Online retailer Amazon has been catching a fair amount of derision over its recently disclosed patent for an airborne fulfillment center that uses drones for delivery.
Amazon’s patent application, which was filed on April 5, 2016, describes how a blimp-like lighter-than-air aircraft would hover near potential markets carrying merchandise that would then be delivered by unmanned drones. Those drones would pick up merchandise that had been ordered by a customer below and then descend and deliver the purchase.
A number of observers have said idea of an Amazon warehouse blimp sounds like something out of a science fiction novels, most of them dystopian. But the fact is that there’s no technical or engineering reason why such a blimp couldn’t work. There are of course other obstacles, most of them regulatory.
As Amazon envisions its airborne fulfillment center, it would fly in the lower stratosphere—around 45000 feet—where the delivery drones would be serviced and loaded. Other shuttle craft would deliver crew and merchandise, perform refueling tasks, and offload trash. The airborne warehouse would land only occasionally if at all.
While it all sounds futuristic, in fact the idea of using lighter-than-air craft for airborne transportation and delivery isn’t new at all. In the period before World War II, there was plenty of experimentation with lighter-than air transportation.
The Hindenburg, now known only for its spectacular landing explosion in Lakehurst, N.J., was actually a passenger aircraft designed for revenue service. It exploded because it used highly flammable hydrogen gas as its lifting medium since the U.S. government was hoarding the world’s supply of helium as a strategic material.
There were other attempts to use airships to deploy smaller aircraft. In 1935, the USS Macon, which was a rigid airship similar in design to the zeppelins originally designed in Germany, was basically a flying aircraft carrier built by the US Navy, crashed into the Pacific off of Point Sur in California.
When she went down, the Macon was carrying four fighter planes and a crew of 83. The intent before the crash was for the Macon, and her sister ship, the USS Akron, to launch and recover those fighter planes, performing missions similar to the ocean going aircraft carriers that were the strategic weapons that enabled the U.S. to win World War II in the Pacific ocean.
While the Amazon patent doesn’t specify that its lighter-than-air craft would be a blimp, which is essentially just a gas-filled bag of the rigid-frame zeppelin type, either one might work as a flying warehouse.