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Backpack-wearing bees are helping farmers with crops


Dr. Mario Picazo
Meteorologist, PhD

Tuesday, January 8, 2019, 3:46 PM - Farmers are already using drones to fly over large fields in order to monitor temperature, humidity and the overall condition of their crops. A common problem they run into however, is that the battery of these machines normally require frequent recharge because most only tend to last between 15 and 30 minutes.

Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have just developed a peculiar alternative to the large drones, a minute system of sensors which can be installed aboard bumblebees. Since bees, like other insects, fly on their own, the microelectronics of their tiny backpacks only require a small lightweight battery capable of operating during 7 hours. After a day of flying around, the battery gets recharged once the bees are back in their hive.

Researchers at the University of Washington have created a sensor package that is small enough to ride aboard a bumblebee.Mark Stone/University of Washington.

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According to lead developer Shyam Gollakota, this new technology will help collect valuable information for farmers during hours. Using bumblebees rather than drones solves the battery problem, although the design has certain complexities. Bees cannot transport a lot of weight, and the sensors they carry still require quite a bit of power, but engineers have been able to tackle both challenges. 

The sensor 'backpack' weighs 102 milligrams. Mark Stone/University of Washington

The sensor batteries weigh 70 milligrams, and the weather sensors and the GPS system weigh another 32 -- quite an achievement, because all together the new mini backpacks only weight 102 milligrams.

With this light system on board, one can track locations frequented by the bees, but also choose locations from which to gather environmental conditions as the bees fly over a given area. At the end of the day, data can be downloaded from the system using a technique also developed by UW engineers called "Backscatter", which does not require the use of power, but rather a radio wave transmission via a multiple antenna network.

The first tested backpacks can store up to 30 kilobytes of data although researchers expect to increase storage capacity. Engineers also plan to add a micro-camera to the system in the near future to visualize the state of crops and other environments in real-time. It is a privilege for farmers to count on bees flying over their fields rather than drones, as bees have the instinct to detect things that drones don’t. For example, a bee will overfly a specific area of the field, one where plants it intends to pollinate are located.

With this new generation of bbee drones, not only will we learn about the situation of crops and other environments, we will also know more about the behaviour of these fascinating insects.

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Source: University of Washington

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