Amazon Wants Flying Warehouses. Yes, Really

Amazon has been awarded a patent for what it calls the Airborne Fulfillment Center, which would essentially be a blimp carrying products and drones that would deliver to customers from a height of 45,000 feet in the air.

It seems Amazon is securing patents about every other month to develop some new supply chain technology to get products in customers' hands ever-faster. This has ranged from putting 3D printers in maintenance trucks to flying the products to doorsteps with drones.

One of its current developments — with a patent secured this past April but not discovered until Wednesday by media sources — is seemingly fit for a futuristic science fiction movie.

Amazon has secured a patent for what it calls Airborne Fulfillment Center (AFC), which would essentially be a large blimp carrying drones and products that it would deliver from 45,000 feet in the sky.

The patent describes how the blimps would hover over cities and dispatch drones carrying product orders. Upon receiving an order, a drone with a package in-tow would initially free-fall for most the way to earth before its motor kicks in for the rest of the delivery. Since the drones can only operate for about 30 minutes, upon delivery they would head to a nearby shuttle that would transport the drones back to the airship. Those shuttles would also re-supply the blimps with products.

When I started reading a news item on this Thursday night, I thought it was a fake story. It just seemed too far-fetched. But I was soon reassured by reading it on several other major news outlets. You can view the patent here.

Amazon filed for the patent in 2014 and was awarded it in April, but wasn't discovered until Wednesday by CB Insights tech analyst Zoe Leavitt.

The patent discusses how the blimp deliveries could be especially useful at major outdoor sporting events at stadiums. Hovering near a stadium, a blimp could be stocked with popular items like concession-stand food or team apparel and deliver them to a customer within minutes without them having to leave their seat.

I don't know how I'd feel about my view of a football play obstructed by a drone delivering a hotdog to the guy seated in front of me, but whatever.

The blimp-drone delivery system would be  another way Amazon is trying to get its products to customers faster. On Dec. 7, the company completed its first retail drone delivery to a customer in the U.K., taking a Amazon Fire TV Stick and a bag of popcorn from a nearby fulfilment center to the customer's home in 13 minutes.

Whereas land-based fulfilment centers can't move around, the patent mentions how the blimps could respond to surges in demand before they occur and be placed at large public gatherings. Their other upside, according to Amazon, is that the blimps would cost less to operate than normal drone delivery.

"The use of an AFC and shuttles also provides another benefit in that the AFC can remain airborne for extended periods of time," the patent describes. "In addition, 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."

I assume this blimp system is at least several years away from actually being put into action, and it would obviously face a mountain of regulatory hurdles. But for now, the idea of having my soda brought to my seat while watching the Packers at Lambeau Field instead of standing in the concessions line for 20 minutes does sound appealing.

Here are a couple images from Amazon's patent:

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