Amazon's Drones, Robots and Blimps Are Shaping the Future of E-Commerce

The company's recent patent filings, including ones for a floating warehouse and drone defense from arrows, suggest that commercial package delivery could get very weird.


Amazon's plans to deploy giant airborne storage blimps that would serve as motherships for its future fleet of aerial delivery drones.

The concept certainly evokes some compelling science fiction imagery. According to patent filings, Amazon's plan calls for airborne fulfillment centers (AFCs) that would be stocked with products, piloted into the air and then positioned over areas where the company predicts a spike in demand for certain items. A fleet of onboard aerial drones would grab packages from the blimp and fly to the ground to make deliveries.

In one scenario cited in the patent filing, AFCs could be dispatched to hover over sporting events, bringing snacks and souvenirs down to fans watching the game below. The dirigibles could also act as giant floating hotspots for online access, while displaying giant ads on the side of the airship. Wild.

None of this is likely to develop any time soon, mind you. In fact, Amazon has made no official announcements or statements on the AFC initiative. All the fuss this week is based on a patent filing from earlier in the year, uncovered when a tech analyst tweeted about it. Companies file patents on semi-serious, far-out ideas all the time - remember Google's human flypaper plan for driverless cars?

US Patent Office

Still, the airborne warehouse idea is sufficiently detailed to suggest that Amazon has put a lot of thought into this. It's actually the second major patent disclosure to make news this week. The giant retail company also filed plans to outfit its fleet of delivery drones with defensive equipment for guarding against hackers, lightning strikes, even bows and arrows. No, seriously.

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Then there is the matter of robots. A report over at GeekWire this week mined recent Amazon press releases and crunched some numbers: Apparently, the company now has around 45,000 "robotic units" online at 20 different distribution centers. That's up 50 percent from the 30,000 robots reported this time last year, which was in turn an increase from the 15,000 bots in use at the end of 2014.

Amazon has been pouring resources into automation technology for years now, but it seems that the industry at a whole is bracing for big changes in e-shopping. Digital marketing firm Walker Sands Communications just issued a Future of Retail study with some interesting survey numbers. In a poll of 1,400 consumers, 31 percent said they now shop online at least once a week, and almost half said that same-day shipping options would make them shop more often. Forty percent of respondents fully expect drone delivery of packages within two years.

If the demand is there, then Amazon is – of course – all about supply. It seems our brave new world of space-age shopping is coming in fast.

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