Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) wants to use drones to deliver to its customers.
The idea at first seemed ridiculous, and even as it comes closer to reality, on many levels it still does. Yet the online retailer really is working to bring about the ability to have an unmanned ship deliver your order.
In addition to getting the Federal Aviation Administration to issue it an "experimental airworthiness certificate" that will allow the retailer to test its drones outdoors in preparation for delivery operations, the company has also filed a patent showing how the process will work. It's all very technical -- and still more than a little theoretical -- but the retail giant has a plan, and it could someday happen.
Same-day, or even same-hour, drone delivery may not be here yet. But it's getting closer, and Amazon seems likely to ultimately pull it off.
What Amazon is doing
Amazon has filed a United States patent application with the following description in the abstract:
This disclosure describes an unmanned aerial vehicle ("UAV") configured to autonomously deliver items of inventory to various destinations. The UAV may receive inventory information and a destination location and autonomously retrieve the inventory from a location within a materials handling facility, compute a route from the materials handling facility to a destination, and travel to the destination to deliver the inventory.
That's a very rough outline that says little more than what a drone does in broad terms. but the company drills down into functionality as the document continues. One of the more interesting ideas is that the drones won't be singular, but more a community of UAVs working together.
In some implementations, the UAV will communicate with other UAVs in the area to obtain information used in route planning. ... For example, other UAVs may provide information regarding weather (e.g., wind, snow, rain), landing conditions, traffic, etc. The UAV may utilize this information to plan the route from the source location to the delivery location and/or to modify the actual navigation of the route.
The drones will work together to come up with the best way to deliver your package. The patent application said they will also be able to transmit their location to let customers know when the drone will be arriving.
Amazon addressed safety concerns over the drone, explaining that "the UAV may constantly monitor for humans or other animals that may be in the path or planned path of the UAV and modify the navigation of the UAV to avoid those humans or other animals." Those safety efforts continue once the drone arrives at its location:
When the UAV reaches the delivery location, it will identify an area at the delivery location where it can safely approach the ground, or another surface, and leave the inventory item, thereby completing the delivery. This may be done through assistance of a remote entity controller taking control of and/or providing control instructions to the UAV to assist the UAV in landing at the delivery location.
The parent application sets an overall operating plan for the drones, covering a variety of contingencies. It's clear that Amazon is using the patent application to show the FAA -- and anyone else with safety concerns -- that the unmanned flying devices are safe.
The drone may be able to find you
One of the more interesting parts of the patent application was the area that explained how the drones would not just be able to deliver to an address. They may also be able to use GPS to track down a customer through his or her smartphone. The feature, dubbed "Bring It to Me" in the patent application, allows the drone to track the customer down even when moving:
The user may place an order for an item while at home, select to have the item delivered to their current location (delivery within 30 minutes of the order) and then leave to go to their friend's house, which is three blocks away from their home. As the ordered item is retrieved from inventory, the current location of the user's mobile device may be determined and the delivery location correspondingly updated. As such, the ordered item will be delivered to the user while the user is at their friend's house, or any other location.
Aside from the creepy Terminator images of robots that track you down no matter where you hide, that functionality seems especially useful.
Amazon has a plan
It's still hard to picture that drones will be a reality anytime soon, but Amazon clearly thinks otherwise. The incredibly detailed patent application covers a huge variety of delivery scenarios and makes the impossible seem, if not ordinary, at least less special, when it's broken into each tiny step required.
Drones may not be coming tomorrow, but reading this patent application makes it feel as if they're coming soon -- and they might be able to track you down wherever you are.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. He welcomes drone delivery but worries about sentient computers taking over. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com and Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.