Amazon patents self-driving lane control system

Amazon Fresh truck
An Amazon Fresh truck goes out for deliveries. (Image by Atomic Taco, via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0)

There’s been a lot of speculation about Amazon’s interest in self-driving delivery trucks, and a newly issued patent suggests that the Seattle-based retailer is putting a lot of thought into how such a system would work.

The patent, issued today, concentrates on how a wireless control system could help autonomous vehicles negotiate changes in reversible lanes.

The arrangement would keep self-driving cars and trucks in contact with a central roadway management system. That system would track how lanes are allocated, and could even shift lanes from one direction to the other depending on demand.

“The roadway management system can identify a period of time and a particular lane of the roadway that is best suited to assign to the autonomous vehicle while taking into account an outcome directive,” Amazon’s inventors explain.

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Amazon wins a patent for delivery tunnels

Delivery tunnel
A diagram shows how goods could be delivered via tunnels. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising that Amazon has patented a system for delivering goods via a dedicated network of underground tunnels. After all, the Seattle-based company is looking into virtually every other mode of transportation.

But the idea seem ambitious, even for America’s largest online retailer.

Amazon has experimented with delivery services that make use of autonomous dronesbicycle couriers and branded fleets of airplanes and trucks. There’s talk of self-driving trucks, flying warehouses and a system that would let drones hitchhike on trucks and buses.

Even the patent for Amazon’s Treasure Truck leaves the door open for Treasure Boats as well.

Amazon’s patent application for a dedicated network delivery system, above or below ground, was filed almost three years ago. The patent was finally issued and published a little more than a month ago.

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How augmented reality can find your keys

Image: AR headset
This cartoon shows a user wearing a headset that’s part of a system to keep track of items such as keys (102). The headset display could highlight the location of the keys even if they end up hidden under a sheaf of papers or lost between the cushions of a couch. (Microsoft Illustration via USPTO)

Microsoft expects its HoloLens augmented-reality headset to guide you through complicated tasks in the workplace, but someday you could also use it around the house to find misplaced items, play games – and even watch movies on a virtual big screen.

The possibilities for augmented reality, or AR, are laid out in a series of patents and patent applications published over the past month or so.

Augmented reality is a cousin of virtual reality. VR creates a complete computer-generated environment, viewed through headsets ranging from the high-end Oculus Rift and HTC Vive to the smartphone-based Google Daydream and Samsung Gear systems. AR systems like Microsoft’s HoloLens goes one step further, blending computer-generated imagery with the real-life scene that’s in front of you.

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Amazon designs the Borg of delivery drones

Collective UAV
One concept for a collective UAV looks like the Borg Cube from “Star Trek.” (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Right now, Amazon’s delivery drones are designed to drop off packages weighing no more than 5 pounds. But what if you could link up lots of drones? Then your bigger packages could be assimilated.

That’s the idea behind a patent application from the Seattle-based online retail giant that focuses on Lego-like assemblies known as “collective UAVs,” or unmanned aerial vehicles.

“A collective UAV may be used to aerially transport virtually any size, weight, or quantity of items, travel longer distances, etc.,” says the application, filed in February 2015 but published just today.

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Will drones be dropping from flying warehouses?

Delivery via airship
This diagram shows an airship-style aerial fulfillment center dropping drones to make deliveries. After each delivery, the drones fly off and are collected for the return trip to the blimp via a replenishment shuttle. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Some patents seem so way out that you have to wonder if they’re a joke. Such is the case for Amazon’s patent covering an “airborne fulfillment center” that would launch drones to deliver merchandise from above.

The patent, which was granted in April, came to light this week in the wake of yet another patented Amazon scheme to ward off hackers as well as bow-and-arrow attacks.

“I just unearthed the Death Star of e-commerce,” Zoe Leavitt, a tech analyst for CB Insights, declared Dec. 28 in a tweet.

Hilarity ensued.

The scheme calls for having an airship hover over the intended delivery area at an altitude of 45,000 feet, stocked with goodies that can be loaded aboard drones when an order is made.

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Amazon plans to defend drones from … arrows?

Arrow attack on drone
A diagram from Amazon’s patent application shows a malicious person shooting an arrow at a drone – and missing. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

If there are any Robin Hoods out there who are thinking about shooting down drones while they’re making deliveries, Amazon has a patented plan to stop you.

The patent, filed in 2014 but published just last week, lays out countermeasures for potential threats ranging from computer hacking to lightning flashes to bows and arrows.

If nothing else, the 33-page application illustrates how many things could possibly go wrong with an autonomous navigation system for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

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NASA patents are so crazy they just might work

Image: ARGOS training
A NASA astronaut trains for a future mission task that would typically be conducted in weightlessness, using the patented Active Response Gravity Offload System, or ARGOS. (Credit: NASA)

When NASA put out the word this month that it was offering more than 1,200 of its patented technologies to startups for no money down, the spotlight naturally fell on the farthest-out ideas – for example, a collapsible airplane suitable for sending to Mars, or solar sails for interplanetary flights.

But the real point of the exercise is to make it easier to convert NASA’s out-of-this-world ideas into profitable innovations on Earth. NASA is willing to waive the patent licensing fees for the first three years of commercialization, but will take a standard net royalty fee once businesses start selling commercial products.

The resulting products might well have nothing to do with outer space. Here are seven patented ideas that may sound crazy but could work for the right kind of startup.

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