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Intermodal fulfillment center
A diagram shows a rail-borne shipping container that serves as a mobile fulfillment center, with the capability to dispatch drones for package deliveries. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

If Amazon follows through on a pair of patent applications, future fulfillment centers could be transported on their rounds by trains, ships or trucks and deliver their goods with autonomous drones flying out from the tops of shipping containers.

The on-demand system for package delivery is covered in two applications that were filed a year and a half ago but published just today. The inventors are principal software engineer Brian Beckman and intermodal program manager Nicholas Bjone.

Their concept calls for putting all the hardware for a fulfillment center, including a robotic arm and a squadron of drones, inside shipping containers (also known as intermodal vehicles). The standard-size containers are designed to be easily transferred from ships to trains to tractor-trailer trucks.

Goods destined for delivery could be loaded into shelves inside the containers, moved around using the robotic arm, and loaded onto drones when customer orders are passed along via wireless connections. Lids on the tops of the containers would open to dispatch package-laden drones.

Container cutaway
A cutaway view shows how a shipping container could be equipped with drones, cameras, a conveyor belt, a robotic arm and shelves of goods. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

The system’s advantage has to do with the ability to send out fulfillment centers that are laden with goods via a wide range of shipping routes in response to anticipated demand.

“The areas where the demand is known or anticipated may be identified on any basis, including but not limited to past histories of purchases or deliveries to such areas, or events that are scheduled to occur in such areas,” the inventors write.

For example, when it’s time to release the next “Game of Thrones” book or the next hot gadget (Amazon Echo Auto, anyone?), the containerized fulfillment centers can be widely deployed to handle the rush. The same goes for Black Friday or Prime Day orders.

Amazon could also beef up its delivery network in a given geographical area if the need arises. Extra loads of “12th Man” jerseys could be delivered in the Seattle area from trucks, trains or ships when the Seahawks are in the Super Bowl. (Hey, we can dream, can’t we?)

Other types of shipping containers could carry supplies and maintenance items for the delivery operations — in case the delivery drones need to pick up fresh batteries or a replacement rotor, for example.

Amazon’s inventors file lots of patent applications aimed at exploring the possibilities of new technology, and many of those ideas never see the light of day. The company typically doesn’t comment on forward-looking concepts like the containerized fulfillment centers, but the idea doesn’t seem as way-out as, say, underwater fulfillment centers or airship warehouses.

It’s expected to take at least a couple of years for Amazon to get the Federal Aviation Administration’s go-ahead for long-distance drone deliveries, but once the company gets over that hurdle, don’t be surprised if we see lots of innovative ways to send out the drones.

Rail route for fulfillment center
This map shows how a containerized fulfillment center could travel through Connecticut on a rail line, making drone deliveries on the way from a warehouse in Windsor to New Haven. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)
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