The world’s largest online retailer has been awarded a patent on an Airborne Fulfillment Center (thoughtfully abbreviated as AFC), which when instructed by a computer would dispatch a drone with a package pulled from inventory in the sky.  A lighter-than-air airship could support the Amazon AFC at high altitude, being resupplied by smaller airships.

By storing inventory at high altitude, the problem of drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs) that can’t carry heavier packages is eliminated because the trajectory of a package dispatched on a drone from 45,000 feet is mostly down, requiring little power.  The filing describes the process:

“When the UAV departs the AFC, it may descend from the high altitude of the AFC using little or no power other than to guide the UAV toward its delivery destination and/or to stabilize the UAV as it descends.  When the UAV approaches earth, the UAV may engage the motors of the UAV and utilize the lifting forces generated by the motors and corresponding propellers of the UAV to slow the descent of the UAV and to complete navigation to the user specified delivery location.”

Drones would be returned to the flying warehouse via smaller airships to conserve power.

In addition to supporting drone delivery of heavier packages than otherwise possible, AFCs could also be dispatched to areas of high demand (like events) temporarily to support localized delivery, or even to display advertising for the products within.  Fast delivery also enables sale of prepared meals or other items that must be delivered very quickly, according to the filing.

Amazon first revealed experimentation with drones in 2013 (see “Amazon Testing Delivery by Drone”), and while it has not received permission to conduct tests with customers in the U.S., it has done so in the United Kingdom.

Flying warehouses would require a significant additional step of regulatory approval, with drones and resupply airships travelling through altitudes normally used by commercial aircraft.

But the fact that Amazon is thinking of implementing technology on this scale leaves us gobsmacked, and if it can clear regulatory hurdles, Amazon has shown the ability to scale up logistics investments quickly (see, for example, “Amazon Buying Thousands of Trailers,” which also includes the latest drone videos).

(Note, the top image above is of a current Amazon drone, with a 15-mile radius, from an Amazon video.)