When it comes to drone delivery, Amazon has not been short of ideas – or patents. Since launching the drone delivery project, Amazon has come up with patents for bird-house like docking stations, drones hitching rides on the backs of trucks and buses, huge floating warehouses, and folding drone designs. The company has released special plans for a “federated airspace” model which would integrate delivery drones into the NAS. They’ve lobbied in Washington, presented at drone conferences, and advertised during the Super Bowl. But one thing hasn’t quite been worked out yet – how packages might make it from drone to front porch for residential delivery.
That final piece is problematic: it’s at ground level and just above that drones are most likely to encounter obstacles or create problems for other vehicles. It’s where regulations about flying over people and near buildings are most likely to come into play. There are security issues, safety issues, regulatory issues, and breakage. But Amazon’s latest patent shows a plan for avoiding at least some of that unpleasantness: the drone would simply drop a package from the air while in flight.
It’s not a new idea. Successful deliveries of blood and medical supplies which have been implemented in Rwanda with drone delivery company Zipline utilize a similar idea: their packages are dropped by parachute. The drone does not not attempt to land in difficult terrain, simply making it’s drop and returning to starting point. Other delivery companies have used similar methods. But Amazon’s plan isn’t just to release and allow the package drift gently to the ground: the idea is to launch the package from the drone while in flight, forcing it straight down. The package itself might be equipped with sense and avoid technology, allowing it to avoid obstacles.
“A package delivery system can be implemented to forcefully propel a package from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), while the UAV is in motion,” says the patent abstract. “The UAV can apply a force onto the package that alters its descent trajectory from a parabolic path to a vertical descent path … Further, the package delivery system can also monitor the package during its vertical descent. The package can be equipped with one or more control surfaces. Instructions can be transmitted from the UAV via an RF module that cause the one or more controls surfaces to alter the vertical descent path of the package to avoid obstructions or to regain a stable orientation.”
With so many ideas on the table, it’s difficult to predict which one will become the standard for drone delivery. But with so many ideas on the table, it seems likely at least one will work.