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Setting Up Your Own Wireless Network

If the two-way radio was all you ever needed for farm communication, then it may be time to think about setting up a wireless equivalent – with a sensor at the other end rather than a family member or coworker.

By now, you’ve probably replaced that old two-way radio with a cell phone or a smartphone. 

Wireless is the next step. It can let you tap into information from devices that are silently watching or measuring on your behalf. You can open the channel (like a two-way radio) by just dialing it up or connecting to it over the Internet. 

Unlike a two-way radio, wireless networks don’t require an FCC license. Like a cell phone or smartphone, wireless networks do require a subscription from a service provider. Instead of voice, however, it will be transmitting data with a data plan. 

Ag researchers and some equipment companies are deep into wireless services. The technology has become more affordable, reliable, and useful, so it’s worth considering for private use on many farms, according to John Nowatzki, North Dakota State University (NDSU) agricultural machine systems specialist.

The basics of setup
The term wireless really is a shortened form of wireless local area network (WLAN). Wireless technology uses radio waves to send data between electronic devices. These devices are wired internally according to IEEE protocol 802.11, established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. There are multiple types of 802.11 technology, identified by letters after the numbers, such as 802.11a and 802.11b. 

These new two-ways are permitted to transmit by the FCC in three bands (900 MHz, 2.4 MHz, and 5 MHz) without a license. 

The 900 MHz band was slow and had lots of interference. These days, common wireless networks transmit on 2.4 MHz with 802.11b or 802.11g designs. They are very fast. A small digital photo, for instance, can be transmitted in less than one second. 

It is possible for a farm to own a complete system for a LAN. However, Nowatzki says, if your LAN is tethered to a conventional antenna (like the two-way), it will be highly limited. It probably won’t reach beyond the farmyard before interference from obstacles and other devices makes it useless. If you want access to the information from another point outside the farmyard, it may not work.

“The effective operating distance of 802.11 wireless networks is unique to each site, so it is important to try equipment to determine actual distances on-site,” Nowatzki says. “Wireless networks using common whip antennas function effectively up to 2 miles. Distances can be increased up to 5 or 6 miles by using directional antennas.” 

However, when a farm’s network hooks up with wireless cellular service, distance is unlimited. It can connect virtually anywhere. The reliability is as good (or weak) as cell service. 

“The basic components of wireless networks, to remotely monitor or control activities on farms, include a radio base station connected to a computer and three components at the remote or mobile location. Those three components include a remote radio modem, an electronic data logger, and the electronic sensor,” says Nowatzki.

Many practical applications
You can use wireless technology to monitor conditions and to control activities from a distance. Sensors will monitor a wide range of conditions. 

“Practical applications of these sensors allow you to monitor such things as weather or stored grain conditions, confined livestock facilities, water tank levels, irrigation equipment, and gate positions,” says Nowatzki. “Wireless networks can control activities at remote sites, such as switching motors on and off. They also can provide wireless Internet access throughout the farm,” he says.

NDSU technology uses wireless to monitor soil temperature, soil moisture, and precipitation.

Components
Most farm laptops and PCs are purchased with a network adapter card – a doorway between the computer and the Internet. 

Access to the Internet or a wireless LAN requires installation of an antenna and modem. A cable from the modem will connect to the network card or to a router if the connection serves a network of two or more computers. 

After the hardware is in place, a service subscription needs to be activated by the service provider. 

For a wireless LAN external to the home network, a similar but simpler system is required. It will have one or more sensors wired to a data logger (instead of the computer), plus a modem, antenna, and subscription. The service provider normally installs the system and, like your office, provides it with an Internet protocol (IP) address.  

Sensors and data loggers need protection from weather and rodents, but one logger can record the data streams for several sensors that are hundreds of feet apart.  

Wireless live video cameras are more sophisticated, but they are essentially the same. 

“You can set up a video camera with an Internet connection at a site like a farm gate, and it will broadcast a signal to a wireless router in a nearby building. The router must be connected to the Internet. The camera can be picked up by anybody who has the IP address, plus the user name and password to log into it,” he says.

The exact configuration and cost will vary depending on your farm’s needs. For instance, one network may depend on an office computer; another network may connect through a software company or equipment-maker. The NDSU Extension service set up one LAN with a satellite cellular service available anywhere in the U.S., by smartphone, for $360 per year.   

“Larger farmers already are the first to adapt to wireless,” Nowatzki says. They may have 10 irrigation pivots or grain dryers spread across 10 miles, each with a $180 annual subscription.

“They tend to have multiple people and units on the fields, and they need Internet access throughout the farm to transfer data quickly between desktops and equipment,” he says. “If you want to set one up, I encourage you to go to a company that has the expertise and the equipment.”

Nowatzki also points out the increasing use of cellular technology on farms and farm equipment. Cellular networks require a cellular modem on each piece of farm equipment connected to the network. Each modem requires a cellular data subscription.

Learn more
You can reach John Nowatzki at 701/231-8213 or 
john.nowatzki@ndsu.edu.

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