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An Amazon delivery drone prepares to descend toward its target during a test run in England, as seen in an aerial view. (Amazon via YouTube)

A newly published patent hints at the system that Amazon just might use to guide delivery drones to their destinations, and verify that the drone’s payloads have been dropped off at the right locations.

The system, as described in an application that was filed in 2016 and published as an approved patent today, could involve having the drone recognize landmarks in the designated recipient’s yard or driveway — as well as a printed-out target with a barcode confirming the items to be delivered.

If the drone spots obstructions that could interfere with the delivery — for example, tree branches, an outdoor grill or a basketball — recipients could get a message on their mobile device telling them to move the delivery target or move the obstructions out of the way.

One of the spookier elements covered by the patent suggests that the system could check outside sources for information about the delivery location — for example, plot information or architectural plans on file with a government agency.

Deliveries could be made by having the drone descend to set down the package, lower the package on a tether, or drop it down on the end of a parachute.

The drone might even talk to you, Alexa-style, as it’s making the drop.

“Two-way communication may be beneficial for verifying a potential recipient’s identity, for posing questions to a potential recipient or to other human users, and for providing instructions to a potential recipient or other users,” the inventors say.

 

Drone marker and landing zone
A portion of a diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows how a delivery drone could process information from a barcoded landing marker and its surroundings. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

The system would keep a file on each delivery location to get familiar with the lay of the land. And if you’re not there for some reason, the drone might move on to an alternate location, based on what the system knows about the area.

“The alternate landing locations may be other users that have opted-in for UAV deliveries or have identified themselves as capable alternatives for deliveries intended for [the original] delivery location,” the patent application says.

Just because Amazon has won a patent doesn’t mean that it will follow through with any of the strategies laid out in the patent. And some of the features mentioned in the patent published today — for example, the drone’s ability to communicate with potential recipients — have been mentioned in previously issued patents.

For what it’s worth, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talked about printed-out delivery zone targets back in 2016, a little more than a month after the application was filed.

That suggests that at least some of the features might see the light of day when Amazon gets regulatory clearance for routine drone deliveries, probably sometime in the next couple of years. We’ve asked Amazon for further information, and although the company doesn’t typically comment on its patents, we’ll pass along anything we hear back.

If you’re scared off by all this talk about being interrogated by your delivery drone, or having your property mapped out by your delivery service, never fear: The inventors say folks could opt out of the service and keep drones from ever darkening their door — or their airspace, for that matter.

“The flight plan may identify certain modulations of the propellers or certain altitudes to maintain when flying over, by, or near particular locations of the one or more locations that may correspond to users that have opted-out from UAV deliveries or do not wish to have UAVs flying through their property,” they say.

The inventors behind the newly issued Amazon patent, “Drone Marker and Landing Zone Verification,” include Scott Boyd, Chengwu Cui, Sarah Graber, Barry O’Brien, Joshua Watson and Scott Wilcox.

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