Engineers have Turned Bumblebees into Living Drones Using Tiny Backpacks

When it comes to robotics, it is often inspired by the natural world. But what about combining technology with nature itself? Engineers have developed a sensing system that essentially turns bumblebees into living drones.

A team from The University of Washington glued removable mini “backpacks” onto bees. The backpacks, which are equipped with sensors that monitor temperature, humidity, and light intensity in addition to tracking their location, weigh only 102 milligrams each, approximately the same as seven grains of uncooked rice. 

The packs are powered by a small rechargeable battery that lasts for seven hours and charges wirelessly while the bees are in their hive at night. While the bees rest, the backpack can upload its data via a method known as backscatter, which lets devices share information by reflecting radio waves transmitted from a closeby antenna.

It sounds strange, but one day the idea could help farmers yield helpful insights into their land and crops. It could also help us better understand the bees themselves and support work to reverse their worldwide decline.

Presently, farmers already use drones to monitor their crops, but bees provide some benefits that drones don’t. For example, the bees don’t need charging so they can gather data for the whole day, whereas drones can only fly for 10 or 20 minutes. 

Author Shyam Gollakota explained that for the first time they demonstrated that it’s possible to do all this computation and sensing using insects instead of drones. However, bees can’t hold as much weight, and their movements can’t be controlled. The next step will be to outfit the bees with cameras.

Jessica Zeitz