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Why Amazon patented a delivery drone that’s designed to self-destruct

A diagram shows how a delivery drone might manage its own controlled fragmentation if it encounters problems during its trip. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Most inventors look for ways to make their machines more robust, but Amazon has won a patent for delivery drones that fall apart more easily.

Why? For safety reasons.

The patent application, filed last year and published last week, lays out a concept that calls for an automated “fragmentation controller” to be included on the drone.

That controller, analogous to a flight controller, works out and updates a backup plan for breaking the drone apart if the flight is disrupted for some reason.

As the drone goes about its business, onboard systems and the drone fleet’s mission control center would be on the watch for potentially hazardous conditions, such as inclement weather or equipment malfunctions.

If the drone gets into a jam, the fragmentation controller could be activated to go through an optimized self-destruct sequence. Pieces of hardware would drop off or be ejected based on the terrain that’s surrounding the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, when it gets into trouble.

“For example, the terrain topology information can identify bodies of water, forested areas, open fileds and other locations more suitable for dropping components of the UAV if or when flight operation errors, malfunctions or unexpected conditions occur,” according to the application, filed on Amazon’s behalf by Seattle inventors Prag Mishra and Dushyant Goyal.

As a result, there’s a lower probability of injuring bystanders or doing serious property damage.

Collision hazards are a significant concern for the Federal Aviation Administration as it fine-tunes its rules for routine delivery drone operations, and Amazon’s patent appears aimed at addressing that concern. Amazon has been issued patents for other strategies as well, such as a “virtual safety shroud” that would put the drone into safe mode if a hazard is detected.

Amazon typically doesn’t comment on its patents until a product is announced, and there’s no guarantee that its delivery drones will use the self-destruct system described in the application. But it’s a sure bet that more drone patents will be coming to light in the months ahead.

Remember, this application was filed more than a year ago, and Amazon has made significant progress in its prototype testing program since then. Depending on how quickly the FAA proceeds, drone deliveries could become routine in some parts of the world by as early as 2020.

So what happens to all the pieces of the break-apart drone? The patent doesn’t delve deeply into that part of the operation, but another Amazon patent that was published last week lays out a plan for a service that would retrieve drones after one-way trips. So that may generate a new kind of job for the age of aerial deliveries: drone picker-upper.


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