Another patent related to Amazon’s drone delivery plans has been discovered. The patent was applied for in 2014 and awarded in April, but was only uncovered this week by CB Insights tech analyst Zoe Leavitt. The newly discovered patent describes what Amazon calls AFC’s – airborne fulfillment centers – or flying warehouses.
Reading like something out of a Star Trek script, an AFC is some kind of airship (the patent’s illustration, seen left, indicates that it could be a blimp) flying at 45,000 feet or higher, and acting as a warehouse. Drones could fly into the warehouse to retrieve items to deliver. The flying warehouse would be serviced by smaller ships.
“Described is an airborne fulfillment center (“AFC”) and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAV”) to deliver items from the AFC to users. For example, the AFC may be an airship that remains at a high altitude (e.g., 45,000 feet) and UAVs with ordered items may be deployed from the AFC to deliver ordered items to user designated delivery locations,” says the patent abstract. “As the UAVs descend, they can navigate horizontally toward a user specified delivery location using little to no power, other than to stabilize the UAV and/or guide the direction of descent. Shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the AFC with inventory, UAVs, supplies, fuel, etc. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC.”
The patent offers an interesting potential solution to the problem of distributed warehousing, which is necessary to make drone delivery – currently only possible for shorter distances – a reality. Other proposals that the company has floated include smaller, mobile warehouses that would locate on the property of public places such as postal offices. Not only would the AFC solve the problem of distribution, the space age solution would allow for flexibility and movement of products to demand areas: “In addition, because the AFC is airborne, it is not limited to a fixed location like a traditional ground based materials handling facility. In contrast, it can navigate to different areas depending on a variety of factors, such as weather, expected demand, and/or actual demand,” says the patent.
Amazon’s plans for drone delivery seem to be moving full-steam ahead: the company announced a successful test of drone delivery last month. But in order for the company to realize the full benefits of a new distribution and delivery program, Amazon’s fulfillment system will need to be entirely reengineered. This latest revelation indicates that the company is doing just that.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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