Amazon Files New Patent to Use Drones and Trucks Together for Deliveries

BY Zacc Dukowitz
5 August 2021

In a new patent, Amazon describes a delivery system that would use both drones and vans working together to get packages to people’s front doors.

The system would use a primary vehicle (the van) equipped with sensors that would control one or more secondary vehicles (the drones).

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The drones in question would be both aerial and ground-based, deployed from the primary vehicle to complete the “last mile” of the delivery—that is, the final segment in which the package actually reaches its final destination.

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In the patent, the drones are described as having some kind of marking—this could be a logo, or a QR code—that would allow the van’s camera to track them as they make deliveries.

The van would also provide the drones with locational data to help them adjust their speed, change their routes, and return to the van after making their delivery.

Not the First Time Amazon Has Patented Truck/Drone Delivery

Back in 2014 Amazon filed a similar patent, which was approved in 2018.

That patent described an approach to deliveries that used a self-driving truck—or car, plane or boat—called a “mobile base” that would travel through areas making deliveries.

Within these mobile bases would live automated storage and retrieval systems. The base would enter an area and then UAVs, smaller ground-based drones, or human bike messengers would retrieve individual packages from the base and make the actual drop-off.

The approach was primarily aimed at deliveries in dense urban environments, where driving from one location to another isn’t as expedient as staying in one place and using smaller, more agile vehicles for the final stage of delivery.

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The main differences between that approach and the one described in Amazon’s new patent seem to be:

  • The new patent describes a van equipped with locational sensors (cameras, LiDAR, etc.) that control the drone instead of having these sensors on the drone itself.
  • The new patent describes drones as traveling within the van (i.e., the primary vehicle) and being deployed from it.
  • The new patent allows for the van to be either driven autonomously or by a person.

Back in 2017, UPS also described a system that would use a drone deployed from a truck for completing the last mile of delivery.

At the time, the delivery giant estimated that using this approach to cut just one mile off every driver’s route every day could save the company $50 million a year.

But it’s 2021, and we still haven’t seen UPS—or Amazon, for that matter—make much traction yet from drone-equipped trucks.

Drone Delivery May Not Be the Best Solution for All Environments

Last year, researchers from the Martin Luther Universitat in Halle-Wittenberg found that using drones for deliveries in dense urban environments wasn’t nearly as efficient as using electric-powered vans.

They made these findings by calculating energy outputs for different delivery methods in places with high population densities.

From an energy perspective, even diesel vans out-performed drones for urban deliveries.

Here were the researchers’ findings:

  • Diesel vans used 5 times more energy than electric vans.*
  • Drones used 10 times more energy than electric vans.*

*These figures assume the vans are carrying 100 parcels each and that each parcel weighs 5.5 lb.

The reason both types of vans were more efficient than the drone is because they’re operating in a dense, urban environment. Each van can carry hundreds of packages at once, maximizing efficiency when lots of deliveries need to be made in a small area.

But for rural deliveries, the researchers found that drones are more efficient.

In rural areas, vans have farther to travel between deliveries. And because vans are big and require lots of energy, long drives for a single delivery can lead to lower efficiency.

According to the researchers, the specific moment at which a drone becomes more efficient than an electric van for making deliveries is when the delivery destination is five miles or more from the fulfillment center. (This calculation assumes ideal wind conditions.)

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Photo credit: Amazon Prime Air

Amazon Prime Air currently holds a Part 135 certificate, which means that it has the FAA’s permission to conduct drone deliveries.

But it still hasn’t launched a drone delivery program.

And it may never launch one. According to new reporting from WIRED Magazine, Amazon Prime Air has laid off over 100 people recently and looks like it may be on the way toward a full implosion.

So while we’d like to think that this recent patent application is for technology that Amazon actually plans to use, it could just be another salvo in the ongoing delivery wars, with Amazon roping off a delivery solution so that none of its competitors can use it—even if the company doesn’t plan to use it either.

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