Amazon drones, meet your mothership

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's -- Amazon. The online retailer has its head in the clouds with plans for an airship hosting a swarm of delivery drones.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
2 min read
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Amazon has visions of a great fulfillment center in the sky.


This isn't what I imagined from Amazon's cloud-based technology.

In recently discovered patent images, Amazon drafted a plan to have an airship 45,000 feet above the Earth, storing a fleet of drones and packages to deliver. Amazon said these unmanned aerial vehicles would take "little to no power" to transport goods to consumers' doorsteps if they are dropping down and gliding instead of lifting off and taking flight.

Amazon has been pushing to make drone deliveries mainstream since it announced Prime Air in 2013. It made its first drone drop-off on December 15, in a trial run in the UK. The company has filed multiple patents -- including the airship warehouse -- for drones since announcing its plans. But they might all just stay that way, considering Amazon's complaints about the Federal Aviation Administration's snail-like pace for UAV regulations.

One of the perks of having a sky center instead of a traditional warehouse, Amazon noted, was that it could move to spots where the weather is better and demand is higher. It pointed out football games as an example: The airship could fly to the stadium and drop off jerseys and snacks for fans.

The online retailer received the patent in April for its "Airborne Fulfillment Center" -- a fancy way to say "warehouse in the air." Amazon had filed for the patent in December 2014, but it was only recently unearthed by CB Insight's Zoe Leavitt.

In its patent filing, Amazon suggested that the airborne eyesore would stay in the skies for an indefinite period -- relying on smaller airships to restock the flock with more packages, fuel, supplies and drones.

Because it would take too much energy for the drones to return to the airship, they would just head to one of the smaller airships to be lifted back up, Amazon suggested.

The airships could also be used as billboards in the sky: Amazon noting that the center could be lowered to 2,000 feet above cities and serve as advertising space. That includes the smaller shuttles that would be used to restock the ship.

The e-commerce giant has been pushing forward on new concepts, like Amazon Go, an experimental supermarket with no staff, letting customers shop by grabbing items and walking out.

At least, for now, the airship will be manned, with Amazon planning to have workers in its Airborne Fulfillment Center -- though it did point out the piloting system could be automated.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.