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Collective UAV
One concept for a collective UAV looks like the Borg Cube from “Star Trek.” (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Right now, Amazon’s delivery drones are designed to drop off packages weighing no more than 5 pounds. But what if you could link up lots of drones? Then your bigger packages could be assimilated.

That’s the idea behind a patent application from the Seattle-based online retail giant that focuses on Lego-like assemblies known as “collective UAVs,” or unmanned aerial vehicles.

“A collective UAV may be used to aerially transport virtually any size, weight, or quantity of items, travel longer distances, etc.,” says the application, filed in February 2015 but published just today.

The idea seems so simple that one might wonder whether it’s patentable: The UAVs proposed for the system would be designed to hook up with each other so that they all share power and operating instructions. A computer coordinates each UAV’s contribution to the flight plan, just as the computerized assembly known as the Borg coordinated all the actions of its members (including, for a time, Captain Picard) on “Star Trek.”

The collective UAV could carry packages that one UAV alone couldn’t handle, but it could also fly out en masse with multiple deliveries, and then break itself up to head for different destinations.

“By aerially navigating as a collective UAV, the coupled UAVs can share resources … be more efficient, be more visible, generate larger radar or object detection, be more detectable by ground-based radar or air traffic control … thereby improving safety for the UAVs and other aircraft,” Amazon’s engineers say.

Amazon typically doesn’t comment on its patent applications for drone technology, or whether a particular technology will be used on its drones. But the company has been churning out a steady stream of ideas for future flying craft  including tiny camera-equipped gadgets that can perch on a police officer’s shoulder, hitchhiking drones and huge flying warehouses that drop deliveries from above.

Yet another patent application published today describes a drone that’s closer to what Amazon is actually using to deliver packages: a “tri-wing” UAV that moves horizontally as well as vertically. The frame incorporates a front wing, a lower rear wing and an upper rear wing that provide lift to the UAV when it’s flying forward. The wings even have control flaps.

The application, filed in March 2015, goes into detail about the drone’s subsystems, including the mechanisms for hooking up power and the characteristics of the control system.

The diagrams of the drone look very similar to the flying vehicle depicted in a real-world video that Amazon released last year.

This month, Amazon began making regular deliveries from a custom-built fulfillment center near Cambridge, England, to a smattering of customers nearby, using a drone of a different design. The company is likely to ramp up its drone operations as regulators at Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and their counterparts elsewhere in the world loosen restrictions on autonomous flight beyond an operator’s line of sight.

A collective UAV seems more far-fetched. It’s more likely that Amazon is staking out its territory in case the technology moves in that direction. If so, Amazon’s patent lawyers could have the legal grounds to ensure that resistance is futile.

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