As clever as we humans like to think we are, plenty of things we invent have already been done more effectively by nature. Our drones are pretty handy, but nature's drones – bees – are far more efficient. Rather than building our own buzzing robots from scratch, researchers at the University of Washington have created tiny suites of sensors that bees can wear like backpacks, to help gather data from their environment.

Drones have begun to pitch in around farms by spraying pesticides, helping with pollination and assessing crop health, but they have their limits. They're bulky, expensive, and can usually only fly for short periods of time before needing to come back down to Earth to recharge. Bees could help solve all of those issues.

"Drones can fly for maybe 10 or 20 minutes before they need to charge again, whereas our bees can collect data for hours," says Shyam Gollakota, senior author of the study. "We showed for the first time that it's possible to actually do all this computation and sensing using insects in lieu of drones."

To do so, the team developed tiny devices that can fit on the back of bumblebees to track their location and sense their surroundings. Built into those backpacks are data storage space, sensors for monitoring temperature, humidity and light intensity, a rechargeable battery and receivers for location tracking and transmitting data. The end result weighs just 102 milligrams, which the team says is about as much as seven uncooked grains of rice.

GPS tech is the standard for location tracking in drones, but the researchers found that this system would sap too much power from the little backpack battery. Instead they set up a base station of multiple antennas that broadcast signals over an area, and used receivers in the backpack to triangulate the bee's position in that area by calculating the angle and the strength of the signal. This system can accurately track the bees within about 80 m (262.5 ft).

The battery can apparently run for up to seven hours – more or less a full day of foraging for busy bees. When the insects return to the hive for the night, the batteries are recharged wirelessly while the data they've gathered is uploaded via backscatter communication. The researchers say this could be used as a kind of Living Internet of Things network, collecting information about a whole farm, for example.

"It would be interesting to see if the bees prefer one region of the farm and visit other areas less often," says Sawyer Fuller, co-author of the study. "Alternatively, if you want to know what's happening in a particular area, you could also program the backpack to say: 'Hey bees, if you visit this location, take a temperature reading'."

This is far from the first time scientists have tried to electronically augment insects. Remote-controlled beetles and dragonflies have been developed, locusts could be used to sniff out explosives thanks to their highly-advanced sense of smell, and cyborg cockroaches could be used to map buildings or even help find survivors in disaster zones.

Soon we may be able to add farm-monitoring bees to the mix. Before then though, the Washington researchers say there are a few more technical hurdles to jump. So far the tiny backpacks can only store an equally tiny 30 kB of data, which limits the types of sensors that can be used. In the long run, the team plans to try to make systems that can livestream data back to the "hive," perhaps even fitting them with cameras.

The research is published online, and will be presented at the ACM MobiCom conference next year.

Check out the sensor packing bees in action:

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