What do you do when you’re a multi-billion dollar online retailer, struggling to deliver mountains of packages at a moments’ notice? Throw them into the lake, Amazon has decided.
It may sound like Jeff Bezos has decided to give up and start afresh, but a new patent published this week details an ingenious new storage system. Amazon could toss products into a body of water, along with a depth control device, and call on them to resurface when needed. The application names Lake Union in Seattle, where the company’s headquarters are located, as a possible host.
Why Is Underwater Storage Needed?
The idea would solve a growing issue with the company’s fulfillment centers. Amazon operates over 80 centers worldwide, and some of those can be huge. In March last year, the company opened an 800,000 square foot location in Kent, a town located 20 miles south of Seattle. A 1,200-person workforce rapidly completes orders with the aid of advanced robotics, but with the sheer size of the facilities, collecting products for shipment can take a while.
“In order to prepare and ship an order that includes a large number or different types of items to a customer, a staff member or robot may be required to walk several thousand feet, or even miles, within a fulfillment center in order to retrieve the items,” the patent explains. “Where a customer submits multiple orders for items, the arduous task of picking, packaging and shipping ordered items must often be repeated for each and every order.”
Centers are also designed for very specific product sizes. An area designed for small packages could lay empty, while more durable units designed for large packages may struggle to find space. In practice, large areas of that 800,000 square-foot building will go unused.
Storing parcels in a lake solves both of these issues.
Amazon’s system involves placing items inside special cartridges equipped with a depth control device and throwing them into the water. The company has a few ideas for how the depth control device could work: it could be a hard tank, a soft bladder, or a combination of these items, and it could take in water or release air to control the item’s depth.
The depth will be controlled by an onboard computer, awaiting input from the surface for when it’s time to bring the package up for air. The computer has an acoustic sensing device, capable of receiving tones from the surface. The company could tell a package to fully resurface or transmit a more complicated instruction like “push this much air into the bladder” or “resurface to this depth.”
The patent even describes situations where the company can use natural water currents to its advantage, encouraging packages toward movements to push them around to other areas. Amazon could even use jets or vacuums to create its own currents.
The packages could be hosted in artificial bodies of water, like the one above, or placed in a natural body of water. In the case of Lake Union, Amazon would use GPS trackers to keep tabs on whether the packages have moved. Planes would fly overhead and toss packages into the lake, the package would use a parachute to control its descent and the depth controls would bring it down near the floor.
When it’s time to surface, buoys would transmit the acoustic control signals and the package could make its way to a depot using a combination of natural currents and depth controls.
The bodies of water don’t even need to be exposed: Amazon also describes a system where the water is kept underground, with a small resurfacing opening available for employees to fetch packages as they arrive.
If it came to fruition, Amazon would have solved its storage problem by creating a system where any package can guide itself to the right location. There’s no need to design special pools for different package sizes, as the water and depth controls take care of location. Just as long as the packages are sealed up tightly.