Amazon is still sorting out all the details of drone delivery before it launches the service on a grand scale. One of the biggest technical hurdles will be finding a way to keep the drones up in the air for the longest time possible while keeping them fully charged and maintained. Now, a new patent filed by Amazon with the United States Patent and Trademark Office shows a potential solution in the form of a mobile fleet of multi purpose mobile facilities, which are essentially drone workstations that would be based on trains, boats and vans. The workstations would be able to repair the drones and send them out on deliveries.
In addition, computers on board these workstations could be used to calculate the best location for the vehicle and the drone to meet depending on the speed of the vehicle or the drone’s remaining battery life.
According to the patent filing, the vehicles could be directed to areas where certain items are known or anticipated to be in demand based on factors like past purchase history or upcoming events in a certain area. It says that these “intermodal vehicles” could be attached to container ships, tractors, or trains, and they would be equipped with systems that allow them to load items onto the drone and launch or retrieve it while in motion. Additionally, items could be kept in areas that are temperature-controlled and launched using robotic arms.
The mobile facilities could also carry replacement parts and equipment and be set up to service, inspect and repair the drones before loading them up with products and sending them to their destination.
UPS has tested a similar concept, launching fully autonomous drones from the top of delivery trucks to fly packages to consumers while the truck’s driver brings packages to other customers in the area. The idea is aimed at not only boosting efficiency but also cutting emissions. UPS representatives said it would be particularly useful in rural areas where delivery trucks sometimes have to travel many miles only to make a single delivery. One test ran smoothly, but the other one ended with the drone falling to the side and nearly being crushed by the closing lid of the delivery truck due to some type of interference with the drone’s compass.
The idea of delivery drones and drones in general tends to make a lot of people uncomfortable, but this latest concept is particularly alarming because there are lots of other potential uses for these drone workstations that go far beyond commercial interests. For example, some people believe they could be used to wage warfare on Americans as drones could be sent from them to drop bombs or miniature missiles. Like many innovations, something that may start out with one relatively innocuous purpose could eventually be exploited by those with malicious intent to cause great harm to society.
Other patent filings by Amazon reveal plans to build a beehive-like tower that could be used to store fleets of drones, which they call “a multi-level fulfillment center for unmanned aerial vehicles.” Another concerning and very Amazon-like idea the firm is considering is using the drones to scan people’s houses during deliveries to try to sell them more products. For example, if a tree in the yard appears to be dying, they might recommend that you buy fertilizer.