IBM has been granted a patent for mid-air package transfer technology that could be applied to extend the range of drone deliveries.
Technology giant IBM has announced that it’s been granted a patent for a system that would transfer packages between drones during flight. US patent number 9,561,852, titled ‘In flight transfer of packages between aerial drones’, could expand drone delivery networks and allow packages to travel further.
“Drones have the potential to change the way businesses operate and by leveraging machine learning, drones could change e-commerce,” said Sarbajit Rakshit, IBM’s master inventor and co-inventor on the patent.
“Our inventor team is focused on improving how the most valuable cargo is delivered globally. This could create opportunities such as managing drones to deliver postal packages and medicine in developing countries via the most direct route.”
Overcoming delivery challenges
In theory, this kind of aerial pass the parcel could solve a number of problems holding back drone delivery.
The first and most obvious challenge addressed is range. Once the technology to safely transfer packages between two separate drones during flight has been perfected, multiple drones can form a relay of sorts to lengthen the potential distance packages can travel.
This kind of development would mean that less infrastructure is needed on the ground and make supply chains easier to set up and extend.
Specialized drones avoid interference
The second problem that could be solved by IBM’s patent is that of ‘the last 50 feet’, a phrase denoting the final moments of a drone delivery. The point at which the package is delivered represents a minute or so when there is the most risk to the drone, and to pets and people on the ground, as well as to the safety of a package.
Potential interference is always going to be a danger, especially when a drone is flying low as it nears its destination.
IBM’s patent could open the door to a new type of delivery drone: one that is only responsible for the final moments of delivery, that is more secure and better equipped to handle interference than a standard drone. With IBM’s technology, this second type of drone could collect the package in mid-air and be specifically designed to work with whatever infrastructure is on the ground.
By pioneering in-flight package transfer, IBM could enable more variety across any drone delivery network, with different drones specialized for different tasks instead of looking for a one-size-fits-all solution.
IBM has several patents related to drone technology, but this is the company’s first major move toward using drones as part of its logistics offering. IBM currently manages supply chains for clients around the world with its Watson Supply Chain.