Co-founder and CEO of BarnTools, Michael Hansen, grew up in the swine industry but always had a passion for technology. "I wasn't the only one who experienced false alarms or alarms that never came through. This seemed to be a common problem among all producers and growers who own or work in a barn. On top of that, I wanted to see the essentials like barn temperature and power on my smartphone when I wasn't there." Hansen's passion for technology and the need to solve this problem was why he and his co-founder, Jim Ryken, decided to challenge their competitors who overcharge producers for technology that has no remote capabilities. "When farmers can't prove their barn alarms are working, their flock is at risk."
The alarm systems installed in barns today only communicate out from the barn unidirectionally. Barn environment monitoring is not available remotely, without spending tens of thousands of dollars, forcing farmers to rely on aging hardware with unstable dial-out phone lines. It is a recipe for failure that begs for improvement. If there is an issue with the alarm system, it essentially will fail, and there is no alarm or way to alert the farmer.
"It's a loss that inspires action and garners change. As a barn owner dependent on the antique dial-out alarm in the barn, the stakes were high, and it was only a matter of time until the alarm system failed" says Hansen.
A producer himself, Hansen knew a new system had to be user-friendly, affordable, and reliable. It meant they had to create a solution that wasn't $10,000+, so it was reasonable for large systems with many barns and smaller independent growers. The BarnTalk alarm is entirely wireless because asking farmers to install and run expensive wires professionally wasn't enough to convince them to change. Utilizing long-range technology, BarnTalk uses various battery-powered wireless sensors that growers simply hang in their barns and communicates with the alarm box that is plugged into the wall and sends the data to a smartphone app. The sensors have an estimated range of 1200 feet from the gateway and three-year battery life that can be replaced with a $1 battery from the store.
Connectivity in rural areas was nonexistent for the longest time. Phone lines were the only option. Nowadays, producers use hotspots, but they are with a single carrier and don't fix the root issue of one way communication. "The biggest pushback we receive and continue to receive is that there is no cell connectivity at the site." Knowing this ahead of time, given his industry experience, Hansen prioritized this barrier as most important. "We didn't want our customers to have to pay for a phone line or deal with the hassles of their wireless carrier. What we ended up doing was embedding a cellular chip right into the box that automatically finds the strongest cell tower and connects to it regardless of the carrier." BarnTools also optimizes how they send the data from the barn giving the BarnTalk system a superior advantage to work in remote areas. The data sent by the BarnTalk system is equivalent of sending 3 picture messages from your phone per month. This means it doesn't need the latest LTE or 5G technology to be reliable. If one carrier tower goes down, the system will find the next tower, guaranteeing connectivity and peace of mind for the customer."
We realized the tech that farmers installed in the barn never changed. It never got better, and there was no visibility into the barn. Not knowing or being able to guarantee that the system is working is a real risk and outright crazy when you look at the size of the investment," says Hansen.
Enter the "heartbeat." Hansen explains the most important part of the system is called the heartbeat. This next generation alarm system sends a signal to the cloud every 60 seconds, where servers are constantly listening. If the cloud doesn't hear from the box, it assumes something is wrong, like losing a heartbeat. Every minute all the boxes across the entire user base are checked. If a box doesn't check-in, an alarm is triggered. This provides peace of mind that things work and the herd or flock is actively being monitored. Many large producers have wasted time and manpower physically going to barns and checking alarm systems because they were in the dark.
Looking ahead, BarnTool's vision is to build an eco-system of sensors. Today the company measures the essentials - power, temperature, water, humidity - with other sensors slated for release this year: static pressure, lux meters, heat index, CO2, and a remote dry contact sensor that can be used for various purposes like feed-line run time. BarnTools has an agile methodology which means they listen to what the user wants and build software in two-week "sprints." The goal is to quickly release and not spend a year developing something the customer might not need or want. This allows the company the freedom to innovate constantly.
Hansen further explains, "the goal isn't only seeing the barn parameters but also preventing failures. We put logic behind the sensors and the data they collect to look for patterns. Things like abnormal water consumption will trigger alarms when things deviate from normal."
"Our mission today will be the same tomorrow. We want to build practical, affordable, and proven solutions for the farmer - not the fancy tech that is cost-prohibitive and nothing more than a proof of concept. As a producer, I know the mission and focus is all about the animals."
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