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The Internet of Things (IoT) on the Farm – Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, as well as the associated posts on the ezeio and sensor networks, I have focused primarily on IoT hardware: the part you can see and touch, and that touches your farm.

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).

Welcome Eero and Google to the world of Mesh

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 new take on the “WiFi vs. Cellular” question

Every so often I run into someone who asks, “Why would I want a WiFi network across my farm? I have a cellphone that will access the Internet anywhere I go…”

It’s kind of a funny argument, for a few reasons:

  1. If you have good cellular data access across your entire farm, you’re in the minority – most people in the rural U.S. and Canada have no or only very slow Internet access via the cellular network on some, most, or all of their properties.
  2. Even if you have Internet access via cellular, it’s almost always slower than WiFi. It’s been my experience that people appreciate WiFi a lot more after they get a smartphone.
  3. Having a local-area network (LAN) enables you to do more than just access the Internet – it allows you to use IP cameras, weather stations, soil sensors, and other devices to keep track of what’s happening on the farm, and even use network-connected relays, grain dryers, irrigation, lighting, and HVAC systems from anywhere on the farm

The cellular service providers (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) originally only used the cellular networks for both voice and data – but the data connections were at “modem-speed” – kilobits per second. Then smartphones (led by the Blackberry and Nokia phones) started to be capable of much more data usage – email and even some web browsing – and phone manufacturers started including WiFi connectivity. Later on, cellular providers offered faster cellular data options (“3G” and “4G”), but modern smartphones still use the cellular network for voice, and the voice network is still separate from the data network. The upshot is that, in many rural areas, you can make or receive voice calls and get or send text messages, but you may not be able to load a web page or send an email unless your have a nearby WiFi network.

A new article in Businessweek points out some new providers are actually turning that model on its head, introducing phones that use the WiFi network by default for voice and data, and only access the cellular network if there is no known WiFi network in range.

Now, I have a cellphone with a data plan, and I pay over $120 per month even though my phone is on WiFi about 90{8fd1ffa65f67a2e931916b3c1288d51eed07dc30586a565c92d055673de7c64e} of the time. If I weren’t traveling all over the place on Ayrstone business, I’d be very tempted to get one of these Republic Wireless or Scratch Wireless phones and save about $80-100 of that bill per month.

For people who have a Wireless Farm Networking system to provide farmwide WiFi, these new phone plans may be very tempting.

Using the Internet on the Farm

It seems almost impossible now, but it wasn’t very many years ago that the typical farmer would have laughed if you said that he’ll need Internet access everywhere on the farm. The benefit of surfing websites (when they were just static information pages with pictures) was unclear, but the idea of carrying around a computer in your truck, tractor, sprayer, or combine was patently absurd. The dust, temperatures, and vibration were far too much for the computers of the time.

But then came the Blackberry, and everyone discovered the convenience of getting email on-the-go. So everyone realized they needed a Blackberry and constant access to email – why would you need anything else?

But the web grew up. More and more information was either available exclusively on the web, or was at least a lot more convenient to get on the web. Furthermore, it became about more than just getting information: you could increasingly actually DO things on the web – ordering parts and supplies, keeping records, planning, and even marketing. But laptops have never been practical on the farm: keyboards are too easily gummed up with dust, screens on hinges are too fragile, and they just take up too much space.

Then another device came along: the iPad. I have joked that EVERY farmer in America got an iPad for Christmas last year, and tablet computers like the iPad seem like they were made for farming. Adam Gittins has written an excellent blog post about the use of tablet computers in agriculture – the bottom line, though is that they are durable, easy to carry, and provide an excellent platform for using web applications.

Of course, they need to be connected to the Internet to be useful. Almost all the tablets on the market are available with some sort of cellular modem that allows them to access the Internet, but fast cellular data signals (“4G”) are rare in the rural U.S., and there are a lot of areas with only very slow or no cellular Internet access. Furthermore, a cellular modem does not provide you access to your Local Area Network (LAN) the way the AyrMesh network does. Finally, of course, the cellular options in the tablets cost extra, and the cellular companies like to charge quite a bit per month for Internet access.

Using the AyrMesh system, you can have fast WiFi access all over your farm, with access to your LAN for accessing the data sources and control mechanisms on your farm, and it makes your tablets and smartphones just that much more valuable.