While some predictions of the future of air cargo may seem like “pie in the sky,” Amazon is considering making that phrase a reality. In its latest bid to reinvent the industry, Amazon has filed a patent for “an airborne fulfillment center (AFC) and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to deliver items from the AFC to users.”
This planned addition to Amazon’s growing drone army is a giant hovering mothership/warehouse that is already being nicknamed “the Death Star” – although perhaps Laputa, the flying island described in the 1726 book “Gulliver’s Travels,” by Jonathan Swift, is more apt in this case.
In the abstract for the patent application, which was filed in December 2014, but only discovered on Dec. 28, 2016, by Zoe Leavitt, an analyst for CB Insights, the AFC “may be an airship that remains at a high altitude (e.g., 45,000 feet) and UAVs with ordered items may be deployed from the AFC to deliver ordered items to user-designated delivery locations.”
The filing describes smaller UAVs attached to the mothership that “can navigate horizontally toward a user-specified delivery location using little to no power, other than to stabilize the UAV and/or guide the direction of descent.” Shuttles would replenish the AFC with inventory, replacement UAVs, supplies, fuel and whatever biological manpower is required – likely very little.
An interesting line, buried deep inside the filing, helps flesh out Amazon’s “ten-steps-ahead” strategy to induce consumers to buy products that they don’t know they want, or need. The filing describes a scenario in which “items likely to be ordered are determined and stocked in the inventory,” in advance of a sporting event, while the flying warehouse hovers nearby to accommodate the impulse purchases of fans.
While the sort of flying warehouse described in the filing seems fantastical in 2016, Amazon has demonstrated an uncanny ability to use its intellectual property in novel ways across its growing range of business ventures. It may even know the next time you want to order pie – from the sky.