Walmart has filed a patent for autonomous robotic bees, technically called pollination drones, that could potentially pollinate crops just like real bees. The drones would carry pollen from one plant to another, using sensors and cameras to detect the locations of the crops. First spotted by CB Insights, the robot bee patent appears along five other patents for farming drones, including one that would identify pests and another that would monitor crop health. Walmart did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment. The retailer hasn’t publicly commented on the patents yet, so the reasons behind Walmart’s sudden interest in farming drones has to be left up to interpretation. Yet since many Walmart locations do carry produce, it’s possible that the company is looking to gain more control of the food it’s selling. Perhaps by taking such a significant role in agriculture, the company will be able to improve quality and cut costs.
The die-off in bees, the Earth’s pollinators, is a huge concern in agriculture. While important commodity crops such as wheat, rice and corn only need the wind to pollinate, many fruits, nuts and some vegetables — including apples, peaches, blueberries and almonds — are dependent on pollinators to reproduce.
To combat this, various schemes have been tried to replicate what these winged helpers do for free. Pollen has been collected and then spread on fields by crop duster planes, sprayed at plants and — for high-value crops — hand applied with paint brushes.
Various robotic and drone pollinators have been proposed over the past few years. In 2017, a team at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology demonstrated a 1.5-inch drone that was used to cross-pollinate Japanese lilies.
While Walmart’s exact goal for these patents is unclear, they may signal that the company hopes to venture into agriculture and gain more control over its food supply chain. This would make sense, considering Walmart has recently focused on improving its grocery delivery business.
On Wednesday, the retailer announced that it will expand its grocery delivery this year to over 800 stores that reach 40% of US households. In some locations, the service will offer same-day delivery in as little as three hours. In January, Walmart also filed a patent for an online grocery shopping service that would allow shoppers to accept or reject produce picked by Walmart employees.
Walmart is not the first organization to create a robot bee. In recent years, scientists have searched for solutions to the decline of honeybees, which pollinate nearly one-third of the food we eat and are dying at unprecedented rates largely because of a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder. (In 2017, however, these deaths declined from the year prior.)
Harvard University researchers introduced the first RoboBees in 2013. At the time, the bee-size robots could only fly and hover midair when tethered to a power source, but they’ve advanced since then. Today, the RoboBees can also stick to surfaces, swim underwater, and dive in and out of water.
The researchers believe these RoboBees could soon artificially pollinate fields of crops — a development that would help offset the yearly bee losses over the past two decades. Though Harvard’s bees can do several tricks, they still can’t be remotely controlled. The robotic bees described in Walmart’s patent, however, would have this capability, along with the ability to automatically detect pollen. That would mean that the bees could theoretically work on a farm one day, rather than just in a lab.