T he sky’s no limit for Amazon. In December the world’s largest online retailer made its first commercial drone delivery, dropping off a package in Cambridge, England, just 13 minutes after it had been ordered. Now it has emerged that the company has been granted a patent for flying warehouses.
Filed in 2014 and approved in April last year, the patent was unearthed by tech writer Zoe Leavitt. It describes an “aerial fulfilment center” hovering above cities at 45,000 feet, from which Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, would drop off items before returning to the mothership for recharging and repairs. Amazon claimed the system would use minimal energy and allow items to be delivered “within minutes”.
The patent describes deliveries of food and souvenirs, but the technology could be applied to almost any order. “We are seeing Amazon file dozens of patents related to drones, which fits into their aim of increasing the speed and efficiency of their deliveries worldwide,” Ms. Leavitt told The World Weekly. Amazon itself declined to comment.
The company has long made use of machines. In 2012, it splashed out $775 million on Kiva robots, which now scoot around its warehouses shifting merchandise. Other giant retailers, such as Wal-Mart, are playing catchup.
For some Amazon watchers, these warehouses showcase the robot threat to jobs, and up in the sky there would be even less of a role for humans. But there are limits to what machines can do, even on terra firma. For example, warehouse workers still sift through items because robots are not very good at identifying objects and picking things up.
Even if Amazon tries to turn the blueprint into reality, it will face a tough battle with aviation regulators. Still, is air-commerce the future?