the sarabee: a robotic informant to save the bees

It’s no secret, the bees are dying

Over the past decade, the US has lost almost half of its honeybee population, in addition to adding several other species of bees to the endangered animals list [1].

Bees play an important role in our ecosystem and help pollinate many of the foods we enjoy. Without bees, apples, almonds, avocados, cucumbers, grapefruit, onions, orange, and pumpkins are among just a handful of the produce that will disappear [2].

Scientists have multiple theories on possible contributors to this alarming decline including colony collapse disorder, pesticides and lack of crop diversity, but more data is needed to understand why the bees keep dying.

With this problem in mind, I wanted to tackle bee conservation from a design perspective by asking the question

How might we help scientists and researchers understand the cause of bee population decline?

Ideation

Some original ideas include a smarthive, a bee chip and a robotic bee.

Ultimately I chose to go in the direction of the small autonomous bee drone to inform bee conservation. I was originally intruiged by this idea because it was novel and I was interested in understanding how feasible this idea was. Also for the constraints of the assignment, I wanted to push the definition of IoT and challenge myself.

Design

User: Bee researchers, Bee scientists, and climate change enthusiasts

Purpose: To provide as much data as possible for scientists to help save the bees

Functions: flies to hive, infliltrates into the hive, collects materials (honey, food, waste) and records hive activity for three weeks, returns to scientists with data, docs into data chip and shares data via bluetooth

Goal: Assess the feasibility of the robotic informant concept for strategic conservation purposes.

Robotics

Each bee has three modular robotic parts powered by a rechargeable battery pack with three weeks of battery power. In order to assimilate to honeybees and be accepted into the hive, the robotic core must have an ML component trained in honeybee behavior and connected to the exoskeleton. The core has storage for any materials the bee collects in addition to a camera to record hive activity. The modular nature of this robot mimics a bee body and also allows each part to be taken off for maintenance and cleaning. The robot docs into a charging and data chip that translates all of the data onto any laptop or phone with Bluetooth capabilities.

Exoskeleton

Bees communicate through movement (wiggling:) so the robot had to be supported by a flexible modular exoskeleton that would insulate and protect all the robotic parts. This robotic exoskeleton supports the functionality and movement of the sarabee.

Overcoat:

Every type of bee is different in shape and size, so each bee species would have a different overcoat. This particular coat is designed for a honeybee. It is a lightweight sleeve created to blend in with honeybees, complete with padding for the feet, extensions for the propeller wings, and a soft collar for scent.

The Whole Picture

I prototyped the sarabee, a robotic informant to save the bees. This battery powered autonomous microdrone is composed of a vessel for honey and food collection, cameras for visual data, and propeller “wings” to allow for travel long distances. All of this functionality works together under a flexible exoskeleton programmed with a bee behavior algorithm. The bee behavior algorithm would be a machine learning algorithm that acquired bee behavior by studying bee videos. This exoskeleton would be wrapped in a light weight cotton coat that mimics the fuzzy exterior of a bee. (It’s important to note that not all bees are the same shape and have the same behavior, so several different coats and algorithms would have to be created depending on bee species). The scientist sends the bee to a target hive, it infiltrates the hive and collects three weeks worth of data. The bee is summoned back to the scientist through geolocation and it docs in a Bluetooth chip. Once docked in the chip the scientist extracts the data and materials for research.

Prototype

Materials: Foam core, yellow play dough, paper clips, tissue paper, yellow paint, puff balls, black paint, brown paint

I connected a foam core egg to two rounded pieces of play dough using paperclips to create a flexible bee body. It was important to paint my prototype because part of the viability of this product is camoflauging with other bees. I painted my foam core yellow and added some brown stripes to prototype the coat. I inserted some antennae and four legs all made of paperclips. I added the puff balls around the collar to signify where the biological chemicals would exist.

The rationale behind this prototyping method was to shape the body of the bee in a way that allows flexible movement to mimic bee behavior.

Testing + Analysis

Testing this prototype was challenging due to the nature of the project and COVID-19 restrictions. In an ideal world, I would take my prototype to bee scientists and tape it to a drone and let it interact with their bees. While it is important that the scientists can work the drone, the true test of feasibility is if the bees accept the drone.

In an attempt to test the sarabee, I ran a heuristic test with a sustainability expert surrounding the feasibility of this idea. In our conversation, I explained the concept and showed the functionality of the prototype. The sustainability expert loved the idea and thought the flexibility of the bee body was a key asset to mimicking bee behavior. They also noted how it was important that the robotic bee blended in with the other bees so it wouldn’t attack the bee. However, they were concerned about the scientists willingness to adopt such a novel idea and the longterm usage and maintenance of the fleet of bees. Another possible concern of this project would be making sure that the predators of bees, such as murder hornets, don’t mistake the drone for a bee and attack it and die.

Reflection

One strong point of this prototype is the body shape and flexibility. These are two essential portions of creating a robot that would seamlessly blend with the other bees in the hive. In addition to the prototype flexibility, the intention of this prototype could very well be the best part about this work. Using technology for conservation instead of replacement for existing ecosystems is a very relevant topic worth exploring further.

I would like to acknowledge that there are a lot of weak points of this prototype. I feel like I bit off more than I could chew. This prototype needs work to scale down all the parts. I prototyped it in 25x the size of a normal bee and it was extremely complicated. So scaling it down would be very challenging. I also think the sarabee is trying to do too many things at once with data collection. It is likely not feasible to make a robotic drone small enough and powerful enough to collect multiple types of data for three weeks continuously. It’s important to think of wild ideas in order to move the world forward, but this project needs to have a more narrow scope.

If I could redo this assignment I would prototype on smaller scale. The size of the bee is a very important to the prototyping experience. I would also spend more time prototyping the charging chip and data transfer mechanisms because I feel that was an underdeveloped portion of my IoT device.

In terms of process, I feel I would have benefitted from exploring more ideas at the beginning. I made the rookie mistake of committing to an idea too early in the process and I know better! An expanded ideation phase would have allowed me to explore other ideas that may have lended themselves better to testing. I also wish I spent more time testing and had the ability to test my device. I know testing is a large part of assessing the feasibility of this product and in that regard I dropped the ball. While I made an argument for creating the sarabee as a wearable IoT device, when prototyping I now understand the reasoning for the constraints of the assignment.

However, I really enjoyed working on this project. I found a lot of joy in working with my hands and I experienced the type of kinesthetic understanding that only comes from building out a design solution. I am thankful for the opportunity to grow my prototyping skills and I am eager to use them for my next project!

Video

Citations

[1]“To Fight Bee Decline, Obama Proposes More Land to Feed Bees,” Hamodia, 20-May-2015. [Online].Available: https://hamodia.com/2015/05/19/to-fight-bee-decline-obama-proposes-more-land-to- feed-bees/. [Accessed: 28-Apr-2019].

[2] S. Pain, “The whole food diet for bees,” Knowable Magazine | Annual Reviews, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/sustainability/2017/whole-food-diet-bees. [Accessed: 28-Apr-2019].