A DIFFERENT KIND OF SWARMING

First things First

There’s a lot of mud in the water with regards to what is and is not a drone. A marketing piece is not a magic spell and calling a product a drone does not turn a toy into a drone. I view a drone as a mobile robot capable of carrying out a mission without a human at the controls. Devices carrying out pre-programmed flight would be drones, then, as would devices with autonomy or semi-autonomy. A glorified RC, however, is not a drone. You can do a lot of things with RCs, certainly; I’m not saying they aren’t useful or there isn’t a place for them. But we need to be clear with our terms.

“Living IoT”

In December 2018 The University of Washington announced a development that they called “Living IoT” (Living Internet of Things):  A “backpack for bugs” that they believe turns bees into drones.  Where to start?  Insects do not fall into the category of robots, nor can they be called drones; slapping a tiny backpack on a bee does not make that bee a cyborg any more than attaching a GoPro to my dog’s collar for the day makes her a robot; if backpacking bees are “Living IoT” then so are joggers wearing Fitbits, police officers wearing body cameras, and any number of tracker-tagged wild animals. The U of Washington development appears to be essentially a tracking device with a camera, worn on the back of an insect. While that may sound impressive, the reality is that true cyborg-insects were developed by the Nanyang Technological University in  June 2018.  The Nanyang cyborg engineers also refer to a backpack, but this one is surgically attached, controls and monitors the insect body.

Although DARPA has spent some research dollars on cyborgs, with the idea of using cyborg bugs for field intelligence and espionage, cyborg insects and their knock offs are not essential technology. But they may in fact be essential in the future. For a farmer, a bee in its normal travels will collect a lot of useful data. It will “see” things that might otherwise be missed during macro data collection since the bee experiences and reacts to its environment differently than humans and equipment.  Bees could collect minute climate condition information in the field, which could provide data beneficial to long-term farm management, like, as a quick example, new data on what distracts bees from pollinating. With the right sensors, you could even gather useful data on bee communication or hive politics—ultimately one might even learn how to infiltrate and take over a hive.  Cyborg/drone technology would require cutting edge thinking. Compared to cyborg bees, backpacked bugs would seem a little overweighted.

In fact, if you look at the cyborg beetles with which Nanyang Technological University has been experimenting, strapped-on backpacks with sensors is pretty tame. The Nanyang cyborgs’ motor functions are controllable. The possibility of a swarm of bugs under the control of a network or AI is not that far-fetched.  But technically, we only have a start in that direction.

And this got me thinking about several things…

Killer Bees

Years’ worth of news has made very clear that we face some problems with bee populations and the implications to agriculture. Can drone and cyborg technology help?

If you can hijack one bee, you can hijack a hive.  If one bee goes to work for you, it may follow that an entire hive would too–and this does not have to be an anti-environmental or anti-animal welfare operation. With proper direction and implementation, a symbiotic relationship could be created as you would be directing the bees to pollinate particular fields at a particular time, and the bees would be positively reinforced for doing so. If you are very skilled in positive reinforcement, you might even be able to get the bees to do some housekeeping, removing aphids and other pests, monitoring for diseases, blights, moisture—tasks that would be very attractive to a cost conscious agricultural business.

In addition to having an agricultural workforce in a bee hive, you also would have the ability to collect data on bees. This would include capturing and learning bee language, and using AI to simulate the language and begin controlling / manipulating the hive in its native language. Such a program also would allow scientists to observe and collect data on behavior, including the behaviors of sick hives and colonies, and possibly develop preventatives. 

Finally, cyborgs and even simple backpacks might be used to infiltrate Africanized bees (AKA Killer Bees) and we could learn to control them.  Infiltration of domestic honey bees and killer bees would be a boost to crop yields. 

Why the Ag Biz wasn’t the first big drone market

Drones were and still are hailed as the big breakthrough in agriculture. Ag was supposed to be the first big commercial market for drones and of course, it wasn’t and isn’t. There’s been a lot of research in this area, but at the end of the day, convincing farmers to buy something as expensive as a drone, find the time to fly it, collect and process the data, and maintain both drone and database has not been easy. There are farmers who do use drones and have benefited from their use, but farmers are penny-pinchers (they have to be!), and convincing them to spend a lot of money to buy or upgrade technology is not realistic if they see the tech as a luxury rather than a necessity to their business.

Universities are where most drone and robotics research is conducted. Universities may work with individual farms in trials, and as a result, a few individual farmers see the benefits first hand.  These small farmer trials with university research end up helping big Agribusiness.

Agribusiness does use robotics, drones, and other automated vehicles and equipment; as a result, it continues to take an ever-increasing percentage of the overall market.    

Security, Maintenance, and the Hive Mind

I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine a cyborg hive. This would essentially have an AI interface with the Queen and hive hierarchy. I already mentioned that AI would be needed to “learn” the bee language; that could be a key part of the hive “package.”  I should mention, though, that with bees there is a chemical (pheromone) component to their language as well as a physical one (choreographic communication), that would also need to be deciphered and learned. New bees would be directed to an area to be captured and implanted with their tech upgrades, then returned to the hive. Eventually that part might even be automated.

Not into agriculture?  For the price of maintaining vegetation, perhaps a garden and some strategically located fruit trees around the property, an AI hive might make an excellent augmentation to a security system. For example, activities of someone suspiciously lingering out around your property line could be recorded, stored for recall, and delivered to you.  A hive of ants could also be helpful in other ways, such as cleaning bots. They might scour a building at night looking for and removing everything from dust mites, to mold, to something sweet left behind in the break room. Ants are the heavy lifters in the insect world and as a workforce could move a lot of debris. Overall, a hive of cyborg ants might save in cleaning and maintenance bills, would be able to inspect the inner workings of facilities, and possibly even perform some minor repairs.

Hive activities could be monitored and data sets developed to further track and refine the processes.  In security, all images of vehicles and people could be fed through additional processes such as facial recognition.

Back to the Farm

If you want a drone or any kind of technological system to do well in agriculture, then multi-functionality is probably going to win the day. The more problems that can be addressed or solved by one system, the more appealing that system becomes, especially if it will replace or augment the existing systems. In agriculture, you could, with a backpack that had a communication function, GNSS, camera, and special sensor array, achieve improved and coordinated pollination, significant reduction in fungicides and other chemicals, and a pesticide-free status; you could also augment a smart irrigation system, create a security system against predation, and a soil monitor that reports moisture, nitrogen levels, and other important data. With all of these possibilities–and likely more–the perceived value of the tech could become the understood value of the tech and thus acknowledged as a need rather than a luxury.  Especially if the price is equal to or less than what it would cost the client to upgrade his/her old systems.

Caring is Faring Well

We probably have at least 10 years before the tech is commercially viable, so why should you care? I’ll tell you why: You want to be at the front of the pack, don’t you?  Of course you do.  It’s a good idea to keep the next thing in cutting edge tech buzzing on your radar, especially if it can help your business thrive. Businesses would be wise to maintain a database of future tech that may impact their business, and revisit it regularly.

Footnote: There is one other consideration, the Nanyang cyborgs were developed in China where animal ethics are not as strict as in the US or Europe.

3 Comments

  1. Victoria Barber
    January 29, 2019

    This is fascinating, if a little creepy (and is definitely going to run into some ethical issues about how we treat insects). As far as the application of the technology goes, there is huge potential (not least because I know of several farmers who have a habit of losing their drones!).

    Most importantly, as you point out at the end of the piece, businesses need to be aware of technologies that may affect their business (or their customers), and keep up to date with developments so that they can understand and plan for the potential impact of those technologies.

    • Gerald Van Hoy
      January 30, 2019

      Thanks Victoria,
      I should probably add a footnote that the surgical implanting of electronics into insects was performed in China which has VERY different set of ethics where it pertains to animal welfare.

  2. French Caldwell
    January 28, 2019

    I never thought of cyborg bees until now. To date most farm implementations have been essentially a replacement for general aviation services, rather than something totally new and innovative — thanks for dusting off the crop dust and taking this into the future. I can see how multi-functionality would be a big plus, especially for family farmers.

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