Apitronics is a wireless platform designed for the outdoors. It includes a base station, or "Hive", that coordinates a swarm of field-ready "Bees" which collect data and control switches.
Our platform emphasizes making it easy to deploy wireless devices in harsh environments. Features include:
- field-ready devices: running efficiently on a LiPo battery, Bees can be recharged via solar panels or wall warts
- modular plugs with customizable sensors and switches: a waterproof connector allows you to easily attach or detach an array of sensors and switches
- local databasing and web app: a gateway manages the wireless network and provides a browser-based UI - the system is protected against internet connectivity failures
So what does it actually do?
What a Bee does depends on what sensors or switches you "Plug" into it.
During our field-testing at two pilot farms and a rooftop garden, we have already developed two sensor arrays that we are offering during the campaign:
- Humidity Plug: two humidity sensors designed to probe soil
- Weather Plug: a Wunderground compatible weather station sensing everything from barometric pressure to wind conditions
We will be releasing more plugs as the platform matures. At one site, we are already doing some chicken coop monitoring! The system can send alerts if you forget to close the door or to bring water to the chickens.
When you decide what plugs you want, the data received from the Bee is saved and accessible via a locally hosted browser page. This app will allow you to setup a system, monitor it, and create triggers.
In further development, we are interested in shifting our focus to control system for field irrigation, greenhouses, or aquaponic systems. We believe that an open community working on these problems will create more affordable and diverse systems for farms.
We have also heard about a lot of people thinking of areas outside of agriculture from green energy, ecological research, to geocaching. We know that others will find lots of applications for the field-ready hardware!
Articles featuring Apitronics:
It depends on what you want to do:
If you are using any of our already available plugs (soil humidity sensor and weather station), you can manage everything easily from a web browser. You'll just need to wield a drill and do some very simple wiring.
If you are interesting in expanding on the network by adding sensors, knowledge of Arduino/C++ is useful so that you can adapt drivers to work with the system. We'll make proven drivers available as we develop them, but since it is an open-source hardware project, others may be sharing drivers too!
If you want to manage where the data is going and what is being done with it beyond our browser capabilities, you can work with our code-base in Python or Node.js, or you can use whatever other language that runs on Linux!
What do you mean by open-source hardware?
All of the hardware and software source is open for hobbyists and for-profit businesses alike. Everything from circuit schematics, bill of materials, environmental enclosure designs, and software is maintained as an open-source project.
Open-source hardware allows consumer-driven development. It encourages users to understand their product, maintain it, and improve it themselves. It creates better and less expensive products. It accelerates innovation.
I have seen and heard first-hand that innovation is needed in farming electronics. As farming practices become more sustainable, diversified, and distributed, a new generation of tools are needed to reflect that.
By sharing a basic hardware platform, we get to focus on the ideas we want to try out. Instead of reinventing the wheel of low power consumption and wireless protocols, we can focus on what data to gather and how to use it.
The hardware will be released under the CERN Open-Hardware License v1.2.
The software will be released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
Both are chosen for their combination of allowing use and modification of the source, while maintaining the persistence and transitivity of the license to downstream work.
How I got the idea
I am part of Farm Hack, a non-profit that tries to bring farmers and engineers together to make better tools.
At an event, Ben Shute told me that he wanted a better greenhouse temperature alarm. Commercial systems were expensive and were incapable of doing what he needed: send a text message when something is wrong. To me, a maker of things and Arduino enthusiast, it sounded really simple. He wanted to put a temperature sensor in his greenhouse, the microcontroller would read it, and use a cell phone to send him alerts. I put the idea together and we had a system that cost less than any commercial system, did everything he needed (and more), and was open-source.
This first attempt was a great proof of concept. However, I realized that I only got to spend about 10% of my development time thinking about the application and the rest of my time figuring out how to keep power and communicate the data.
When I was looking at the projects I wanted to do and the open-hardware available, there was a mismatch. There were solutions for in-door monitoring or elements that came close, but nothing that integrated a field-ready devices with a dedicated server to coordinate them all.
This void quickly transformed itself from an annoyance into an opportunity as I realized that I was not alone. I thought that there must be plenty of people out there with similar needs - starting with Farm Hack - and so I started to work on the Apitronics platform.
I first developed the Bee - an Arduino-compatible device with low-power, solar charging and a variety of built-in features desirable on a remote wireless device. Along with the ability to expose any of the Arduino headers to the 9-pin waterproof connector, this device is extremely flexible and can be expanded upon to interface with almost anything.
However, an isolated Bee is not as powerful as what can be done when many Bees are networked and managed by a dedicated embedded Linux computer: the Hive. The Hive receives readings, databases them locally, and then provides a local web page so users can monitor and control their swarm of Bees. This is essentially a web app that is hosted from within your local network!
From this basic infrastructure, the potential is enormous. Trying out new sensors is a question of writing or finding Arduino-compatible drivers. New automation algorithms can be quickly developed and tested on the Hive, leveraging Linux and its more friendly higher-level programming languages.
The communications protocol between Bee and Hive is designed for transmitting sensor readings upstream and actuator schedules downstream. A new sensor can be added to a Bee without making any modifications to the Hive's software as long as the sensor drivers is compatible with our libraries.
We have already deployed at three different test sites and have built a variety of different plugs – that is to say, arrays of sensors that plug into a Bee.
Currently our Weather Plug and Humidity Plug are ready for manufacturing and available for this campaign.
The Bee features an ATXMega128A3, breaking out headers that are physically Arduino-shield compatible and with the same pin-mappings as the Akafuino. You can click here to see the actual pin-mappings, but basically it consists of four UARTS, two I2C, and one SPI (some overlap exists).
The ATXMega series is not currently supported within the main Arduino IDE project, but by a very close variant Xmegaduino which supports the Arduino language core. Arduino sketches work with little effort in most cases. The ATXMega chipset boasts many additional features including the additional communications hardware listed above as well as 12-bit ADC.
Pins that are not being used by the headers are dedicated to the built-in peripherals such as uSD card, RTC calendar clock, and headers for radio and GPS, intended for Xbee and Adafruit GPS respectively.
Currently, the module is interfaced with a programmer and an FTDI chip, but we will be shifting over to the ATXMega128A3U before fulfillment. This will allow users to upload and debug using a microUSB cable.
Xbee S2 modules are currently supported by the Apitronics platform. To have them included with your rewards, add $17 for the low-power module or $28 or the long-range module. Please read the Xbee datasheets for details on ranges. We will send out modules relevant to your region.
The device is extremely power efficient, draining less than 1mA during sleep. The included battery allows the Bee to run for days on end from a single charge depending on how often and how long the Bees are awake.
The 9-pin waterproof connector can be connected to any of the Bee's headers inside the enclosure. This gives you enormous flexibility in selecting what kind of sensors you wish to interface with. Each Bee includes a raw plug that mates with the Bee so that you can craft your own plugs. Additional, raw plugs will always be made available in our store.
Charging with solar panels outputting 6V to 24V is accomplished with a max power-point tracking (MPPT) chip. We can supply solar panels along with your kits if you add an additional $25 or $35 dollars for 6W and 10W panels respectively. Additional shipping costs are included.
If it is difficult to decide which solar panel and Xbee to use, a good rule of thumb is to pair 10W with long-range and 6W with short-range.
The Bee can also stay connected to a wall wart during operation, using the Lithium-Polymer battery as back-up. This option can be selected for one or more of your Bees after the campaign, at which point we will provide a lower-capacity battery but a wall-wart instead at no additional cost. The benefit of this configuration is that it allows you to configure the Xbee unit as a router which extends the range of your Zigbee network around that point.
The Hive is a BeagleBone Black running Linux. It interfaces with the Xbee coordinator via a USB dongle. A Python utility runs in the background and manages the network of Bees, saving information to a CouchDB database for its own reference and for the user-interface.
For fulfillment, we will investigate designing a cape so that the BBB can communicate directly to the module via Serial or even SPI, improving the form factor, lowering costs, and improving reliability.
We currently use 16GB uSD card to add extra memory. Memory access speeds are unimpressive which becomes obvious during graphing. We are working on different software fixes for that but are considering hardware solutions on the cape as well.
The app currently supports the ability to browse all the Bees, current readings, observe historical data via graphs, and configure alarms via email and SMS.
A major feature that we will be developing throughout and after the Kickstarter is an interface for the user to program if-then type responses. For example, a user may decide to cancel a watering job if it rains or to kick on a fan if its too hot.
Another feature will be the integration of Wunderground forecasts into the interface. The Wunderground service provides personalized forecasts based on your weather station and we wish to provide users with that information within the platform's user-interface.
The Weather Plug
Our weather station is a complete & field-ready personal weather station, featuring the following sensors:
When you receive your weather station, there will be a simple browser-based process for setting it up as a Wunderground Personal Weather Station.
In addition, extra I2C ports and 12-bit ADC pins are broken out so that you may expand the device. I've already tried out adding soil moisture sensors myself and will provide tutorials on how to do so.
The kit will be designed to mount to a 1-inch post but it should be easy to improvise other solutions.
The Humidity Plug
The Humidity Plug is simply two encased Sensiron SHT-10's assembled onto one of our plugs. They provide temperature and humidity with typical accuracies of +/-0.5 C and 4.5 % relative humidity.
Users of this plug will also benefit from easy browser-based setup.
Product Development Manufacturing Plan
The objective of the Kickstarter is to launch the Apitronics hardware as an open-source platform that can sustain a community of developers and hobbyists.
Development is mostly complete. There is only a little bit of hardware design work that needs to be done before we can dedicate all our time to manufacturing:
Bee: switch to the USB version of ATXMega
Hive: design cape to mount Xbee
On the software side, a substantial amount of work will be done in parallel with manufacturing. The highest priority is a bootloader that will allow firmware updates via Zigbee as well as via USB. The user-interface will also be elaborated on substantially as we find ways to move as much hacking capability from command-line interfaces to the web browser.
On the manufacturing end, as we raise funds, there is a hierarchy of processes that could be sent to more scale appropriate facilities who will be able to complete the tasks much more efficiently than we can:
assembly of circuit boards, from the Bee, the cape for the Hive, and the weather station
injection molding of weather station: this will have the highest starting costs but will guarantee our ability to maintain this part of the project
designing our own weather bee enclosure or communicating our modifications to our current supplier so as to save on rework costs
Throughout the final steps of development and the establishment of manufacturing, our focus will be on creating something sustainable and repeatable so there will always be hardware available to nurture a community of developers interested in outdoor wireless applications.
Credits & Thanks
First of all, I'd like to thank Farm Hack and all the great people I've met through the community. Special thanks to Ben Shute of Hearty Roots Farm and Dorn Cox of Tuckaway Farm for participating as pilot farms.
A special thanks to Recover Green Roofs, Green City Growers, and their client the Ledge who allowed us an urban environment to try things out in. Their feedback has been invaluable.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to the project thus far!
Our sleek web app was developed with RJ Steinert, not only veteran of writing Linux-box web apps but also a fellow Farm Hacker.
Our beautiful video was produced and edited by Anna Pinchuk.
Thank you to Ergo Phizmis & Margarita Zalite for the soundtrack.
Our logo, infographic, and other visual goodies were designed by Christina Coobatis.
Our UV shield was designed and fabricated with Plus Fabrication, a co-resident at Industry Lab.
On that note, thanks to all the other members of the community at Industry Lab who have been amazing people to bounce ideas off of, particularly my suite-mates CoSpan Design and Leaflabs.
Finally, thank you to all my friends and family who have encouraged me throughout this whole process!
Risks and challenges
It's been two years now that I've been living in Cambridge working on this idea. Taking classes at MIT and being immersed in the research and development community of Cambridge has taught me a lot about how to prototype efficiently and how to establish small-run manufacturing.
Although we have iterated the Bee design many times and hand assembled more units than we'd like to think about, scaled up manufacturing will be a whole new challenge. We will continue working with as many domestic partners as possible to guarantee the quality and timely delivery of our devices.
We have two production methods available to us for the Bee's enclosure and the UV shield for weather sensors which will allow us to adjust our strategy depending on their respective volumes. We will continue working with our domestic partners in the design and production of these components.
For the Hive, we can use one of two different fulfilment approaches: a low-volume approach where we maintain current parts or we can design a cape for the BeagleBone Black.
For each of these elements of the platform, factors outside of our control are component lead-times, availability, and costs but we will tirelessly mitigate these risks as we move through the fulfilment process. The end-goal of this campaign is to start building a platform for innovation; the manufacturing process must be repeatable.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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