Amazon Patents Aerial Fulfillment Centers for Improved Drone Delivery

Amazon's drone-centric skyscrapers intended to replace traditional warehouses are old news. The tech giant just patented floating warehouses.

Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last June, we reported on Amazon’s patent application for fulfillment center towers: skyscrapers that would replace the traditional warehouse model in favor of modern, drone-friendly versions that could serve as both charging hubs and convenient pitstops for delivery drones to pick up and drop off packages efficiently. According to a 2016 patent which the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted the tech giant today, Amazon realized that making the fulfillment centers airborne, themselves, would serve as one last additional step toward maximizing the idea completely.

“The AFC (airborne fulfillment center) 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 patent reads. “As the UAVs descend, they 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.”

What Amazon has done here is to essentially rid itself of the limitation of stationary fulfillment centers. Allowing these to float at high altitudes thereby providing the AFCs, themselves, with mobility, would also drastically lower the energy required to deploy delivery drones to their final destinations. In other words, proximity and energy efficiency are the two primary incentives. These aerial warehouses would stay afloat with helium or hot air, claims the patent, and store an inventory that corresponds with whatever metropolitan city it’s hovering above. Additionally, customers could even browse the specific list of items the specific AFC above them has in stock.

“An AFC may be positioned at an altitude above a metropolitan area and be designed to maintain an inventory of items that may be purchased by a user and delivered to the user by a UAV that is deployed from the AFC,” the patent reads. “For example, a user may browse an e-commerce website and place an order for an item that is in the inventory of the AFC.”

Amazon / United States Patent and Trademark Office

An AFC and its cargo, as presented in Amazon's patent application.

In addition to these AFCs allowing the online retailer to have items “delivered within minutes of a user placing an order,” this aerial system would theoretically decrease operations costs for Amazon while improving the purchasing experience for its customers. The leap from traditional warehouses and drone-centric fulfillment centers to AFCs, while highly futuristic and nearly too far-fetched to plausibly consider, does make a certain amount of sense. 

Cutting costs wherever possible is a corporate bottom line that Amazon certainly prioritizes above all else. Coming in at a close second, however, is tirelessly ensuring the company stays ahead of the game through innovative interaction with the end-user. The idea of placing Amazon’s own warehouses in the sky directly above its customers' heads, while satisfying them with an exciting shopping experience, seems like a smart, albeit bold move, all things considered. 

Ultimately, like any other successful patent application, there’s really no telling how tangible this idea is and will move toward reality. With the United States still in fairly early stages of establishing secure, thorough nationwide drone regulations that could feasibly manage fleets of commercial drone traffic overhead, there’s an uncertainty to prospects like this one that can deflate these concepts before they get a chance to take off. On the other hand, with the right kind of regulation, governmental legislation, and corporate luck, Amazon could have warehouses stationed above major American cities in the near future, ready to deliver toothpaste and DVDs to its customers from the heavens.