your combines can “talk” to each other and your trucks, you can automate processes and enable autonomous vehicles – NOW – with an AyrMesh WiFi network.
There is a lot of talk about these technologies – every time I turn around it seems like I’m reading about or hearing an analyst who is saying that these technologies will revolutionize farming with “Internet of Things” devices. And they are exciting.
The attraction for carriers to these technologies is that they can be added easily to an existing cellular (or other wireless) network, using existing backhaul, billing, and other infrastructure. Some of the technologies, like LTE-NB and Cat M1 (which Verizon and AT&T are reportedly testing) just require changes to the LTE station firmware (supposedly).
The appeal of all cellular technologies for solution providers, of course, is that they are easy to install – as long as there is a signal, they just put in an appropriate client radio and a SIM card, and the device starts sending data to a server.
The problem, of course, is that rural cellular networks don’t offer any data services to large parts of the rural U.S. today, and there are areas without even voice service. So there’s a significant investment needed on their part to make these technologies usable across rural America.
But that’s the problem: if you’re the company investing in deploying these technologies, you want to put them where the greatest concentration of potential users are, and that’s in cities. Every power meter, gas meter, water meter, parking meter, flow meter, streetlight, traffic sensor, etc. will be able to connect to the network – there are literally hundreds or thousands of potential connectors per acre in the city, vs. one to ten per acre in the country (except, perhaps, Napa). So, if I’m a shareholder for a cellular company, I do NOT want to hear they are building out rural infrastructure for LoRA or something else – I want them to concentrate in the cities, where those networks are most profitable.
Now, rural WISPs, telephone co-ops, etc. may choose to piggy-back one or more of these technologies on their networks to server local customers. Which WISPs? Which co-ops? Which technology? Your guess is as good as mine, although it is worth mentioning that Senet is a company that’s rolling out LoRA in a few rural areas, for instance. However, their coverage map makes it clear they are concentrating on cities, towns, and some farming areas in Missouri, Arkansas, and California.
Note also that, where there is connectivity, the carriers will want to charge a monthly fee for each device – that’s OK if you have a few devices, but, eventually, believe it or not, you will want to have hundreds of devices on your farm. I am already hearing from growers in specialty crops who have monthly cellular bills of over $1000.
Bottom line: I don’t see these technologies providing any real help to the majority of U.S. growers for the next 5 years, if ever. They will show up in some places as a local option, but it doesn’t pencil out on a national scale.
What does make sense is to put some sort of high-bandwidth wireless network on the farm/ranch (e.g. WiFi of some sort, like AyrMesh) and then, as needed, use WiFi-enabled sensors or run local 802.15.4 networks (e.g. Zigbee, 6LowPAN, Threads, etc.) in the fields for sensor connectivity. The sensors are cheaper, the networks are controlled by the growers, so they cover what needs to be covered, and, since it’s all on the farmer’s LAN, the data can easily be directed to a local server and needn’t leave the farm.
(Note: I’m not actually crazy about ZigBee, but it’s the best and cheapest we have available right now. I’m hoping for better in the future: something like Google’s Threads, but at 900 MHz.)
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, as well as the associated posts on the ezeio and sensor networks, I have focused primarily on IoT hardware: the part you can see and touch, and that touches your farm.
However, in many ways, software is much more important than the hardware. As I observed in Part 2, modern technology products are remarkably similar: a CPU, some memory, some storage, and some peripherals. If the peripheral is a relay, you have a device that can turn things on and off (like a remote-controlled power plug, or a WebRelay). If the peripheral is an “Analog to Digital Converter” (ADC) then the device can monitor sensors and report the values from those sensors. Some devices like the ezeio have both (and even more).
Of course, nothing happens on these devices without software. And software is involved in at least two important places: the software that is running on the devices themselves, sometimes referred to as “firmware,” and the software running on back-end computers (local or cloud servers, PCs, or even your phone or tablet) that is used to store and interpret the results from the devices.
These two pieces of software have to be able to “talk” with each other, and we’ll assume* they do so over your network, with the device connected to your AyrMesh network and the “back-end” software on some sort of cloud-based server on the Internet. Note that the “back-end” software COULD reside on a server on your property if you are using AyrMesh.
What the devices themselves do depends on both the hardware and the firmware on the device – in most cases, that firmware will collect readings from the sensors, upload that information to the back-end server, and, if appropriate, take commands from that server and take action, from turning on a light to starting a pump or a grain auger.
In most cases, that firmware is a closed system – there is no way for you to collect data off or communicate with the device directly, or to direct it to a location other than the vendor’s cloud server. It doesn’t have to be that way, but (1) it’s simpler, and (2) that gives the vendor much more control over the data.
The back-end server usually stores the data and presents it to you (either through a web page or a mobile app, or both). What data you see, how you see it, and what you can do with it depends on that back-end software. It may just present a time series of observations in the field as a graph, it may let you set up simple or complex rules (if the soil moisture is at this level or below, turn on the irrigation system), and it be able to present data in many useful ways (different graphs, superimposed on maps, etc.) and enable very complex control of your farm machinery.
The back-end server is usually a closed system, as well – most times it can only accept data from the vendor’s own devices. Sometimes it may have an “Application Program Interface” (API) that allows it to exchange data with other programs. It may also have the ability to upload data into it for tracking and presentation, or to download data from it for importation into another program. These APIs and import/export mechanisms may be very good, well-written, and well-documented, making them extremely useful. Or they may not. APIs are generally only useful for programmers – it takes code to make them work – but well-written and well-documented APIs can enable even relatively inexperienced programmers to create custom programs to do exactly what you want, and that can be extremely valuable.
On the other hand, back-end software without good APIs and/or import/export features is a “closed box” – what you get is just what you get, and there’s no way to get more or less. Understand, of course, that a closed system like this may do EXACTLY what you need, but, if your needs change, it may suddenly become useless.
Of course, there is also the issue of your data and what happens to it. The terms and conditions for the service may be very clear about what happens to your data, or they may be quite vague. Many of the data services will anonymize and sell the data that you store on their servers (the most unethical may not even anonymize it – beware!). This may concern you or not, depending on the nature of the data and how closely tied to your operation it is. For instance, it is generally valuable to share weather data – if your neighbors do so as well, you can gain a much better insight into the local weather patterns. On the other hand, you may not want to share geo-referenced harvest data – that tells too many people exactly what your land and your harvest is worth. “Fuzzing up” the geo-reference, however, might make it a lot more shareable.
When you are considering new devices to collect data and/or control machinery on the farm, these distinctions between “open” and “closed” systems, and the availability if good, usable APIs may seem abstract. Salespeople for “closed” systems will do their best to minimize the importance of these issues, but it’s absolutely critical. Openness in the device’s firmware means that the devices can be re-purposed to work with another system if you don’t like the vendor’s services, and openness in the back-end database means you can easily get your data and move it where it can be combined with other data and used (e.g. providing it to your agronomist for analysis, or storing it in a system where it can be combined with other data for decision-making).
Being smart about buying new technology for your farm can save you a lot of money in the long term, and a lot of frustration in the short term. We’ll keep an eye out for and report on interesting products that help you on the farm using open technologies.
*some devices connect directly to the network using WiFi or Ethernet, and some devices will have low-power networking (e.g. Zigbee or Google Threads) that use a “gateway” device to connect them to your network (or directly to a public network via cellular or satellite). There are even some that don’t talk to the network at all, using either Bluetooth or an embedded WiFi server to communicate directly with your phone, tablet, or laptop. And, of course, there are still devices that use some sort of flash memory and “sneakernet” (taking the flash memory off the device and walking it to a computer).
Aaron Ault, who is the team lead for the Open Agriculture Data Alliance, was interviewed by Precision Farming Dealer. I think that data privacy and ownership is an extremely important issue (one of the benefits of the AyrMesh system is keeping data on the farm), and I though this was a terrific interview.
The video runs just under 6 minutes, and you can see it here: https://www.precisionfarmingdealer.com/articles/2650-deu