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USA - Walmart files patent for robotic "bee" drones

Walmart has filed 16 pages with the US government that outline six patents working towards farm automation.

If all goes to plan, a fleet of drone bees could very well be on the horizon.

Technically called “pollination drones”, the autonomous robotic bees could help offset losses caused by declining bee populations by using sensors and cameras to carry pollen from one plant to another.

But that’s only one patent. In plans for the other five, Walmart also outlines how to monitor crop damage using machine vision to track, spot, and identify pests and act as new-age “scarecrows or shiny devices” to shoo off pesky birds.

Citing inefficiencies of crop dusting, another patent outlines plans to spray pesticides in a way that targets crops rather than the blanket approach used today. “Chemical spraying of crops is expensive and may not be looked upon favorably by some consumers,” reads the patent.

The 16-page document outlines six patents, including ways to detect and deter pests, spray pesticides, and pollinate crops. 

The patents were filed last fall, but it was just uncovered by CB Insights, who say the retail giant could be doing it to save costs by “vertically integrating its food supply chain” and manage crop yields more effectively. While it’s still unclear, some outlets speculate that the discount grocer might have plans to grow and control more of the food it sells.

It seems like a logical next step considering Walmart just announced plans to expand its delivery service to more than 800 stores, serving more than 40 percent of American households. Then again, maybe the $80 billion corporation simply wants to do a bit of good in the world.

Some scientists, however, say that while there may be potential for bee drones, we should work to protect the biodiversity that we still have rather than simply replace it with machines.

Bees pollinate almost one-third of the food we eat, but have been dying at unprecedented rates in large part due to colony collapse disorder, although cases have declined in the last five years.

According to the patent, bee declines lead to reduced fertility, biodiversity, and production of crops.

In 2013, Harvard first introduced “RoboBees” that fly and hover in midair, but they had to be attached to a power source. Researchers said they could be used in crop pollination, search and rescue missions, surveillance, high-resolution weather, and climate and environmental monitoring. The drones can swim and even stick to surfaces using static electricity.

But even Harvard hasn’t figured out a way to remotely control their electronic insects – something Walmart’s patents plan to do.

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