United States: Amazon To Control Delivery By Drone?

People are talking about and news organizations are covering Amazon’s announced plans to deliver goods by drone in the not-too-distant future.  However, fewer are talking about or covering Amazon’s effort to be the only company that can autonomously deliver goods by drone.  On March 25, 2014, Amazon filed a United States patent application directed to aspects of a drone delivery system.  Pursuant to current patent law, the application was published on October 1, 2015, roughly 18 months after the application was filed.  While the application is still pending and not yet an issued patent, it provides an interesting look at the scope of protection Amazon is seeking for its drone delivery system.

Under current proposed FAA regulations, drones cannot be flown outside of the line of sight of the operator.  A much greater range will be needed for an effective drone delivery network.  Amazon is proposing to send its drones as far as 15 miles from a regional fulfillment center.  The drones would take off vertically from a warehouse floor, fly at low altitude over a suburban landscape and then descend into the backyards of their destination points.  There they would lay the package on the lawn before lifting off to return to the warehouse for another run.  The success of such a system will depend upon receiving FAA approval.  FAA approval of such a system is likely to be contingent upon demonstrating that the system can be operated without causing a hazard.  In other words, the drones will need to be equipped  with “sense and avoid” technology that prevents them from crashing into things.

Amazon’s pending patent application, Pub. No. US 2015/0277440 A1, contains claims that are broadly directed to a propeller driven automated mobile vehicle having a laser based rangefinder configured to determine a distance to an object, to a distance determining system for an automated mobile vehicle having a distance determining element positioned to emit a laser signal that reflects off a reflective exterior surface of a motor, and to an automated mobile vehicle having a plurality of motors where the alignment axis of at least two of the motors are not parallel and each motor has a distance determining element.  These claims have not yet been examined by the Patent Office.  Upon examination, the scope of the claims will likely have to be narrowed to distinguish them from prior art.  However, it seems clear that Amazon is interested in pursuing broad protection for “drones” having a distance determining element, which is likely to be a necessary component of any “sense and avoid” technology.  Thus, the potential exists that Amazon will obtain patent protection broadly covering drone delivery systems.

The way the Amazon patent application is written, it seeks to avoid the need for human involvement to ensure that vehicles do not collide with other drones, manned aircraft, or other objects or structures on the ground.  It also discusses a system for automatically sensing and avoiding objects.  Thus, the “automated mobile vehicles” of the application and recited in the claims appear to be directed to autonomous drones.  However, at this stage it is not yet clear whether the claims in any patent that issues will be limited to autonomous drones, but might also cover remotely-piloted drones.  It remains to be seen whether the examination process will push Amazon into limiting the claims to autonomous operation.

The Amazon patent application also discusses the distance determining elements being used to detect the presence of objects and to then cause the automated mobile vehicle to alter its path to avoid the object.  Thus, the distance determining elements seem to be used not only for unloading positioning, but also for sense and avoid in flight.  While in a remotely piloted context, a sense and avoid system may not need to actually determine distances to other objects.  The remote pilot could rely on visual displays of the surrounding environment of the drone to avoid collisions.  However, in an autonomous operation, it is difficult to envision any sense and avoid system that would not need to know at least the distance from the drone to surrounding objects to function.  Amazon appears to be using this need to know such distances in the autonomous context to preempt the field.  In other words, a patent covering any autonomous drone that determines distance to surrounding objects might preclude any other drones from being able to have a functioning sense and avoid capability.

The broadest claims in the Amazon patent application just recite a “distance determining element.”  In a narrower claim, the application specifies “the distance determining element is at least one of an ultrasonic ranging module, a laser rangefinder, a radar distance measurement module, stadiametric based rangefinder, a parallax based rangefinder, a coincidence based rangefinder, a Lidar based rangefinder, Sonar based rangefinder, or a time-of-flight based rangefinder.”  Thus, at this stage, Amazon is trying to cover all of the named techniques, any combination of those techniques, as well as anything else that could broadly be considered a distance determining element.

As noted, the Amazon patent application is still just pending and has yet to be examined.  Amazon may have other patent applications pending that have not yet been published, and therefore are not yet open to review by the public.  FAA regulations are also still developing.  Thus, much remains to be determined even as it relates to Amazon itself.  Other entities may also be working on drone delivery systems and/or have pending patent applications that have not yet been published.  Domino’s Pizza is said to have tested delivering pizzas by drone.  Skype’s co-founders have set up Starship Technologies to develop a ground-based drone that would be able to deliver groceries to customer’s homes.  It will be very interesting to see how the intellectual property protection for drone delivery systems plays out.

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