Trending: T-Mobile unveils plans for $160M dramatic refresh of its headquarters campus

Blimp delivery system
This diagram shows an airship-style aerial fulfillment center dropping drones to make deliveries. After each delivery, the drones fly off and are collected for the return trip to the blimp via a replenishment shuttle. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Some patents seem so way out that you have to wonder if they’re a joke. Such is the case for Amazon’s patent covering an “airborne fulfillment center” that would launch drones to deliver merchandise from above.

The patent, which was granted in April, came to light this week in the wake of yet another patented Amazon scheme to ward off hackers as well as bow-and-arrow attacks.

“I just unearthed the Death Star of e-commerce,” Zoe Leavitt, a tech analyst for CB Insights, declared Wednesday in a tweet.

Hilarity ensued.

The scheme calls for having an airship hover over the intended delivery area at an altitude of 45,000 feet, stocked with goodies that can be loaded aboard drones when an order is made.

The wing-equipped drones could glide down, “using little or no power,” and navigate to make the delivery. Then they would make their way to a collection zone, where they’d be loaded aboard a flying replenishment shuttle for return to the airborne fulfillment center, also known as an AFC.

The replenishment shuttles could transport other items to the airship, such as fuel, inventory – even workers. And they could bring down such items as “overstock inventory, transshipments, workers, waste,” Amazon’s engineers say.

According to the patent, such a system would make deliveries more quickly and efficiently than drones flying out of a ground-based fulfillment center – and would be particularly well-suited for big events:

“For example, a temporal event (e.g., a football game) may be expected to produce a demand for certain types of items (e.g., sporting paraphernalia, food products, etc.). In advance of the event, the items may be delivered to the AFC in a quantity sufficient to satisfy the expected demand and the AFC may navigate to a position such that UAVs deployed from the AFC can safely navigate to the location of the event and deliver the items, thereby satisfying the demand. In some implementations, the AFC may navigate to a lower altitude and provide advertising for the temporal event or for other occasions (e.g., product announcements, product releases, sales).”

The fact that the patent was issued in April might lead one to suspect we’re being fooled, but the timing of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s decision is purely coincidental, right? Besides, the patent application was filed back in December 2014.

Amazon traditionally doesn’t comment on its patents for drone technologies, and there’s no indication that the AFC is part of the company’s plans for drone delivery. But Seeking Alpha’s Bram de Haas said it might not be such a bad idea:

“It makes sense because the drones would be descending while carrying product and getting carried back up by a balloon while also empty. It would probably work better with cheap light drones though.

“The one thing that’s flying too high for me is its stock.”

There are lots of practical reasons why an AFC might not work: For example, keeping an airship hovering for long periods of time could be difficult, depending on weather conditions, and weather could also affect the prospects for making deliveries from 45,000 feet. Remember last year’s case of the runaway blimp?

Having shuttles rendezvous regularly with airships would pose an added logistical challenge.

But who knows what direction drone deliveries will take over the years and decades ahead? If, someday, the “Treasure Blimp” descends to drop drones bearing Beast Mode souvenirs when the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch-Bot takes the field … you heard it here first.

Subscribe to GeekWire's Space & Science weekly newsletter

Comments

Job Listings on GeekWork

Find more jobs on GeekWork. Employers, post a job here.