If Amazon has its way, the skies could soon be buzzing with drones, carrying our online purchases directly to our doors.
But today's drones can only travel so far — so what happens when you live out of range of a distribution hub?
On Wednesday, IBM Research announced a patent that might someday allow delivery drones to pass off packages to one another mid-flight to create a relay system, extending a supply chain's reach even farther.
The design calls for the relay drones to be equipped with extension arms, which would connect and lock in mid-flight to keep the package transfer stable. The drones would also have a sophisticated communications link built-in, which would likely be connected to IBM's Watson's supply chain and logistics system to keep things flying smoothly.
The customer could even become more active in the supply chain with this type of tech in place. IBM Research envisions a scenario in which a customer might even send out their own personal drone to receive packages in mid-flight in order to get the payload in their hands (or at least on their drone) ASAP.
If one part of the system fails — for instance, if a drone is knocked out of the sky and doesn't make it to the relay point — an IBM spokesperson told us via email the missing drone could easily be tracked using its on-board GPS system, and others could be easily and even automatically dispatched in its place.
E-commerce fulfillment isn't the only potential use for a drone relay-based supply chain. “Our inventor team is focused on improving how the most valuable cargo is delivered globally," Sarbajit Rakshit, the co-inventor of the patent wrote in a statement emailed to Mashable. "This could create opportunities such as managing drones to deliver postal packages and medicine in developing countries via the most direct route.”
While the transfer system exists only in patent form and hasn't even been tested yet, the IBM spokesperson told us the company is "confident" the system could be built and tested within the limits of current drone technology.
IBM's relay drones aren't as aggressive as the massive drone-spewing mothership design that was unearthed in Amazon's USPTO filings earlier this year. Both supply chain solutions could potentially extend delivery ranges and make airdrops more accessible — but only one does it without aircrafts that look like Imperial Star Destroyers.