Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Connecting The Most Ancient Things

Late last year I took a trip to Europe with my family. Among other things, we spent some time in Tuscany, and Florence in particular. Naturally, we visited the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo's David and the many other amazing works of art that are on display there.

Art is something that I've always appreciated, but I've never completely understood the level of awe that people have for David. But seeing it in person has completely changed my perspective on the matter. There is something remarkable about that statue and the level of genius that must have been involved in its creation. Learning about how marble sculptures are made brought this to even another level.

But as we walked around the statue, we couldn't help noticing a little black box behind the feet. This was obviously some sort of data logger, so I decided to do a little digging on the topic.

Turns out that David has a bit of a bum leg. After four hundred years of leaning forward slightly in his previous location, the marble is cracking. And plans to dig a multimillion-dollar underground railway project in 2011 certainly weren't going to help matters any.

So Giovanni Pascale with the University of Bologna has installed a wireless monitoring system to keep track of the progression in the cracks as well as the environmental conditions in the area. This includes any changes in the level of the platform where the statue is mounted as well as the basement below. It uses fiber optic sensors, temperature sensors, and accelerometers to capture data. Vibrations above a preset threshold trigger an event when they occur, but otherwise data is sent via email/FTP to a web server every three days.

Obviously, this isn't any sort of breaking news. But it always fascinates me how sensors and instrumentation can be used to track and monitor the most diverse things. It is all about connecting people more closely to the things they care about.

More details are available here:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Someone Needs to Help Farmers Solve Their IT Problems

Wow, where did the time go? This past winter has been incredibly busy as we've started developing our AgSphere brand and our customers start bringing products to market based on the TelemetryWeb/AgSphere platform. But it appears I've let the blog go a bit stale!

Over a year ago, we discussed the kick in the pants that rural broadband is getting via the Universal Service Fund. Other incentive programs have continued the push for connecting rural America, and LTE promises better coverage than ever.

This is great news. But it is putting the spotlight on another long-time problem: Farmers are small businesses, and small businesses need IT support.

Our customers want to sell connected devices/equipment/widgets to farmers. But there's still all of the typical IT support problems that need to be solved for any small business with a broadband connection. The biggest problem is that a secure and robust TCP/IP network is just too complicated for non-technical people to setup and manage on their own. WiFi access points, routers, firewalls, gateways, modems, etc. have come a long way over the years, but they are still not user-friendly. On top of that, the farm also has its own unique technical challenges, which is a topic worthy of its own post.

Sure, AgSphere customers can develop products with their own embedded cell modem. As long as the end user has cell coverage, this provides a convenient all-in-one solution that only needs power. It "just works". And in many cases, that is the best answer. But managing a separate mobile data plan for each device is expensive and cumbersome.

On the other hand, some of our customers have developed or experimented with Ethernet or WiFi devices that leverage a farmer's existing infrastructure. I've been really surprised at the number of barns which are being equipped with some sort of cable or DSL, and there are mobile platforms like the Raven Slingshot that provide an open network gateway on the tractor.

But whenever something doesn't work, there isn't really anyone to call. Our customers end up trying to support cable/cell modems, network routers, and WiFi reception issues that are completely unrelated to their products. Some have even removed viruses from the farmer's PC that were causing network issues and preventing their products from working properly.

This is certainly NOT the business an equipment manufacturer wants to be in! They're not well-equipped to deal with these problems at all. But if they don't at least try to help their customers, everyone suffers.

It is too expensive to send someone out to a farm in the middle of nowhere any time there is a problem with the WiFi router. But maybe the answer could come from regional IT consulting companies and/or ISPs. They're in a position to develop a standardized and proven cocktail of ruggedized, supportable networking equipment and help deploy it on the farm. And, if they're really smart, they would provide a matching (mostly remotely managed) service model that works and is affordable.

In any case, this is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed. I don't have all the answers, but there is a clear opportunity for someone who can figure out an affordable way to help a farmer keep their basic IT infrastructure running.