With off-the-shelf parts, artificial intelligence and a little ingenuity, two engineers have devised a purple box that could save the agricultural industry millions.
As young researchers with a start-up company, Vimana Tech, mechatronics engineer Joel Kuperholz and astrophysicist Vignesh Murugan knew they wanted their engineering to help people.
Seeing potential in the agricultural sector, Kuperholz and Murugan — the Chief Executive and Chief Technology Officer respectively of Vimana Tech — began to hit up farmers and farm organisations. They offered to work on farms and “sweep and shovel crap” in exchange for farmers telling them their pain points.
“We got overwhelming responses,” Kuperholz said.
“They really enjoyed the fact that we actually came out and met with them.”
Kuperholz said the pair took the farmers’ problems, developed prototypes to solve them and gave them the tech to try.
“We built really nice cred,” he said.
“Along the journey we were trying to better understand: what are the key, key challenges?”
One of those crucial challenges was Varroa destructor: a tiny mite that strikes fear into the heart of beekeepers. Varroa has decimated hives around the world but is yet to become established in Australia.
Kuperholz and Murugan started building prototype systems to detect Varroa and were soon introduced to the food company Bega. Working together on what would become the Purple Hive Project, they formed an unlikely alliance.
“It was just beautiful synergy,” Kuperholz said.
“We both wanted to work on the Varroa destructor and protect the bee population.”
How the Purple Hive works
Purple Hive is a solar-powered artificial intelligence device trained to detect Varroa.
Every time a bee flies into a Purple Hive, it’s directed through a series of small glass slides.
“It’s like this little tunnel that allows you to actually look into [the hive] and monitor each bee,” Murugan said.
Two cameras — one above and one below — capture each bee from 360 degrees.
The camera feed goes directly to a processor running a Xalient artificial intelligence (AI) program on edge. The AI observes each individual bee, checks for any hitchhiking mites, and triggers a biosecurity alert if Varroa is detected.
Murugan said everything happens in real time, checking thousands of bees flying in and out of the hive.
“It’s a phenomenal task,” he said. “We had to go from the ground up.”
The purple box uses a solar power supply and a battery, alongside lifecycle management systems that keep the hive running without a connection to the grid. Murugan also added a “supervisor” to ensure the power-hungry process runs only when needed.
“It’ll start the process and run all the AI,” he said. “Then once it’s not needed — let’s say the bees have gone to sleep — it’ll turn everything back off and save power.”
Although much of the technology already existed, the pandemic made it hard to source parts. Murugan said the team was forced to rely on tech that could be sourced in Australia amid a semiconductor shortage and shipping supply issues.
“We had to call up suppliers … if there was one Raspberry Pi [computer] available, we’d take that,” he said. “Or one camera here and another one in Queensland. We ended up even making our own cameras at one point, because we couldn’t get them.”
Ian Cane, a third-generation commercial beekeeper in Victoria, is excited about the technology. He said Varroa is the worst parasite the beekeeping industry has seen worldwide.
“They’re a blood-sucking parasite,” Cane said.
“They suck all the goodness out of the bees and the baby larvae. They also give the bees lots of viruses that impact their health to the point where they die.”
When Varroa destructor became established in New Zealand in 2000, the number of beekeeping enterprises halved. Researchers estimate it will cost the country between NZ$365 and $661 million over 35 years.
In Australia, Cane and other beekeepers regularly check their hives for Varroa with painstaking manual detection methods.
The most common is the “sugar shake” test, which sees beekeepers dust their bees in icing sugar. The fine granules stick to the mites’ feet, causing them to lose their grip on the bees and fall into the white sugar where they are more easily seen.
“There’s other methods, but they’re all very labour-intensive and take a lot of time,” Cane said.
“Bringing this type of technology to agriculture and the beekeeping industry … it’s been fantastic.”
Purple Hive built for tough conditions
Kuperholz said the Purple Hive was engineered to withstand the Australian climate and wildlife.
“It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s windy, it’s rainy,” he said. “We’ve got kangaroos, wombats, cattle.
“With these devices going to be put around Australia, they had to be not only weatherproof but animal-proof. So that if, for example, animals go up and scratch against it, it actually would withstand that sort of pressure.”
The first version of the Purple Hive had an entrance slit that was too large and the bees were able to fly straight into the hive.
“Our cameras weren’t able to pick it up and it was all blurry,” Murugan said.
“We ended up iterating on that, making it thinner, slowing down the bees’ movement, making sure they don’t fly.”
Kuperholz said the team then trained the Varroa-detecting AI using 3D-printed mites.
“Working with the beekeeper, we actually artificially planted fake Varroa mites on these bees to collect that data and train the algorithm,” he said. “That was to prove out the efficacy, validate the prototype, validate the concept.”
But COVID-19 kept throwing up hurdles. Although the team had several 3D printers for rapid prototyping, they struggled to test the hive in the field.
“To actually validate and test it wasn’t that easy going in and out of lockdowns,” Kuperholz said.
Adding to the challenge was not being able to fly to a country that had Varroa to validate the system. It forced multiple rounds of project planning and data collection to test the hive in New Zealand.
“We had to build [the system] so that someone overseas could work it,” Kuperholz said.
The technology is being trialled at the Port of Hastings, Victoria, alongside existing sentinel hives managed by Agriculture Victoria.
Kuperholz hopes Purple Hives will be used across Australia.
“We’re working [on] how to optimise the rollout, how to make this as efficient as possible, to deliver on that vision,” he said.
Murugan said the concepts developed for Purple Hive rely on a generalised algorithm that can be applied in any industry.
“We can repurpose our AI for retail, for construction, mining,” he said.
Cane said it’s only a matter of time before Varroa makes its way to Australian shores.
“Even though there’s a lot of money spent by federal and state governments and beekeepers, trying to keep them out … it would be very naive of us to think that they wouldn’t get in,” he said.
But every year that Australia remains Varroa-free saves tens of millions of dollars.
“They’ve been terrible pests all round the world and created enormous damage to the beekeeping industry and, of course, all industries that depend on honeybees for pollination,” Cane said.