Lamp posts are a popular resting place for tired birds, but our feathered friends may soon find themselves with a little competition for these convenient perches. Amazon has been awarded a patent for a drone docking system that would see its flying delivery robots come down to recharge on structures like street lamps and power poles before continuing onto their final destination.
Amazon filed the patent back in November 2014, describing a multipurpose system of docking stations that can be networked with a central control point and a fleet of drones. This came almost a year after the e-commerce giant first revealed its plans to deliver items in 30 minutes by autonomous drone through a robotic courier service called Prime Air.
Drone technology has made some big strides in that time, but range is still severely limited, particularly when taking a package along for the ride. This is the problem Amazon is looking to address with its multi-use drone docking stations, which it says could be installed on tall structures like street lights, cell and radio towers, office buildings and even church steeples.
The station could play host to multiple drones at the same time, which might come down to land in the case of bad weather, to recharge ahead of the next leg of their journey, to drop off and pick up packages, or to await further instructions from a central control point. The system can be equipped with locating devices, such as pressure sensors, laser scanners and video cameras that enable the position of the drones on the platform to be identified.
"This can enable the system to ensure, for example, that a first drone drops off a package, while a seconds drone recharges and continues on," the patent application states.
What's more, the central control system can use weather data to dynamically change the drones' flight path to avoid things like strong headwinds. But if it's not the weather that is throwing the curveball, the drones can also be rerouted based on things like package weight, drone traffic or the priority of the delivery.
Of course, like all patents, there's a chance we won't see the docking system described here materialize. It does, however, offer an interesting insight into the many layers of logistical complexity involved in rolling out a drone delivery service on any kind of significant scale. It won't simply be a matter of loading a quadcopter up with a six-pack and launching it toward a hotel balcony. Rather, your delivery might change "hands" several times along the way, much like shipped items do today, albeit with no human intervention.
In any case, Prime Air is not going to be happening anytime soon. In a move that was seen as a victory by some and a disappointment by others, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month set its first nationwide rules for commercial drone flight. While these cleared the way for anyone with the appropriate piloting certificate to operate their drones for money, flying them beyond the line of sight or in populated areas is still a no-no, making Prime Air as Amazon imagines it downright impossible at the moment.
The FAA does say that it is developing more rules that will expand the possibilities for commercial operators. What exactly these will entail isn't yet clear, but what is clear is that there's going to be a bit more waiting involved.
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