Birds do it. Bees do it. Now even educated Walmart drones may do it.
The world’s largest retailer has applied for a patent for drone pollinators to make up for the decline in bees and other insects that fertilize crops and make much of the food the company sells possible.
Walmart’s patent was published on March 8 with the U.S. Patent Office but has not yet been approved. It describes small unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, that would be programmed to go from plant to plant collecting pollen and then go on to another plant to deposit that pollen.
A second drone would follow along, checking to make sure that the pollen was properly applied.
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 are dependent on pollinators to reproduce, including apples, peaches, blueberries and almonds.
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 lillies.
Such drones are too inefficient and expensive to make up for the die-off of natural pollinators caused by overuse of pesticide and habitat destruction, so the search for replacements continues.
The Walmart patent is one example. It describes various versions of small flying drones that would fly from plant to plant, collecting pollen on bristles or sticky material and then depositing the pollen on another plants. Some could be controlled by computer, some by humans.
They might even buzz. Page six of the patent describes an audio output that could be configured to make sounds that would enable the drones to communicate with each other and the docking station, though the sounds wouldn’t necessarily be insect-like. The patent says only that they could include “any of a variety of tones and other non-verbal sounds.”
Walmart files hundreds of patents each year, many of which never go beyond the “what if?” stage, so it’s not clear how serious the company is in pursing the dream a robotic bee.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Walmart would only say this: “We’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers, but we don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time.”