Walmart, one of the biggest retail corporations in the U.S., has filed a patent for an autonomous robot bee, eliciting comparisons to the British futuristic show Black Mirror, which addresses the possibilities and perils of technology.
Robot bees are more formally known as pollination drones, and they are being designed to carry pollen between plants just like regular bees. However, the drones would rely upon technology like sensors and cameras, instead of sensitive antennae, legs and wings.
Honeybees play a part in the production of one out of every three mouthfuls of food that we eat in the United States, according to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC).
Walmart may have been inspired to create these robot bees by recent, alarming news about entire colonies turning up dead in what is known as colony collapse disorder, where 42 percent of bee colonies met their end in the U.S. alone in 2015. While colonies have recovered some since then, the losses struck terror into the agriculture industries that rely upon bees to pollinate crops.
While the source of this collapse has been traced to chemicals used in common pesticides called neonicotinoids, the EPA has not banned the use of these chemicals, thus posing a concern for future collapses.
While the robot bees may sound like a move toward environmental concern or simple innovation on Walmart’s part, CB Insights reports that it’s more likely part of Walmart’s strategy to take on a new level of automation that can compete with Amazon in the hopes of expanding food production services.
In addition to the robot bee patent, Walmart also filed one for a technology that can create automated storefronts within people’s homes, and tech that can improve the online food shopping experience, so people may be more likely to buy food online.
However, RoboBees did not originate with Walmart. A Harvard robotics team tested out their prototypes in 2013, with bees that were only able to fly or hover in mid-air when they were plugged into a source of power.
The more modern variety has come a long way. Now, with the power of static electricity, these bees can land and latch onto surfaces, a key skill in the act of potential pollination, as well as swim and dive in and out of water. Harvard’s robot bees have yet to be remotely controlled, but that is a function Walmart included in its patent.
Mass pollination is still some years off, and will require large numbers of the robot bees to work. The lead author of the study and engineer of the Harvard robot bee, Robert Wood, said, in an article for Scientific American, “RoboBees will work best when employed as swarms of thousands of individuals, coordinating their actions without relying on a single leader.”
If robotic insects aren’t exciting enough, Walmart’s got its eyes on the inside of your house next. It’s piloting a smart lock technology where Walmart delivery people could let themselves into your house and unload your groceries straight into the fridge when you’re not home.
What could possibly go wrong?