NASA is working to design a robotic bee that can fly on Mars.
The idea is to replace modern rovers—which are slow, bulky, and incredibly expensive—with swarms of sensor-studded, and fast-moving micro-bots that can cover far more ground at a relatively low cost.
The project was just announced March 30, and while it is in its early stages, NASA officials have written that the little robotic bees will be “flapping wing flyers of a bumblebee size with cicada-sized wings,” and will be called Marsbees.
The Marshes would likely fly out from a mobile base—possibly a rover like Curiosity—and map terrain, and take samples of Mars’ thin air in hopes of finding methane gas, a possible sign for life on the red planet. NASA’s Curiosity rover has previously detected low levels of methane, though whether it was produced biologically is unknown.
So where does Walmart come in?
Well, Walmart recently filed a patent for autonomous, robot bees. Yes, you read that correctly.
The mega-retailer’s patent specifically covers “pollination drones” that could act just like bees, pollinating crops in autonomous swarms.
Walmart’s robot bees would operate using sensors and cameras to help them navigate to crops. Flying around autonomously, these drones could potentially pollinate as effectively as real bees.
With Walmart already developing the robotic bee technology NASA has its eye on, could we see the retail giant and the government agency team up to produce Marsbees? It could be a possibility.
But the question is, why Walmart?
The retailer has not yet publicly commented on its patent for autonomous robotic bees, so the reasons behind its sudden interest in “pollination drones” is a bit puzzling. However, it may just be a sign that the retail giant is looking to gain more control of the food it’s selling at a time when bees are dying at an unprecedented rate, putting crops at risk.
Walmart also isn’t the first to dream up robotic bees. Harvard University researchers introduced the first RoboBees for pollination and other purposes in 2013. And last year, researchers in Japan outfitted palm-sized, remote-controlled drones with patches of gel-covered horsehair and sent them out to pollinate lilies. The experiment was successful, but the drones would need to incorporate computer vision, GPS navigation, and artificial intelligence to make them worthwhile.
What Walmart has on its side is cash, and the company is certainly well-positioned to profit from the rise of robot bees as the technology evolves.
What is clear is that autonomous robotic bees will have multiple practical—and likely lucrative—applications once the technology has matured, both here on Earth, and on planets like Mars. And Walmart being at the forefront of the technology is certainly something to keep an eye on.