US retailer Walmart has filed a raft of patents aimed at automating processes in the agriculture sector. Among them is a robotic solution to the global decline of bee populations.
Replacing pollinators with robots
According to a report from environmental organization Greenpeace, around one-third of the crops we eat rely solely on insect pollination.
It’s estimated that the global economic benefit of pollination from insects, such as bees, amounts to over €265 billion. And that’s just the financial return of the crops it helps to produce. The real value, which will only come to light if food shortages become more severe or certain crops die out, is infinitely high.
As has been well-publicised, bee populations worldwide are struggling in the face of environmental and man-made challenges. One of Walmart’s patents offers a unusual solution – or rather an alternative – in the form of automated, robotic pollinators.
Walmart’s robo-‘applicators’ could work as tireless pollination drones, carrying pollen from one plant to another, verifying successful transfers with a range of sensors.
The patent goes through a variety of options as to how a robot bee could go about its business. One notable feature includes a small speaker that will play different tones in order to signal the robots’ arrival at a central docking station.
Walmart’s plan to automate agriculture
Aside from robotic bees – which are reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode – Walmart has filed five other patents, all of which combine automation and drones with challenges in agriculture.
Among the applications are concepts that use drones to identify and deter pests attacking crops, drones to monitor crop damage, and precision pesticide sprayers.
The use of drones in agriculture currently extends to aerial surveys that monitor crop health and automated pesticide spraying. But these solutions tend to rely on a single autonomous vehicle, rather than the kind of smart swarm that Walmart is envisaging.
Internet of Business says
A cynic would – rightly – say that the best way to avoid the decline in bee populations would be to take urgent steps to reverse it, and fix the source of the problem, rather than create swarms of robot bees.
But in itself and overall, crop security is a good application of robotics.
Walmart’s main competition moving forward would appear to be Amazon, which is now the world’s second most valuable company. Competing in the grocery business at a time when shoppers are in search of convenience, transparency, and more ethical purchasing could lead Walmart in some obvious directions.
Walmart’s patents imply that its big-picture aim is to vertically integrate its food supply chain and take more control over the crops it sends to market. Walmart also wants to develop a complete door-to-door grocery service, following in the footsteps of Amazon in taking its service right to people’s doors.
But while Walmart might not be generally thought of as a technology company, it remains easily the world’s largest company by revenue, dwarfing the likes of Apple and Amazon, which have greater market capitalisations.
As a result, Walmart and Amazon find themselves in an interesting game of poker: revenue versus market capitalisation – real-world value against perceived value.
Don’t discount Walmart if it chooses to increase its presence in the technology sector, particularly in areas that involve the production and distribution of food.