Organic Ornithopter Sensor Drone

Bees. The punchline to the title is bees carrying sensors like little baby bee backpacks. We would run out of fingers counting the robots which emulate naturally evolved creatures, but we believe there is a lot of merit to pirating natural designs, but researchers at the University of Washington cut out the middle-man and put their sensors right on living creatures. They measured how much a bee could lift, approximately 105 milligrams, then built a sensor array lighter than that. Naturally, batteries are holding back the design, and the rechargeable lithium-ion is more than half of the weight.

When you swap out brushless motors for organics, you gain and lose some things. You lose the real-time control, but you increase the runtime. You lose the noise, but you also lose the speed. You increase the range, but you probably wind up visiting the same field over and over. If your goal is to monitor the conditions of flowering crops, you may be ready to buy and install, but for the rest of us, dogs are great for carrying electronics. Oh yes. Cats are not so keen. Oh no.

16 thoughts on “Organic Ornithopter Sensor Drone

  1. I always feel like these sort of projects are a little to invasive on the insects in question, im not a ‘tree hugger’ by any means but to me it seems a bit disrespectful and downright stupid to start using a protected species as a platform for your electronics. We can all get a good laugh out of a warkitty etc, but cats and dogs are a lot bigger and seem a lot smarter, at the very least they can simply decide to shed the electronics or if that fails downright not help you, a bee on the other hand… how are they attaching the electronics? is the bee even able to shed the electronics without effectively killing itself? What makes it okay to put (near?) maximum carry weight on them? Whats wrong with using for example throwaway drones?

    Again, dont get me wrong, not a hardcore nature lover or anything, and i do get the ‘cool factor’ of it, but at the same time i just feel like there are better alternatives, even if insects are ‘just insects’, that doesn’t make it okay to screw with a living creature. And yeah, forgive me if im wrong about this, but pretty sure bees are a protected species??

    1. I gave it some thought and concluded this is a shitty, unpractical project even when not considering ethics:

      – While the bees might explore a bit they are mainly going to go to areas where the flowers grow best. Can’t monitor bad growing conditions if the bees avoid them.

      – Beacons need to be within 80m of the bees to detect their location.. is it more practical to keep supplying bees (with limited lifespans) with sensors resulting in a need to keep reapplying sensors to new bees whilst scattering electronic garbage.. OR is it more practical to just have multiple stationary sensors. I think the latter.

      – “Sensors placed on bees might also shed light on their biology. This could yield insights into why bee populations are crashing..” Yeah I call bs on that; This is such an invasive method of measuring bee activity that I doubt if the results are reliable.

      – I highly doubt that the sensor adds anything of value; The moisture sensor can not tell how much water is near the roots of the plant. Droplets on leafs or flowers could dissipate quicker if they are more exposed to wind and vice versa. I do not see the point of high resolution temperature measurements in a (farm) field as there is little reason for the temperature to vary and if it does there is probably not a lot you can do about it or care to do about it.

      – We already have better methods of achieving ‘smart farming’ without subjecting a species of animals as our next IoT platform.

      Love to hear other people thoughts on this.

      1. We’re starting to have a pretty good idea of why bee populations are crashing, and it involves some fun tech (that I had a hand in creating):

        TL;DR: researchers used robots to track bees and assess behavior after low-level (i.e. realistic) pesticide exposure, and it was different from normal in interesting (but probably not good) ways.

      2. I agree with the idea that this is mostly just unpractical, besides the points you make i also feel like weighing down a bee with some hardware is really not helping the bee or nature in any way at all, the thing most likely gets exhausted and/or dies alot sooner then ‘normal’, besides that being an issue it also means leaving hardware in the field to pollute the ground & crops, the hardware really cant be all that complex & battery life is likely terrible because of the very limited carry weight, bees wont care for unhealthy plants to begin with, etc.

        I strongly feel like some fairly basic robot could do a 1000% better job, and while that too has implications for nature (production of the components etc) i feel like a handfull of robots that can run for years on end would still be a better option then a swarm of cyborg bee’s that constantly has to be renewed.

    2. “bees are a protected species”. Tell that to the insecticide spraying farmers who kill billions each year.
      You don’t kill flies annoying you, do you? You don’t eat mass produced meat, or do you? You don’t kill wasps just wanting to steal a bit of protein at your BBQ in summer, do you? I can only assume no one giving you a +1 does these things either.
      It’s always double standards, always. Especially with bees.
      On another note, summer bees and bumble bees die after a few exhausting weeks full of hard work anyway.

      Have a look at industrial honey production. Glueing an sensor/transmitter to a few bees is nothing but a “can we do it” idea which won’t take off anyway…

      And I say that as a person who gradually gets more and more into bee keeping, helps spiders outside instead of killing them and does the same with wasps which got stuck indoors.

    3. Puzzled as to why everyone is disclaiming “not a nature guy”… is it *that* uncool to have a basic level of respect for living things and/or the environment that supports us?

      I suspect the whole evangelist “dominion over nature” attitude has a lot to answer for in destructive western attitudes to the environment.

      1. I interpret “not a nature guy” as:
        “I’m not a person who is overly concerned about nature stuff compared to some people but even this crosses my boundary”.
        So not a matter of cool/uncool but rather as a way to emphasize that their threshold of what is acceptable is less strict than people who display a more respectful attitude towards nature and EVEN THEN it crosses the boundary of what they consider ethical.

      2. For me its mostly down to the fact that i do eat meat, am not a fan of things like peta or greenpeace (not that i dont support their cause, but i feel like they’re not really successful / can be very obnoxious) etc.

        I certainly respect nature as much as i can, but at the same time im very much used to how society as a whole just (to put it bluntly) doesnt really care, and im not really going to go out of my way (read: pay double) to lessen the strain we all put on nature. I dont have a car in part because of the whole global warming ordeal, but at the same time i have no illusions about public transport (or for example electric cars) really being any better.

        As much as i would like to do more to preserve nature, im not usually in a position to make a difference, and i’ve found that those people who do go to great lengths to ‘lessen their footprint’ are often seen as ‘special snowflakes’.

        Just to name something else, plastics, i would love to have less plastic waste but there simply isnt really any possibility, for whatever reason foods are often covered in several layers, even those that perish quickly and would be totally fine to be sold in just paper, its just that you’ll be hard pressed to ever find any products that avoid using plastics. (i try get as much i can from markets etc, but at the same time i too buy alot of crap in supermarkets aswell)

        To finally circle back to your point, its not so much that im not a nature person because its not cool, its more to do with the fact that in normal daily life you really dont get a whole lot of opportunity to care. Unless (like mentioned) your willing to pay a premium, which i think is the main problem and one of the main issues we have as a global society.

  2. It does pose some interesting ethical issues. If they are loading the bees up to maximum capacity that would limit their ability to carry pollen and carry out the job they were designed to do.
    Would their lack of ability to be productive from the point of view of the hive would the hive then reject them??

    1. The University of Washington page regarding animal use
      “UW’s Office of Animal Welfare (OAW) is responsible for reviewing and approving protocols. Contact OAW for guidance on the appropriate use of animals in research.”

      Note that nothing in that quote limits the type of animals.

      Their OAW’s page ( says their mission is to
      “Protect the integrity and excellence of vertebrate animal care, research and teaching at the University of Washington. Provide comprehensive resources and outstanding services to the UW IACUC, faculty, staff, and other partners for navigating and complying with the rules and regulations regarding use of vertebrate animals.”

      I wonder if this work was reviewed, or if anything goes when using invertebrate animals.

  3. Skipping the ethical aspect…
    Is the sensor shown in the lead photo the actual device?
    If so, weight could be shed by using COB (chip on board) construction instead of OTS (off the shelf) packages.
    They could also consider getting rid of the “board” and use “chip on battery” (COB+) B^) construction.
    Granted, custom build sensors from silicon die could cost more, but with the weight savings, a large battery (longer sensor operation) or extended bee range (exhaustion?) or more sensors, or more powerful transmitter…

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