Online retailer turned technology giant Amazon has applied for a patent for a multi-level fulfillment center to support its drone delivery business.
The patent, published last Thursday, states that traditional fulfillment centers, or warehouses, often located on the outskirts of cities due to their large footprint, are unsuited to drone delivery. The company therefore wants to bring these fulfillment centers into the centre of cities, in order to quickly cater to the ever-growing urban appetite for same-day and even shorter delivery windows, via its drone service.
Amazon Prime Air is the company’s drone delivery arm. It completed its first successful delivery in a trial in the UK in December 2016. The company is exploring ways to deliver packages, such as groceries, to customers within 30 minutes. One option for delivery includes releasing the package mid-flight and connecting a parachute to ensure it hits the ground safely.
However, while the company is trying to navigate regulation concerning drone flights in city centers, it also needs to tackle the problem of how to simplify its supply chain to meet 30-minute delivery promises – hence the need for centrally located distribution hubs.
The nine-story fulfillment center described in the patent is constructed much like a beehive. The towers would be located in “downtown districts” and “other densely populated areas” and will include numerous storeys in order to support landing for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Amazon says the fulfillment tower may include “robotic devices that assist human operators and/or operate autonomously to perform at least some tasks”, such as stacking shelves or transporting the UAV from the landing strip to a battery replacement location.
The company suggests that these towers could support “hundreds or thousands of orders each day”, potentially replacing deliveries of goods via truck or bicycle couriers.
Supply chain of the future
These ideas exist only in patent form at present and there is no suggestion that they will ever see the light of day. Researchers at CB insights have compiled some analysis of all of Amazon’s patents for drone delivery, including flying warehouses, mobile truck-based mini warehouses, underwater warehouses, local re-stocking stations for drones, and now a multi-level drone-docking fulfillment center.
What these applications do show, however, is that Amazon is not giving up on its drone delivery dream, which poses some interesting questions for the future use of drones in city centers.
For now, here are some sketches Amazon outlines in its patent: