SF Technotes

Jeff Bezos and His Airships

By Michael Castelluccio
January 11, 2017
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From an initial idea reminiscent of the airship in the Tom Swift series of early 20th Century science-fiction novels, Amazon’s fleets of drones have taken an even wilder lurch forward. On December 28, analyst Zoe Leavitt revealed that Amazon was awarded a patent in April 2016 for giant flying warehouses. These warehouses, or AFCs (airborne fulfillment centers), will serve as home bases for the buzzing drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), that will be coming and going from the warehouses hovering at about eight and a half miles above metropolitan areas.

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TODAY AND TOMORROW

 

Amazon has already demonstrated that it’s able to take an order and send out a package for delivery on a drone. The beta test was on December 7, 2016, in England, and the delivery flight took 13 minutes from click to arrival of the package containing an Amazon Fire TV streaming device and popcorn. For now, Amazon’s Prime Air drones can carry up to five pounds of merchandise.

 

This isn’t a really big deal until you start to consider how to plot the logistics for a nationwide network of delivery zones. Airship warehouses, though, are something else entirely. The illustrations and descriptions in the patent application are eye-opening.

 

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Illustration from Amazon’s patent papers

 

Amazon’s U.S. Patent 9,305,280 begins with a relatively dry abstract, and then the Tom Swift dimension begins to emerge in the detailed description. The AFCs will be either supported by or incorporated into an airship. Yes, a transport not unlike the boy inventor’s own airship. The patent papers explain: “An airship, or dirigible, is a type of aerostat or lighter-than-air aircraft which can navigate through the air under its own power. Airships gain their lift from gas that is less dense than the surrounding air, such as helium or hot air.”

 

And this vehicle will carry all of it aloft—merchandise, warehouse workers, and drone launch platforms.

 

“An AFC may be positioned at an altitude above a metropolitan area and be designed to maintain an inventory of items that may be purchased by a user and delivered to the user by a UAV that is deployed from the AVC.”

 

The delivery drones won’t require much fuel or power. “[They] may descend from the high altitude of the AFC using little or no power other than to guide the UAV towards its delivery destination and/or to stabilize the UAV as it descends.” The plan isn’t to have the drone fly back to the mother ship, but rather have it “navigate to a nearby ground based materials handling facility or a shuttle replacement location.” There, a replenishment shuttle, another smaller airship, will be able to send it, other materials, and even workers back to the AFC.

 

Not only will this system minimize the power requirements for the UAVs, but it also makes the warehouse mobile. According to the application: “The use of an AFC and shuttles also provides another benefit in that the AFC can remain airborne for extended periods of time. In addition, because the AFC is airborne, it is not limited to a fixed location like a traditional ground based materials handling facility. In contrast, it can navigate to different areas depending on a variety of factors, such as weather, expected demand, and/or actual demand.

 

For example, a temporal event (e.g., a football game) may be expected to produce a demand for certain types of items (e.g., sporting paraphernalia, food products, etc.) In advance of the event, the items may be delivered to the AFC in a quantity sufficient to satisfy the expected demand.”

 

There’s even the suggestion that the warehouse (AFC) could descend after arriving at the location and participate in the advertising for the event, like the Snoopy blimp that hovered over New York Giants football games at Met Life Stadium.

 

And there’s another ostensible benefit of this Swiftian enterprise. “This speed of delivery provides near instant gratification to users for item purchases and greatly increases the breadth of items that can be delivered.” Yes, instant gratification—just what the addled impulse buyer needs.

 

PART 107 RULES

 

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The airships of the 1930s were able to transport passengers relatively long distances, so the engineering for Bezos’s AFCs seems possible, but there remain the problems of the airspace and the traffic created by the drones. On June 21, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a list of operational limitations titled “Summary of Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107).” These regulations were inspired by the widespread enthusiasm for hobbyist drones, but they also apply to Bezos’s UAVs, and several offer definite short-circuits for the Amazon plan for Prime Air. Here are a few problems:

 

  • The drone operator must maintain a visual line-of-sight with the drone they are operating. (The operators of Prime Air UAVs will be computers, and on-board cameras don’t count as direct line-of-sight access.)
  • You can operate only in daylight or civil twilight (30 min. before sunrise or 30 min. after sunset).
  • You are limited to a maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level, or if higher than 400 feet, you must remain within 400 feet of a structure. (The AFCs will soar at 45,000 feet, well beyond 400 feet of any structure.)
  • No operations from a moving aircraft, moving vehicle unless the operation is over a sparsely populated area. (Prime Air is expected to focus on metropolitan areas to launch its floating warehouses.)

 

IF AND WHEN

 

At this point, Prime Air is just an experiment, and Amazon, like Google, is capable of spending significant sums on projects that very well might never get off the ground. Especially problematic for this blue-sky initiative are the FAA 107 regulations governing air space.

 

But then again, this is Amazon, a company that has fully grown into its own namesake. Looking back at the problems faced and overcome by the fictional Tom Swift in his 1910 adventure, who knows? It wasn’t easy for the boy inventor either: Tom Swift and His Airship began with an explosion in the workshop. Likely, the development of the AFC at Amazon will go more smoothly.

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Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 21 years. His SF TECHNOTES blog is in its 19th year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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