The Ultimate Solution to Battery Endurance: Researchers Put Drone ‘Backpack’ on Bees to Help Gather Data for Farming

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Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

It’s the ultimate solution to the problem of drone flight endurance – harnessing mother nature’s power.  Researchers from the University of Washington have put a tiny sensor backpack on bees to gather aerial data.

Bees are more important to farming that you might have imagined.   According to the 2004 USDA piece titled, “Bee Benefits to Agriculture”  the USDA tells us that “one mouthful in three of the foods you eat directly or indirectly depends on pollination by honey bees… The value of honey bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14 billion annually, according to a Cornell University study. Crops from nuts to vegetables and as diverse as alfalfa, apple, cantaloupe, cranberry, pumpkin, and sunflower all require pollinating by honey bees.”

Now, add “collecting aerial data for agriculture” to bees’ functions.  The University of Washington’s School of Computer Science & Engineering is looking at new methods for precision agriculture, one of the first industries to utilize drone technology.  In a project that looks like an idea designed for Pixar, the team has developed an organic drone sensing system with wireless communication and location tracking, attached to the back of a bumblebee.

Electric powered drones have a flight endurance that runs between 15 minutes and 2 hours.  While there have been many efforts to  address the problem using swapping stations, or by extending battery life  or using non electric power for drones, no drone yet can keep up with the daily activity of nature’s workforce. Researcher Vikram Iyer says they chose bumblebees because they can fly much longer than drones.

“In this work, we leverage nature’s flying machines to carry wireless sensors we can use for things like smart farming,” Iyer said.  The “backpack” for bees weighs 102 milligrams and is attached to the back of the bees. The tiny backpack sensors can collect data on crops: things like temperatures, humidity and overall health. They also collect location data – and allow researchers to follow the paths of the bees themselves.

“As we collect the data, we broadcast radio signals to tiny circuits on the bees, to track where they’re going in a 2-D space,” Iyer said.  As the bumblebees return to the hive each night,  data from their sensors is uploaded and their tiny batteries recharged via wireless charging.

The team will present their research International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking in 2019.



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