Amazon’s Latest Take on Drone Deliveries: Fantasy or Reality

As I mentioned in last Friday’s news round-up, Amazon has won a patent for a flying warehouse or fulfillment center that will deploy drones to deliver parcels. Basically, the plan for Amazon is to have a blimp or airship of some sort hovering at an altitude of around 45,000 feet, stocked with lots of products. When an order is placed, a drone will fly down from the floating fulfillment center and deliver the item within 10 minutes. A couple of other features of the patent include the use of shuttles. These shuttles would serve a few purposes. First, they would be used to re-stock the airship. Second, they would be used to re-fuel the airship. And finally, they would be used to return the drones to the airship after deliveries.

Amazon has insisted that the delivery of items via drones would actually not use much power. This is essentially due to the fact that the drones would freefall from the airship initially, using gravity to guide them down. They will only use power once they are near the delivery destination or need to stabilize. However, because the drones only have a run time of about 30 minutes, they would need the shuttle to fly them back up the blimp.

One question that remains is what is the practical use case for this technology? While Amazon, and other companies, have successfully made drone deliveries, they are generally not navigating through crowded areas. With the blimps set to float above major cities, this becomes an issue. Amazon has outlined their initial thoughts on where this technology would be ideal – sporting events. In theory, the blimp can hover above a sporting venue and deliver items to attendees. This plan, however, limits the reach as only outdoor venues can be accommodated. The blimp itself can act as a billboard where fans can order items that might be on sale and have them delivered. The problem is, where are the items delivered?

Drones have only delivered items to large open spaces that were designed to accommodate the delivery. There is clearly no space in the seats for a drones to touch down, and having it hover overhead while someone attempts to retrieve their item is just dangerous. And the sporting venues are not going to give up space inside, whether that is for concessions or seats, to make a landing pad. Additionally, having a dedicate landing space would create a massive bottleneck of fans trying to retrieve items.

From my perspective, the only way this can work at a sporting event is to make deliveries outside, where people are tailgating. There are already plenty of services, Amazon included, that will make deliveries to tailgaters who need food, drinks, or other items. Generally speaking, every car at a tailgate gets a certain amount of room. This space could potentially be enough for a drone to drop down and deliver a package. Or, at the very least, a small space at the end of every parking row could be designated a pick-up area. But even this would not necessarily be cost effective.

The whole idea is clearly years away from actually seeing the light of day. If Amazon actually tries to roll out the floating fulfillment center, the regulatory hurdles could be insurmountable. This is especially true in the US where the FAA has very strict regulations in place.  Additionally, the economics just don’t seem to line up right now. The cost to keep the floating fulfillment center would most likely be expensive, and that’s not considering the cost of re-stocking the blimp using a separate shuttle. While Amazon has historically done a good job of leveraging demand management and planning, stocking the blimp with the wrong items could be disastrous.

An example of this is at a sporting event like the super bowl. Half of the fans are going to want Super Bowl Champion shirts or memorabilia after the game. Amazon could certainly deliver these items to the parking lot as fans leave the game. The problem is taking up space with Super Bowl Champion shirts and memorabilia for the losing team. This is merchandise that simply cannot be sold, and will take up serious real estate within the floating fulfillment center.

In theory, this sounds like an interesting way to handle last mile deliveries. However, when one really looks at the reality of this plan, it starts to get a little fuzzy. There are regulatory issues from the beginning that could keep this plan grounded. There is also a lot of research that will need to go into examining the practical use case of where to position the blimp, how to effectively stock it, re-stock it, and re-fuel it. And most importantly, there is the need to figure out where these deliveries can actually be made that will prove to be a cost effective and efficient manner to handle the last mile. While the potential use of a floating fulfillment center is likely years away, and I’m not sure that it will come to fruition, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t rooting for it. The thought of floating warehouses delivering items in 10 minutes or less via drones is fascinating. The future might be here sooner than we thought.

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