Amazon’s aerial dreams aren’t limited to drone deliveries.
In April, Amazon was awarded a patent (unearthed by a CB Insights analyst on Dec. 28 ) for Zeppelin-like warehouses in the skies. Amazon wants to create an “airborne fulfillment center” (AFC) to hover at altitudes of around 45,000 feet and spit out delivery drones with customers’ orders.
The designs suggest that the AFC will either be supported by an airship or incorporated into one. “An airship, or dirigible, is a type of aerostat or lighter-than-air aircraft which can navigate through the air under its own power,” the patent explains. “Airships gain their lift from gas that is less dense than the surrounding air, such as helium or hot air.” Not being fixed on the ground like conventional distribution centers has its perks: The AFC can change locations depending on factors likes weather and expected or actual demand.
Earlier this month, Amazon tested its first drone delivery in the United Kingdom, dropping off an Amazon Fire Stick streaming device and popcorn in 13 minutes. By having an autonomous mothership parked overhead a metropolitan area, it could get packages to customers “within minutes.” Delivery drones also won’t need to expend their battery lives on traveling long distances.
The patent outlines the scenario of a crowded sports games, where the flying warehouse could deliver snacks and sports memorabilia to fans. “This speed of delivery provides near instant gratification to users for item purchases and greatly increases the breadth of items that can be delivered,” the patent states. Temperature-controlled drones could make it easy to quickly deliver perishable items or prepared meals.
Once a delivery is complete, it’s not feasible for drones to climb back up 45,000 feet to re-enter the airborne warehouse. Instead, the drone will navigate to a replenishment shuttle, another smaller airship used to transport items to and from the AFC. The shuttle could replenish inventory, bring back delivery drones, carry fuel and more. Amazon foresees them transporting human workers as well.
Having a patent doesn’t mean the idea will ever be realized. And even if Amazon were to execute its vision, a drone-deploying aircraft is not likely to debut in the US anytime soon. It would violate a number of Federal Aviation Authority guidelines for commercial drones—for starters, they can’t fly over people or be launched from planes in the air.