Beekeepers face challenges when they monitor the health of their honeybee colonies, and winter poses increased risk because opening a hive in cooler temperatures to collect data can be fatal to bees. A pair of ECE students and their advisor Christopher Schmitz, 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 ILLINOIS senior lecturer and chief undergraduate advisor 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 the country 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.
Last year, as beekeeper Alison Louise Sankey was approaching her second winter on a project with Illinois' Robinson Lab to look at the overwintering survival of small honeybee colonies, she wanted to find an in-hive sensor to monitor the bees without disturbing them. Sankey manages the world-class Illinois Bee Research Facility led by Dr. Gene E Robinson, director of the Illinois Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) and researcher with the Department of Entomology. She had considered buying a commercially available monitoring system to collect data on the hives’ temperature and humidity.
Around the same time, Schmitz approached Dr. 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, and to explore that interest during part of the course’s lab sessions.
He took advantage of this added benefit when he took the course last spring and designed a 3D-printed, custom car chassis with PCB boards and a control system for his final project. The self-driving car, which cruised around a room taking attendance of students while using facial recognition, was outfitted with a camera perched on top of it.
For her final project, Wu created a sound-following car, complete with three microphones on the top and sides. Using Arduino, an open-sourced platform used for building electronics, she enabled the car to turn in the direction of the sound.
“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 honeybee 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.
Personal interests are applied to WaggleNet
He, who already had experience creating a home automation system several years ago at his parents’ home in China, was up for the challenge. His earlier project taught him how to link the electrical and electronic components of his home and to control them remotely by using a screen on the wall.
“They both stream data; they both take commands. They are both pretty much the same thing,” he said of the two projects.
He presented Schmitz with a working prototype at the start of fall semester.
Schmitz and He added Wu, who had already contacted Schmitz over the summer in hopes of finding a project to further develop the communication aspect.
Joining the team allowed Wu to continue to focus on her area of interest: wireless communication. She is responsible for the communication of the sensors, specifically transmitting the data from the sensor to the server and mapping the address using i2c—an inter-integrated circuit using a multi-slave, multi-master serial computer bus—to connect sensors to the central server. Wu also wrote code to figure out the number of channels to their corresponding device. One channel, for example, can be responsible for recording humidity.
Once the team felt confident they were ready to test their prototype in the real world, WaggleNet made its debut at Schmitz’s beehive last fall.
After a smooth installation, Schmitz pulled the sensor from the hive a few weeks later to check it. As anticipated, the bees had filled openings with bee glue. During the trial phase, He had built a screen for the sensor to protect it from propolis, which made all the difference.
“Luckily, the way the sensor cage was constructed where the cable went in, there was still room for airflow in and out of the sensor, and the bees didn’t mess with that area,” Schmitz said.
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.
WaggleNet is put to the test
Finally, on a warm October afternoon, the team met their first client, Sankey, to test two of their sensors.
Though He had already created most of a companion data-processing platform, which he named Project Wyze, its front-end graphical user interface (GUI) was not ready in time for the deployment at the Bee Research Lab.
Instead, He and Wu made sure that there was a strong signal from inside the lab before Schmitz and Sankey suited up in protective gear to slot one of the sensors in a beehive outdoors. Sankey was able to use a user-friendly, makeshift application to monitor the data stream and save it in Excel format after He taught her some key commands.
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.
“At this time, I can get to work in the morning and log into the system and see what the conditions in that space are,” Sankey said.
Every couple of seconds the monitoring system sends data to Sankey’s computer.
“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.
“This would be a very generic system where, because everything goes to a central location, beekeepers could have access not only to their own data, but potentially to anybody else who is willing to share that information," Schmitz said. "Having access to data from bees, even around the world, could allow us to intervene whenever anything might be detrimental to their survival was noticed.”
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.
“We want to make it a turnkey project,” Wu said. “If there is a screen connected to the project and the user wants to plug in a sensor, the screen will show that it’s already connected. We will modify the data from the sensor so there are no other steps the user should take if they want to plug in a new sensor.”
He says the project has taught him a variety of disciplines, including the need for marketing in the project’s second phase.
“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.
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.
He, who began taking supply chain management lessons through MIT’s MicroMasters Program online in 2015, plans to use his continued studies with the program to help with WaggleNet’s finances, inventory, and manufacturing progress through an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system.
“It’s not only ECE, and it’s not only about beekeeping. It involves every single discipline imaginable,” He said.
Looking further into the future, He hopes that one day WaggleNet users can share the network by borrowing each other’s connection, thus routing down the traffic. Using a mesh network, which allows various devices to share a single Wi-Fi hotspot, can make that possible.
Not only would this set-up help beekeepers working in the field, but it could also help novice users who would take advantage of WaggleNet’s solar-powered ability. In a natural disaster scenario, the ad-hoc network could be life saving.
“If a tower is down, the grid is down, power source is down, let’s say, and a family needs to send an SOS, they can route the SOS through everyone’s node until it reaches someone’s house that has a working Internet,” He said.
Though this reality might be far away, He said it’s a goal they’re working toward.
“It’s about complex ideas,” He said.
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.”