Researchers create a flying wireless platform using bumblebees

Researchers at the University of Washington have come up with a novel way to create a wireless platform: using bumblebees. The team was working on ways to deploy sensors, but they found problems with mechanical drones as the batteries ran out too fast. Instead, they decided to make use of a “biology-based solution”, using living insects to create a mobile Internet of Things (IoT) platform.

The issue with using regular mechanical drones is that the length of flight time that can be achieved is based on the size of the battery pack that can be carried. For small drones, the tiny battery size creates a problem with the energy density of current batteries — and at the size required for this project, most drones only last for about 20 minutes. Instead of relying on mechanical drones, the team decided to investigate the potential of insects for carrying sensors to be used in projects like smart farming, in which sensors are used to collect data on crop yield, topography of terrain, the level of moisture in the atmosphere and soil, and so on.

Bumblebees are a great choice to move sensors because they can carry payloads of nearly their own body weight, and they can fly for hours. As the bee provides the energy for flight, only a tiny rechargeable battery for the sensor is required which can last for up to seven hours. In addition, this means that the sensor package is cheap to manufacture and weighs just 102 mg, under the weight of a bee at 113 mg. The package includes sensors, wireless communication, and location tracking.

Not only will this system allow the placement of sensors over a wide area, but it will also give scientists more information about the life of bees. Researchers can track where the bees fly and see which features in the landscape they are attracted to: “With a drone, you’re just flying around randomly,” Shyamnath Gollakota, Associate Professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University Washington, told NBC news, “while a bee is going to be drawn to specific things, like the plants it prefers to pollinate. And on top of learning about the environment, you can also learn a lot about how the bees behave.”

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