Amazon‘s latest patent for “intermodal vehicles” fits in another piece to the drone delivery puzzle. The patent describes container boxes transported by train, truck or container ship that could launch delivery drones – or, as the patent points out, receive deliveries.
Amazon’s plans for drone delivery aren’t just a cute method of getting items to customers. The retail giant’s plans are part of a grander scheme by Amazon to revolutionize its whole distribution system. And while other companies may consider outsourcing, it looks like Amazon is working in the opposite direction – bringing more and more pieces of its distribution in house. Last year, Amazon unveiled its first branded cargo planes; the year before they unveiled thousands of branded truck trailers. Drone delivery is another effort to reduce delivery times – and delivery costs.
While many patents filed are ideas that may never become reality, this latest one makes some sense. (Perhaps more than the drone birdhouse idea.) Instead of providing stationary warehouses to store frequently purchased items in populous areas, Amazon could use a system of moving warehouses and drone stations- launching a delivery drone when they are closest to the desired destination.
It would require a sophisticated computing system to monitor and maintain the fleet, determine correct launching points, and determine “rendevous” points for the drones’ return. The patent describes a “maintenance vehicle” which “comprises a plurality of batteries, at least one robotic arm and at least one system for launching an aerial vehicle or retrieving the aerial vehicle within a compartment of the first intermodal maintenance vehicle…” The robotic arm, it seems, is to help change batteries. The idea behind the patent is twofold: first that product might be stored in moving warehouses, and second that the delivery drones could be maintained and repaired in the same moving warehouse. Using standard freight containers would allow the transportation method to change as appropriate.
“Today’s transportation networks feature a variety of multimodal transportation systems, including various land, sea and air transit systems, many of which were implemented in phases over time,” says the patent….Intermodal containers (sometimes called intermodal freight containers, dry vans, box containers, International Standards Organization containers, or “ISO containers”) are some of the most common vessels for transporting goods across the nation’s transportation networks today. Intermodal containers may be easily transferred between rail-based, marine or roadway transportation systems, and may be fixed in place on a transport vehicle (e.g., a well car configured for travel on rails, a container ship, or a trailer). In some applications, intermodal containers may be stacked while in transit or in storage…One advantage of the use of intermodal containers is the relative ease with which such containers may be transferred between transit modes or carriers (e.g., rail-based, marine or roadway transportation systems).”
The patent points out also that the system could be engineered in reverse, to receive deliveries. If successfully implemented and widely adopting, the idea of moving delivery stations could have an impact well beyond Amazon.
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.