Walmart, the retail giant, has surprised everyone by facing a problem that has earned the world’s attention in recent years - the dying bee population. On March 8th, Walmart’s patent application titled “Systems and Methods for Pollinating Crops via Unmanned Vehicles” was officially published by the USPTO, and quickly became the talk of the patent world.
Filed in September 2017, the Walmart patent application (Application No. 15/697,106) appears to be motivated by the fact that several types of bees have become endangered and now face extinction. Bees serve an essential role in the pollination and reproduction of many varieties of plants, and, with the overall bee population in rapid decline, Walmart recognizes that it may be up to human innovation to ensure plant pollination continues.
Walmart’s solution to this looming problem, simply put, is the use of “bee drones” capable of performing the pollination duties typically carried out by bees and other insects. Their patent application’s broadest claims describe a system or method for pollination using at least one tiny unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Each UAV is equipped with both a pollen applicator capable of transferring pollen from one flower to another, as well as a sensor capable of assisting with UAV positioning and able to verify when pollen is successfully applied to a plant. While this technology is both impressive and altruistically designed, many are left wondering about what is the actual motivator behind the world’s largest retailer’s focus in this space.
With competition continuing to increase due to online retailers such as Amazon, many speculate that Walmart’s growing need for produce is behind their proposed pollination systems. While many Walmart locations already sell produce, part of Walmart’s strategy to remain competitive is to expand its grocery delivery services. The die-off of bees is a considerable concern for the agricultural industry, and may have a profound impact on our ability to produce certain crops. Walmart’s patent will not only help reduce the effect of a dying bee population, but it will also give the company a better ability to control the quality of its products and possibly decrease its costs.
Walmart is not typically thought of as being technologically innovative, but LexisNexis PatentAdvisor® patent data shows the company has been named on over 1,700 patent applications (assigned officially to “Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.”), and that 67.9 percent of its patent applications eventually develop into enforceable patents. However, PatentAdvisor™ also reveals that the top five art units that have examined Walmart’s patent applications deal primarily with data processing or commercial applications such as transportation or construction. Walmart’s “bee drone” application is only one of two total Walmart applications ever to be assigned to Group Art Unit 3643 - an art unit dedicated specifically to “Bee Culture.”
The patent examiner assigned to examine Walmart’s patent application is a Supervisory Patent Examiner whose historical patent data shows an unusually low patent allowance rate of only 2.8 percent. However, this is undoubtedly due to the nature of the work required of his position at the USPTO. A more accurate predictor of Walmart’s success in prosecuting this application is the general patent statistics of Group Art Unit 3643. With that in mind, Walmart is looking at a 54.1 percent chance of having its pollination patent granted, and will likely need to overcome one or two office actions over a two year, seven month, and twenty-day patent prosecution period.
Only time will tell whether or not Walmart receives its pollination patent, but until then, we are all excited to know that solutions to our most significant problems arise from even the most unexpected sources.