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The Walmart field drone: Useful tool, or corporate overseer?

Walmart, one of the largest retail companies in the world, recently requested patent rights for drone technologies related to farming – including those that can precisely apply pesticides and pollen on the fly.

The requests submitted to the United States Patent and Trademark Office has been characterised by Reuters and other news outlets as part of an effort to improve the quality and reliability of crop production for the grocery colossus.

This interest in agricultural drone technology, however, has also been cited as a practical means for Walmart to enforce sustainability initiatives – particularly as the company increasingly skirmishes with the likes of Amazon and Costco in premium and home-delivery grocery markets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this raises questions at the farm level. Specifically, what might literal corporate oversight mean for farmers?

Walmart, one of the largest retail companies in the world, recently requested patent rights for drone technologies related to farming - including those that can precisely apply pesticides and pollen on the fly. Photo: Walmart
Walmart, one of the largest retail companies in the world, recently requested patent rights for drone technologies related to farming - including those that can precisely apply pesticides and pollen on the fly. Photo: Walmart

Drones could give Walmart forsight

The grocery business is extremely competitive, so Walmart continues looking for ways to cut costs and stabilise both the supply and quality of its foodstuffs. Drones that more precisely and actively manage problems in the fields of its suppliers, so the idea goes, could give the company a reliability advantage through advanced knowledge of problems, shipments, and so forth.

What’s in it for the farmer?

This could also benefit farmers by providing a yet-to-be-seen level of precision control. More environmental mastery, after all, helps foster more consistent and higher quality yields. The argument has also been posed that farmers who meet the company’s sustainability and traceability criteria could – potentially – benefit from greater access to Walmart’s lucrative, large, and multi-faceted markets.

Yet to be answered questions

But how will these drones actually be used? If Walmart has exclusive rights to specific drone technologies, can we presume only Walmart suppliers will have access to them? Who or what will deploy and control them, and what will the protocols for in-field actions be?

If farmers are in control, how strictly must they adhere to Walmart’s self-created production (sustainability) standards? If the company controls them directly, how effective can its agronomic decisions really be at an individual field level?

Then there’s the question of enforcing standards. Will literal surveillance mean farmers supplying Walmart stores are paid more, or would such tools just increase the exclusivity of market supply by shunning those that don’t make the cut?

To that end, how will larger forays into higher-value markets (those competing with Amazon’s Whole Foods and other speciality contemporaries) affect existing producers? Will these technologies be a game-changer in the control of supply and production standards, or irrelevant to large buyers that already effectively enforce standards on farmers by opening and closing market access?

Granted, some of these questions might bit a bit too speculative – and perhaps ridiculous – at this point, but they’re an interesting way to frame the conversation surrounding farmers’ freedom to operate. As one popular western-Canadian agricultural news sources put it, “if you didn’t like grain companies or [food] processors telling you how to farm, you are going to like Walmart, Amazon, and Costco even less.”

Speculating for fun

It’s tempting to envision both a dystopian future brimming with farmer-policing airborne automata, and another featuring serene landscapes where drones work in conjunction with and for the betterment of farmers. But this isn’t Terminator, and the real impact of Walmart drones will probably manifest in a more nuanced way.

Drone technology is already a well-established and invaluable tool for farmers worldwide, and it’s very possible these new corporate technologies could prove to be a boon for at least some food producers.

Walmart is still out to generate revenue, however. Whether these drones will help farmers garner a portion of that revenue, and how they could affect the day-to-day business of farming, remains to be seen.

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