Mega-retailer Walmart recently filed a series of applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for agricultural innovations, including one for autonomous robot bees that could be used to protect and even pollinate crops in the future.
The robot bees would utilize sensors and cameras to navigate crops autonomously and could help to offset the losses to honeybee populations in recent years. The number of bees in the United States has plummeted as a result of colony collapse disorder (although 2017 saw an increase in colonies after years of decline). Agriculture production relies on bees for crop pollination.
According to the patent application, the unmanned vehicles would include a “pollen applicator configured to collect pollen from a flower of the first crop onto a flower of a second crop.” The robot bees would have a sensor configured to detect the presence of pollen and to verify that the pollen was successfully spread from flower to flower.
Walmart says in the application that it hopes to address the problem of declining pollinator populations in the U.S., which “leads to reduced fertility and biodiversity of the crops and reduced crop production.” While some progress has been made in the are of fertilizing crops by blanket spraying of pollen from airplanes, the process is hit or miss. Crop-duster planes often spray more pollen than would be necessary with targeted pollination. In addition, crop-dusters have no way to verify that plants have been successfully pollinated. The robot bees, if successful, could solve both of those problems.
Beyond pollination, Walmart hopes the bees could be used for targeted pesticide sprays or to ward off predators in agricultural fields, acting as “scarecrows or shiny devices,” the patent notes.
Walmart hasn’t commented publicly on the robot bees, but there is some speculation that the devices could be part of the company’s long-term strategy to compete with Amazon for grocery delivery services. The foray into agriculture may signal Walmart’s desire to assert greater control of its food supply chain. Some, however, are raising privacy concerns about the widespread use of drone bees.
Robot bees were first introduced by Harvard researchers in 2013. While RoboBees, as they’re called, are able to fly, hover, and even swim underwater, they can’t be remotely controlled. Walmart’s version, if successful, would have that capability, along with the ability to detect pollen.