Researchers at the University of Washington have developed tiny sensor-loaded bumblebee backpacks to collect data as the insects go about their day on farms.
The bionic backpacks weigh just 102 milligrams, with rechargeable batteries making up the bulk and around 30 milligrams left over for sensors and memory storage. Temperature, humidity and light intensity readings can all be made, but onboard data is severely limited to around 30 kilobytes. The battery, however, is good for approximately seven hours of operation. When the bees return to their hive at the end of each day, the batteries are recharged wirelessly while stored data is uploaded via a technique known as ambient backscatter that makes use of residual radio waves. It’s envisaged the system could replace the use of drones on smart farms, which are currently used for environmental monitoring but are limited in endurance.
“Drones can fly for maybe 10 or 20 minutes before they need to charge again, whereas our bees can collect data for hours,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones.”
Bees can fly carrying roughly their own bodyweight, but this still restricts the backpacks to lightweight, low-power sensors. GPS is too bulky and power-hungry, so the team developed a geolocation system that uses a base station and multiple antennas to triangulate bee position with radio signals.
“To test the localisation system, we did an experiment on a soccer field,” said co-author Anran Wang, a doctoral student in the Allen School. “We set up our base station with four antennas on one side of the field, and then we had a bee with a backpack flying around in a jar that we moved away from the antennas. We were able to detect the bee’s position as long as it was within 80 meters, about three-quarters the length of a football field, of the antennas.”
According to the team, a swarm of bees fitted with the backpacks would form a type of ‘living IoT’, superior in many ways to environmental monitoring performed by drones. As technology evolves, the researchers hope to eventually fit the devices with cameras capable of live-streaming images, informing farmers about plant health or irrigation issues, while also providing fresh insight into the daily life of the bees themselves.
“Having insects carry these sensor systems could be beneficial for farms because bees can sense things that electronic objects, like drones, cannot,” said Gollakota. “With a drone, you’re just flying around randomly, while a bee is going to be drawn to specific things, like the plants it prefers to pollinate. And on top of learning about the environment, you can also learn a lot about how the bees behave.”