In case you are wondering, no, Amazon.com Inc.’s (NASDAQ:AMZND) new plan to drop gliding drones from an airship 45,000 feet above the Earth will not be a repeat of the infamous WKRP in Cincinnati TV Thanksgiving “free live bird giveaway” episode that ended with station manager, Arthur Carlson saying, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
In the event Amazon’s recently uncovered patent turns into reality, the dropped drones will be capable of powered flight and will only glide to save power and reduce cost.
Airborne Fulfillment Center
The full fancy name, Airborne Fulfillment Center, belies the fact that the aircraft depicted is indeed a blimp designed to serve as a flying warehouse. In theory the airship would hover over selected events, such as an NFL game or other large gathering and deliver souvenirs, snacks and jerseys to waiting fans below.
The aircraft would be resupplied with fresh drones and merchandise by smaller airships, allowing the so-called mothership to stay aloft indefinitely. The flying warehouse could move from one area to another to take advantage of better weather conditions or even to deliver small packages to individual homes in a fairly concentrated area.
Amazon has been awarded a patent for a giant flying warehouse that acts as a launchpad for drones to deliver items within minutes.
Major Cost Savings
The primary reason for the patent seems to be cost savings to be gained by being able to take advantage of gravity and gliding capability to help deliver packages at near zero cost. As the patent filing points out, "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."
Due to the high cost of having deployed drones return to the mothership under power, they would be gathered up and placed on one of the supply airships to be redelivered as needed. The main blimp could be refueled using a shuttle or smaller airship.
Regulatory Problems Abound
Although the patent suggests drones would be able to communicate with each other via a mesh network allowing for the exchange of weather and route data, if Amazon attempted to implement the system, the Federal Aviation Association would have to grant approval, something that would not come lightly or easily.
The idea of allowing drones to glide was also covered in another Amazon patent that showed how tall buildings and other high structures could be used as recharging stations and launch sites. Any mixture of these plans creates more questions than answers and many experts doubt “gliding drones” will get approval anytime soon.
Back To Falling Turkeys
While the thought of people being injured by “turkey-sized” dropping drones may be far-fetched, there are other issues with which to contend. What if a Hindenburg-like disaster occurred and a flying warehouse filled with merchandise fell from the sky?
In addition, there are air traffic control questions to be answered. Currently drones can’t fly above 400 feet and can’t fly at night. Many NFL games and most music festivals occur at night. Drones launched from 45,000 feet would be well above 400 feet for a majority of their time in the air.