First Delivery Drones; Now Floating Warehouses


Amazon continues its claims to further innovation in the on-demand delivery space. Its latest patent attempts to give a “lift” to that quest. The USPTO very recently awarded Amazon a patent for giant warehouse blimps that would act as launch pads for drones to deliver customer orders within minutes. As the patent notes, “This speed of delivery provides near instant gratification to users for item purchases and greatly increases the breadth of items that can be delivered.” Amazon calls this innovation “airborne fulfillment centers” or “AFCs.”

The floating warehouse would be stocked with a wide variety of products, including food. Indeed, the patent even envisions deliveries to sporting events, including sporting paraphernalia and food products, and notes that AFCs could be deployed near events to make deliveries and provide advertising.

Amazon’s innovation is predictably driven by efficiency.  As noted, AFCs can navigate to different areas depending on a variety of factors, such as weather and demand.  Moreover, one of the barriers to broad drone delivery access is the cost – it takes a lot of energy to fly a drone from the ground at the warehouse to someone’s house and back.  Amazon’s AFC system would be more efficient, Amazon’s patent application says, because drones would be able to glide down to the customer with little or no power rather than having to propel itself during takeoff.  Shuttles (smaller airships) could be in turn used to replenish the AFC with inventory and drones, and even transport workers to and from the AFC.

Getting the patent, though, it just the first step to making AFCs a reality. As with its existing drone delivery pilot programs, on which we previously reported, Amazon will likely face substantial regulatory hurdles. Aviation authorities would need to give approval for the project, which could be delayed as concerns regarding privacy and airspace safety are resolved.

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