Wireless cameras are an invaluable tool for many farmers, ranchers, hunters, and game managers, enabling users to improve security, monitor assets, and document wildlife remotely. Unfortunately, most places you would like to have a camera do not have power or a wired data connection, especially in agriculture and wildlife monitoring. As a result, the wireless camera market has emerged with a growing variety of cameras and applications. This article will attempt to alleviate much of the confusion that comes with the term “wireless cameras”, as well as discuss different types of cameras and use cases.
Wireless Camera Types
“Wireless camera” is a broad term adopted by the media and marketers that means any type of camera that does not have a wired connection. The wireless cameras can be broken down into three main categories: closed-circuit television (CCTV), WiFi (wireless internet), and cellular.
Closed-circuit television cameras were the original wireless cameras. CCTV cameras stream videos and images directly to a receiver, without the need for an internet connection. The receiver typically consists of an antenna, recorder, and display, but system specifics vary widely. CCTV’s are great for streaming high-definition video, making them a solid choice for localized security applications due to having independent wireless signal and the quality of the video CCTV cameras transmit. The range of CCTV systems varies widely and depends on many variables such as radio frequency, transmission power, antenna size, obstacles, and terrain. Most systems are in the range of 100 feet up to about ½ mile.
Pros: high-quality video and live streaming, security of signal, no data costs (unless the receiver uploads video and images to the internet)
Cons: most expensive upfront costs, most complex installation, requires power (for the receiver), and most CCTV systems must be monitored locally (some receivers push video over the internet)
WiFi cameras connect to the internet through a wireless internet router. WiFi cameras are sometimes called “IP” cameras, but, technically, IP cameras are “Internet Protocol” cameras that can either be wired or wireless. Our discussion will focus on the wireless version of IP, or “WiFi”. WiFi cameras are best for small area applications, as the cameras typically need to be within about 100’ of the WiFi router. WiFi cameras are mainly used for home security, baby monitors, doorbell cameras, and office security. Setup of WiFi cameras is fairly straight-forward, but it will require logging into the camera to manage WiFi settings and passwords. This process has been made pretty simple by modern WiFi cameras such as Google’s Nest Cam, Ring’s cameras, and Netgear’s Arlo Cameras.
Pros: cost, ability to monitor the cameras from anywhere, fairly easy to install
Cons: limited range, requires internet, and requires power (for the WiFi router)
Cellular-connected cameras have emerged in the last few years due to the falling costs of cellular data. Cellular cameras initially received the warmest reception from hunters, allowing them to receive real-time images from their trail cameras and game cameras. However, the falling cost of cellular data is opening up other remote monitoring and security applications for cellular cameras. Cellular cameras typically only transmit images or short video clips to reduce data costs. Cellular cameras require a cellular network signal and a SIM card to access the cellular network. While cellular cameras can be the simplest setup, purchasing a SIM card, finding the right data plan, and managing the SIM card settings can be confusing and frustrating.
Pros: unlimited range (assuming the camera has cellular signal), simple setup for pre-configured cameras, motion activated photos and video
Cons: requires cellular signal, SIM card management can be a hassle if doing it yourself, no live streaming of video
Cost and capability varies widely, particularly with CCTV systems. Most WiFi cameras are in the range of $50 to $300, with most of the popular cameras costing $199. For CCTV systems, low-end cameras cost about $100 and high-end cameras cost as much as $3,500. A decently capable CCTV system with four cameras will cost around $750 to $1000.
At this point, most cellular cameras are trail cameras, and the price range is $250 to $600, not including data plans. Data plans depend on the specific carrier and data needs. For most hunters, data plans costing $10 to $20 per month are sufficient. Security applications may need more data, with plans costing from $20 up to $100 per month. Of note, most cellular carriers require a three or twelve-month contract.
If you are interested in purchasing a consumer friendly WiFi camera system for the home or office, please see reviews from a couple of our favorite sites:
CCTV systems are a bit more complex and varied, but, if you are interested in CCTV, then check out these articles and providers:
At Barn Owl, we specialize in cellular cameras. The remainder of this article will discuss considerations for cellular cameras, cellular networks, and our take on the future of cellular cameras.
Cellular Camera Details
As previously noted, the vast majority of cellular cameras are trail cameras used by hunters (not including smartphones). A few high-end cellular cameras do exist for security and construction site monitoring. If you are looking for a high-quality camera for security or construction site monitoring, we recommend checking out the cameras by Colorado-based Sensera Systems. Sensera’s cameras, service, and images are all of high quality. Unfortunately, both the price of the cameras and the cost of the large data plans they require are above the price range for most users.
While the cost of cellular data has come down significantly and continues to fall, users must decide if they are willing to pay the high data costs for higher quality images or settle for lower resolution images, which use significantly less data. At Barn Owl, we believe the “low” resolution images are the best choice for most monitoring applications. Cameras that transmit lower resolution images typically store higher resolution images on the camera’s memory card (our cameras at Barn Owl do this), enabling users to reduce data costs but still have access to high-resolution images if needed. Transmitting images at lower resolution results in significantly lower data costs, more reliable transmissions, and longer battery life. Most cameras utilize a JPEG file format, which compresses the image file to reduce data use further but may give some pictures a grainy look. Cameras transmit different sizes of “low” resolution images, but 640x480 pixels, known as VGA, is a common size. While it’s up to the individual user what resolution is required, most of our customers agree that 640x480 is good enough for most applications, particularly if the desired object is within about 50 feet.
As noted, cellular cameras have first taken a foothold in the trail camera market. Hunters need cameras that are durable, easy to mount, have motion activation, and are capable of night images. When motion activated, most trail cameras can take a single photo, a series of photos, or a short video clip. Receiving the images wirelessly prevents hunters from needing to manually check the cameras, which reduces pressure on the game and helps game managers more accurately forecast their true wildlife population. Additionally, most trail cameras are capable of taking time-lapse images, which is helpful when monitoring fixed assets.
The qualities that make a game camera good for hunting also make them capable security and general monitoring cameras. Fortunately, the development of cameras for the hunting market and the falling cost of data has made cellular trail cameras an economical choice for many applications. The use cases for trail cameras for farmers, ranchers and wildlife managers are vast and varied. Monitoring applications include water tanks, feed troughs, irrigation, fertilizer tanks, center pivots, and more. The trail cameras are capable of providing security for valuable assets and buildings such as remote cabins, fuel tanks, center pivots (to prevent copper theft), and construction sites.
Cellular Coverage Growth
Since camera costs and data costs are no longer significant barriers, the biggest issue with cellular cameras is the obvious requirement to have a cellular signal. Unfortunately, for many agricultural and wildlife areas, cellular coverage is not always available.
Fortunately, the cellular carriers continue to improve coverage. Currently, AT&T and Verizon have the best overall coverage. However, T-Mobile is rapidly expanding and has goals of surpassing AT&T and Verizon within two years. In fact, T-Mobile spent 8 billion dollars this year on low-frequency spectrum, which has better range than existing cellular frequencies, enabling them to provide coverage nation-wide. T-Mobile is expected to provide near nation-wide coverage within 18 months. View T-Mobile’s coverage map and select “LTE-6” (LTE-6 represents the 600MHz spectrum they purchased) to see the expanded coverage.
Much of the low-frequency spectrum came from bandwidth that used to be dedicated to television. While growing up on ranches in Wyoming and Nebraska, I can remember always being able to receive TV. Ok, maybe the TV had tin foil on the rabbit ears, and the picture had some squiggly lines. You get my point--TV stations have signal almost everywhere. At Barn Owl, we’re optimistic about the potential for cellular carriers to expand their network to cover a vast majority of the US. Even if cell service doesn't completely cover your property, using cameras where service is available can significantly reduce the overall burden of manually monitoring assets.
Advocacy for Cellular Coverage in Rural Areas
At Barn Owl, we believe cellular service is important in helping to improve the safety, security, and productivity of rural Americans, and we are serving as advocates to improve cellular coverage in agricultural areas. We seek to amplify demand for cellular service by highlighting use cases and case studies that go beyond just phone calls and text messages. By magnifying local demand, we can leverage basic economics to bolster the argument for better cell service.
See our Cell Service Advocacy page to learn more about efforts to enhance cellular service.
Quick note: We are accepting pre-orders for our cellular cameras. The first 100 customers will receive 3-months of free service.
Despite having spent my military career as a fighter pilot, I would be the first to admit that successful operations are founded upon superior logistics. If planes don’t have gas, you can’t fly. Sun Tzu, the great war strategist, said, “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics…” The pre-eminence of logistics is an axiom that extends far beyond military operations. Whether operating an agricultural business, leading a hunting expedition, or just going on a family vacation, if you don’t get the right supplies to the right place at the right time, you’re going to have a bad day.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the first key to successful logistics is knowledge. If you don’t know the location or status of your assets, then you will spend most of your time trying to find what’s lost and checking on what’s not lost. This inefficiency leads to a high cost in time and resources. The secondary impact of not knowing the status of your resources is unnecessary stress. We’ve all experienced that nagging feeling that comes from not knowing--Are the stock tanks full? Is the feeder empty? Why are my gas tanks empty?
A second critical aspect of effective logistics is security. In military operations, letting the enemy steal your bullets and bread will quickly lead to losing the war. The importance of security also applies to anyone with widely distributed assets. We have customers who lose thousands of dollars each year from “lost” or stolen fuel, feed, and fertilizer. Owners of remote properties frequently find mysterious tire tracks, open gates, and even open doors.
Fortunately, new technologies to monitor and track resources can enable real-time awareness about remote assets--enabling better logistics, improved operational efficiencies, better profitability, and better sleep. The technology that goes into asset monitoring can be complicated and is surrounded with a lot of buzz words. At Barn Owl, we analyze competing solutions and cut through all the bulls#%*. At the end of the day, we focus on two core questions: 1) What is the added benefit of a particular technology solution, and 2) Is the Return-on-Investment worth the cost? Undoubtedly, the right technology solution applied to the right logistics problem can save significant time and money while improving profitability.
Due to customer demand, we have developed a remote camera solution. We don’t sell super fancy cameras with a lot of buzz words. We provide bulls#%* free camera service and management that anyone can use. Unlike other providers, our service plans are contract free--you only pay for cellular data in the months you need service.
Take a short survey for 10% off camera orders
It was great to meet those of you who stopped by to see us in Nashville, and I'm sure you enjoyed the show as much as we did. This post will discuss a few takeaways from the NCBA Trade Show and highlight the key results from our survey.
NCBA Trade Show Takeaways
As a technology company, our view of the show is different than most. We are excited to see an emergence of new products in the livestock market that can improve production. Particularly, systems that improve animal health or increase operational efficiency are beginning to gain ground.
Technology in the beef industry is currently very fragmented. As a result, the systems don't all talk to each other as much as customers would like. As the technologies mature, we will see these systems converge to those that customers want, resulting integrated systems to help ranchers monitor and manage their operations. We expect this integration process to happen relatively quickly, as large communications companies are pushing to become platforms for diverse sets of monitoring systems. The integration of different systems will benefit customers and increase the adoption of new technologies entering the beef industry.
In the technology industry, as with many other industries, small beats big almost every time. I'll probably step on a few toes here, but it was evident to us that the big companies are using antiquated technology that is expensive and not adaptable. For ranchers looking to implement technologies such as active or passive RFID, we recommend looking to smaller companies built upon modern technologies. Below, we highlight a couple of companies we see as leading the way.
Our Picks for Best Technologies at the NCBA Trade Show
NCBA Survey Results
Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey. Below are a couple key results.
Let us know if you agree or disagree with these survey results.
Our water tank monitoring system is up and running on a ranch in Western Nebraska. Despite frigid winter temperatures, the installation went smoothly. This post will describe components of our system and the installation process.
For ranches who do not have cellular service where the tanks are located, our system consists of three main components: 1) the water tank sensor, 2) gateway, and 3) the web application that displays the information. Ranches who do have Verizon cellular service at their tanks do not need the gateway—our tank sensors that talk directly to Verizon’s LTE-M network.
Wireless Network Gateway
The gateway serves as the hub of our system, as it receives data transmissions from all the sensors on the ranch and sends that data to our web application. Installation is comparable to installing a TV antenna. You can install our gateway anywhere there is a 24-volt power outlet and cellular service. The range of our wireless network varies, but we can cover medium sized-ranches (up to ~30 square miles) in flat areas relatively easily. We are developing repeaters to extend the range for large ranches.
The tank sensor is designed to handle harsh outdoor conditions. The sensor is battery powered, and we estimate our sensors will have a battery life of approximately three years in their current configuration. Mounting the sensors to the tanks is easy, but we are still working to develop a universal tank attachment. We understand the need to make the attachment durable yet adaptable.
Last week we had the good fortune of connecting with a number of ranchers at the Superior Livestock Auction in Steamboat, CO. Unfortunately, downward pressure on the market caused a bit more stress than many of the attendees would have preferred. However, we did have some great conversations about how technology can help ranchers save time and reduce some of that stress.
Every Ranch Is Different
If it hadn’t already been obvious, our discussions made it clear that every livestock operation is different. While many livestock management problems are widespread, ranches come in all shapes and sizes. Variables unique to individual ranches include climate, soil, grass varieties, watering sources, acreage, terrain, cattle breed, wildlife management issues, and more. Nobody knows a ranch’s details like the individual rancher, so “one size fits all” technology solutions won’t always work in the livestock industry.
Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN) Allow for Flexible Solutions
Because every operation is different, technology must be able to provide flexible tools that can be simultaneously affordable and customizable. For this reason, we believe Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) systems have the potential to provide value to ranchers and farmers across the livestock industry. Many problems, such as monitoring water tanks, are fairly prevalent across the industry. For these “common” problems, monitoring solutions will be mass produced and, therefore, very affordable. However, not all problems are as common as checking water. For unique problems, modern engineering methods enable a small team of engineers to quickly design, build, and manufacture custom tailored devices. LPWAN is the foundational component that enables the deployment of custom solutions for ranchers and farmers. If those custom solutions can be scaled across the industry to help other operators, then the cost will be further reduced for those solutions.
It’s important to note that LPWAN is capable of two-way communication. Therefore, devices on the network are capable of controlling remote systems--such as generators or pumps. In our discussions last week, once ranchers understood that LPWAN devices are flexible and customizable, they shared some great ideas that we had not yet considered about how LPWAN technology could help them monitor or control remote assets. Most of the ideas were in the realm of possible--except for the one about having robots fix broken fence...we’re not quite there yet.
If you did not catch the Superior Sunrise show on July 14th, I was interviewed about what we’re doing at Barn Owl.
Concerning Kirbe's question “How can technology help ranchers across the livestock industry?” I want to be clear that we don’t pretend to have all of the answers. We certainly have some ideas about how remote monitoring and analytics can help ranchers and farmers save time and money. However, our goal is to be a customer led company. With insight and input from ranchers and farmers, we will develop solutions that are much more valuable than something we could have come up with by ourselves. Please let us know if there is a remote monitoring or control application we can help you with by filling out our inquiry form.
Livestock ranching is hard work. For those who undertake the timeless way of life, daylight is a dear friend that often doesn’t hang around long enough to get everything done. The list of tasks is never ending. Ranchers and farmers not only face the physical challenges of managing livestock, crops, and infrastructure over large areas, but they also face the daily challenges of running a business. To further complicate matters, mother nature and market conditions often present strong seasonal headwinds.
In any operation, including the business of agriculture, those that can effectively collect data, interpret information, and prioritize tasks come out ahead. In the fighter pilot world, we call this the “OODA” loop. OODA is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Air Force Colonel John Boyd authored the OODA loop in the 1970’s, and he firmly believed those who iterate through the loop faster would win in air combat. Boyd’s wisdom spread beyond the Air Force; operators, athletes, and businessmen have applied Boyd’s tenets in competitive arenas far beyond tactical aviation. In recent years, technology advancements have significantly improved the speed and effectiveness of decision-making processes across many industries. Technology tools, when appropriately applied to the right problem, can make tremendous improvements to operational effectiveness.
New Technologies Shaping Agricultural Operations
A confluence of technologies, such as GPS, wireless communication, drones, and data analytics are helping farmers realize tremendous gains in crop yields. However, technology has yet to make a significant impact on the livestock industry. Sure, there have been minor advances such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and software tools for herd management, but the overall impact of technology on the livestock industry is insignificant when compared to crop farming.
The tides are about to turn for those that raise livestock. The falling costs of technology hardware, improvements in computer automation, and the development of low-cost, wireless networks will enable technology solutions to penetrate the livestock industry at scale. We see Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN), drones, and data analytics as three distinct technologies that will greatly benefit livestock managers.
LPWAN is designed for long-range, low data rate transmissions, and most of the networks utilize unlicensed radio frequencies. The result of low data rate and open frequencies is a very affordable wireless network. The transmissions have the added benefit of being very low power, and sensors can operate for years on a small battery. The combination of long-range, low power, and low cost makes this technology perfect for large area agricultural monitoring applications. Some networks also have two-way communication capability, allowing operators to control remote systems (either by human command or via computer automation). Below are some of the capabilities enabled by LPWAN.
Drones give ranchers the ability to have an on-demand “eye in the sky”. The FAA recently gave a boost to commercial drone operations with a new set of Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations, titled FAA Part 107. The release of Part 107 opens up commercial drone operations to ranchers because they are now able to operate the drones themselves. Before Part 107, the FAA required commercial drone operators to have an actual pilot’s license and all commercial operations required at least two people--the pilot and a visual observer. The FAA removed both of these restrictions. Ranchers who obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, a relatively insignificant task when compared to getting a manned Pilot Certificate, can conduct drone operations without a visual observer.
With the right drone systems and software, ranchers can assess grassland health, locate invasive plants, monitor habitat, conduct wildlife inventories, locate lost livestock, and more. Part 107 allows the operation of drones from moving vehicles over sparsely populated areas, giving ranchers the opportunity to have a drone orbiting overhead while they are traveling in vehicles or on horses. The aerial vantage point could prove valuable during roundups and searches for lost livestock in rough terrain and forests--drones with infrared sensors will be particularly useful in this scenario. Drones can be significantly cheaper and more flexible than manned aircraft for areas of approximately 10 square miles or less.
Despite these enticing capabilities, the true realization of drone applications is at least a few years away. Current regulations require all drone operations to occur during the day, and drones must be kept within line-of-sight (approximately one-half to one mile, depending on drone size and color). Regulations will continue to evolve, and eventually drones will be allowed to make long-distance, fully autonomous flights, day or night. You can thank Google, Amazon, and others for pouring millions of dollars into the technology and political battles that surround autonomous drone operations. Long-range, autonomous drones will allow ranchers to check on their entire ranch at a time of their choosing...weather permitting of course. Below is a list of current and future ranching applications for drones.
That being said, getting value out of drones requires safe and efficient flight operations, effective data management procedures, and detailed computer analysis using the appropriate computer software. While the drone industry is continuing to make these tasks easier, operators must take care to learn about and even practice drone operations before jumping into commercial applications.
The result of wireless sensors and high-resolution drone imagery will be tons of data. When you combine individual ranch data with publicly available sources of information, such as weather patterns and market conditions, you have an overwhelming amount of information. Don’t worry; you will not have to stare at spreadsheets of numbers until you are blue in the face. New data management methods and software programs can turn an inordinate amount of numbers into easy to understand charts and actionable insights. These insights will help livestock ranchers improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve profits.
No doubt, technology has the potential to drive large-scale operational efficiencies in the livestock business. However, we also realize that raising livestock will continue to be hard work. Technology will not solve that. At the end of the day, the interactions of ranchers and farmers with their animals is the foundation of raising healthy and profitable livestock. We see technology as a tool to help ranchers reclaim precious time and make their interactions more purposeful and productive. We also hope ranchers can enjoy additional benefits of efficiency, such as more resources to expand the business and more time to spend with family and friends.
Please let us know about your desires for livestock and ranch management technology. Reach us here, or sign up below for our newsletter to learn more about these developing technologies.