Amazon Prime Air
Amazon Prime Air private trial for drone delivery. Amazon

Top U.S. retailers Amazon and Walmart have taken steps to revolutionize the current logistics set-up for retail deliveries, especially in creating an infrastructure that will facilitate faster delivery using unmanned aerial vehicles like drones.

While Amazon’s Prime Air model was showcased last year, Walmart has applied for a similar floating warehouse, from where drones can pick up items and drop them at customers' doors.

The patent titled “Gas-filled carrier aircrafts and methods of dispersing unmanned aircraft systems in delivering products” explains the mechanism, which seems similar to a hot air balloon or blimp-style airship.

“One or more propulsion systems are secured with the gas chamber and/or the carrier compartment. When activated, the propulsion system causes the transport aircraft to move through the air. The propulsion systems may be configured to advance the transport aircraft upward, downward, in forward and/or reverse directions,” the patent states.

The airship, according to the patent, will fly between 500-1000 feet and will have multiple launch bays for drones; it might be flown autonomously or by a human pilot.

The mechanism might help speed up deliveries and even provide last-mile coverage to many inaccessible areas. Currently, retailers depend on logistics companies and local delivery agents for their deliveries.

Speaking about the new mechanism proposed by Walmart, Brandon Fletcher, an analyst at the investment firm Sanford C Bernstein and Co., told Bloomberg on Monday “The core challenge of traffic and driving distance in any major city or in a very rural location can be helped by a floating warehouse. Movable warehouses are a really nice idea because any flexible part of a logistics system allows it to be more efficient when demand varies wildly. The e-commerce world suffers from highly variable demand and more creative solutions are needed.”

Walmart has been encouraging customers toward in-store pickup for years, but given Amazon’s rise as a retailer, especially its fast deliveries, it seems Walmart has also started investing in drone-based delivery logistics.

“There are numerous ways to distribute and deliver products. Getting the product to a delivery location, however, can cause undesirable delays, can add cost and reduce revenue,” the patent application states.

The company’s main rival, Amazon is also working on a similar delivery system, according to its patent titled “Airborne fulfillment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery.”

In fact, the functionality of the system is also similar since it also wants to employ blimp-type airships to serve as warehouses. What’s different though is that Amazon wants to deploy its airships at 45,000 feet, as per the patent, and will have an accompanying airship that will bring orders to this fulfillment center and from there on they will be delivered through drones.

While drone-based deliveries seem to be currently in just the conceptual stage, chances are that the companies might be working on making the idea mainstream. However, even though the remote, autonomously controlled, mobile distribution hub seems to be an ideal way of cutting delivery time and costs, the availability and assigning of airspace for such projects might be a concern.

Drones are restricted in many places globally and for this mechanism to come to life, most of these metrics will need to be resolved. Chances are we might start seeing full-scale, commercial, drone deliveries by 2025.