An IBM Patent on Midair Handoffs for Delivery Drones

By Jeremy Hsu | May 6, 2017 4:13 pm
The IBM invention described in US Patent No. 9,561,852: In flight transfer of packages between aerial drones helps to extend the range of drones that are delivering packages from a warehouse to a customer's home. Credit: IBM

The IBM invention described in US Patent No. 9,561,852: In flight transfer of packages between delivery drones helps to extend the range of drones that are delivering packages from a warehouse to a customer’s home. Credit: IBM

Amazon and Google’s dreams of delivery drones dropping off packages or pizza still face the problem of short delivery ranges. Most drones have limited battery life that restricts their services to less than a 10-mile delivery radius. A recently-approved IBM patent offers an unusual way to extend delivery ranges by having drones transfer packages in midair.

The IBM patent envisions several possible ways for delivery drones to hand off their packages without having to land. One idea would have the drones—flying side by side—each use an arm to link up in midair and pass along the package that hangs from the arms via a strap. Imagine a purse hanging from a pole and tilting the pole one way or the other to have the bag slide in that direction, and you get the picture. Another possible method would have one drone fly above the other and slide the package down to the recipient.

“We are proposing participating drones can couple with each other vertically or horizontally or [through] any other coupling combination,” says Sarbajit Rakshit, IBM Master Inventor and co-inventor on the patent. “[We could] change the relative position of participating drones with each other in such a way that the payload can be transferred from one drone to another drone in a controlled manner under the influence of gravity.”

The IBM inventors hope to find a commercial partner willing to license and test out the invention. Rakshit says a midair handoff between delivery drones offers advantages such as avoiding the need for additional transfer stations on the ground or the risk of theft from a ground drop-off point. He also suggests that a cargo drone carrying multiple packages could act as the mothership that hands off packages to smaller delivery drones.

But there’s a long way to go before the IBM patent ever gets off the ground as a real-life invention. The IBM inventors have not yet tested the midair transfer idea with any flight demonstrations. Rakshit says that possible factors that need to be considered include wind speed and direction, the size and weight of different packages, and vibrations from the transfer process. To help keep the drones steady in flight, the IBM patent envisions a fluid or similar weight mechanism acting as counterbalance during the package transfer.

Early delivery drone tests have focused on serving customers within smaller delivery ranges. Google has tested deliveries of Chipotle burritos to college students at Virginia Tech. The startup Flirtey has tried out 7-Eleven deliveries in the United States and Domino’s Pizza deliveries in New Zealand. Amazon has begun its own limited delivery drone tests in the United Kingdom.

Still, a larger delivery radius could be crucial to making drone delivery an economically viable service that can reach many more customers. With that in mind, the electric vehicle company Workhorse Group has partnered with UPS to try out delivery drones that provide “last-mile” deliveries from specially modified UPS trucks. And an Amazon patent filing proposed the truly fantastical vision of large airships serving as flying warehouses that would serve as mobile hubs for delivery drones.

Some of these ideas are far more practical than the others. But it’s likely that solving the delivery range issue will make the difference between success and failure for many delivery drone services.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts
  • Uncle Al

    The lower drone falls from fight when downdraft-shadowed by the upper drone. File a process counter-patent demanding the quad rotors be horizontally rotated relative 45 degrees about the center of mass vertical axis. The guide flaps should be cupped not straight to tolerate errors in alignment.

    deliveries of Chipotle burritos to college students” Were they E. coli STEC 026 and norovirus flavored? Transport drones are Chemical/Biological/Radiological weapons platforms, projectile and bomb carriers, and contraband smugglers. Progress!

    • Sumit Mallik

      It is inventory path for human society. But how much it will help in transport system, is very confusing Matter.

      • Victor Cole

        I stopped working hard at shopritte and currently I’m getting $75-97$ each hour. How? I am just working on-line! My job did not make me happy hence I chosen to take the opportunity on something new…after just 4 years it wasn’t easy to drop out my day employment however right now I couldn’t be pleased.>>> OKNO.UK/r/279jn

    • OWilson

      Drones, like robots, are just machines.

      They are most useful in controlled spaces and environments, like factories or theaters of war.

      Let them loose (headless) among the public, and watch the fun start!

  • Carl Kruse

    Cool patent, and technique, to extend drone range. But what about future developments in battery technology or other sources of energy for the drones? Might this be a more likely answer to the issue of drone range?

    – Carl Kruse

    • Edward Mitchell

      I give up earning a living at shopritte and afterwards right now I am getting Seventy five $ – Ninety Seven $ per/hr. How? Now I am working via internet! My work didn’t make me joyful thus I thought to take a chance on something new…after just 4 years it wasn’t simple to drop out my day job however right now I couldn’t be more delighted.>>> YUK.NU/zD


Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


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