Amazon patents whip-snapping launch system

Whip launch system
A diagram shows Amazon’s whip-based launch system in operation on a ship. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Never let it be said that Amazon Prime Air VP Gur Kimchi thinks small: His latest patent lays out a plan for a launch system that could theoretically send payloads into space on the end of a miles-long whip, guided by a phalanx of drones attached to the lash.

The patent application — co-written with veteran Amazon inventor Louis LeRoi LeGrand III, filed in 2017 and published on Feb. 11 — lays out an unusually detailed description of the system, right down to how the gear teeth in the mechanism could be arranged.

Although the application delves into the possibilities for boosting payloads to low Earth orbit, and then using orbiting platforms with tethers to transfer those payloads into even higher orbits, the inventors make clear there could be more mundane applications as well.

For example, smaller whips could send drones or other types of aerial vehicles into the air from ships at sea, or from planes in the air. Packages could be flung up on drones for processing on aerial fulfillment centers (an airship concept that’s the subject of an earlier Amazon patent).

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Amazon patents ‘Doctor Who’ delivery robots

Storage compartment vehicle
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows a customer issuing a command to open up one of the doors on a storage compartment vehicle. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Amazon is already testing robots that deliver packages, but a newly issued patent covers a far more ambitious scheme, involving storage compartment vehicles that can roam the sidewalks to make multiple deliveries along their routes.

As described in the patent application published today, Amazon’s proposed SCVs could pick up items for return as well.

If the plan is fully implemented, it could address the “last mile” or “final 50 feet” challenge for delivery systems by having customers come out to the sidewalk, tap the required security code on their smartphones, and open up the right doors to grab the items they’ve ordered.

There’s no guarantee that we’ll see treaded SCVs roaming the street anytime soon. Amazon says its patent applications explore the full possibilities of new technologies — but those inventions don’t always get turned into new products and services as described in the applications. Sometimes the inventions never see the light of day. (Just ask Jeff Bezos about the airbag-cushioned smartphone he invented.)

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Patent combines self-driving vehicles and drones

Self-driving drones and vehicles
A diagram accompanying Amazon’s patent application shows how a self-driving ground vehicle and a self-flying drone would work together to make a package delivery. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

For a long time, Amazon has been looking into applications for self-driving vehicles — and testing fleets of self-flying drones for making package deliveries. So it only makes sense that the Seattle-based online retailing giant would meld those vehicles for a warehouse-to-doorstep delivery system virtually untouched by human hands.

In a patent published today, Amazon inventors Hilliard Bruce Siegel and Ethan Evans describe a system that has autonomous ground vehicles transport packages to a customer’s neighborhood — perhaps even the street in front of the customer’s door — and coordinate the doorstep delivery with a drone.

Both types of robo-carriers would be in contact wirelessly with a central computer network that would manage the operation. The ground vehicle could be directed to head over to a fulfillment center, pick up shipments and plot a course for deliveries. Drones could flit back and forth to drop off packages and charge up at the vehicle.

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Amazon patents spoilage-sniffing refrigerator

Spoilage-sensing refrigerator
A diagram indicates the location of chemical sensors in a proposed spoilage-detecting refrigerator. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Years after making its application, Amazon has won a patent for a refrigerator that uses cameras and chemical sensors to sniff out spoiled food.

But if you’re waiting to get one-day shipping for a fridge that knows your fruit has gone bad before you do, you might want to put those hopes on ice. Or look to similar spoilage-detecting gizmos that are already out there.

The concept is suited to our foodie age, as well as the age of the Internet of Things.

In the newly approved patent application, Amazon inventor Simon Kurt Johnston starts with the obvious: “Food or drinks in the refrigerator will eventually spoil.”

It almost sounds as if Johnston is speaking from experience when he explains why a spoilage-sensing fridge is needed: “A user may not notice that food or drinks within the refrigerator are spoiling because these items may be stored out of sight (e.g., at the back of the refrigerator, in a drawer or bin, or behind another item).”

The solution? Seal off every bin, and put cameras and sensors inside. The camera system could be programmed to capture regular images of the items inside a drawer, and then upload them for processing with machine-learning algorithms to recognize the foodstuffs and compare them with a database of food spoilage.

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Amazon lays out a way to guide deliveries with AR

Augmented reality for deliveries
A schematic shows how information about a delivery drop-off location might be overlaid on the display of an augmented-reality headset. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Efficient package delivery is one of the keystones of Amazon’s retailing business, and a newly issued patent opens up a new frontier in efficiency: augmented reality.

The patent, published today, outlines a scheme for alerting a delivery agent about the best times to make a delivery, the best routes to take and even the best places for parking — all overlaid on the agent’s AR headset.

Why do it, in this age of navigation apps?

“Experienced delivery agents often learn information about the delivery routes and delivery areas that is not reflected in a delivery route generated by a routing application,” Amazon inventor Robert Niewiadomski writes in his application, filed back in 2016.

Such lore can include gate codes, the precise location of the preferred delivery entrance and “the most efficient or best places to park when making a delivery to a destination or a group of destinations,” Niewiadomski notes.

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Amazon patents drone surveillance as a service

Drone surveillance plan
A diagram shows how Amazon’s patented geofencing arrangement would zero in on a potential break-in while screening out a view of the house next door. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Amazon has patented a system for providing home security surveillance as a service, but the real innovation has to do with avoiding surveillance of the home next door.

Just don’t expect to sign up for the service, or freak out over it, anytime soon.

For one thing, Amazon patents lots of ideas that never see the light of day. (Remember Jeff Bezos’ airbag-equipped smartphone?) For another, the newly published patent sprang from an application that was filed four years previously — and Amazon’s strategy for drone operations as well as security services has almost certainly evolved since 2015.

A big roadblock to surveillance drones is that the Federal Aviation Administration is still working out the regulations regarding commercial drone flights in neighborhoods — particularly when the flights are done autonomously, beyond the operator’s line of sight. (Even drone surveillance of industrial facilities such as railyards can spark controversy.)

The patent application, attributed to inventors Kalidas Yeturu and Howard Lee Huddleston Jr., calls for making use of the drones that Amazon is developing for package deliveries.

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Amazon patents drone delivery targeting system

Amazon drone delivery
An Amazon delivery drone prepares to descend toward its target during a test run in England, as seen in an aerial view.  (Amazon via YouTube)

newly published patent hints at the system that Amazon just might use to guide delivery drones to their destinations, and verify that the drone’s payloads have been dropped off at the right locations.

The system, as described in an application that was filed in 2016 and published as an approved patent today, could involve having the drone recognize landmarks in the designated recipient’s yard or driveway — as well as a printed-out target with a barcode confirming the items to be delivered.

If the drone spots obstructions that could interfere with the delivery — for example, tree branches, an outdoor grill or a basketball — recipients could get a message on their mobile device telling them to move the delivery target or move the obstructions out of the way.

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Future Amazon packages just might ride the bus

Bus compartments
A schematic shows how storage compartments might fit on a bus. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Amazon’s inventors have suggested using drone-dispensing trucksrail cars and airships to deliver packages, but one of the company’s latest patents lays out a more mundane route for future customers: picking up their purchases from public buses.

The patent for a mobile package pickup system was published on Jan. 29, almost five years after inventor Kushal Mukesh Bhatt’s patent application was filed. Ironically, Bhatt now works for Walmart, one of Amazon’s biggest retail competitors.

As described in the patent, the system calls for installing storage compartments on buses or other vehicles, and letting riders with the authorized codes unlock a designated compartment and pick up their item. Customers can specify the time and the place for the pickup when they put in their online order.

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Amazon’s got a brand new bag for delivery items

Hot-and-cold bag
Amazon’s newly patented concept for a convertible delivery bag has internal insulated panels that can be adjusted to accommodate hot and cold items for a single delivery. There’s even a drink holder, indicated as item 128. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Insulated bags for pizza deliveries and cooler bags for ice-cold drinks are nothing new. But how about if you put them together? Amazon’s inventors thought the idea was novel enough to apply for a patent, and now they’ve gotten it.

The patent application, titled “Convertible Food Delivery Bag With an Adjustable Divider,” describes a delivery bag that has a system of magnetic strips, Velcro-style strips or sliders on the bag’s interior.

Panels of insulating material can be moved around inside the bag to create compartments of adjustable sizes, to secure a cold drink snugly or provide enough room for the hot bucket of chicken nestled in the bag compartment next to it. The patent application even provides for built-in drink holders.

The idea is to scale up the pizza-bag concept for bigger deliveries, combining hot and cold items and thus addressing a need that the inventors say is currently going unmet.

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Amazon aims to patent warehouses on rails

Containerized fulfillment center
A diagram shows a rail-borne shipping container that serves as a mobile fulfillment center, with the capability to dispatch drones for package deliveries. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

If Amazon follows through on a pair of patent applications, future fulfillment centers could be transported on their rounds by trains, ships or trucks and deliver their goods with autonomous drones flying out from the tops of shipping containers.

The on-demand system for package delivery is covered in two applications that were filed a year and a half ago but published just today. The inventors are principal software engineer Brian Beckman and intermodal program manager Nicholas Bjone.

Their concept calls for putting all the hardware for a fulfillment center, including a robotic arm and a squadron of drones, inside shipping containers (also known as intermodal vehicles). The standard-size containers are designed to be easily transferred from ships to trains to tractor-trailer trucks.

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