For any company to have some commercial stability, it is important to obtain patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). As Andrei Iancu, director of the USPTO said, “As we embark on the next wave of technological and industrial revolutions, we must ensure that we continue to have a robust IP (Intellectual Property) system, with rights that are reliable, predictable, and meaningfully enforceable. This is, in fact, more important now than ever.” Patents are issued more to protect a company’s intellectual property than an actual product. Once they have protected a concept they can begin moving forward with production, if they so choose, knowing that their ideas are protected. In 2018, IBM was granted 9,088 patents by the USPTO, marking 26 years in a row as the company to receive the most patents in the United States of America. Of these thousands of patents, maybe only one was brought to fruition, but IBM was sure to stop their competitors from creating concepts similar to what they had thought of.
Over the years, Amazon has been racking up patents to protect their intellectual property as well. In 2019, they were granted close to 2,400 patents for anything from technical concepts to physical products. Some of these patents were for concepts that revolutionize the way people shop on line like one click shopping, to completely bizarre gadgets like a virtual reality nose that can, as described in the patent “signal to the brain that there is something wrong with the reality being presented, which can lead to motion sickness.” The purpose of a virtual reality nose isn’t quite clear, but Amazon has the concept protected. Perhaps one of the areas that Amazon most aggressively applies for patents has to do with drone technologies. As of 2017, Amazon had been awarded around 60 different patents for drone based concepts.
It makes sense that Amazon is so invested in drone technology. Drones are reshaping much of the commercial world by being used in fields like security, inspection, agriculture, entertainment, and of course, deliveries. In 2016, Amazon first announced their plans to provide their customers with deliveries of products in under 30 minutes with the help of drones. Although Amazon has yet to be granted permission from the FAA to proceed, they have been working on designs that would improve upon the safety of drone deliveries. Two such patents that they were awarded by the USPTO are for a self destructing drone and a drone that reacts to screaming voices and waving limbs.
The first of these, the self destructing drone, will most likely never be made. The idea is that if a drone is going to crash, why not have it do so in a safer manner by first breaking apart into smaller pieces rather than one large chunk dropping out of the air. This would be used on larger delivery drones that would have an onboard fragmentation controller. For example, if a propeller breaks or the battery fails, the drone would begin to break apart in stages. The patent goes on to explain, “During the fragmentation sequence, one or more parts or components of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) can be released. In doing so, the weight, speed, air drag coefficient, and other factors related to the UAV can be altered.” The result would be smaller, less destructive pieces of the drone falling to the ground in a controlled manner to avoid major catastrophe. It would also ultimately mean the loss of whatever package the drone was transporting. However, it is widely agreed upon that any type of a drone crash, whether it’s a fragment or the whole thing, could cause serious damage. This is why drones that make it to the production stage usually have crash fail safes like parachutes to protect people, property, the drone, and the package being carried.
The second of these two patents relies on a drone being able to understand human voices and gestures. The drone would be equipped with a number of sensors that could interpret voice and hand commands. For example, if a drone is flying to close to someone and they scream and wave their arms in a protective manner, the drone will recognize this as an unwelcome gesture and reroute it’s flight path. If a drone is coming to make a delivery, a customer can give the drone verbal commands as to where to place the package, as well as signal the drone to the correct drop off location much like how a plane is guided to a runway. The patent states, “The human recipient and / or the other humans can communicate with the vehicle using human gestures to aid the vehicle along its path to the delivery location.” While a drone with AI capabilities to understand the vast variances of human vocal and body gestures would be truly amazing, it may not be the most logical safety feature for a drone delivery program. What is to stop any bystander from interfering with the drone and gesturing it to land at a wrong location. Also, if you are expecting a delivery and need to “guide” it to the right location that means you need to be waiting outside for it, taking away the convenience of waiting in your home for a delivery.
This is why the majority of the patents Amazon, and other entities, apply for never make it to the production stage. A patent protects a concept as well as a product. It also boosts a company’s economic profile when they can show a wide range of approved patents. It shows that these companies are working towards progress. Without a patent, intellectual property would be free game for anyone to produce. As explained in the law outlining patents, anyone who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent.” So, while we may never see a self destructing drone delivering our packages, Amazon took it upon themselves to be the only ones allowed to toy with the idea of one.