Small-scale farming gets smart and connected with chips, development boards, RFID tags, and webcams
While homes are slowly adopting the Internet of Things, clever makers have wired up their urban farms in their backyards. Ann Nelson wanted to connect what some call her “Taj Mahal” of chicken coops to get a better sense as to what her poultry was up to.
“This was just a fun project I made up to win a Galileo board in a New Mexico site competition,” says Nelson, an Intel IT technical project manager in New Mexico. Galileo is a small microcontroller development board based on the Intel Quark apps processor that enables simple, interactive system designs. Initially envisioned as a means to determine which hens were laying the most eggs, Nelson’s project evolved into a much more intricate design, complete with RFID bands for the chickens, webcams for remote monitoring and weight sensors within the nesting boxes.
Nelson’s poultry property consists of three areas:
- the coop – a 6-foot by 16-foot screened and roofed environment,
- the henhouse – a 6-foot by 4-foot structure containing the nesting box, and
- the large fenced area – consisting of two sections, 32 feet by 10 feet and 32 feet by 8 feet.
The nesting box is where the majority of the technology roosts. There are three nesting boxes measuring 12 inches cubed, with one blocked off for technology use. An automatic heat lamp is tied to a temperature sensor connected to the Intel Galileo board, which turns on when the temperature drops below 30 degrees. The nesting boxes have RFID readers and weight sensors that track the contents inside and can determine if a hen has laid an egg. The doors on the nesting box are opened via servo motors, and the henhouse itself is attached to a gearbox motor and a paint roller.
And, of course, the entire environment has webcams, one each in the henhouse, coop and yard to remotely monitor chicken commotion via the web. Nelson’s mother, who lives in Minnesota, periodically checks on the chickens throughout the day.
The flock consists of four hens she got from a county fair and a rooster that was “a pity purchase rescue from a feed store.” The rooster, a bantam and actually the smallest of the group, is appropriately named “Goliath.” The hens’ names come from their physical attributes: “the multicolored one,” “the black one with the weird tail,” “the orange neck one,” and “the broody white one.”
Tech pecking order
But, just like any farm, repairs and upgrades are always needed to overcome challenges or failure. The RFID reader seems to work only 30 percent of the time, and the chickens are partly to blame for this. “I can’t teach the chickens to wave their ankles at the RFID reader,” says Nelson.
A particularly hot (120 degree) summer day fried out the Wi-Fi repeater, forcing Nelson to run Cat5 cable from the web cameras to an Ethernet switch in the coop, and from the switch to her home router. She plans to add cooling holes and an automatic fan to prevent future overheating.
Future upgrades to the IoT coop may include using an Intel Curie module as a chicken health and activity tracker as well as Bluetooth for chicken identification.
“I have a whole list of future add-ons: water and food alerting system, tweet when someone lays an egg,” says Nelson. “I would like to have a working identification system – ‘hen No. 1 laid a 1.6-ounce egg in nesting box A at 2:13 p.m.’ – so much to do and learn, so little time.”
Nelson believes her chicken coop automation system could have practical enterprise uses, for example to check the chemical levels in tanks by weight in a facility.
For now, however, Nelson is focusing on her backyard. She has been integrating her chicken coop with programming using C, Python, PHP and HTML. Nelson’s project is among a growing trend of wired henhouses, ranging from extremely geeky using an Arduino development board to quite elegant in their design.
“I think a chicken coop is a great learning platform – low risk and so much potential,” says Nelson. “It is a platform for learning and exploring new technologies, new for me. All this development is slow, as I really am making it up as I go along. Thank heaven for open source information and code!
“Besides, chickens just by themselves are so much fun and humorous. Why would three, 5-pound birds squeeze into one square-foot nesting box?”