Amazon has recently made waves in the industry with a series of moves that illustrate that it is serious about getting into the logistics business. Amazon leased 20 cargo planes to deliver goods to and from fulfillment centers, registered as an ocean freight forwarder in China, and built an ‘Uber for Trucking’ app to match truck drivers with shippers.
But what if all of these moves are indeed just short-term plays to add capacity to their operation and supplement, instead of replace, partners like UPS and Fedex? Maybe Amazon just needs excess capacity in the current road-based logistics network until a fully unmanned aerial warehousing and delivery network becomes a reality. And while that last sentence sounds awfully fantastical, enter Amazon’s patent filing that details flying “airborne fulfillment centres” (AFC) where drone deliveries could be made at scale from flying warehouses. The AFC’s would be stocked with inventory, fly at 45,000 ft, and be positioned in locations where Amazon deems optimal. Drones would be sent down to make precise scheduled or on-demand deliveries.
Here’s the abstract from the patent, and you can read the whole patent here:
Described is an airborne fulfillment center (“AFC”) and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAV”) to deliver items from the AFC to users. For example, the AFC may be an airship that remains at a high altitude (e.g., 45,000 feet) and UAVs with ordered items may be deployed from the AFC to deliver ordered items to user designated delivery locations. As the UAVs descend, they can navigate horizontally toward a user specified delivery location using little to no power, other than to stabilize the UAV and/or guide the direction of descent. Shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the AFC with inventory, UAVs, supplies, fuel, etc. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC.
And while Amazon’s patent is likely far-off in the future, one can no longer dismiss Amazon’s “tinkering” with drones as marketing gimmicks. It’s time to think again and view drones as central to Amazon’s future. Amazon’s vision may be an almost fully autonomous future up in the sky where inventory is stored and deliveries are made via drones. Inefficient road transport, decaying infrastructure, and human labor simply add time and costs to their delivery network. Amazon’s vision of the future would absolutely transform not just retail, but also logistics - cost structures would change and many retailers would cease to exist as physical stores just wouldn’t make sense anymore. And while there are obviously enormous obstacles to turning this vision into reality, it certainly is not a gimmick.