Trending: ‘Ultima Thule’ no more: New Horizons’ space snowman is named Arrokoth
Airborne monitoring station
Amazon’s newly published patent envisions a fleet of airships that would monitor delivery drones. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

We already know about Amazon’s concept for airship warehouses to support drone deliveries, but here’s a new twist: Now the Seattle-based retailing giant has received a patent for another airship application, aimed at keeping track of drones as they go about their business.

And there’s yet another twist: That other retailing giant, Walmart, has its own plans for airship warehouses.

Amazon’s concept – known as an airborne monitoring station, or AMS – is described in a patent application that was filed two years ago and published today.

The inventors describe a system that makes use of high-altitude airships equipped with wireless communication systems and high-definition cameras as well as weather-monitoring equipment. The airships can look down on a wide stretch of terrain and monitor a fleet of delivery drones through imagery as well as wireless telemetry.

The airships, in turn, can be linked wirelessly to ground stations and to each other.

“In some implementations, the AMS may navigate to a lower altitude (e.g., 2,000 feet above the metropolitan area) to provide advertising, improve the visual coverage of the AMS coverage area (e.g., during inclement weather), etc.,” the inventors write.

The airships could flash visual advertising to residents below, a la the Goodyear Blimp, or even issue audible broadcasts. The wireless system could even deliver e-books or other digital content to customers below, the inventors say.

This concept is somewhat different from Amazon’s proposal for an “airborne fulfillment center,” or AFC, which would store the actual merchandise for delivery via drones. That patent was published late last year.

The fact that Amazon holds a patent for a flying warehouse didn’t stop Walmart from seeking its own patent for a similar concept. Last week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published Walmart’s application for a “gas-filled aerial transport and launch system of unmanned aircraft systems.”

Walmart airship concept
Walmart’s patent application covers a gas-filled warehouse aircraft that would hold packages as well as delivery drones. (Walmart Illustration via USPTO)

Walmart’s inventors see their system as a means of transporting packages and the drones to deliver them between cities. The transport aircraft would fly at an altitude between 500 and 1,000 feet, and they could be piloted by an onboard crew or remote operators.

The inventors say their system would address the “need to improve the customer service and/or convenience to the customer.” In some circumstances, flying the goods on an airship could deliver products more conveniently and at lower cost than using trucks, according to the application.

There’s no guarantee that either Amazon or Walmart will follow through on the airship concepts, but the mere fact that both companies are interested in the general idea suggests this is more than a blue-sky fantasy.

CB Insights says Walmart has been filing hundreds of patent applications, not only for drone delivery concepts, but for other technologies such as augmented reality and personalized in-store advertising.

Even though Walmart’s airship concept sounds a lot like Amazon’s already-granted patent, it still stands a good chance of approval because the application goes into more detail about how to implement such a system, Longhorn IP patent expert Khaled Fekih-Romdhane told Bloomberg News.

So it sounds as if the Amazon vs. Walmart retail battle could extend to the skies as well. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn into a shooting war.

Subscribe to GeekWire's Space & Science weekly newsletter


Job Listings on GeekWork

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