Robot bees have hit the big time.
In the 10 days since Walmart’s patent application for “systems and methods for pollinating crops via unmanned vehicles” came to light, the idea of building drones to do what bees do has gone viral.
The piece de resistance came on “Saturday Night Live” when Walmart’s concept got a mention on “Weekend Update” (around the 6:30 mark in this video clip).
“What is Walmart now?” comedian Colin Jost asked. “It’s a department store that became a grocery store, and a firearms dealer, and now they’re just building an army of robot bees?
“I miss the good old days, when Walmart was just a place where I saw my third-grade teacher punch a greeter on Black Friday,” he said.
CB Insights says the patent application is one of six that Walmart filed for farm automation applications, including crop monitoring, pest identification and pesticide spraying.
On one level, the applications are the result of Walmart’s efforts to keep pace with Amazon’s drone development program. Last year for example, Amazon won a patent for a flying warehouse that serves as a drone base, and Walmart filed for a similar patent.
On another level, CB Insights speculates that Walmart’s farm-related patents may be related to a long-term goal of increasing control over its supply chain for produce.
“By taking more control over how its produce is grown, Walmart could a) potentially save on costs, by vertically integrating its food supply chain, b) manage crop yields more effectively, and c) increase its emphasis on transparency and sustainability to attract shoppers,” CB Insights said.
Will the patent stick? Unfortunately for Walmart, folks have been talking about robot bees for years. Researchers at Harvard and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have long been working on “RoboBees” for pollination and other purposes.
Last year, researchers in Japan said they outfitted palm-sized, remote-controlled drones with patches of gel-covered horsehair and sent them on missions to pollinate lilies. The experiment worked, but the drones would have to incorporate computer vision, GPS navigation and artificial intelligence to make the procedure worthwhile.
Closer to home, a Seattle startup called DroneSeed has developed a system that uses drones to plant trees, water them and drop fertilizer and herbicides from the air. That’s not pollination, but it comes close to some of Walmart’s other patent applications.
Looking beyond fact to science fiction, robo-bees have long been seen as a sign of the robo-apocalypse: Netflix’s “Black Mirror” series cast mechanical bees, or Autonomous Drone Insects, as the instruments of terror in a 2016 episode titled “Hated in the Nation.” And Greenpeace put together a video in 2014 portraying robot bees gone wrong as an eventual consequence of the troubles besetting biological bees.
If Walmart starts fielding robot bees, will bee hackers be next? That “Black Mirror” sequel virtually writes itself.