Amazon Patents Method for Delivery Drone Recharging Stations

Like gas stations, only for drones ... and most likely for the occasional weary bird too.

Reminiscent of the days when automobiles were a recent invention and gas stations began popping up all around the country to supply fuel, we may soon be seeing “drone docking stations” or “birdhouses” appearing on streetlights, cell towers and church steeples if Amazon’s latest patent becomes a reality.

Patent 9,387,928 B1, which was filed with the US Patent Office in December of 2014 and finally issued this July, outlines a whole network of stations designed to enable drones to recharge or make transfers while delivering packages around the country.  As the patent document itself states, “The docking stations can extend the range of UAVs by providing recharging/refueling stations… and can also include navigational aid.”

Though the issuing of a patent by no means guarantees that the invention will be developed, it is an intriguing concept. Drones can already travel several miles at a time on a single battery charge but if Amazon needs to send a package from say California to New York, a drone isn’t going to make it that far all at once, just as a car can’t make it that far without refueling several times. That’s where the drone stations will come in handy.

The idea is simple but clever: Amazon will have central shipping facilities from which the drones originate. They will then construct a network of drone stations (It is not clear at this point how far apart the stations would be or how many of them there would be in a given region).  In rural areas standalone stations could be built and in residential areas the platforms can be placed upon existing streetlights and cell towers. These platforms will contain connections for the drones to literally recharge their batteries, or take shelter from bad weather or transfer their packages to another drone in a relay type system. Apparently in some cases the stations may even have connections to control centers to allow for direct remote control. The size and location of these structures will make them no more obtrusive than an ordinary birdhouse, and because they will sit atop existing structures they should be cheap to construct and very space efficient.

Unlike most hobby drones which are controlled directly by a single human operator, these drones will typically by autonomous, directed by a preprogrammed flight plan but able to adjust their “rest stops” as needed depending on weather alerts they receive or self-detected battery levels.  They will be able to detect all drone stations in their region and navigate to the closest one when needed.

If this becomes a reality the future of shipping will certainly look a lot different. Just imagine seeing a few drones alighting on the streetlight next to your house every couple of days or spotting a drone tagging along with a flock of geese as they flap through the sky. Amazon hasn’t clarified how the drones will actually deliver the packages but imagine responding to the doorbell to discover a drone hovering on your front porch, package in tow. Maybe private sellers will even be able to schedule drone package pickups, who knows.