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!
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
Since we started marketing the AyrMesh system five years ago, we have gotten inquiries from folks who have large houses, offices, and small hotels/motels – can AyrMesh work indoors? The answer, of course, is that it can work, but it’s not optimal for a number of reasons, and we do not recommend it. AyrMesh is designed for outdoor use, mainly in rural areas.
We have been able to recommend the fine Open-Mesh products for indoor and urban outdoor use, but some new products have recently entered the market.
Eero was the first in this space, with a very nice-looking product and very good technical specifications. Unlike Open-Mesh, they do not have any way to mount their units outdoors, and they only offer one model (available in a 1-, 2-, or 3-pack).
Then, this week, Google announced the new Google WiFi product, utilizing a very similar approach of very nice-looking indoor meshing access points for larger houses. The Google WiFi products will be available in November, but they can be pre-ordered.
Open-Mesh uses their Cloudtrax website and apps to control their access points; we have used Open-Mesh here in the Ayrstone lab for years and found it to be excellent. It’s a fair bit more complicated than AyrMesh, but it has the more “commercial” features you might want for a business or a motel, and the more complex features are easily ignored for a home setup.
It’s worth mentioning that there have long been WiFi Repeaters (also known as “boosters” and “extenders”) that connect to your WiFi router and create a new WiFi signal, and devices like the Apple Airport routers that use “Wireless Distribution System” (WDS). Although a single repeater can work well, and three Apple Airport routers using WDS (one connected to the Internet and two “extenders”) can work, they don’t have the routing “smarts” of a real mesh network, and they can cause more problems than they solve. For a large house, a real WiFi meshing product like these will provide much better results without running Ethernet cables… of course, for the absolute best WiFi, there is no substitute for just running Ethernet and putting separate Access Points in each location you need WiFi. If you were clever enough to run Ethernet to the far reaches of your house before the drywall, all you have to do is plug in some dumb access points in the Ethernet – no need to mess with the indoor mesh.
The new Eero and Google WiFi products use apps to configure and control the network – I don’t know if there is a website option available, but I get the impression that the apps are the only way to control them. I don’t know about you, but my poor phone is “full” of apps, and I really don’t want another one.
So my own view is that these new players are not quite as good as what already exists in Open-Mesh, but, of course, your mileage may vary, Of course, they are being marketed like crazy, so you’re going to see them in the press all over the place.
What I think is important is that meshing WiFi is becoming mainstream, and, if you live in a large house, you don’t necessarily have to run Ethernet to get WiFi throughout the house.
A few months ago, I was approached by the folks at eze System, who wanted to know if their ezeio product would work with AyrMesh to help farmers measure conditions on farms and control equipment.
They were kind enough to send me one of the ezeio products so I could try it out. Insofar as it is a standard Ethernet (802.3) product, I had no doubt it would work perfectly with AyrMesh, and, of course, it did – I just connected it to an AyrMesh Receiver with an Ethernet cable and it appeared on my network.
What is cool about the ezeio is that it is a complete package – hardware, firmware, and back-end software – completely integrated and ready to plug in and go. It includes connection points for up to 4 analog inputs (configurable for 0-10V, 4-20mA current loop, S0-pulse, or simple on/off), Modbus devices, Microlan (1-wire) devices, and up to two relay outputs (up to 2 amps). This makes it a very versatile unit for both detecting and controlling things on the farm.
I set mine up on a table to see how it worked. The good folks at eze System included a Microlan temperature probe, so I set up my unit with that connected to the Microlan connector and a couple of LEDs (with a battery) connected to one of the relay outputs.
I then went to their web-based dashboard and started setting things up. It’s pretty simple – you get a login on the dashboard, and you add your ezeio controller. You can then set up the inputs (in my case, the temperature probe) and outputs (the relay) and then set up rules to watch the inputs and take appropriate actions. If you want to see the details, I have put together a slide show for the curious so I don’t have to put it all here.
The bottom line is that I was able to quickly and easily set up a system that checked the temperature continuously and, when the temperature dropped below a certain level, lit up an LED. Big deal, I hear you say, BUT – it could easily have been starting a wind machine or an irrigation pump or some other machine, and it could have been triggered by a tank level switch or a soil moisture sensor or some other sensor or set of sensors. It also enables me to control those devices manually over the Internet, using a web browser, without having to “port forward” on my router.
The ezeio is a very powerful yet easy-to-use device which, in conjunction with the web service behind it, enables you to very easily set up monitoring and automation on your farm. For the do-it-yourselfer, it is a great way to get started on employing the Internet of Things (IoT) on your farm. Even if you’re not inclined to take this on yourself, any decent networking technician can easily set up your AyrMesh network and the ezeio to help around the farm.
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.
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.
A Gateway device for your sensor network (possibly multiple gateway devices if you want sensors in multiple fields), and
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.
First, 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, 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.
Either 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.
This is one of the questions we get in Ayrstone support from time to time: why do I HAVE to use AyrMesh.com? Why isn’t there just a setup menu on the device?
My answer is simple: if you’re using a single Hub, then it doesn’t much matter: you have to set the configuration on the device or you have to set the configuration on AyrMesh.com. About the same amount of effort.
But, if you’re using more than one AyrMesh device – Hubs or Receivers – on your network, using AyrMesh.com saves you time, because all your devices automatically configure themselves from AyrMesh.com. Furthermore, because they check into AyrMesh.com every few minutes, you can always check there to make sure your AyrMesh devices are working properly.
Our entire goal in creating the AyrMesh System was to make it so easy that anyone could set it up and use it, and you’d spend as little time as possible fiddling with your network and as much time as possible enjoying its benefits. AyrMesh.com is an important part of that value