US: A newly-granted patent gives a peek into Amazon’s vision of how drones with its Prime Air service could deliver packages across large areas. Its design sounds a lot like the 19th century Pony Express — except, of course, it’s airborne.
The patent, filed July 12, is for a “Multi-use unmanned aerial vehicle docking station system.”
It paints a picture of flocks of unmanned aerial vehicles whizzing out of tiny depots perched on light poles, carrying packages bound for a broad geographical region.
By the sound of it, instead of flying all the way to the customer’s home, the drones would instead wing their way towards the final destination but then stop at the nearest docking station along that path as they get low on charge.
These docking stations will be able to accommodate multiple drones and be located high up and out of the way on cell towers, light and power poles, church steeples, office buildings, parking decks and other vertical structures. They could also come with solar panels so they generate their own power.
There, a drone might tether itself down to flash charge and get the latest weather report and network update before continuing on.
The package could also be handed off to a fully-charged drone that would would fly it a little closer to its final destination, performing the same hand-off in leaps of several miles, just as Pony Express riders at stations along the east-west route handed off mail and packages to a fresh rider and horse so there was no down time along the way.
How far each drone could go on any one leg of the journey would depend on the weight of the package being delivered and any headwinds or other weather that might slow it down.
Amazon has said for several years it hopes to create a drone delivery service in the United States. The internal group that works on the program is called Prime Air.
Its most recent delivery drone prototypes weigh 55 pounds and can carry packages weighing up to 5 pounds. These would fly under 400 feet and use “sense and avoid” technology to dodge potential obstacles en route to its delivery destination.
However actual drone delivery is far in the future. The most recent rules from the Federal Aviation Administration, released last month, don’t allow for package delivery. Commercial drone use is limited to things such as aerial photography or utilities inspections. Current FAA rules limit most small commercial drone operations to daylight hours and require human operators who must be certified every two years.
It’s also important to note that while the company has been granted the patent, that doesn’t mean it will actually implement the docking system described, merely that it now has ownership over the ideas contained in patent.
Still, the Seattle company has been so closed-mouthed about its drone plans that the descriptions offer some of the few views of what Amazon may envision for the future with its Prime Air drone force.
For example, the design outlined in the patent suggests drones may not be landing at one’s doorstep. The patent describes how packages could be delivered to a drone depot docking station nearer the customer and transferred to an automated ground-level pick up area by “a vacuum tube, dumbwaiter, elevator, or conveyor to transfer the package from the platform to the ground level without damage.”
Another option would be for packages for a same ZIP code, neighborhood or street to be delivered to the nearest docking station and then be picked up and delivered by a human via a compact car, scooter or other delivery device more efficient than a large delivery truck.
The docking stations could also provide up-to-date weather reports to help reroute drones around inclement weather or give them a safe place to tether to wait out bad weather they couldn’t outrun.
In fact, in some cases the docking station might be its own weather station. “This can enable the system to identify localized weather events such as, for example, thunderstorms, which tend to be fairly small and localized, but violent,” the patent said.
Perhaps to help make the idea more enticing to local governments, the patent suggests that the street lights or wireless tower the docking stations sit on top of might be provided and installed by Amazon or whatever service provider used the docking station.
“This can enable cities to provide free Wi-Fi in public parks, buildings, and other public areas without bearing the burden of installing some, or all, of the necessary infrastructure,” the patent said.
Because each drone would come equipped with its own on-board diagnostics, a drone that sensed it was in trouble could be automatically re-routed to the nearest docking station under an emergency flight plan. If the docking station was full, the system would realize the incoming drone was in trouble and make a space for it by sending another drone away.
Amazon is clearly thinking ahead to even further automation of its delivery system. The patent clarifies that it discusses drones but could also be applied to other vehicles and technologies that are developed later.