Once limited entirely to book sales, online retail giant Amazon has expanded its services dramatically since its founding in 1994. The company now owns the Whole Foods grocery brand, has its own line of e-readers and computer hardware, and dominates quick delivery with its same-day Prime service. Ever one to keep up with tech advances, Amazon has long held plans to adopt unmanned drone deliveries. A recent patent filing by the company revealed a unique feature of their proposed drones that seems pulled from the pages of a spy novel.
Amazon conducted its first drone delivery test back in December of 2016 in the United Kingdom. The trip involved transporting a snack sized bag of popcorn and an Amazon Fire TV device to a customer several miles outside of Cambridge. Completed in just 13 minutes, the test was a valuable proof-of-concept for the company, who later performed a test in their home country of the United States. The company carried out its first U.S. Amazon Prime Air delivery in March of this year, this time transporting a few bottle of sunscreen to a customer in California. When demoed at a conference that same month, Amazon mentioned that they were making more headway with drone delivery in the U.K than in the U.S., as air traffic regulatory issues had hampered the company’s ability to carry out test flights.
Enter Amazon’s self-destructing drone, a possible answer to some of the concerns U.S. air traffic authorities contend would make unmanned deliveries too risky. This week, Amazon filed a patent demonstrating a new design for its drone which included the ability to disassemble itself while in flight, a feature which the document describes as “direct fragmentation for unmanned airborne vehicles.”
The general thinking is that, by breaking the drone into smaller sections before impact, it’s less likely any of the descending components would be large enough to cause serious damage or injury to people or property below. Since the drones are self-piloting, this feature would also be engaged according to the drone’s own determinations, which are arrived at via an advanced computing system capable of detecting when an accident is imminent. The computer is also capable of identifying an optimal crash site, as illustrations in the patent also revealed the device could search for empty land or open water to serve as a crash site. While the patent is certainly an interesting development, the company has yet to reveal when it intends to implement drone deliveries beyond sporadic tests.