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Underwater lifting bag
An underwater warehousing system could use inflatable bags to retrieve packages. In this picture, divers with the Israeli Defense Forces’ Underwater Missions Unit use a lifting bag to transfer equipment. Photo by Israel Defense Forces via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0. Click on the image for the Wikimedia version.

Amazon has patented some crazy ideas, including flying fulfillment centers that drop packages from the air. But its patent for “aquatic fulfillment centers” could be the craziest one yet.

The concept calls for warehousing packages underwater in specialized tanks – or even in a designated area of, say, Seattle’s Lake Union. Packages could be dropped from the air, parachute down to the water, and then sink to a specific water level based on its density.

When it’s time to select a package for delivery, a coded series of acoustic tones could be beamed through the water, activating a device on the desired package to inflate a balloon from an attached cartridge of compressed air. The package would then float up to the surface for retrieval and shipping.

The buoyancy of packages could be calibrated to create multiple rows of packages at different depths, serving the same function as shelves in an on-the-ground warehouse. Packages could even be pre-programmed to inflate their balloons at specified times for distribution.

The retrieval system could whip up a current on the surface to get the package from the middle of the storage pool to the edge for pickup. Water is the handiest fluid to store the packages in, but other substances such as kerosene or alcohol could be used when appropriate, according to the patent issued today.

The patent application was filed last September – with Jeremiah Brazeau of Amazon Robotics credited as the inventor. Brazeau’s LinkedIn page indicates he’s a principal engineer who’s deeply familiar with the Kiva robots that populate Amazon’s warehouses.

Why on earth would you ever want to drop merchandise into an aquatic fulfillment center? Amazon typically doesn’t comment on its patents, but the patent application provides a few clues. Brazeau notes that today’s fulfillment centers are becoming “increasingly large and complex facilities having expansive capabilities and high-technology accommodations for items.”

The storage areas can get as large as 1 million square feet or more. That means workers and robots sometimes have to travel thousands of feet, or even miles, to get to a given item in the fulfillment center. And if a shipment consists of multiple items, that multiplies the mileage.

“Moreover, for all of their technological advancements, today’s fulfillment centers are still plagued by the inefficient use of space,” Brazeau writes.

As crazy as it sounds, underwater storage could get around those problems. “The storage of items at various depths or heights within an aquatic storage facility may be particularly advantageous where the items are of different sizes or shapes, or where demand for such items may vary,” according to the patent application.

If an item in the warehouse turns out to be particularly unpopular, it could be literally deep-sixed. Or Amazon could transform its Treasure Truck into Davy Jones’ Locker and invite customers to dive in for deals.

The illustrations accompanying the application are as enlightening as more than 20 pages of dense text. Here’s a sampling that shows how the system just might work. But if you’re waiting for an aquatic fulfillment center to open in a lake near you … don’t hold your breath.

Amazon aquatic fulfillment center
A schematic provides a perspective view on a custom-built pool that could serve as an aquatic fulfillment center. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
Amazon aquatic package retrieval
This diagram shows how a balloon might be inflated to get the right package to the surface, and how a surface current could push the package to the side of the storage pool. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
Amazon package retrieval
Depth control devices could determine how buoyant particular packages are, allowing them to be stacked in layers. The package destined for shipment would rise to the top when its balloon is inflated, as shown here. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
Amazon aquatic fulfillment center
This is another configuration for an aquatic fulfillment center, with inlet and outlet chutes for packages. An acoustic tone, designated in the diagram by musical notes, sets off the inflatable mechanism in the package designated for retrieval. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
Amazon package storage via airplane
This diagram shows how an airplane passing overhead could drop a parachute-equipped package into Lake Union for storage. Electronically equipped buoys and GPS satellites could keep track of the package’s location. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
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