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Bee with backpack
Bees with “backpacks” can still eat, control their flight and perform other normal behavior.
(University of Washington via YouTube)

Bees with tiny electronic devices on their backs could sound like a researcher’s dream come true, or like a science-fiction novelist’s nightmare come true.

Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering, prefers the optimistic view. He and his colleagues at UW have found a way to pack environmental sensors into a backpack small enough for a bumblebee to carry.

The approach, which the UW team calls “Living IoT,” brings significant advantages over the human-made kind of drones.

“Drones can fly for maybe 10 or 20 minutes before they need to charge again, whereas our bees can collect data for hours,” Gollakota said today in a news release. “We showed for the first time that it’s possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones.”

Today the researchers laid out their findings online, in advance of next year’s ACM MobiCom conference.

This isn’t the first time bees have been hooked up with sensors. In the past, researchers have placed RFID chips onto the insects to track their movements during experiments. But RFID chips have only so much capability, and a bumblebee can carry only so much weight. Put a GPS receiver on a bee? Forget about it.

To get around the weight restrictions, the UW researchers came up with a different type of experimental package that included a tiny antenna, a low-power localization system, sensors and a battery capable of powering the system for seven hours. The whole package weighed just 102 milligrams — light enough to attach to a bumblebee’s back. (The battery alone weighed 70 milligrams.)

The bee backpack doesn’t use GPS to provide location information. Instead, the localization system picks up radio signals that are broadcast from multiple antennas, and uses differences in signal strength and transmission angles to triangulate the bee’s position.

“To test the localization system, we did an experiment on a soccer field,” said co-author Anran Wang, a doctoral student at 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.”

The backpack also contains sensors to track temperature, humidity and light intensity as bees forage. About 30 kilobytes of sensor data can be stored in the backpack system. When the bees return to the hive, the data can be uploaded wirelessly via a backscatter antenna system — and the batteries can be recharged wirelessly as well.

The experimental insects didn’t seem to mind becoming bees of burden. “We followed the best methods for care and handling of these creatures,” said study co-author Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in the UW Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Going forward, the researchers are aiming to develop even more sophisticated backpacks, equipped with cameras that can livestream information about plant health back to farmers.

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

In addition to Gollakota, Wang and Iyer, the authors of “Living IoT: A Flying Wireless Platform on Live Insects” include Sawyer B. Fuller and Rajalakshmi Nandakumar.

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