Amazon considers floating warehouses

Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Patent No. 9,305,280
Dec 30, 2016

In what ranks as perhaps its most farfetched sci-fi exploration yet, Amazon has been awarded a patent for an “airborne fulfillment center (AFC)” that combines with drones to reduce fuel consumption and delivery wait times.

Large, blimp-warehouses stocked with inventory would circle over populated areas at 45,000 feet. When an order is received, a drone would fly into the warehouse, pick up items, and deliver them to a designated delivery location. After completing a delivery, smaller airships would return the drone to the blimp. The shuttles would also replenish the flying warehouse with inventory, supplies and fuel as well as transport workers.

Amazon suggests the flying fulfillment centers could be used in areas where demand for certain items is expected to be high, such as sporting events or festivals, to sell food or souvenirs to spectators.

The system addresses a fundamental problem with using drones for delivery: they only travel so far. Amazon wrote in the patent application, “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.”

In addition, because the drones largely rely on gravity on descent, “the power required to complete an item delivery is substantially reduced.” The gliding shuttles would also “travel long horizontal distances (miles) from the AFC using little to no power.” Finally, the floating warehouse would “gain their lift from gas that is less dense than the surrounding air, such as helium or hot air” to also reduce power consumption.

In some cases, the fulfillment center could “navigate to a lower altitude and provide advertising.”

The patent was filed in 2014 and awarded in April yet only discovered Wednesday by venture capital analysts CB Insights. Amazon often files for patents on technologies that are never used.

In early December, Amazon’s first drone delivery was completed in the U.K. Amazon still awaits approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to start delivering packages in the U.S. by drone.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Would Amazon’s flying warehouse address some of the shortcomings of drone delivery? What aspects of the patent make sense for supporting deliveries? What aspects do you find troublesome?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"This feels like a buzz generator instead of a real idea, although you should never say 'never' about Amazon."
"Regardless of the validity of the idea, it’s yet one more example of how Amazon is leap years ahead of the traditional retail mindset."
"Howmuchyouwannabet its first order will be for fast food delivered to some guys on a golf course? Most likely four Hindenburgers with everything."

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17 Comments on "Amazon considers floating warehouses"

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Dick Seesel

Amazon floats plenty of ideas (so to speak) — some more speculative than others but all of them meant to keep people talking about the company. The recent stories about the Amazon Go concept point to a tangible reinvention of the c-store in particular and retail technology in general.

But blimp warehouses? Doesn’t physical inventory weigh a lot, and wouldn’t it knock the wind out of this trial balloon? This feels like a buzz generator instead of a real idea, although you should never say “never” about Amazon.

Cathy Hotka

Absurd. Apparently, bringing Cokes and snacks to sporting events via trucks is “so 2013.”

Tony Orlando

Got to hand it to Amazon as they continue to dominate the media. This is absurd, but then again so are a lot of ideas that never make the media. But Amazon throws up something crazy and it is page one business news. Who wouldn’t want that kind of brand recognition? All of us can learn from this, and Amazon is the modern version of the carnival barker. I’m the sure the FAA won’t mind a million ton warehouse floating around the skies, and drones zapping in and out of there every five seconds, creating havoc with our domestic air travel.

This is a great advertising segue right after the new Star Wars release, but it’s not going to happen.

Charles Dimov

I must admit, I LOVE a good sci-fi story. In that respect I completely agree with Tony that this is a great buzz generator, but is probably not feasible — yet.

For today, and the immediate future, most of us in retail are better off thinking about how to put inventory closer to our customers, get the demand plans right and optimize how fast, efficiently and cost effectively we can get orders fulfilled.
Amazon is a powerhouse of creativity with some mind-blowing ideas. For the rest-of-us, leave the far-out thought leadership to Amazon and let’s focus on some real business-drivers for the foreseeable future.

Mohamed Amer, PhD
Mohamed Amer, PhD
Independent Board Member, Investor and Startup Advisor
6 years 1 month ago

Big, bold, audacious and even absurd. Amazon is thinking well into the future and obliterating existing business paradigms as it reinvents the future. Unlike most well established companies, Amazon’s strategic horizon is based not on competitors’ moves or accepted business models but on redefining market and consumer values while completely re-imagining new paths to such values.

Bringing a patent to life is not automatic or at times even desirable. It works to keep competitors out as well as increase strategic options for the patent owner. Nevertheless, what Amazon has done here is demonstrate the long-term and strategic direction of its use of drones and its inventory and delivery network. Keep in mind that there has been actual R&D on super dirigibles that can potentially carry huge payloads.

The argument that this is primarily a PR play loses steam when considering the long gestation period and the R&D cost required to win such a patent. Moreover, one doesn’t keep a PR play in obscurity, as this patent was reportedly awarded in April.

Lee Peterson

In the parlance of the week, touchdown! Craziest idea of the year — they win! Of course, you can never count the Amazon PR department out, but this one takes the cake. Wow.

Silliness aside, whenever we see anything like this we always ask the retailers we’re working with, “what idea have you come up with lately?” Not ideas about a better wayfind system or bigger sale — ideas like this! Or drones, or AI in people’s houses, or using the USPS on Sundays or Dash — those kinds of ideas. THAT’s the new competition: floating warehouses, not lower gondolas.

Steve Montgomery

Perhaps fun to talk about but not realistic. I believe this is a case of someone sitting around one day with others and saying what if and then seeing if they could get the patent office to consider it. “Oh look, they did and we got a patent.”

We have enough issues already trying to determine how to ensure the drones we have now from causing havoc. Can you imagine what would happen if the air was filled with super-sized blimps and more drones?

Peter Charness

With the proviso, “who knows if this is totally accurate?” Amazon took 37 percent of all online sales this Christmas, roughly 10 times that of its closest competitor and online sales are what, 20 to 30 percent of total retail sales these days?

Amazon have out-Appled Apple in terms of innovation. They are rolling up retail market share one sector at a time. I take everything that they say seriously. Maybe it’s not a blimp, but will be some other form of mobile distribution capability. Two years ago, who would have thought that a retailer could get an online grocery order to your house faster than you could get in a car, drive, park, shop and get it home yourself?

Phil Masiello
Amazon is a logistics and technology company first and foremost. Amazon is on a quest to dominate rapid delivery to the consumer. Building brick-and-mortar stores, the drone program and flying warehouses are all part of this effort. Amazon will no doubt become the first retailer to reach $1 trillion in revenue. Fifty-five percent of all product searches begin on Amazon vs. 24 percent on Google with the remainder split among the rest of the e-commerce world. They have made the purchase and checkout process seamless with one-click which is very mobile friendly. I believe Amazon is for real with having floating staging warehouses, launched from their regional fulfillment centers, from which they can launch drones to deliver the orders to consumers. Lets not forget that Jeff Bezos owns Blue Origin, a space exploration company. Amazon also owns Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s Cloud computing platform business, which will end 2016 at around $10 billion in sales with an operating income near $2 billion, rowing at an annual rate of more than 28 percent. AWS is 10… Read more »
Ben Ball

With some trepidation, and apparently out of step with my commentating cohorts here on RetailWire, I will take exception with Tom Ryan’s characterization of this idea as “sci-fi.”

Let’s look at the recent history. How do we refuel long range bombers? In flight.

How do we replenish the space station? In flight.

Why the heck couldn’t we apply the same principles to inventory deployment? And doesn’t this idea embody best practices in inventory management? Flexible inventory that can easily be positioned near the need at little to no incremental cost. And what about eliminating the large carbon footprint our current distribution system lays down? Isn’t that a good idea?

Time to look forward to the New Year folks! (Or maybe the next decade … )

Shep Hyken

Is Jeff Bezos full of hot air, or is he a genius? I’ll vote for genius. This is what our future looks like. I love the dual use of the blimp — to hold the merchandise and to advertise. The cost of floating in the air is far less costly than real estate on the ground, especially in populated areas. My concern would be for safety if the blimp fails. So maybe there are regulations that the blimp stays away from populated areas. It can use lakes and rivers as hovering points. I can’t wait to see what the next few years will bring us. (Thank you Amazon for always raising the bar on retail innovation!)

Doug Fleener

Didn’t I see this in an episode of the Jetsons? (Younger readers, YouTube it.)

I think this is absurd if you think of it from a 2016/2017 mindset. Ten or twenty years from now I think it could be a real possibility, which is what I think Amazon smartly patents — possibilities.

Al McClain

I guess Amazon will never run out of new audacious ideas , and that’s good, but I wonder sometimes if they shouldn’t spend a little more time figuring out a handful that are great ideas and executing them. And, I’m still surprised that 10% of my Amazon orders arrive late.

Marge Laney
6 years 1 month ago

NASA has already done this. It’s called the International Space Station. Is this ready for deployment here on earth? No.

This is another skunkworks project brought to you by Jeff Bezos and company, funded by the profits of a company that has returned zero to its stock holders by way of dividends and probably never will.

Projects like these keep Amazon in the press and keep people believing.

Naomi K. Shapiro

My short answer is “who knows”? I am sure that Amazon groups meet often to float ideas like this; like all good brainstorming, no idea is too far out to consider. Some, like floating warehouses make it to patent status. As the article noted, Amazon often files for patents on technologies that are never used, so more power to them. And who knows which will fit and succeed in the time period for which they may be developed?

Laura Davis
Laura Davis
Founder, Branded Ground
6 years 1 month ago

Regardless of the validity of the idea, it’s yet one more example of how Amazon is leap years ahead of the traditional retail mindset. It’s actually scary how far beyond they are. Many established retailers are still fighting over web/store channel conflict and caught up in legal and risk management … and these guys are cracking every retail friction point, taking over huge purchasing power and dreaming up floating DCs.

Traditional retailers are my clients and we’ve been pushing evolutionary thinking for years, but it’s a challenge and I’m honest to goodness concerned about their future viability at this point. When does it sink in that changing and evolving to meet this new era is no longer an option?

James Tenser

Amazon’s hovering zeppelins are definitely da bomb!

(Just let me re-fasten my tinfoil helmet before continuing…)

If this idea ever gets off the ground it would be an impulsive consumer’s dream — merchandise that drops in like rain on a moment’s whim.

But let’s bring it down for a moment. The patent explains that the units will have to return to blimpie bases periodically to restock with fresh goods. It also says the numerous unmanned delivery vehicles (UAVs) will make a beeline to those ground-based centers after dropping their payloads.

(That crowded skies visual makes me want to upgrade this helmet to kevlar…)

Here and now I’d like to offer my humble gratitude to Amazon’s imaginative patent trolls and especially to all the gullible news outlets who have collaborated to elevate this speculative fiction into a breaking news story. Thanks for the entertainment, folks!
Howmuchyouwannabet its first order will be for fast food delivered to some guys on a golf course? Most likely four Hindenburgers with everything.

"This feels like a buzz generator instead of a real idea, although you should never say 'never' about Amazon."
"Regardless of the validity of the idea, it’s yet one more example of how Amazon is leap years ahead of the traditional retail mindset."
"Howmuchyouwannabet its first order will be for fast food delivered to some guys on a golf course? Most likely four Hindenburgers with everything."

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