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Airbag-protected drone delivery
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows a delivery drone dropping a package protected by an airbag. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Seven years after Jeff Bezos had the idea of putting an airbag on your smartphone, Amazon’s inventors have kicked it up a notch by patenting a drone-mounted system that inflates an airbag around your package just before it’s dropped off for delivery.

The inventors behind the new patent, published today, may not be as well-known as Amazon’s billionaire CEO, but they’re notable: One is Gur Kimchi, the Amazon VP in charge of the drone delivery program at Prime Air. The other is Avi Bar-zeev, who’s been involved in projects ranging from Microsoft HoloLens to Google Earth. He left Amazon after the patent application was filed in 2015 and is now at Apple.

The system they describe features an airlift package protection airbag, or APP airbag, that would be wrapped around a package that’s due to go out on a drone for delivery.

Airbag inflation plan
This diagram shows Amazon’s plan for APP airbag inflation in detail, along with a flowchart. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

The trick is that an orifice on the bag would be hooked up to a fan-driven inflation device. Just before the drone drops the package to a delivery site, the bag would be inflated and sealed up to add an extra layer of pillowy protection.

Amazon’s APP airbag would help protect the package from damage or shifting of contents if it has to be dropped from a height of, say, 5 to 25 feet. It’s the same principle that’s at work in automobile airbags, or the airbags that protected NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars — but writ small.

Why not just put plastic foam or bubble wrap around a packaged item before it’s flown, as shippers do for ground deliveries? Good question. Here’s what the inventors say:

“Package delivery by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) may present additional challenges and design considerations. When delivering containers with a UAV, size and weight of a containers (and items within the containers) are both considered prior to initiating the delivery. If a container is too big or too heavy, the UAV may be unable to transport it.

“Another aspect of UAV operation is energy consumption. Both size and weight of a container impacts energy consumption for various reasons, such as energy required to lift a container during flight, wind resistance considerations with a large, but relatively light container, and other considerations. In addition, UAVs, like most aircraft, expend extra energy during vertical or upward-directed flight (e.g., climbing to altitude, etc.). Thus, UAVs may conserve energy if they minimize changes in altitude.”

Amazon is still deep into the development of its drone delivery system, which may go into commercial operation sometime around 2020 if regulators give the OK.

The mere fact that Amazon patented the APP airbag concept is no guarantee that it’ll be part of the plan for the company’s delivery drones. For what it’s worth, there’s been no sign of a bag-inflating gadget on the experimental drones that Amazon has shown so far. And it may well be that such a gadget doesn’t make sense for Amazon’s current drone designs, which have come a long way since 2015.

Bottom line? Don’t hold your breath waiting for airbags on your Amazon airdrops. Or airbag-equipped smartphones, for that matter.

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