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Tech by VICE

Swarms of Sensor-Wearing Bees Could Monitor Crops Better Than Drones

Bumblebees carrying electronic sensor backpacks could monitor crops like agricultural drones.

by Samantha Cole
Dec 13 2018, 6:49pm

Screenshot via YouTube

Even the most expensive, powerful drones can’t beat the humble bumblebee. Bumblebees can fly carrying almost their whole body weight, and can fly as far as 12 miles at a time, whereas even the best long-range drones can only fly up to four miles from their operators.

To compete with commercial drones in applications like crop monitoring, a team of students and research faculty at the University of Washington strapped sensors onto bumblebees, to create a “living internet of things.”

The bees’ little backpacks feature backscatter communication, low-power self-localization hardware, sensors, and a rechargeable battery that can last up to seven hours while sampling location once every four seconds, according to their paper, to be presented at MobiCom 2019. They fit all this onto a 102 milligram package that fits on the bees’ backs.

When they come back to the hive, they upload the data and get a battery recharge before heading back out.

The researchers say they envision their bee swarm someday being used on farms to collect humidity and temperature data across a field to help farmers better understand their crops. Agricultural drones are already a big market for data collection and optimization of crop fields; using bees instead could pinpoint data down to a much smaller, more specific scale, according to the researchers.

There are a few drawbacks to using bees instead of drones to collect data, the researchers note. If the bees happen to die while in the field (their lifespans are about a month), the waste from their electronic backpacks will end up as litter, so the people operating them would need to carefully time their flights around their deaths. Also, making and attaching the electronics to the bees is currently done manually—not a very efficient way to scale to monitor a whole farm with dozens or hundreds of bees.

Not listed in the researchers’ paper is the risk of creating a sentient bug botnet that launches the end of civilization.