If the loftier visions of Silicon Valley’s most ambitious internet companies turn into reality, the stratosphere is about to become a very crowded place.
Amazon has joined the sky-bound dreamers with an idea that sounds like it has been drawn straight from the pages of science fiction: airship warehouses floating high above the clouds, feeding a fleet of drones that whisk purchases straight to the buyer.
The uses that the US ecommerce company envisages for the delivery dirigibles include posting a balloon in the skies above a football game, so that it can handle the rush of orders for “sporting paraphernalia, food products, etc”.
The proposal, contained in a US patent that was granted earlier this year, is for now just one of many fanciful-sounding ideas that the big tech companies have filed patents on, as they try to sketch out the outer boundaries of the new technological capabilities they have been rushing to develop.
Most such ideas — such as Google’s dream of data centres on sea-born barges powered by waves, or Apple’s sketch of a “magic” glove so that people could still use their iPhones in cold weather — look like eccentric oddities. But with the technologies needed to power inventions like these developing quickly, the tech companies have been racing to envisage how they may one day reshape the world.
Amazon, for instance, has already claimed its first commercial drone delivery, after it shipped a bag of popcorn to a customer in England earlier this month. Balloons floating in the stratosphere for long periods of time could also soon be a reality. Google has been testing balloons designed to stay airborne above 60,000ft for its Project Loon, in order to bring internet service to underserved parts of the world.
Facebook has also turned its eyes to the skies, with plans for a fleet of drones that would circulate 60,000ft, communicating with each other using lasers to create an internet network.
Amazon’s patent, which was spotted by analyst Zoe Leavitt at venture capital research firm CB Insights, envisages what the company calls “airborne fulfilment centres”. These would float at more than 45,000ft, putting them above commercial air traffic and even the highest clouds.
Besides reducing the need to build ground-based facilities, Amazon believes that warehouses in the sky would give it much greater flexibility. “Because the AFC is airborne, it is not limited to a fixed location,” the company wrote in its patent. Instead, “it can navigate to different areas depending on a variety of factors, such as weather, expected demand, and/or actual demand.”
Turning these experimental technologies into reality, however, has not always been easy. Facebook’s first solar-powered drone, for instance, crash-landed back to earth as one of its wings buckled on landing.
For the foreseeable future, Amazon may find more use for another patent that came to light this week: a proposal for anti-hacking measures to prevent its drones from being hijacked while they are out making deliveries.
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