Amazon is awarded a patent for a 'giant flying warehouse'

Amazon said on Dec 14 it had completed its first delivery by drone (above) in Cambridge, England.
Amazon said on Dec 14 it had completed its first delivery by drone (above) in Cambridge, England.PHOTO: AFP

Amazon has been awarded a patent for a giant flying warehouse that acts as a launchpad for drones to deliver items within minutes, according to an NBC News report.

The US e-commerce giant described plans for an "airborne fulfillment centre" (AFC) such as an airship or blimp that would float at an altitude of around 13,700m.

The airship will be stocked with lots of products, NBC said. When a customer places an order, a drone or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) will fly down and deliver the package.

Amazon insists that this would require little power because the drone would be gliding down rather than having to take off and land, NBC said.

Sending drones out from a ground-based facility requires substantial energy, the filing says, because the drone must have its propellers spinning constantly to stay aloft. What’s more, having to make a return trip to the warehouse with no payload onboard could be a wasteful expense, said the Washington Post.

By contrast, Amazon believes it could be more efficient to deploy drones from airships; the drones could float or glide most of the way down to earth by way of gravity, rather than using their own power.

Amazon's filing reveals several uses for the warehouse blimp. One example is at a football match where customers may want certain items such as food or merchandise. Ahead of the game, the AFC could stock up on items and deploy these during the game with drones when they are ordered.

The airship could also be used as a giant advertising board, allowing customers to order the items on display. All of these could be ordered "within minutes".

The drones would be able to communicate with each other via a mesh network to give information such as weather and route. UAVs could also recharge on the airship, NBC reported.

The airships would have to be resupplied periodically, of course, said the Post. Amazon envisions still more airships – smaller ones – that could shuttle more drones, products and other things needed to keep the airships functioning up to the larger carrier.

A diagram from Amazon’s patent filing shows how the whole system could work.

If this plan sees the light of day, NBC said, Amazon will likely need regulatory approval from aviation authorities which could be complex.

There’s no word on when such a system might debut; an Amazon spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment, said the Post.

Some patents never even lead to actual products. But companies such as Facebook and Google have floated the use of airships and drones to beam Internet connectivity down to earth, so it was likely only a matter of time before 
Amazon began thinking about how to apply the same technology to its business.

The patent filing was awarded in April this year but only circulated this week. It's not the first patent that Amazon has been awarded regarding drone delivery. In July, a patent showed how Amazon was thinking about tall buildings and structures such as lampposts or churches as docking stations for drones to recharge. Another patent described how drones would "talk" to each other to plan routes and communicate.

Amazon successfully trialled its first delivery by drone in Britain earlier this month and is pushing ahead with plans to make this widely available. The company files and is awarded many patents but it does not necessarily mean the ideas will become reality, said NBC.