Amazon delivery drones may dock on trains and ships, patent shows

Amazon wants to deliver stuff to customers using drones, but it needs to to get the infrastructure in place first to have a chance of making that happen — along with a large green light from the Federal Aviation Administration.

While the company has been making steady progress with the design of its Prime Air flying machine, it has also been filing numerous patents detailing ideas related to various aspects of its proposed delivery service.

These have included an extraordinary “beehive” drone tower that would operate in urban areas and manage multiple drones on delivery runs across the city. And how can we forget the wacky flying warehouse idea, essentially a blimp housing an Amazon warehouse and drone airport.

The latest Amazon idea to land on the desk of the United States Patent and Trademark Office is for a network of multi-purpose mobile facilities capable of maintaining drones and acting as a hub for deliveries. Interestingly, the facility would be located on trains, ships, and other kinds of vehicles, enabling its delivery drones to be rapidly deployed to areas where customer demand “is known or anticipated,” whether through purchasing patterns “or events that are scheduled to occur in such areas.”

The mobile units would be able to launch and receive drones while the vehicle is in motion, the patent filing said. A diagram (below) included in the submitted papers shows a shipping container with an open top and a drone hovering above it as the unit travels along a railroad.

amazon delivery drone trains shps patent

Amazon envisions such a facility being “loaded with replacement parts and/or inspection equipment, and configured to conduct repairs, servicing operations, or inspections on aerial vehicles.” Once a drone undergoes repair or battery replacement, robots would be able to load it with a delivery and send it on its way.

The idea is similar in some ways to an Amazon patent that surfaced in 2016 showing how it could use street lights and the top of church steeples as docking stations for its drones, allowing the flying machines to stop off for a battery charge to allow it to cover greater distances on a delivery run.

Drone deliveries from mobile units isn’t a new idea either, as UPS has already tested such a service, although Amazon’s plan seems rather more complex.

It should be noted that it’s by no means certain Amazon’s idea will ever see the light of day. Its grand drone delivery project is still in its early stages, though these patents do offer some insight into the company’s thinking when it comes to building the infrastructure for any future sky-based delivery service.

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