Across the boardrooms of the world, disruption has gone from being a catchy buzzword to a strategic reality that requires active management. The lifespan of a corporation listed on the S&P 500 has shrunk from 87 to 14 years and continues to decline, and multi/supranationals are placing ever greater emphasis on constant evolution to maintain relevance. One such example can be seen with Walmart, who made the news recently for filing a patent series with the US government that outlined schematics and blueprints for autonomous drone technology that replicated insect plant pollination. The drone technology, which would use cameras and sensors to allow carrying pollen from plant to plant, was one of six patents filed that outlined a strategic foray into agriculture cultivation for the Bentonville behemoth. The issue of the patent itself is by no means a guarantee of it’s deployment or implementation, but it does allow for strategic interpretations of actions and a greater idea as to what drives Walmart in a changing world.
The first implication is that Walmart’s foray into agriculture indicates a desire for greater diversification within it’s own supply-chain, as well as a strengthening of vertical integration mechanisms to penetrate the food supply. Amazon’s recent purchase of Whole Foods added a new dimension to the battle for commercial retail supremacy, one in which retail grocery store chains can be used as testing grounds for the deployment of new technologies, including a cashier-less grocery store currently being tested by Amazon in Seattle. Walmart is no stranger to this competition, having purchased Jet.com in 2016 to establish a firm foothold in the online retailing space. Both organizations have filed patents and are actively developing or testing drone technologies for home delivery. While Walmart is currently almost three times larger than Amazon, the increasing reach of the online giant into clothing and food has lead to the exploration of new revenue models for Walmart, including increasing the retailers reach into more of it’s own supply chain. Groceries currently make up 56% of Walmart’s sales, and these technologies signify a major attempt to increase margins in the grocery retail channels in the coming years.
The second major implication for this patenting is it’s significance for the commercialization of swarm intelligence technologies beyond research labs and into the mainstream. Although no public statements have been made regarding the specific technologies underpinning this patent, two general technologies (computer vision and swarm intelligence) can be logically deduced from examining the technology’s usage. Computer vision, a field of computer science that allows computers to gain high-level understanding from visual images or videos, is a logical fit for the programming of individual drones when making determinations about requirements to pollinate individual plants. This technology will also likely be deployed within Walmart’s other agricultural patents, including technologies to better track crop damage and monitor pests. But enabling a group of drones to act in a formation requires the use of swarm intelligence technologies, which cites that random interactions between decentralized, self-organized systems should follow an ‘intelligent’ global behavior. This is commonly seen in ant colonies and pollinating insects. Advances in this technology, potentially innovated by Walmart themselves should internal investments into this technology follow their development strategy, would allow for the deployment of drones that could make pollination decisions more efficiently and reduce redundancies in robotic decision-making. This is not to say that Walmart will be alone in championing or fueling development in the field – The US Military, along with every other, are investing in advancements in this technology to better deploy and manage autonomous vehicles on the battlefield. The warfare of tomorrow may soon inform our food cultivation technologies of the day after.
Finally, a lasting and slightly more tragic implication of the development of these technologies is the acknowledgement that pollinating insect populations continue to fall, especially within the honeybee populations so vital to our food supply. Pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food that North Americans consume, and contribute between $2931-$3251 of added value per hectare to global agriculture cultivation. But a purely economic argument does not illustrate the actual ecological significance of bees. Much in the same manner we have not typically included the externality of carbon in our economic assessments, valuations of bee populations do not include their contributions to natural ecosystems that provide incalculable natural services to humans. As this blog has previously discussed, the loss of bee populations would greatly impact the variety and nutrition density of our current food system given our current heavy reliance on flowering plants to grow fruits, vegetables and staple crops. Drone pollinators may help offset some of this – but likely not for free, and likely not towards the entire broader ecosystem. Humans do not live in glass domes away from the world, we exist within it and among its systems. Our world is set to change, in ways we have never seen, and we do require technological advances to feed the estimated 9-10 billion of us we will see by 2060. Still, it would be foolish to assume we had invented comprehensive solutions to problems we fully attest to understand very little about.
Much of this is speculative. Walmart has simply filed these patents without public comment as to their development intentions, and they are not just some soulless corporation; they have been long championed sustainable practices throughout their supply chain. This is less a case of corporate greed and more of evolution to a changing world. Theses advances illustrate a view of the future from Bentonville that, like it or not, is actively being shaped by those who design it. The factors threatening bee populations include the widespread use of pesticides and a changing climate, neither of which Walmart can control directly. There is also little indication Amazon would do any differently, should the opportunity arise. And advances in technology enabling greater productivity and quality of life have long come from the advent of military technologies, often with surprising applications, including microwaves, GPS and the tampon. The issue here is not that the world is changing – change is the only thing humans have ever known. The issue is that we must remember that as we plan for a future we cannot predict, there is much we still do not know or understand about the natural and social systems we disrupt. A discussion surrounding what type of world we wish to live in is one we should seek to be involved in , not leave entirely to firms. Otherwise the factors firms view as externalities and society views as essential may see their definitions shift more towards the former in the coming years.