Researchers create first Sensor Package that can ride aboard Bumblebees

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Researchers create first Sensor Package that can ride aboard Bumblebees

Farmers can already use drones to soar over huge fields and monitor temperature, humidity or crop health. But these machines need so much power to fly that they can’t get very far without needing a charge. Researchers at the University of Washington have created a sensor package that is small enough to ride aboard a bumblebee.

It only weighs 102 milligrams including the battery – about the weight of seven grains of uncooked rice. Because insects can fly on their own, the package requires only a tiny rechargeable battery that could last for seven hours of flight and then charge while the bees are in their hive at night. The research team presented their findings at the ACM MobiCom 2019 conference.

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.

Of course, this technique has its own set of complications: Insects can’t carry much weight, and GPS receivers, which work well for helping drones report their positions, consume too much power for this application. To develop a sensor package that could fit on an insect and sense its location, the team had to address both issues.

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, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

For this research we followed the best methods for care and handling of these creatures.

The team came up with a method that uses no power to localize the bees. They set up multiple antennas that broadcasted signals from a base station across a specific area. A receiver in a bee’s backpack uses the strength of the signal and the angle difference between the bee and the base station to triangulate the insect’s position. The team added a series of small sensors – monitoring temperature, humidity and light intensity – to the backpack. That way, the bees can collect data and log that information along with their location, and eventually compile information about a whole farm.

Sensor Package that can ride aboard Bumblebees

Sensor Package that can ride aboard Bumblebees

To test the localization 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.

After the bees have finished their day of foraging, they return to their hive where the backpack can upload any data it collected via a method called backscatter, through which a device can share information by reflecting radio waves transmitted from a nearby antenna. Right now the backpacks can only store about 30 kilobytes of data. Also, the backpacks can upload data only when the bees return to the hive. The team would eventually like to develop backpacks with cameras that can livestream information about plant health back to farmers.

Author: Tim Cole
Image Credit: Pixabay

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