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This tiny backpack turns bumblebees into drones

Researchers at the University of Washington have created a sensing system that is tiny enough to fit on the back of a bumblebee.

Regardless of what idealistic Woolworths advertisements have you believe, farming isn’t all about open fields and overalls. It has become a high tech job.

A common sight around modern farms are drones that are used to monitor the temperature, humidity and health of crops.

But there’s a major flaw with the current technology – drones require lots of power to work, and can’t fly very far without having to charge.

Using insects instead of drones solves the power problem. At least that’s the thinking behindĀ Living IoT.

The platform works by fitting a tiny package that includes sensors, wireless communication and location tracking, to a bumblebee’s back.

Bee sensor backpack held with pair of precision tweezers.

All the required gear is crammed into a 102-milligram package.

Seeing that bumblebees can fly on their own accord, the 102-milligram sensor package – that weighs as much as seven grains of rice – only needs a tiny rechargeable battery with seven hours of charge.

While the bees are out foraging for food, the sensors can measure the humidity or temperature. At the same time, farmers will be able to broadcast radio signals to the bees to track their location.

When the bees return to their hive at night, the data is uploaded and the batteries are recharged. It’s another impressive entry into the growing number of scientific uses for bees.

“Drones can fly for maybe 10 or 20 minutes before they need to charge again, whereas our bees can collect data for hours,” said Shyam Gollakota, a senior author of the program.

“We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones.”

To fit the “backpacks”, researchers put a bee in the freezer for a few minutes to slow it down, before gluing the backpack on. If reincarnation is real, I don’t want to be one of these bees.

Scientists faced two major complications while researching the project: insects can’t carry much weight, and GPS receivers require too much power to be used in the sensor package.

The team came up with some creative workarounds.

“We decided to use bumblebees because they’re large enough to carry a tiny battery that can power our system, and they return to a hive every night where we could wirelessly recharge the batteries,” said co-author Vikram Iyer.

Instead of using GPS technology, researchers set up several radio antennas that broadcast from a base station across a specific area.

A receiver in the bee’s backpack judges the strength of the signal and the angle difference between the bee and the base station, to determine its position. Farmers can detect the bee’s position from within 80 metres.

Bumblebees on a flower with small sensor systems on their backs.

Bumblebees wearing tiny backpacks – what more could you want?

There are benefits outside of battery power too.

“Having insects carry these sensor systems could be beneficial for farms because bees can sense things that electronic objects, like drones, cannot,” Gollakata said.

“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 bees behave.”

At the moment the backpacks only store around 30 kilobytes of data and are limited in what they can measure and process. Improvements are on their way.

The team hopes to eventually add cameras to the backpacks so the bees can livestream information to the farmers.

[Images courtesy of University of Washington]

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