- Walmart is applying for a number of patents for drones that would be used to automate farming, CB Insights reported. The move could support the retailer's grocery business and give more supply chain control to the big box giant.
- With the six patent applications, Walmart proposes to use drones to identify pests attacking crops, monitor crop damage, spray pesticides and pollinate crops.
- This follows news that Walmart has developed produce inspection technology to track freshness, and intends to incorporate data from drones that monitor growing conditions, including temperatures, that determine the quality of produce.
Fresh produce — and as importantly, fresh-looking produce — is a key to sales and reputation for any food retailer. While Walmart is using technology to advance its information and product quality in this area for its own benefit, this move is also seen as a possible entry point into the farming business for the retailer, according to CB Insights, a data software company.
Although Walmart has shown no interest in farming to date, it plans to open a new dairy plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, this year to supply 600 stores. This has caused milk producer Dean Foods to cancel contracts with more than 100 farmers in eight states. Walmart grocery private label brands, such as Great Value, are made by other companies. While other grocery chains, like Kroger, Publix and H-E-B, operate their own dairies, none are known to have produce farming interests, nor are likely to have the wherewithal to develop new farming technologies like Walmart is doing.
With the new technologies, Walmart will also gain more control over how its produce is grown, the report said. As a result, the retailer could potentially save on costs by vertically integrating its food supply chain, more effectively managing crop yields, and attracting customers by increasing emphasis on transparency and sustainability. This will also help Walmart manage produce waste more efficiently by cutting spoilage rates, improve the appearance of its produce departments, which are often the first thing shoppers see, and thus enable it to compete more effectively with other retailers, including the Amazon-Whole Foods conglomerate.
The impact that drones could have in the farming space is significant, according to a report by DroneDeploy. That report, cited by TechRepublic, noted that drone technologies could increase the productivity of farmers by 500%.
Among Walmart's new farming technologies, the retailer is seeking to patent systems that would use drones to identify damaging pests or birds, and then spray insecticides, or scare off birds, according to Reuters. Another patent is for so-called "bee robots," which would carry pollen from plant to plant, according to The Spoon.
An earlier patent application was for drones to monitor growing conditions of crops and send data to stores about when, and from where, the produce might arrive, Reuters said. So far, Walmart has applied for 46 drone technology patents, most of them for delivery and logistics, and for use within warehouses to track inventory.