Intel and CSIRO create RFID bee backpacks with Edison

Intel is equipping Australian honey bees with RFID 'black box' chips to track the movements of the insects to discover why their populations are declining.

The Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has partnered with tech giant Intel in an attempt to solve the widespread disappearance and death of honey bees worldwide by installing chips on the backs of the insects to track their movements.

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(Image: Supplied)

According to the CSIRO, honey bees pollinate approximately 33 percent of all human food sources, including vegetables, fruits, oils, nuts, and seeds. With bee populations currently being whittled down due to colony collapse disorder (CCD) -- wherein worker bees disappear from their hives for unknown reasons -- and the varroa mite parasite, one-third of our food staples are at risk.

To battle this, Intel has made its Edison wearables computing platform available for the science organisation to use for tracking the movements and monitoring the environmental factors of the bees.

"We're now able to make an appropriate level of capacity at an appropriate cost to actually take our transistors into places beyond the PC and servers that we're typically used to dealing with," said David Mellers, enterprise sales director for Intel ANZ.

The radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are 2.5x2.5x0.4mm in size, weigh 5.4mg, and have a read range of 30cm, with both integrating and boosting antennas. The chipping systems cost the CSIRO AU$400 per system, and can read 50 tags simultaneously. The micro-sensors are super-glued onto the backs of the bees as "backpacks".

"Intel Edison is a compute package that is a little larger than a postage stamp ... it has an Intel Atom processor on it, 1GB of memory and 5GB of storage, and dual-band wireless Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth," said Mellers.

Intel said the Linux-based Edison Breakout Board Kit's high capacity for power and flexible use made it simple to integrate into the project, with the wearable microprocessors' shrunken-down size meaning they could be installed easily on the bees.

"The tiny technology allows researchers to analyse the effects of stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet, and extreme weather on the movements of bees and their ability to pollinate," professor Paulo de Souza, CSIRO science leader, said. "We're also investigating what key factors, or combination of factors, lead to bee deaths en masse.

"The sensors, working in partnership with Intel software, operate in a similar way to an aeroplane's black box flight recorder in that they provide us with vital information about what stress factors impact bee health."

Mellers explained the function of Intel's Edison in assisting with research on the habits and movements of bee colonies.

"Essentially, Edison here is acting as a control hub and a gateway within the hive, so it's capturing the relevant data from the tags that the bees are wearing -- or the backpacks, as Paulo called it -- so as the bees go in and out of the hive, Intel Edison actually captures and tracks that movement and how long the bees are out of the hive, do they enter other hives other than the one they particularly belong to, but there are also other sensors ... environmental censors to measure temperature, humidity, and solar radiation."

He said there has also been talk to capture wind velocity through the chips.

The Edison compute module enables both device-to-device and device-to-cloud connectivity, providing analytics to a shared cloud-based data-collection facility. Edison makes use of a 22nm Intel system on a chip incorporating a dual-core, dual-threaded 500MHz Atom CPU; and a 32-bit 100MHz Quark microcontroller. It also supports 40 GPIOs, and development with Arduino and C/C++, and will add Python, node.js, RTOS, and visual programming support in future.

The Edison Breakout Board Kit incorporates a 0.1-inch grid I/O array of through-hole solder points; a USB on-the-go (OTG) power switch; a USB OTG with a microUSB Type AB connector; a USB-to-device universal asynchronous receiver/transmitter (UART) bridge with a microUSB Type B connector; a battery charger; a DC power supply jack with 7V-15V DC input; and native 1.8V I/O of the Edison module.

"One of the key things about Edison ... is the flexibility of this particular board brings to bear for makers or for solution developers, such as CSIRO," Mellers concluded.

The CSIRO is using Australian honey bee colonies for the experiment, noting that this is so far the only country where bees are not subject to the varroa mite predator.

"This puts Australia in a good position to act as a control group for research on this major issue that could one day become our problem, too," CSIRO pollination researcher Dr Saul Cunningham said.

Intel and the CSIRO are part of an international initiative on honey bee health, which also includes Hitachi Chemical, Nissin Corporation, Vale, and scientists from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Brazil, and Mexico as its members. The Intel project will allow all of the organisations involved in the initiative to share data in the CSIRO's cloud facility data-access portal.

"The time is now for a tightly focused, well-coordinated national and international effort, using the same shared technology and research protocols, to help solve the problems facing honey bees worldwide before it is too late," de Souza said.

In June 2008, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee tabled a report to the Australian Senate with the results on its inquiry into the Australian honey bee industry, More Than Honey: The future of the Australian honey bee and pollination industries.

Among its recommendations, the committee suggested that the government establish a survey scheme to collect data on the honey bee industry; consider beekeeping and pollination "integral" to Australian trade during any free trade negotiations; contribute to pollination research and development; categorise the varroa mite; and continue funding the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program.

The Australian Senate did not respond to the report until almost seven years later, in March this year [PDF]. While it agreed in part with some of the recommendations, it mostly passed on the responsibilities of fulfilling these suggestions to outside organisations, agencies, and the states and territories. It particularly recognised the research work being done by the CSIRO on the industry.

"Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation are playing a role in global research networks to better understand the causes of declining bee health in many parts of the world," the Senate noted. "More recent innovation by CSIRO scientists has led to enormous improvement in microsensor technology for tracking bees in and around hives and the opportunity for new insights into hive health and bee response to diseases or chemicals.

"The CSIRO is establishing an international alliance of researchers, in collaboration with beekeepers and farmers, to advance our knowledge of factors damaging bee health around the world. Through this new initiative, the CSIRO will connect Australian research communities with leading international research institutions, technology companies, beekeepers, and primary producers."

The Australian government did not, however, agree to extend its funding of the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program beyond June 30, 2015.

As a result, instead of relying on government funding and intervention, the CSIRO will continue working alongside the international consortium and making use of Intel compute technology and wearables to collect data and provide answers on global food security.

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