There’s little debate that global E-commerce giant Amazon has shifted the perception of what is possible in logistics. Just look at the numbers: they are the world’s second-biggest company, shipping to 310 million active customers every year and hit an estimated valuation of $1 trillion this month – only the second ever company to reach this feat after Apple. And yet with that success and market-share, Amazon continues to stay ahead of the curve.
Case in point: Amazon’s patents. The US company has been lodging more and more patents every year, with almost 100 in 2017. These are patents with the simple aim of getting packages more quickly to customers. Their proposed methods, however – across air, land, sea and earth – are anything but simple. Here are some of the most impressive, futuristic and downright strange plans Amazon has for the oncoming decades of logistics:
It should not be a big surprise that the bulk of Amazon’s patents concern better airfreight delivery. What may surprise however is the way they intend to fly those packages to you. Namely: drones. Drone delivery has been earmarked for a number of years as the future of Amazon delivery, and projects like Amazon Prime Air show this is closer to becoming reality.
However, Amazon has also patented a range of ideas as to how this drone delivery happens – and some are certainly inventive. For instance, one patent lodged in 2016 calls for the creation of huge airborne warehouses from which drones can directly deliver goods. This would remove the need for land or buildings: these airborne fulfillment centers would be airships that remain at 13.7 km and serve as a space to deploy the drones and their packages. Another idea, this time closer to earth, calls for a large beehive building which deploys drones and their goods.
Back on land and Amazon’s patents are all about predetermination and autonomous delivery. One suggests that Amazon will even be able to predict “what buyers are going to buy before they buy and then shipping packages to a geographical area without specifying the exact delivery address at the time of shipment”. Essentially, this method will use Amazon’s algorithm to unlock consumer behavior and anticipate purchases before they even take place.
Other patents in this area look at on-demand creation and delivery. For goods, Amazon has plans for a retailing system that can take custom orders for 3D printed items, get them made, and have them sent out for delivery or picked up by the customer. For clothes, the idea is much the same: textile printers, cutters and an assembly line are at the ready for when an order is placed.
And maybe you aren’t at home to collect your package? No problem, as another patent lodged by the logistics giant sets out the plan for an autonomous ground vehicle that can roll out from someone’s home, pick up a package from a delivery truck and bring it to the right place.
Moving on to warehouses: we should also touch on an especially bonkers Amazon patent which the company promises will never see the light of day. The 2016 patent would put human workers in cages and mounted atop robotic trolleys. Though the company initially said it was to better pair humans and machines in areas full of other automated robots, public backlash against caging employees saw the company scrap the idea with the promise it would never be implemented.
The majority of Amazon’s patents focus on air and land delivery, but perhaps their most interesting idea is to do with water. Widely regarded as one of the more “out-there” ideas: this pitch looks to store packages underwater which are then regulated by depth controllers. When an item is required, the depth controller can bring the desired package up to the surface. But why would Amazon want to do this, you might ask? The answer is all about space.
The company’s current warehouses are becoming increasingly large with complicated technology. Amazon stocks millions of products and some warehouses are almost one hundred thousand square meters – requiring their workforce of pickers and robots to travel many miles throughout the day to gather items. This idea is all about combating useless space in above-ground warehouses and to cut down on those travel times.
If they can do it underwater, why not under the earth, too? This Amazon’s patent from 2016 proposes a subterranean network to make direct delivery to buildings and homes. The interconnected underground tunnels would “transport packages via conveyor belts or rails, or even through pneumatic tubes” – potentially connecting rail stations, airports, fulfillment centers, locker storage sites and, of course, customers. This would require an incredible feat of engineering and infrastructure to make possible, but the concept is yet another indication of where Amazon’s future may lie.
Where to now?
Perhaps Amazon is acutely aware that 88 percent of the Fortune 500 firms which thrived in 1955 no longer exist. These companies, which once seemed invincible, tumbled in the face of new companies with new ideas. Maybe this is the reason for Amazon’s collection of revolutionary, weird, impressive, game-changing patents. Will all of these patents become reality? It’s unlikely, but their mere existence gives us an idea of what the biggest logistics company in the world is thinking. And evidently, they are thinking big.