In case the question of how airplanes and drones can safely share the same skies wasn’t already complicated enough, the latest package delivery idea floated by Amazon will likely add some more fuel to those fires – if it ever comes to pass. The plan is to put an airship in constant flight at FL450, stock it with UAVs and common commodities, and float it to wherever the selling might be best. The consumers place orders and the drones would glide gently down to provide the product within minutes. The “Airborne Fulfillment Center” (AFC) doesn’t need to land. Restocking and fueling would be done by a smaller shuttle capable of docking with the aerial warehouse.
Think that sounds impossible? Well, Amazon already has a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The patent was issued in April, but was only made public last week. They just might believe they can build it.
Whether or not they can fly it is a different matter. From a retail standpoint, it makes a lot of sense – Amazon’s business model has always been based on fast service and this could make things even faster. Use all the toilet paper? Amazon would fly a new roll to your front door almost as fast as you could make it out of the bathroom. Convenient and simple.
From a pilot’s perspective, the idea of drones raining packages from 45,000 feet sounds…seriously complicated. Even with only one airship, the likelihood of it being situated over heavily populated areas is high. Already busy airspace would become busier and there would, by definition, be fewer eyes directly watching out for traffic. Regulations would have to be clear and tight to allay safety concerns for both airliners and GA planes.
To be absolutely clear: at this stage, patent approval is as far as it goes. The plans are still on the drawing board and, like many big ideas, the AFC might never get any further than that. The crazy entanglement of regulations, airspace, right-of-way, etc. that actual implementation would entail hasn’t yet been approached. Without a doubt, if Amazon does decide to pursue this admittedly interesting idea, the FAA and the flight community at large will have plenty to add to the discussion.