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Lighter-Than-Air Warehouses Near?

Will your next warehouse be floating in the sky? Two of the biggest names in retail – Amazon and Walmart — are betting that it will happen.

The most recent development was the filing of a patent for a blimp-based distribution system by Walmart, but it may be playing catch-up.

Last year Amazon was awarded a patent for a giant flying warehouse that it chooses to call an airborne fulfillment center, or AFC, which is designed to act as a launchpad for drones that deliver packages.

“I just unearthed the Death Star of ecommerce,” declared the industry analyst who discovered Amazon’s original patent application.

Amazon’s plans call for the flying warehouse to be regularly restocked by smaller airships that also bring personnel and supplies to it from the ground, and would remove any waste that is generated by the operation.

How could Amazon’s AFC be used for distribution purposes? In its patent application, Amazon suggested that it might be deployed above large, open-air public events, like sports stadiums and music festivals, and then deliver souvenirs, food and drinks to audience members who would have placed their orders via cell phones.

The blimp also could function as a marketing tool, serving both as the advertising medium for a company to introduce a new product using its huge exterior as an airborne billboard, and then deliver samples to the target audience on the ground below.

Although Amazon originally filed its patent application back in 2014, in fact it is only the latest in a long parade of dreamers who launched similar ideas that have risen into the atmosphere every few years dating back to the middle of the last century.

Since at least the 1970s, various companies ranging from start-ups to major aircraft manufacturers have advocated using various designs for lighter-than-air vehicles to float freight through the skies. Many of these older designs were intended to be used as transport by the military, but not all.

Walmart provided far more detailed information about its plans in its patent application. The company’s intention is for these blimps to float at altitudes of 500 to 1,000 feet (Amazon proposes a maximum of 45,000 feet in its application).

They could be operated remotely or by an onboard crew communicating with a scheduling system. It would inform the operators which packages to remove from the airship, and then transport them by an onboard drone fleet to ground destinations.

Walmart even went so far as to include a deck area and rest area for the operators in its design.

Eliminate the Need for 3PLs?

Walmart also justified its design to the U.S. Patent Office by declaring that the system is intended to address the “need to improve the customer service and/or convenience to the customer.”

One tech writer suggested that the blimp could help Walmart cut costs by eliminating the need for both land and last-mile shipping often handled by third-party logistics companies.

In some circumstances, using these airships to deliver products would not only be more convenient but also would operate at lower cost than hauling by truck, Walmart asserted in its patent application. However, it seems questionable that the retail giant would ever be able to supplant its ground delivery system with a fleet of blimps.

Walmart currently operates a traditional advertising blimp, similar to the one operated for many years by Goodyear, which has a small gondola only big enough for the operating crew.

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