Amazon Is Considering Drone-Friendly Floating Warehouses
Amazon might soon take flight in more ways than one.
The e-commerce giant has been awarded a patent that describes a logistics technology it calls “airborne fulfillment center (AFC).” The AFC is essentially in airship that’s capable of flying at altitudes of 45,000 feet or more that would house items the company sells through its online marketplace. In the patent, Amazon describes a method by which drones would fly into the warehouse, pick up the items they need to deliver, and then deliver those items to the customer’s home.
Amazon (AMZN) filed for the patent in 2014. While it was actually awarded in April, it wasn’t discovered until Wednesday by CB Insights tech analyst Zoe Leavitt.
Over the last few years, Amazon has been working on drone technology through its Prime Air initiative with an aim on delivering products to customer homes without relying upon logistics companies to do it. Earlier this month, Amazon successfully completed its first drone delivery in the U.K. The company plans to expand its drone testing in 2017 in hopes of eventually relying on the unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver lightweight packages to homes.
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Currently, Amazon’s drone-delivery process requires the company to erect a warehouse to serve a particular area. Inside that warehouse is a selection of lightweight products the company sells through its e-marketplace. Once a customer places an order, those items are packaged in a box the drone can carry. The drone is then outfitted with the package and delivers it to a customer’s home within 30 minutes.
The potential pitfall with drones, however, is that they can only travel so far, so Amazon would technically need to erect a large number of warehouses around the world just to accommodate customers in disparate areas.
But rather than look to the ground for fulfillment centers, Amazon is apparently looking to the sky. Like their grounded alternatives, the AFCs would be home to an inventory of items Amazon sells through its online marketplace, according to the patent. New items would be added to the AFC with help from a logistics shuttle that would carry products to and from the device. When an order is placed, a drone would be outfitted with the desired products and descend from the airship. It would then deliver the items to the customer.
Since the drones that Amazon is testing can’t get up to heights as high as 45,000 feet, the company says its used drones will fly back to a ground installation, where they’ll be placed in a shuttle and brought back to the AFC.
Amazon says the AFC concept could be a boon for handling its logistics, and pointed to its ability to move around in anticipation of demand as one of its benefits.
“The use of an AFC and shuttles also provides another benefit in that the AFC can remain airborne for extended periods of time,” the company wrote in its patent description. “In addition, because the AFC is airborne, it is not limited to a fixed location like a traditional ground based materials handling facility. In contrast, it can navigate to different areas depending on a variety of factors, such as weather, expected demand, and/or actual demand.”
For its part, Amazon hasn’t commented on the patent and did not immediately respond to a Fortune request for comment. And like other companies, Amazon often files for patents on technologies it might never bring to the market. But it’s possible that one day, Amazon drones—and airships—will be flying above, delivering products to folks around the globe.