Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) has long teased consumers with the idea that it would someday deliver packages via drones.
The company has pursued the idea even though it's not currently legal to use unmanned flying vehicles for most commercial activities (including package delivery) in the United States. And while that could eventually change, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has so far been wary of the retailer's vision that someday the sky could be filled with package-bearing drones.
Still, those significant implementation hurdles have not stopped the online retailer from advancing the development of what it calls Prime Air. The goal of that effort, according to the company, is "to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles, also called drones," according to Amazon's web page for the service. The company sees drones as having the potential to allow it to improve its service and delivery times while also increasing "the overall safety and efficiency of the transportation system."
Exactly how the retailer intends to do that has remained a bit of a mystery. Would drones fly up and knock on your door? Would they bring packages to windows, or drop them from the sky? Now, a new patent filing from Amazon shows at least one method the company could use -- dropping packages on parachutes from drones.
What is Amazon doing?
In its patent filing the online leader explains that it plans a package delivery system that would launch a package from a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) while it's in motion. The drone would be able to control the descent of the package in a number of ways which the company laid out in its filing.
The package delivery system can apply the force onto the package in a number of different ways. For example, pneumatic actuators, electromagnets, spring coils, and parachutes can generate the force that establishes the vertical descent path of the package. Further, the package delivery system can also monitor the package during its vertical descent.
Essentially a parachute and/or other control mechanisms would help guide the package to Earth. It/they would also be able to steer the package around obstructions or help it regain stability if something disrupted its flight.
Why does Amazon want this?
The online retailer has built warehouses all around the U.S. and setup shipping operations which allow it to offer two-day delivery across the country. In some markets it has improved on that with same-day delivery, but using trucks, people, and even couriers to make deliveries is expensive. Using drones would, at least with some deliveries in some markets, make getting packages to consumers cheaper and more efficient.
Amazon explained in its patent filing that the use of UAVs can overcome some of the inefficiencies of traditional delivery methods "by leveraging more flexible aerial transportation paths between destinations, rather than relying on rigid road infrastructure." In theory drones can travel more direct routes and deliver more packages than traditional methods. The online retailer does acknowledge that drones come with their own problems because at some point they have to drop off the package.
"Traditionally, this involves the UAV landing at the destination, releasing the package, and then taking off to its next destination," wrote the company. "The sequence of landing and taking off for each package delivery creates time and energy resource inefficiencies, which negate at least a portion of the benefit of adopting a network system of UAVs."
Using parachutes solves that problem. It's likely that a parachute-based solution would only work with certain products, in select areas (it's hard to picture parachutes falling in Manhattan) and this patent is only one possible way Amazon would use drones for deliveries.
Is this going to happen?
It's easy to see the business reasons Amazon wants to use drones. If it can offer near-immediate delivery in broad coverage areas the online retailer takes away the last advantage brick-and-mortar stores have. The challenge in doing that remains solving the problem of the last mile -- getting items from a nearby warehouse to the consumer.
Drones may be part of that solution, but it still may be a long time before broad use of UAVs becomes legal or even practical. There's a point where using UAVs with parachutes may make sense, but the process would have to be efficient enough to make financial sense for Amazon. That's something the company needs to work on and it's a challenge that's equally as daunting as the significant legal hurdles that currently keep drone delivery from being a reality.
Someday drone delivery will be a real thing, at least in certain situations. That day however remains in the distant future. These plans are clever, and it makes sense for Amazon to take a long view to developing its business, but drones will have no impact on the company's sales for the foreseeable future.