Students Develop Beekeeping IoT for Renowned Research Lab
How open-ended student projects are encouraging collaboration and innovation
Beekeepers face challenges when they monitor the health of their honey bee colonies, and winter poses increased risk because opening a hive in cooler temperatures to collect data can be fatal to bees. A pair of electrical and computer engineering students and their advisor, a beekeeper himself, have found a solution to this problem.
WaggleNet is a wireless monitoring system which collects data on the temperature and humidity inside beehives. Developed by Jimmy He, a sophomore in computer engineering and his teammate, Xiaolin Wu, a sophomore in electrical engineering, the WaggleNet system is currently in its first phase. ECE senior lecturer and undergraduate advisor Chris Schmitz calls this “an extension of the Internet of Things (IoT) for getting beyond the house.”
“It’s a way to bring a low-powered device out into a rural area and allow it to communicate through an ad-hoc network," Schmitz said. "It will hop from one node to the next until it finds its way through a router into the Internet. It will take data from out in the field and get it into the location where the beekeeper can look at the data.”
Though anyone can run WaggleNet firmware on compatible hardware, the team currently creates tightly integrated tailored devices, which incorporate solar panels, sensors, radio modules, and motherboards. The team is already working on the second phase in hopes of making a WaggleNet kit affordable and turnkey for the average beekeeper.
Their ability to test WaggleNet was a case of perfect timing.
Beekeeper Ali Sankey manages the world-class Illinois Bee Research Facility, led by Gene Robinson, director of the Carl R. Woese Illinois Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) and researcher with the Department of Entomology. Last year, she approached her second winter on a project with Robinson Lab to look at the overwintering survival of small, honey bee colonies. She wanted to find an in-hive sensor to monitor the bees without disturbing them while collecting data on the hives’ temperature and humidity.
Around the same time, Schmitz approached Robinson about allowing his small team of former ECE 110 students, He and Wu, to test their own system and hardware platform, WaggleNet.
Sankey was willing to give the team a chance.
Open-ended student projects encourage collaboration and innovation
The collaboration between the trio might never have happened if it hadn’t been for the revision of ECE 110: Introduction to Electronics, which Schmitz teaches.
The course’s redesign allows students to select an open-ended project based on their personal interest. Both He and Wu explored their own interests during part of the course’s lab sessions and later demonstrated their projects in class.
“Without the opportunity for students to do open-ended projects, I would not have had the opportunity to make the contact with these students,” Schmitz said.
When the course concluded last May, He approached Schmitz to see if he knew of any interesting projects.
Schmitz, who manages a beehive at his home in rural Royal, IL, was familiar with the variety of constraints that go along with beekeeping and mentioned the monitoring of honey bee colonies as a potential application.
The task of inserting a sensor into the hive can be tricky because bees add propolis (commonly called “bee glue”) to just about everything, risking any sensor’s functionality. Bee space is also an issue because with too much space, the bees will build honeycomb crossways where it’s hard to extract the frames, according to Schmitz. The remote environment also poses a challenge, making it hard to tie into the power grid.
“My goal was to enable beekeepers, at a very low cost, to insert something into their beehive, and with very little technical knowledge, be able to get that data to the Internet,” Schmitz said.
Wu, the wireless communication specialist, joined the team over the summer to further develop the networking and communication aspect.
WaggleNet is put to the test
Last fall, WaggleNet began testing their prototype in Schmitz’s beehive. During the trial phase, He had built a screen for the sensors to protect it from propolis, which made all the difference.
Though He’s screen had worked, the team saw room for improvement, which included better encapsulation of the sensor, a need to clean it periodically and possibly replace the screen at some point.
Installation of the sensor nodes, which included a temperature/humidity sensor, a radio with antennae, a microcomputer housed inside, and a charging solar panel, went as planned. The second sensor was plugged into a power source inside the lab’s so-called Waggle World, which is used as an overwintering shed.
Now Winter, WaggleNet continues to do its job at the lab.
"I can get to work in the morning and log into the system and see what the conditions in that space are,” Sankey said.
“It’s constantly collecting data on the temperature and humidity of that shed,” Sankey said of the second location. “That’s important because we’re trying to keep that shed at an optimal temperature for overwintering for the colonies that we’re keeping in there.”
Sankey’s current focus is on a comparison of overwintering indoor hives versus outdoor hives, and to see if there is a difference between the two colonies when temperature and humidity are regulated in those environments.
The team thinks bigger picture
Schmitz would like to create a central location for beekeepers across the nation where information, including bee loss, problems with parasites, and other challenges could be shared.
Eventually Schmitz would like to allow WaggleNet to easily incorporate input from any sensor and include, for example: a CO2 sensor, a microphone to hear the bees, and even extremely low-rate video capability.
Wu, who continues to write code, plans to improve the WaggleNet system and its accessibility.
“Our agenda includes actually manufacturing a ready-to-use, marketable product, and massively improve our current framework in terms of security, ease of setup, and networking capabilities,” He said.
“It’s not only ECE, and it’s not only about beekeeping. It involves every single discipline imaginable,” He said.
The team has received some initial funding from the ECE 397 Alumni Fund. They are seeking more funding for the next semester as they prepare the system for manufacturing and shipping to beekeepers.
WaggleNet partners with the Bee Research Facility
Sankey also looks to the future of her beehives, and different applications where WaggleNet can be used in those colonies.
“We do have apiaries that are scattered all over the county, so if we did want to implement this system in all of our hives, it would be really useful to have that technology available so that they could hop from one node to another,” Sankey said.
“Once the weather gets better, I know there are a lot of different applications for the WaggleNet system—especially when they have more monitors available for use so that we can be comparing colonies in real time. I can think of a lot of different applications then,” Sankey said. “At this point, it’s just more about peace of mind for me, and also because I have a curiosity about what’s going on in there.”
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