Walmart wants to patent drone bees

Last Updated Mar 16, 2018 3:19 PM EDT

Fingers crossed that Walmart's (WMT) intentions are less sinister than what occurred in an episode of Netflix's "Black Mirror," in which a hacker rejiggered swarms of robotic bees to slaughter humans.

The giant retailer earlier this month applied for a patent for "drone pollinators" that would fill in for the declining population of bees that now help fertilize the crops needed to produce the food sold by Walmart and other grocers.

Bee populations are shrinking rapidly, with scientists pointing to pesticides as one cause of the decline in the winged insects that also serve as the world's pollinators. The drop-off in bees is a major worry for agriculture, given some crops depend upon them to reproduce.

Walmart's patent application notes the steady decline in recent years of pollinating insects, which in addition to bees includes ants, beetles, butterflies and wasps. The March 8 application says that a more conventional method of fertilizing crops and spreading pollen -- using crop-duster planes -- has had limited success.

The document also describes systems and methods for pollinating crops via unmanned aerial vehicles configured to collect pollen from the flowers of a first crop and then applied to those of a second crop. Follow-up drones outfitted with pollen-detector sensors would be used to ensure successful pollination.

"We're always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we service customers, but we don't have any further details to share on these patents at this time," a spokesperson for Walmart emailed.

The patent is one of nearly 350 held by Walmart as of January, putting it behind retail competitors including Amazon (AMZN), which held more than 7,000

Walmart isn't alone in looking to address the problem of disappearing bees. A team of Japanese scientists last year created a drone to cross-pollinate lilies. Drone technology is also already being deployed to help regrow the earth's forests. A company called BioCarbon Engineering uses drones to replant trees in areas that would otherwise take years to re-plant by hand.