Turning Bumblebees Into Drones

Research engineers at the University of Washington have recently announced they can leverage nature’s flying machines – insects – to operate live drones. They believe bumblebees in particular can prove as a strong and light power source to keep their drones in flight non-stop for up to seven hours. The team of research engineers Sawyer B. Fuller, Shyamnath Gollakota, Vikram Iyer, Anran Wang, and Rajalakshmi Nandakumar call it “Living IoT”. They are building a proof of concept for a flying wireless platform, which will include location trackers and sensors. This tiny platform will be stacked on the bees. The insects will be able to fly over large crop fields and monitor the humidity, temperature, and crop health.

Most hobby drones have an average flight time of close to 20 minutes requiring more power to let them fly for longer period of time. Aircraft require a lot of energy and more energy means much heavier batteries. Because insects are lightweight and can fly on their own, the power backup required is minimal. In this case, the package will need to carry only a nano-sized rechargeable battery that can easily last for as much as seven hours. The wireless sensor package will weight only 102 mg and cost just a few dollars to manufacture.

“We decided we will go with bumblebees for this project because they are big enough to carry the tiny battery that will power our wireless system,” said Vikram Iyer, who is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Washington. “Unlike the hobby drones, bees can actually fly for hours on end and can sense things that even the advanced electronic objects cannot,” said Gollakota, his colleague.

Bees are an important part of our environment. We depend on them for crops as they form a sizeable population of pollinators. According to The BBC, one-third of our food supply would simply disappear If bees weren’t there. This is why it becomes important to save bee populations from declining at a serious rate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there’s a noticeable global trend when it comes to an alarming rate of decline in their populations since the late 1990s.

The research engineers at UW believe their sensors will come to the rescue. “With the high-tech sensors we are planning to use for this project, we will be able to understand the behavior of bees in the wild much more easily,” said Gollakota. “Then we will be able to learn more about why these bees are going extinct at such a massive rate.”

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