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Amazon flying warehouse blimp at 45,000 feet

It’s been known for some time that Amazon has been aiming at having drones deliver its packages at some point in the future (and has already tested its first drone delivery in the U.K.), but now we know that its ambitions go much further than that. The retailer has just received a patent for a futuristic flying warehouse that would also serve as a base for delivery drones.

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Amazon blimp at 45,000 feet

The patent filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is titled “Airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery.” Amazon describes the warehouse as a type of airship that hovers at around 45,000 feet and deploys drones to deliver packages to customers. As the drones descend from the airship, they can fly horizontally toward a specified location “using little to no power,” other than what is needed to stabilize them or navigate to the location.

Amazon states that shuttle aircraft could be used to restock the airborne warehouse with fresh inventory, more drones, fuel, supplies and other items. The shuttles could also be used to carry workers up to the flying warehouse.

Drone deliveries “within minutes”

Surveys have demonstrated that speed of delivery is a major factor for customers when it comes to ordering online, and Amazon aims to deliver items within only minutes of receiving an order.

One of the use cases described by the online retailer involves the drones hovering at what it calls an “advertising altitude” of 2,000 feet. The drone can advertise a particular item and state how many of the item are still available. Then customers can order the item, and another drone would be deployed from the flying warehouse to deliver it.

Another example involves Amazon’s flying warehouse moving to an advertising altitude above a location where an event is going on, such as a stadium. Items that are likely to be ordered are stocked before the event, and then as customers order the items, the drones deliver them “in minutes.”

What would Amazon’s flying warehouse look like?

The company said the airborne fulfillment center could be “any type of airship,” such as a “non-rigid” or “semi-rigid” or “rigid” airship. The flying warehouse could also vary in size from “hundreds of feet long and capable of carrying several hundreds of tons. Amazon said the airship could be shaped like a ring, tube or sphere with multiple areas.

It could be flown manually or automated and have various internal computers for different purposes such as tracking inventory. Humans or robots could run the onboard equipment, but when humans are onboard, it could be pressurized and temperature controlled.

Of course many patents are filed by companies that never use them, but Amazon could be serious about this one. If it is, it could be many years or even decades before the flying warehouse becomes a reality, especially in the U.S., where regulators have yet to fully figure out what to do about commercial drones, including the drones Amazon wants to use for deliveries. It was a major milestone for them to issue guidelines, but as far as concrete rules to govern drones and allowing commercial drones to operate on a grand scale, more work is needed.