Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Amazon made an announcement of its acquisition of the patent. Amazon did not make an announcement; rather, the patent was made publicly available via the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) on Wednesday secured a patent for drone technology that can be paired directly with delivery vans. The system, if it comes to fruition, could enable Amazon to optimize its last-mile delivery services by outsourcing much of the work to its automated drones.
As described in the text of the patent, “Primary vehicles having cameras or other sensors generate or transmit instructions for causing secondary vehicles, such as personal delivery devices, to travel on selected courses and speeds.”
In other words, recipients of Amazon packages could one day see delivery vans directly deploying and controlling drones that drop off orders. What’s more, these drones wouldn’t have to be decked out with expensive sensors and cameras. Rather, all of that information-gathering technology would be centralized in the van, able to be transmitted to a fleet of drones via a WiFi or other network.
An Amazon spokesperson cautioned FreightWaves, “Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology. Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services.” So while it’s best to take the new patent with a grain of salt, Amazon filed for it just 18 months ago, signaling that the company has had the new drone technology on the docket fairly recently.
A van with a plan
Plenty of other companies, including Amazon itself, have been tinkering with drone technology that can fly and drive deliveries of goods ranging from coffee to COVID tests, but few have attempted to launch and control them directly from vans themselves. Truck manufacturer Workhorse Group (NASDAQ: WKHS) is one of them, but its model, which attaches mounted drones atop delivery vehicles, has borne little fruit, with several buyers reporting serious malfunctions.
Enter Amazon. With this new patent, the hope is that the company can transform an inefficient delivery vessel into a supplementary piece that can boost its vans’ efficiency in the same way that a cabinet might benefit a president. The van would delegate much of the legwork to its drone underlings while presiding over the entire operation from behind closed doors.
Soon, instead of seeing a fleet of Amazon delivery vans in your town, you might see a single delivery van with its own mini-fleet of drones. It sounds a little dystopian, sure. But if Amazon does decide to pursue its newly patented tech, the possibilities are endless.
Drones flying out of vans sounds cool, but imagine if a freighter could unload its cargo without stopping to dock, or if a city train could whiz by apartments releasing parcel-carrying drones as it goes. By having a crew of secondary drones linked with a primary delivery vehicle, all of these are on the table.