Amazon considers floating warehouses
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.
- Amazon U.S. Patent 9,305,280 – U.S. Patent Office
- Amazon patent hints at floating warehouses in the sky – CNN
- Amazon’s latest idea is a flying warehouse that’ll deliver your stuff by drone – Washington Post
- Amazon Is Considering Drone-Friendly Floating Warehouses – Fortune
- Amazon’s Flying Warehouse Idea Looks Like a Total Disaster – Gizmodo
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?