Amazon Just Filed a Patent for Delivery Robots

But we may still get flying delivery drones.
Brad Bergan
A 3D rendering of a self-driving delivery robot.sarawuth702 / iStock

The new shipping industry is nearly here.

Amazon Inc. just applied for a patent on a new package delivery system capable of shipping consumer goods from the primary delivery vehicle to your door via a mini-sized delivery vehicle robot that ferries shipments to final end-point destinations, according to a filing with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

But we could still get the flying drone deliveries we secretly crave.

Amazon's robot delivery could detect mad yard dogs

In the last decade, Amazon and other delivery services have investigated the possibility of employing new technologies to transport packages from warehouses to consumers. The proposals have ranged from driverless vans housing smaller robots to flying drones that ship directly through the air to customer airspace (and then a parachute drop of packages). Electronic delivery robots were assumed to be a cheaper alternative to hiring and supporting humans to perform hard labor. But the new proposal suggests that Amazon is looking into a new solution to the delivery game: Housing small and autonomous vehicles in its delivery trucks, which will carry packages to final drop-off points.

The new application will involve a primary van still driven by human hands. But the truck will come chock-full of technology with an emphasis on assisting autonomous delivery vehicles, instead of merely helping the driver, alone. Once the van arrives at a house, for example, the onboard tech will scan the house and its exterior to identify the optimal path for the smaller, secondary vehicle. Then the robot will roll itself down a ramp to move onto the street, and then go to the front porch while the van monitors its journey, sending updates as necessary. The little autonomous robot will also come equipped with navigational tech and cameras, with which it will send images back to the main van, in addition to other pertinent data (like obstacles, like a mad dog in the yard).

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After the package is dropped, the two vehicles will collaborate to ensure the smaller robot makes it back to the van without any snags, so that the entire process may begin again for the next delivery. As of writing, it remains unclear whether Amazon will actually build this system, or not. It could make subtle variations on the filed patent. It could also make serious changes, like flying drones that fire out of the top of the truck, perhaps blocks ahead of time. It's easy to imagine something cooler, like firing a drone in an arc like a ballistic missile dropping payloads of products instead of warheads, and then coming down to land on the van, but this is purely speculative. But other major online retail powers are dipping their budgets into the autonomous delivery game.

In November of last year, Walmart and General Motors jointing announced they would design a new autonomous vehicle unit, with plans to test out driverless vehicle delivery in Arizona. This system aimed to enable customers to enjoy contactless delivery via a GM's Cruise vehicle, which the two companies say will eventually scale up to full autonomous delivery. It's an exciting time for consumers of online retail products, since, in the wake of social distancing procedures of the last year, digital shopping has become the main avenue for U.S. consumers. But time will tell whether the implementation of autonomous shipping will supplant essential workers like delivery and semi-truck drivers throughout the country, and add to the growing unemployment problem.