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Signaling drone
A diagram shows a drone projecting squares of light labeled “Yes” or “No.” Depending on which box the package recipient stands in, the drone could determine whether or not to leave a package in the drop zone designated as DZ. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

For an earlier generation, one of the sweetest sounds of summer was the music coming from an ice-cream truck. For the next generation, will it be the tune of a delivery drone?

That’s just one of the possibilities covered in a patent issued to Amazon today: It addresses methods by which a drone could signal its approach, as well as techniques for signaling back.

The application was filed by a group of Seattle-area inventors on Amazon’s behalf almost two years ago.

There’s no indication that two-way messaging systems have been built into the drones that Amazon is currently testing, but there’s lots of leeway for experimentation: In a recently released video, Amazon drone engineer Michael Ramirez says the company is working with more than a dozen different drone configurations.

When Amazon introduces its large-scale drone delivery operations, sometime in the next few years, that could call for new social norms and customs. People pretty much know how to interact with a courier who’s making a delivery in the flesh, but interacting with an unmanned aerial vehicle could take some getting used to.

“A property owner may be alarmed or confused when a UAV approaches the property,” the inventors say.

The newly issued patent covers a broad spectrum of possibilities:

  • The drone and its control center could send status reports as texts to customers, or even show the drone’s approach on an online map. That’s what Amazon does with its Prime Now delivery service.
  • Lights and speakers could be installed onto the drone to provide signals to customers. “The UAV may ‘announce’ its arrival via the lights and/or via audio, such as by emitting a warning sound, a pleasant tune, or other audio,” the inventors say.
  • A projector on the drone could shine a spotlight onto its intended drop zone, or flash a message or graphics to communicate with the package’s recipient.
  • The drone might even execute a series of maneuvers to signal what it intends to do, like a figure-8 over its intended drop zone.
  • An onboard pointer or other hardware could indicate that an obstacle has to be moved, or that a dog has to be put inside, in order for the delivery to be made.
  • Customers at the drop zone could use predetermined hand signals or other sorts of gestures to identify themselves to a camera-equipped drone and tell the robot how to proceed.

One scenario, for example, calls for the drone to announce a question, such as “Is this landing spot clear?” Then it could flash two squares of light onto the ground, labeled “Yes” and “No.” Customers would answer the question by walking over to the appropriate spot.

Will future flying robots beep-boop-bleep with us like R2-D2 in “Star Wars”? Will they project messages like Princess Leia did? (“Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope for accepting delivery of the  lightsaber you ordered.”)

We’ve reached out to Amazon in case they want to shed further light on the invention, but when presented with inquiries about blue-sky patents like this one, the company typically stands in the “No” spotlight.

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