Episode 1: It's a bird, it's a plane 🛸

Vic and Tori encounter a weird yet familiar object in the sky.

Welcome to the first-ever edition of the Year 2049 comic series!

Thank you for joining me on the journey to learn more about our life in the future.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane

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The backstory

Amazon’s dream

One image we have of the future is alien spaceships invading Earth, but the next thing we'll see in the skies could be someone we're very familiar with.

In 2016, Amazon won a patent for a flying warehouse called the "aerial fulfillment center" (AFC for short), which would float at an altitude of 13 km/45,000 feet (airplanes fly up to ~12 km/40,000 feet). The flying warehouse would store thousands of products and act as a launchpad for Amazon’s delivery drones.

How it works (in theory)

A diagram from Amazon’s patent filing (with my very professional-looking annotations):

Once an order is received, the flying warehouse (aka AFC) dispatches a delivery drone within minutes to the metropolitan area below. This activity requires minimal energy since the drones can glide down with the help of gravity. When the package is successfully delivered, the drone returns to a “replenishment shuttle” instead of returning to the AFC which would consume a lot of energy. These replenishment shuttles are sent regularly to refill the warehouse with drones and products.

Why would Amazon do this?

Companies have always patented ideas that seemed unrealistic or impossible to turn into reality (Amazon also has a patent for an underwater warehouse). On one hand, this could be seen as a defensive move to prevent anyone else from ever creating a flying warehouse, even if Amazon never does. Owning the IP can be incredibly lucrative: Amazon can license this at a cost to other companies (think DHL or FedEx) or sue whoever is doing this behind their backs.

The other argument is that Amazon might very well do this. They are known to be relentless (fun fact: relentless.com redirects you to Amazon) in their pursuit of providing faster delivery to customers. What better way to do that than a warehouse that’s constantly hovering over our heads?

The current reality

This patent was granted at a time where Amazon was aggressively ramping up its investments into its drone delivery business and expected drone delivery (excluding the flying warehouse) to become available within a few years. However, a recent report from WIRED has highlighted the struggles that Amazon's drone delivery business has been facing over the past few years.

The algorithms that automate these drones are far from perfect and require lots of training data to safely deliver items without human intervention. The drone’s heavy weight is also causing delays as it has to comply with higher safety requirements than small drones.

What’s next?

The technology is still far from perfect and requires a lot of safety and technical improvements that will likely take years. Only when those issues are resolved can we expect to see flying warehouses in the sky. This solution can have some benefits such as reducing the carbon footprint of its thousands’ of delivery trucks and providing faster delivery times for its customers. However, there’s something worrying about having drones flying into airplane territory and possibly colliding with other aircraft.

If you ever see a UFO in the future, don't worry: it might just be Amazon coming to deliver your toilet paper.

What’s your take on this? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

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Deep dive

If you liked this week’s story and want to learn more, here are some links to satisfy your curiosity:

  • Amazon’s patent documents (US Patent Office)

  • A very creepy rendering of this flying warehouse with Star Wars music in the background (YouTube)

  • The slow collapse of Amazon’s drone delivery dream (WIRED)

Next week

I hope you enjoyed today’s comic and story! Next week, I’ll be talking about climate change.

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Much love,