Why Amazon Dreams of Flying Warehouses

Amazon gets to play full-time Santa Claus by delivering almost any imaginable item to customers around the world. But the tech giant does not have a magical sleigh pulled by flying reindeer to carry out its delivery orders. Instead, a recent Amazon patent has revealed the breathtaking idea of using giant airships as flying warehouses that could deploy swarms of delivery drones to customers below.

Many patent filings related to new technology often indulge in fantastical flights of fancy. But it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate some of the truly wilder scenarios being imagined within this Amazon patent filing. One scene envisions human or robot workers going to work busily sorting packages aboard airships hovering 45,000 feet above major cities. Another scene imagines the airship’s kitchen whipping up hot or cold food orders that would be loaded onto delivery drones for delivery within minutes.

A third scene anticipates swarms of delivery drones dropping off orders of food or t-shirts to people attending concerts or sports games. Amazon’s patent filing even considers how the airships could fly at much lower altitudes to act as giant billboards or megaphones that advertise and sell items directly to the crowds below.

There is a method to the madness. Amazon currently aims to attract customers with the promise of getting almost anything—clothing, electronics and groceries—delivered within days or even hours. It is currently racing against Google and delivery drone startups such as Flirtey to become the go-to service for customers who expect speedy deliveries of their purchases. The Amazon patent idea for an “airborne fulfillment center” may never become reality, but it speaks to the company’s ambition to enable an “instant gratification” world for customers.

At its heart, Amazon’s idea for flying warehouses aims to solve two problems. First, a mobile warehouse flying high above cities would theoretically enable Amazon to move its packages and products even closer to customers’ homes and businesses and shorten the time needed for last-mile deliveries. The company could even strategically move certain flying warehouses to different locations depending on temporary demand (such as crowds gathering at stadiums for sporting events or concerts).

Second, the flying warehouse scheme tries to tackle the range problem for delivery drones. The small delivery drones being tested by Amazon have fairly limited range of approximately 10 miles (or 20 miles roundtrip). That poses a challenge for Amazon’s Prime Air service, which recently began its first deliveries near Cambridge, UK with the promise of delivering packages within 30 minutes.