Err, no, not really

Amazon has designed a floating warehouse that sits thousands of feet in the air, from which the internet retailer could dispatch swarms of delivery drones to metropolitan areas.

The company has patented futuristic plans for enormous “airborne fulfillment centres” that would be used as bases for aerial deliveries to homes.

It’s bollocks. But it’s a few $ thousand on a patent application well spent on getting a PR story into the press across the world.

36 comments on “Err, no, not really

  1. Well, last April first we were saying the drone delivery thing was publicity bollocks. Things move quickly.

    I can see how one of these might function as a “mother ship” to a dozen drones carrying out this hour’s/day’s deliveries in an urban area. It has the advantage that you can retain line of sight to all drones, which would usually be effectively impossible in a city.

  2. One question on this – business rates… The existing warehouses, while not in expensive areas, have a lot of sqft to them… Would rates also apply to flying warehouses?

    I’m guessing the law is sufficiently vague to allow for a lot of lawyers to get rich arguing either way…

  3. It would take a fuckload of energy to ensure a ‘warehouse’ ‘floated’ high in the sky, even if the actual means of doing so are not yet clear.

    Unless you are planning on some sort of geostationary orbit for the thing, how do they intend for it to ‘float’? Attach Stephen King’s evil clown’s balloons to it?

  4. Sorry, but I don’t see the logic of this. Presumably you’ve got to get your drones back to the flying warehouse after a delivery. Ascending several thousand feet is going to take helluvalot of energy.
    It’s back to the energy density of fuel problem prohibits a realistic flying car. The fuel load & the engines needed to lift the fuel load ends up with a vehicle that’s all engine & fuel load & minimal payload capacity or duration.
    OK. You can go with some sort of fixed-wing, which has a much lower drag than rotors & much greater efficiency But then you’ve got an aircraft which needs a landing & takeoff run & couldn’t manage either in someone’s back yard.
    Possibly some sort of tilt-wing format drone like the Boeing Osprey military transport might have the capability. But you’d still have an awful lot of drone with not very much payload

  5. Of course, you can distribute Kindle books (which weigh nothing) from any sort of airborne craft, and even restock without the energy need to actually lift a physical object. And won’t the range be greater than from terrestrial masts, AKA mobile phone technology? Cheaper than satellites too.

    Information doesn’t have to weigh anything: films, porn …

  6. “@Rob: the picture shows a blimp. A dirigible, if you like.”

    Oh yeah, that’ll work. I didn’t think of that.

  7. ““@Rob: the picture shows a blimp. A dirigible, if you like.”

    And what’s keeping the dirigible in position when there’s a 30mph wind blowing? Massive engines & an enormous fuel load.
    Or moor your dirigible with a cable & use it’s aerodynamics to maintain altitude?. Like a kite. That’s going to be a lot of drag. Thousands of ton range. Some serious cable. Got to remember those WW2 barrage balloons were the size they were, simply to loft the cable. The cable was the point of them, not the balloon. Even in modern composites, that’s kilograms per meter cable. Lift capability for which has to be incorporated in the dirigible.
    Wonder what would happen if the cable separated & came down across a residential area at terminal velocity? Long enough cable & you’d even get some added energy from the earth’s rotation, dynamics were right.

  8. BiS

    “And what’s keeping the dirigible in position when there’s a 30mph wind blowing? Massive engines & an enormous fuel load.”

    The Greens have already solved this one – solar panels.

  9. I do admire the endless efforts to find good uses for dirigibles: it’s gone on for decades and is vivid testimony to something or other – enthusiastic persistence, I suppose.

  10. @PF
    At night?

    There is a possibility for hybrid buoyant gas/aerodynamic lift vehicles for bulk cargo, dearieme. There’s a UK company about to fly one. They’ve really been waiting for the right sort of materials to construct them to come along.

  11. Would this be the same ‘its bollocks’ that other people have said about horseless carriages, flying machines, computers that weigh under 1 ton, being able to speak to someone across town, travelling faster than a horse and so on?
    Not forgetting the good old selfie stick.

    I’ve no idea whether a new idea can be made practical in the future, I just won’t predict that an idea is bollocks just because we are unlikely to do it this year or next year.

  12. It’s another reminder – part 68,744 of an infinite series – that the old media are cynical bastards who will print anything that makes a good story without checking or questioning it in any way. Indeed, they will actively refrain from looking more deeply into any press release that makes a good headline in case they do find something that would be an obstacle to taking it at face value.

    Of course, all the pressure groups and PR companies know this too. So they feed the media a constant supply of press releases that are carefully tailored to provide a story that’s too good to check. Once you realise how this scam works you will notice that a large percentage of the “news” in the old media is manufactured in this way.

  13. BiS

    It’s OK, they only deliver during the day. And if it’s really windy (and hence probably less sun?), they can attach windmills to them…

  14. To the tune of “Nuts in May”:

    “So tell us, how much does the cable weigh,
    the cable weigh, the cable weigh.
    So tell us, how much does the cable weigh,
    Before we can caluclate further”.

    Mad props to anyone who can name the originator of that one (I presume he’s deceased now. He was certainly very poorly last time I read his work).

  15. 15 years ago, we did a kind of “Gedankenexperiment” group project on the feasability of using autonomous blimp UAV’s as platforms for TV, internet etc. Within certain parameters, and presuming certain technology projections, it seemed feasible.

    The problem is that you’ve only got 2 possible lifting gases (H2 and He), one of which is Right Out for reasons of historical fears.

    For every cubic metre of helium, you get basically 1kg of lift. From which you must subtract the weight of the envelope holding it.

    What you end up with is a ton of interdependent, iterative equations, and if you’re lucky (it was for us) you converge on a solution. If not, it zooms off to an infinite size of balloon. We didn’t have to contend with a cable (we went with a regenerative hydrogen fuel cell setup), but basically, the bigger the balloon, the bigger the wind pressure on it, so the bigger the cable needed to hold it, which means the balloon has to be bigger to support the bigger cable, and so on… If you’re lucky this converges asymptotically to a solution, otherwise it zooms off to infinity.

    If you want to try this yourself, first decide how many tonnes of cargo and equipment you want to support. Then add a guesstimate of the weight of the structure. This gives you the volume of gas required just to lift that. Then calculate the frontal area of the balloon, and the wind pressure acting on it. Then calculate the weight of the cable. And then go back to the gas volume step and keep looping it…

  16. Would it be simpler to have a very large lorry drive slowly through each local area (as a substitute for the balloon).

    From the roof of the lorry, drones take off / deliver, return to the lorry, and from which they take on new deliveries / fresh batteries when required, etc.?

    Just seems to me that an HGV (driverless?!) would be cheaper than the balloon? And less climbing height as well for the drones on each delivery?

    If the point is to avoid rent and rates on small area depots?

  17. “Would it be simpler to have a very large lorry drive slowly through each local area (as a substitute for the balloon).”


  18. @abacab
    Out of interest, did you investigate the possibility of decreasing the mass of helium by heating it? There’s problems with helium because of it’s extreme heat conductivity but an aerogel layer in the envelope might help that.

  19. @Gunker – correct.

    @BiS – The thing had to work at a massive range of temperatures, and let’s just say that the envelope had to be pretty much entirely covered with the thinnest of flexible solar cells just to have enough power to keep station. The bidirectional fuel cells had to shed heat (we decided to use the water that would be split into O2 and H2 as the working fluid for this, but it needed a corrugated tank on the bottom to shed enough heat). But the thing had to work when both cold and hot.

  20. Yes, obviously John Brignell. Dunno if he is still extant, but NumberWatch tailed off as he got increasingly infirm.

    Balloon cables are shite. If you’re running power up them there’s necessarily a conductive bit in them, which is fun when they inevitably get hit by lightning. To supply the corrective force against wind loading puts some hairy constraints on what you can make them out of and how they are moored. It’s bloody lunacy.

  21. Well, they got loads of free publicity for the drone delivery bollocks, so obviously they decided to up the ante for some more.

  22. PF – “And if it’s really windy (and hence probably less sun?), they can attach windmills to them…”

    If I remember right Kim Stanley Robinson’s goddam awful Mars trilogy had blimps sailing across the Red Planet …. powered, of course, by windmills.

    Although I also liked the enormous crushing external pressure that his human habitats were resisting in order to keep people alive in one Earth atmosphere.

    Layers and layers of fact checkers.

  23. No, you don’t remember rightly SMfS. KSR’s dirigible was dropping off wind powered, heated water catchers to seed Mars with tailored algae. Don’t think he said what it was powered by, but at that stage in the books his characters were using methane, synthesised from the atmosphere using the Sabatier process, for a fuel. His tent cities were held up by the positive pressure of their internal atmosphere against the much lower Martian. But not at 1 earth atmosphere pressure. If I remember correctly, a higher partial pressure of oxygen was used to make it breathable. Hence the fire risks. KSR is actually quite good on his science. Why those of us who like this sort of thing prefer the description Speculative Fiction, not SciFi. Which is Star Wars. Or cowboys & indians with space ships.

    Some of the comments above show the problem some people have in getting their heads around what’s involved flight – heavier or lighter than air. But it isn’t easy. In our, ground world, we take it for granted that the Earth will do the work of holding us up. A heavier than air vehicle has to do a lot of work just to maintain altitude. In fact, its forward motion is just a useful bi-product of doing so. That takes a lot of energy, in the shape of fuel & the fuel has a lot of mass. So a lot of fuel is being burnt, just to keep the fuel in the air. Hence aircraft have radically different flight characteristics at the end of a flight, compared with when they take off with a full fuel load. The fuel is a significant portion of the take-off weight of the aircraft. Why the mathematics of flight can very quickly go exponential if you depart from an efficient configuration.

    I’m surprised you didn’t consider the possibility of mounting your radiators inside the gas envelope, rather than outside. Helium has a much higher thermal conductivity than air so you could get away with a much smaller radiator. But then, I don’t do this sort of thing for a living, do I?

  24. @BiS – they needed to be at the bottom due to the weight, and the calclations showed that they the flow of air over them to cool them. To save weight, the regenerative fuel cells were bathed in the water that was split for H2 and O2, and this tank doubled as a radiator. Any other solution would have resulted in too much weight.

  25. Mmmm….
    There’s no reason the fuel cells couldn’t still be in the keel. A fabric chimney could encourage a convection cycle within the envelope, provide a gas flow-over And you get the added lift from less dense, warmer helium.
    On the other hand the day/night altitude variation’s going to be a lot greater……

  26. BiS – I think you’re over-estimating how much extra buoyancy you’d get. Please provide a calculation for this.

    Cos everything you’ve suggested so far adds weight, and we need to ascertain whether we end up with increased or decreased net buoyancy once we’ve taken the 2 into account. And what happens to the buoyancy if the system fails? If you’ve predicated a requirement for a “hot” buoyancy and it fails and stops producing heat, will it plummet to earth?

    BTW we had to go for a pressurised envelope without frame, since it was the only way to get the weight down.

  27. It’s a bit hard to see how I’m increasing non-buoyant mass. Leave the existing suspension points for the fuel-cell pack where it is, but enclose it in a fabric blister. The helium in the blister contributes to the total buoyancy of the craft. The mass of the “chimney”, which is just a flimsy sleeve self erected by the convection currents, is trivial.
    Wouldn’t know how to start doing the calcs. Above my pay grade (0), But hot air balloons do in fact work. So presumably hot helium ones should. If you only got 0,1% increased lift it could be enough to push the concept over the threshold of viability. It’s those sort of margins you’re playing with, aren’t you?

  28. Incidentally, I presume you’re storing your hydrogen in an elasticated bag inside the envelope. Yes? So you can continue electricity production through the dark hours. So altitude changes might not be a problem.

  29. Forget the details for a mo. Amazon warehouses are enormous friggin things full with ginormous amounts of stock that weights a ton, manned by loads of heavy humans driving forklift trucks. Is anyone really trying to say that the first practical uses for dirigibles (other than pleasure flights), after decades of trying to use them in all sorts of spheres, is going to be for this? Please allow me to bet against you, for you are a credulous fool.

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