Walmart silently filed a patent for robotic bees meant to pollinate crops

Walmart is making moves on the bee’s share of agriculture — the company recently filed a patent for autonomous, robotic bees.


“I can’t beelieve you’re after my job too!”
Image credits USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Flickr.

Anxious about the food supply? Don’t blame you. Pollinators at large, and bees in particular, are struggling to adapt to the Anthropocene world — and they’re dropping dead in huge numbers while at it. But fret not, for retail giant Walmart is determined to soothe your fears; mainly by replacing them with an equally disturbing, Black Mirror-esque premise.

In a move first reported on by CB Insights, Walmart has filed a patent for autonomous bees. Technically called ‘pollination drones’, these robots are meant to do just that: pollinate crops in lieu of real bees. They would carry pollen from one plant to another, relying on cameras and other sensors to identify crops and their flowers.

The patent appears alongside five other patents for farming drones, including one that would keep an eye out for pests and another tasked with monitoring crop health. It’s not yet clear what Walmart plans to do with these patents; Business Insider tried to contact Walmart, but so far they didn’t respond to their request for comment.

I think it’s safe to assume that the company wants to get into agriculture, to gain more control over its food supply chain. It’s a likely avenue of interest for Walmart, as it has been focusing on improving its grocery delivery business recently. Earlier this week, they’ve announced plans to expand it to over 800 new stores, which would give them a huge reach — some 40% of all households in the US.

Walmart, however, is not the only one tinkering with mechano-bees. Research into this area has gained traction in recent years, mostly spurred on by the decline of honeybees. These insects, which currently pollinate roughly one-third of the food we eat, are dying in huge numbers at an unprecedented rate — largely because of a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. The death rate declined in 2017 compared to previous years, but between habitat destruction and climate change, the outlook is still very, very bleak.

Artificial pollination

Back in 2013, researchers at the Harvard University unveiled the first RoboBees. At the time, they needed to be tethered to a power source even when flying or hovering; since then, the bees have gained energy independence, the ability to stick to surfaces, even dive in and out of water and swim. While they can’t yet be remotely controlled, the researchers hope these bots could help cushion the blow, should the bees become unable to carry our agricultural needs (which they’ve been doing for free).

The robotic bees described in Walmart’s patent, however, would have this capability, along with the ability to automatically detect pollen. That already puts them at a considerable advantage from Harvard’s bees, as it would theoretically allow them to work in farms, rather than just in the lab.

Is this a good thing? Don’t get me wrong, I like eating; anything that keeps that up is a win in my book. But I can’t shake the feeling that we should have never gotten to the point where we can say that our actions are realistically threatening pollinators. By extension, that we are threatening our own metaphorical bread. And veggies. Fruits too.

From a technological standpoint, I’m a huge fan of both Harvard’s and Walmart’s bees. I’d probably pollinate some crops myself if that would mean I’d get to tinker with them and see how they work.

From a ‘superior intelligent being’ point of view… I can’t help but be disappointed that we’ve gotten here. And a bit melancholy that my kids and their kids, in turn, might not see a live bee. Just a beebot. And no matter how technologically dazzling that robot will be, its wings will buzz with the sound of our shortcomings.

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