Amazon.com has long been hailed as an innovator in the fields of ecommerce and publishing, and it is now poised to reach new heights. Literally. Amazon recently revealed that it plans to store goods on a large airborne craft or airship. Patents were filed for the craft in 2014. The airborne fulfillment centers, or AFCs, will play a larger role in their drone delivery programs. The AFCs would be placed above large metropolitan centers and used for rapid delivery programs. Amazon is already in the process of testing delivery by drone and it is expected to increase worldwide.
The patent that was filed shows smaller UAVs delivering and restocking the AFC. The airships are large enough that manual as well as automatic labor would be possible. According to the Guardian the patent describes the AFC as “ an airship that remains at a high altitude (eg 45,000ft) and UAVs with ordered items may be deployed from the AFC to deliver ordered items to user-designated delivery locations.” “As the UAVs descend, they can navigate horizontally toward a user-specified delivery location using little to no power, other than to stabilize the UAV and/or guide the direction of descent. Shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the AFC with inventory, UAVs, supplies, fuel, etc. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC.”
Many companies have been trying to use UAV technology to increase their competitive edge. So far this has proven to be a difficult task. If Amazon can perfect this method, it would greatly increase an already powerful storage and delivery service and further widen the gap between Amazon and their competitors. Size and battery weight have been among the largest barriers to entry. Legal questions also remain unanswered.
The patent suggests that a large warehouse with an unfixed location would be a major advantage to meeting on demand delivery. The mobility would also be a hard advantage against less mobile competitors. By being able to relocate at will, they can account for fluctuations and spikes in demand without the price of establishing or relocating commercial property. The ability to hit emerging markets almost immediately will benefit Amazon in expansion efforts. The patent suggests that the AFC could be placed near sports and other large events to sell products and deliver purchases almost immediately. This would allow them to enter competition against direct retailers at such events and would be a bold maneuver. The possibilities of use for this type of craft and model are nearly endless, and a success in this field would be a game changer in many areas. The Sun revealed that the patent goes so far as to suggest that “Perishable items or even prepared meals can be delivered in a timely fashion to a user” by using the AFC. What is conceived is far more than just a warehouse or delivery method, but a whole new model of commerce.
It now remains to be seen if this will go beyond the realm of speculation. Even if Amazon can turn the practical problems of an airship warehouse into a route of profit, other issues remain. The legal field surrounding commercial drones is still not entirely clear. Issues of safety would be of special concern with any airborne object as large as Amazon’s proposed airships. It would require a careful navigation of Federal, State, and Municipal laws. The day of large airships storing products for delivery is not too close if for no other reason than this. The regulations that afect all types of flying craft can be rather complicated and the legalities of airship warehouses would be even less clear than regular drones. So far Amazon has given no indication publicly, whether they intend to follow through on the patent, nor revealed any research that would indicate a decision one way or another.
Amazon has a reputation for innovation so it may be unwise to dismiss the concept out of hand. Amazon must be given credit for dreaming large. It is clear from the patent that they have thought long past single drone deliveries. The concept drawings filed with the patent depict AFCs as large blimps. It was once considered that Airships would be the primary means of air travel and be of fundamental importance to the world economy. If Amazon has its wish fulfilled, they might be the ones to make it so.
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