What once sounded like science fiction a few short years ago is actually coming closer to reality as Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) pushes for federal approval of its drone delivery program, which it calls Amazon Prime Air.
Technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the drones are the subject of a U.S. patent application filed in September of last year and granted at the end of the last month.
The patent's details are only now being published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. However, as the BBC notes, winning patent approval doesn't mean that the final product will be exactly as described or that it will become reality.
The disclosure describes a UAV configured to autonomously deliver items to various destinations. Specifically, 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," the patent application states.
Once it gets regulatory support, Amazon hopes to use the technology to deliver packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. The company has Prime Air development centers in the United States, the UK and Israel, and it has been conducting tests in various locations.
Amazon previously has complained that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) takes too long to approve its drone testing applications. As of December 2014, much of Amazon's Prime Air research took place indoors in Washington state, and it was forced to take its outdoor testing outside the U.S. due to the lack of timely approvals by the FAA.
The FAA recently made some strides to change things up, granting North Carolina-based PrecisionHawk, a manufacturer of fixed-wing platforms, permission to conduct research beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) on precision agriculture operations. BNSF railroad will research ways that BVLOS drones can be used to improve the way it inspects and manages its rail infrastructure and rolling stock. Another research project will allow CNN to explore news-gathering methods but will not explore BVLOS operations, according to Fortune.
Meanwhile, Amazon's patent describes a "relay location" that may include, but is not limited to, a delivery location, a materials handling facility, a cellular tower, a rooftop of a building, a secure delivery location, or any other location where a UAV can land, charge, retrieve inventory, replace batteries and/or receive service.
The document also spells out various usage scenarios. For example, a user could identify his or her current location by allowing GPS data to be provided by their mobile device. Or, if the user is connected through a wireless network such as cellular, Wi-Fi or satellite, the location of the network may be determined and used as the current location of the user.
In some implementations, the location of the user may be maintained and updated until the item is delivered to the user. "If the current location of the user is determined based on the GPS data from the user's mobile device, the GPS data may be periodically retrieved by the UAV management system," and the delivery destination updated as the GPS data changes.
For example, a user could place an order for an item while at home, select to have the item delivered to their current location and then leave to go to a 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, according to the document.
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