This is a scene right out of Star Wars or Independence Day, but it could become a reality in the future. Imagine a bunch of glider-like delivery drones descending angel-like from a mothership-type mega-drone hovering 45,000 feet above you just so you can get your new smartphone or Air Jordans mere hours after you order them.
That’s what Amazon appears to be planning for the future, based on a patent application for an “Airborne Fulfillment Center” filed with the USPTO that’s just been awarded to Amazon. Incidentally, the patent filing was done in 2014 and awarded several months ago in April, 2016, but slipped through the cracks until it was “discovered” by CB Insights tech analyst Zoe Leavitt, according to a recent report by Fortune.
The AFC will essentially act as a floating warehouse or fulfillment center that will move towards a “user specified delivery location”, after which UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), or drones, will pick up items and deliver them to customers’ doorsteps using “little to no power” to simply guide their descent to the right location.
In addition, Amazon has mentioned “shuttles”, or “smaller airships” that will replenish the AFC with inventory, more drones, fuel and other supplies required for it to stay up in the air. These shuttles may also transport workers to and from the AFCs.
This sci-fi-like set up may take years to become reality, but Amazon clearly wants to hold the rights to do it if they choose to.
Amazon has been testing drones for quite a while now in the UK, but the drone-delivery system requires warehouses to be built within pre-set distances of delivery regions. Amazon likely wants to manage the huge costs of setting up such infrastructure by having massive floating warehouses that could potentially serve an entire Metropolitan area.
From the description provided by Amazon, the AFCs sound like they will be massive blimps with the capacity to house an entire fulfillment center that will float above the city at a height above what is typically used for commercial air traffic. Amazon cites 45,000 feet as merely an example of that height, which is about 10,000 feet higher than the 35,000 feet that commercial airliners generally fly at.
The entire set up will be controlled by a “non-transitory computer-readable storage medium”, which we’re assuming will get all its data as real-time updates from the servers that currently handle all of Amazon’s orders.
So, a navigable mothership floating tens of thousands of feet above the ground, a set of smaller airships to carry inventory, drones, supplies, fuel and people to the mothership, and the drone network closer to the ground that will make their deliveries and hot-foot it back to the waiting smaller airships to start the cycle once again.
While this could tremendously reduce delivery times and ground handling costs – two of Amazon’s biggest challenges – we don’t really know how practical it will be or if the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) will ever allow the project to get off the ground. Literally.
There are hundreds of factors to think about, one of the main ones being the safety of people living right below this massive fulfillment center. What if the helium/hot air system fails over a highly populous Metropolitan area, where it will likely be hovering for much of the time? What if something accidentally “falls off” the AFC? Will the workers on the AFC be wearing pressure suits or will the whole area be pressurized and climate-controlled like on a commercial airline? What if that system fails?
As it stands, this is merely a patent awarded to Amazon, not a blueprint for something that’s going to happen in the next few years. We may eventually get there once Amazon is able to negotiate the hurdles and jump the hoops needed to do that, but don’t hold your breath.
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