ABB’s Corporate Research Centers (CRC) have provided the foundations for many of the company’s breakthrough technologies. But ABB’s CRC in Poland isn’t just about cutting-edge research. It is also home to between 50,000 to 60,000 bees, who occupy a mini-apiary on the building’s roof.
Initially a passionate interest from an avid beekeeper on the staff wanting to support the environment brought the bees to the center. But more important is that the bees produce something more valuable to the researchers than honey: a lot of very useful test data.
“We always try to have in this big corporate body which is ABB, also this kind of small company soul. One day we thought, why not establish this here on our roof? But not only to have the honey out of this, but to try to utilize this big population for our scientific purposes,” explains Marek Florkowski, Head of ABB Corporate Research Center Kraków. “We started with some simple sensors for humidity, temperature, air conditions, CO2, then we also added some cameras –fast cameras, infrared cameras, hyperspectral cameras.”
The first beehive, placed on the roof of the research center in July 2017 was inhabited by one bee family, numbering about 10,000 insects. Dominik Lis, Building Automation Specialist at the research center, is a veteran beekeeper, with more than 20 hives of his own. He has been active in expanding the ABB apiary and making it one of the most closely studied bee colonies in the world.
An area of specialization at the center is the development of computer algorithms to interpret and analyze large data sets drawn from different types of sensors found in equipment produced by ABB. To test these algorithms, it is extremely helpful to have access to large quantities of real-life data of various kinds. It turns out that an active colony of bees excels at generating vast amounts of raw data.
“In this digital society nowadays, data is value, says Florkowski. “But actually, not just the data itself but also in processing the data and interpretation of the data. And this is what we are doing now. We try to develop certain pattern recognition algorithms, classification algorithms, and also to optimize this – to accelerate these algorithms.”
The hives in the Krakow facility have been mapped in detail and are watched at all times by multiple video cameras. Information about temperatures and humidity inside the hive and the weight of the hive is transmitted continuously to a server.
“In science very often, the problem is – like in material science – to have good specimen. Also for big data and algorithms. We need to have a set of data which can represent certain process – and here with the bees you have thermal processes, you have ultrafast behavior, you have slow behavior, you have movement recognition, pattern recognition. So the feedback we have from colleagues is that it is an extremely useful experiment,” explains Florkowski.
The resulting data streams are used to test sensor techniques as well as analytical algorithms. For instance, the image from a camera directed at the hive’s entrance is useful in the development of an image detection system and counting objects based on video transmission. A lot of bees fly out of the hive at the same time, and the scientists try to find a method of counting them, taking into account their speed, small size and background. A large amount of quite exotic data allows the researchers to experiment.
“The hives actually allow us to play with and test all aspects of data analysis – sensors, data acquisition, data analysis and data visualization,” says Michal Orkisz, Senior Principle Scientist at the research center. “Take an application like bee identification, bee detection and bee tracking. That could directly translate into tracking objects on the factory floor or tracking shipping containers.”
“I feel proud in many aspects,” says Florkowki. “If you want to be a pioneering company, you have to try something unconventional. This is really the point.”
These creative experiments have generated some new ideas and advanced the current state of the art. They have also resulted in a sweet byproduct: ABB-made honey.