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Bees With Backpacks: The Next Army of Data Collectors?

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Bees can fly for hours and can sense things that electronic objects cant.

A bee with a "backpack" of electronic sensors, courtesy of University of Washington researchers.

Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

Researchers are outfitting insects with all sorts of sensors to collect a wide array of data in the wild.

For example, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have successfully attached to the back of a bee sensors that can gather farm data (temperature, humidity, and light) for up to seven hours.

The concept behind the experiment was to "just let them fly where they will, randomly, and aggregate the data once they return to the hive," says Sawyer B. Fuller, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UW. "Once you have flying sensor nodes, you can imagine the ability to collect a lot more information about the health of a farm, such as distribution of pollutants, moisture levels, or being able to detect diseases early."

The research was engineered to capture specific information on the status of plants and crops for farmers.

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a miniature radio system that communicates with a backpack mounted on a beetle to control the beetle's flight in some ways, but they don't have enough mastery to control every aspect of the beetle's flight.

At Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, researchers are also working to control the movement of beetles with backpacks, effectively creating cyborgs they hope one day could be used to search for survivors in earthquakes and similar disasters.

Plus, researchers at the University of Connecticut are having some success influencing insect movement using a prototype "system on a chip" that is wired into an insect's brain, which receives its commands via a wireless communications module. "We have been able to get some control over insect motion," says Abhishek Dutta, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

Piggybacking on Biology

Scientists say one of the main attractions of combining living insects with technology is that insects are a marvel of engineering that roboticists have been unable to duplicate.

"The more I work in robotics, the more I am impressed by the locomotion abilities of animals," says Auke Jan Ijspeert, a professor in the Biorobotics Laboratory of the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland).  "They require only a few drops of sugar to fly for hours, and they can handle many situations that are tricky for current robots, such as wind, collisions, passing through small gaps, and switching between different modes of locomotion; for example, walking and flying."

Gulden Kokturk, an assistant professor in the department of electrical and electronics engineering of Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey, agrees, noting that the biggest drawback to researchers' best alternative to live insects—miniature, flying robots—is that the robots consume battery power very quickly.

Essentially, with a live insect (a sophisticated flying machine that's ready-made), creating a mobile sensing device that can roam the wild is simply a matter of adding some applicable microelectronics and a relatively lightweight power source.

The UW researchers maximized that advantage by attaching to their bees a sensor/battery backpack weighing only 102 milligrams. Unencumbered by excess weight, the bees were able to fly amidst crops at will, capture up to seven hours of data, then unknowingly upload that data to the researchers' computer when they returned to the hive at night.  

Ultimately, the UW team would like to develop bee backpacks with cameras that can livestream information about plant health to farmers.

Alper Bozkurt, an associate professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU), said the UW research "is a very impressive work in terms of insect electronic backpack technology development." Over the last several decades, Bozkurt observed, "There have been several efforts to instrument various insects for different reasons from understanding insect physiology to monitor their environment and from tracking insect location to navigate their locomotion.

"University of Washington's research novelty is in its incorporation of the latest electronic techniques into really small packages and making bumblebees carry these during their flight."

Reaching the Limits

Of course, researchers working in the cyborg insect space readily admit that fusing live insects with micro-computerization has its limitations.

For one, bees "cannot carry a heavy backpack equipped with a large array of sensors," says Barani Raman, Dennis & Barbara Kessler Career Development Associate Professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Also, outfitting legions of bugs with miniaturized electronics could stress the environment, given that many of those components will be scattered as the insects fall to the ground and die, EPFL's Ijspeert says.

Another concern is the ethical implication of dragooning insects and other animals into scientific experiments.

"Several projects in this field—for example, to create remote-controlled insects—are quite harmful to animals, with different types of lesions and surgical interventions," Ijspeeret says. "I personally feel uneasy about them, and think that any type of research involving animal-robot interfaces—even insects—should involve careful societal and ethical discussions before moving forward."

Despite such concerns, researchers working with electronically enhanced bugs see a bright future ahead. Says NCSU's Bozkurt, "We are living in the Internet of Things era and we have been observing an exponential growth in miniaturized low power electronics and micro-scale wireless connections. This is leading to several new ways for us engineers working with biologists to collaborate with insects in novel ways in order to solve several real life problems, from environmental pollution to search-and-rescue after natural disasters."

Indeed, Dokuz Eylul's Kokturk sees researchers in coming years equipping insects with a wide array of sensors to detect sound, video, gas, heat, biometrics, and more. "Unlike their mechanical counterparts, hybrid insect drones will be skilled," Kokturk says.

Plus, the likelihood of a veritable army of insects coalescing to bring back an extremely multifaceted look at a particular scene or situation is very real, according to Washington University's Raman.

The reason:  Individually, an insect may only be able to fly with a few sensors in the wild, but that does not prevent scientists from outfitting thousands of insects with hundreds of different kinds of sensors that together would provide an extremely detailed view to a farmer concerned about crops, or to a military crew scouting for vulnerabilities in a war zone, or to an emergency team performing reconnaissance after a major earthquake.

Says Raman about such situations: "Think swarms of insects."

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan, NY, USA. 


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