Walmart just filed a patent for robot bees amid ongoing battle with Amazon

Amid an ongoing battle over the retail and grocery delivery market, Walmart has filed a patent for robotic bees that would pollinate crops just like the real insects.

Robot bee. Image: Shutterstock.
Image: Shutterstock.


Walmart has filed a patent for robotic bees that would pollinate crops just like the real insects.

The patent outlines how tiny autonomous “pollination drones” would use sensors to locate crops, transport pollen, and verify which crops have been successfully pollinated. It would be a significantly more efficient way to pollinate crops than crop dusting, the patent suggests.

In total, Walmart has filed six patents for drone farming technologies, including ones that would identify pests and monitor crop health. The retail giant has yet to comment on exactly how it plans to use the new technology, but it’s possible Walmart plans to start an agricultural operation, a move that could help expand its grocery business and lead to more control of its food supply chain.

It’s among the latest developments in the ongoing battle between Walmart and Amazon over retail and, more recently, groceries. In February, Amazon began offering free same-day grocery delivery service to its Prime members in select cities, and earlier this week Walmart announced plans to offer grocery delivery service in more than 800 of its stores for a flat rate of $9.95.

The bee drone technology, which was explored in season 3 of Black Mirror, could theoretically give Walmart an edge in food production over the long term. 

The decline of honeybees poses a major threat to the world’s food supply. About one-third of the food we consume – fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices – depends on pollination from honeybees, which make up only 2 percent of the total bee population. 

What’s killing the bees is hard to say. But it’s likely been a complex interaction of multiple stressors: Lack of genetic diversity among their populations, a shortage of space for honeybees to roam, parasites and diseases, and pesticides. There’s also colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon where the majority of the worker bees disappear from the colony, though the number of collapses has gone down over the past few years.

Other organizations have already developed or drafted ideas for similar robot bee technologies, including a team at Harvard University, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, and a student at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. No robot bee technology is currently being used on a large scale, however.

Walmart’s drone technology could boost food production if honeybee populations continue to dwindle in the decades to come. But some experts, like Quinn McFrederick, an entomologist at the University of California, think it’s better to spend resources protecting the real bees we have today.

“On top of more practical arguments, such as costs to smaller farms,” he told NPR, “I would not like to live in a world where bees are replaced by plastic machines. Let's focus on protecting the biodiversity we still have left.”

 

Study: Unattractive people far overestimate their looks

The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.

Sex & Relationships
  • Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
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Astronomers find more than 100,000 "stellar nurseries"

Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.

Credit: NASA / ESA via Getty Images
Surprising Science

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.

Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.

These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.

The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.

This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.

The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.

"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.

"This just hasn't been possible before."

Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.

New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.

"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."

"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."

Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.

Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.

"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."

Protecting space stations from deadly space debris

Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.

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  • NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
  • To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
  • The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.

This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.

Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel:
https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work

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Meet the worm with a jaw of metal

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