We’ve talked a lot about Amazon recently in light of its ongoing disruption of the retail vertical. As the online giant continues to eat brick-and-mortar sales, its decisions as a business are having an oversized effect on commercial real estate.
What we’ve been shamefully neglectful of is Amazon’s penchant for hoarding ridiculous, absurd, and downright whimsical patents. These ideas paint a picture of an organization that is exploring world-changing ideas all over the spectrum, and on some level, that’s how real innovation happens. More than that, though, most of them are simply hilarious.
Some of them may well find a niche in the real world, most never will. Here are X of Amazon’s craziest ideas:
1. Flying fulfillment centers
First on the list is a concept for blimp-based warehouses that would float over cities, sending drones down to deliver goods in record time. The advantages here are pretty clear: It’s much easier to fly down than it is to fly up, so the drones might have a much longer range than they would with a ground-based facility. Blimps use almost no fuel once they’re up in the air except to make small course corrections or move horizontally, meaning that it might never have to land except for maintenance and repairs. It could also maneuver around a city to better serve areas of temporary high demand, like sports games.
Instead of flying back up under their own power, drones would then make their way to a ground-based facility to be brought up with workers, inventory, supplies, and fuel. How do they get back up? You guessed it: smaller blimps.
How likely is it? Not very. It probably isn’t the case that the benefits of saving energy on drones’ descents will cancel out the added costs of lifting workers, inventory, and fuel 45,000 feet up into the air every day.
2. Modular super drones
Just like the Power Rangers forming together to make the Megazord, Amazon has a patent for drones that combine to form larger drones capable of carrying larger packages. Under these configurations, drones could transport packages of “virtually any size, weight, or quantity” and travel significantly further.
Again, it’s easy to see why Amazon might be interested in these drone borg cubes. Drone delivery concepts right now are seriously limited by weight and distance, and while Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos claims that 86 percent of its deliveries are under 5 pounds, the company also offers free shipping on this 2,500-pound wide-belt sander for Prime members.
How likely is it? Tough to tell. For some things that are just a little too heavy for one drone, a configuration of a few might make sense. There are diminishing returns though. It’s difficult to believe that it wouldn’t be cheaper to ship that belt sander the traditional way.
3. Underground delivery tubes
Why bother with drones when you can look to the last century for your innovations? Amazon secured a patent last year for an underground network of pneumatic tubes, rails, or conveyor belts that would be used to deliver packages without sitting in traffic.
Pneumatic tubes were actually all the rage about 150 years ago when they were briefly the Victorian era equivalent of email. Even now, they are sometimes used on a small scale at drive-through banks and the like. They were used to quickly transport Victorian messages and telegrams, but faced the same problem they do now: cost. Outside of the cases where speed was a necessity and cost wasn’t an object, like stock exchanges, pneumatic tube communication simply wasn’t feasible.
Is it likely? There are a few cases where underground delivery tunnels might work. Amazon could save time and money by connecting airports and fulfillment centers, for example, or could use existing tunnels with room to spare, where they exist. A tube connecting every house though? No chance.
4. Drone hives
At first glance, the idea of beehive-like towers spitting drones into the air calls a dystopia worthy of Black Mirror to mind. The cylindrical towers in a recent Amazon filing may seem scary, but they actually make a remarkable amount of sense. We discussed in our recent whitepaper, CRE Tech Horizons: Infrastructure, how companies like Amazon will need to start investing in a network of fulfillment centers designed for drones. Looking to nature for the most efficient means of doing that could be a stroke of genius.
Around the base, loading stations for trucks would take in deliveries to be sorted and released throughout the hive structure. Drones would take off out of and land into openings up the sides of the structure continuously. Larger drones might also take off from the top, where you might also find communications equipment.
Is it likely? This is a tricky question to answer. Will drone fulfillment centers look like the picture included with the filing? Probably not. Amazon and other companies will continue to experiment with various concepts and the final version will likely be very different. Will something that performs a similar function end up in your neighborhood? It very well could.
5. Voice-controlled pocket drones
Now we’re getting into the technology that really puts people on edge. Amazon’s recently approved patent for commercial drones that would respond to simple voice commands and might fit in a pocket or a purse.
The company imagines its pocket drones assisting with basic everyday tasks and certain types of work. It might help you find your car, for example, or your missing child. A police officer could use one to film a traffic stop or follow a suspect on foot. Two of them could even help apprehend a criminal by stretching out a wire between them and using it to trip the suspect in a Scooby Doo-type scenario. (That last one is only mostly a joke.)
How likely is it? Who knows? What’s even real anymore? I will say that the technology for controlling drones by voice means putting a lot of decision-making onto the software. We probably aren’t there yet, but it’s on the horizon. The real question is whether Amazon is willing to put in the legwork necessary to get us there, or whether this patent is only in place to hinder competitors.
6. Aquatic fulfillment centers
The last and most whimsical of Amazon’s recent patents sounds like it comes straight out of Jules Verne’s classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Instead of sensible warehouses flying over our heads, the retailer wants to sink its packages underwater and group them according to density. Then, when it’s time to retrieve one, a coded acoustic tone plays that tells a cartridge attached to the package to inflate a balloon, pulling it to the surface.
On reading this, I half expected the next step to involve dolphins cheerfully ferrying the packages to their destinations. Sadly, it probably just goes on a truck or something after that. The patent application suggests that this might be a better way of retrieving packages. Right now, workers walk miles every day in the company’s massive storage facilities. Let’s be real though; this is clearly the result of someone at Amazon’s weird dream.
How likely is it? Come right on. No. This is never happening, it’s simply too ridiculous. And if by some bizarre turn of fate this turns out to be the most effective way to do warehousing, I will literally eat my hat. Though, really, since the internet has a funny way of bringing back embarrassing predictions to bite you years later, I should think about looking into patents on edible hats.