How Cute, Sensor-Filled Backpacks for Bees Can Help Feed the Planet: Video

Straight out of Black Mirror.

In the latest example of Black Mirror episodes come to life, a group of researchers at the University of Washington are equipping bees with a tiny backpack full of sensors to help farmers grow their crops. In yet another example of roboticists looking to the efficiency of nature for solutions to man-made problems, these cyborg bees could hold the key to improving crop yields to feed a ballooning global population.

Lead author Vikram Iyer and his colleagues glued a 102 milligram chipboard to the back live bees. The tiny component is made up of a battery, antenna, a tiny processor, temperature and humidity sensors, and components to receive and send radio signals. Iyer tells Inverse that the device would only cost a couple of dollars to make at a large scale and it could give farmers access to the kind of nuanced data current agricultural tech can’t provide.

“I think this technology is a great way to complement what drones can do for agriculture,” he explained. “Drones are good for flying at high altitudes or even doing things like spraying crops. Bees, on the other hand, can go up to individual plants, and also give us insights into things like pollination.”

bee backpack
The UW team designed a sensor backpack that weighs 102 milligrams.

Think of this like macro vs micro level smart farming. Drones let farmers manage large swaths of land and and identify overarching trends. But when it comes to zooming in to study the health of specific crops, drones are far too cumbersome to pilot and can’t pick up on the subtler things.

This system would track the cyborg bees using a radio signal broadcast that functions similarly to a low-power GPS. As they buzz around farmland every day, their tiny backpack will gather and store crop data. Farmers might even be able to glean useful information from areas that the bees don’t fly over.

“This works for many bees simultaneously to achieve good coverage,” said Iyer. “Even areas bees don’t visit may give important information about the health of those plants or lack of pollination.”

bee backpack farms
UW electrical and computer engineering doctoral student Vikram Iyer investigates how a bumblebee (inside the container) performs with the sensor package attached to its back.

Once they’re done making the rounds, the bees will naturally return to their hive where a base station will be waiting. This will act like a wifi-router, once the bees are in range the data gathered by the backpack is uploaded and stored for farmers to study.

Iyer and his team have only proved that this concept could work, now they’re exploring ways they could commercialize their idea.

In a few years, big farms could have their own swarm of cyborg bees to supplement the fleet of drones they’re already using to water and fertilize their crop.