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With growing drone delivery and satellite ambitions, Amazon will need an energy-efficient way to get stuff off the ground.

Amazon Patents a System for Whipping Stuff Into the Air (or Space)

This week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent to Amazon that covers “energy-efficient launch system for aerial vehicles,” meaning Amazon could be working on a way to fling your packages into the air—or space.

While at first a weird concept, it makes sense in context. This whip-like approach could shoot satellites into space as part of Amazon’s Project Kuiper low-Earth satellite constellation or Amazon drones that would zoom off to deliver packages.

We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment on the patent and we’ll update this story once we get a response.

Either way, the motivation behind the invention, itself, is clearly stated in the patent description by inventors Gur Kimchi—who is also the vice president of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery service—and Louis Leroi LeGrand III, who is listed as an inventor on various other air-related Amazon patents.

According to the patent:

It’s not an altogether new concept, considering that a Silicon Valley space startup called SpinLaunch also wants to bypass extremely costly jet fuel by spinning rockets in a massive centrifuge at several thousand miles per hour before sending them through the stratosphere. The math and physics check out, but so far there’s been no tests of any such system.

The scenario laid out in the patent begins with a ship of some sort that includes an on-board power source, such as a nuclear generator. Then, a superconducting cable is attached to the ship that may be miles long. Energy passes through the cable to aerial vehicles, like octocopters or quadcopters that are attached to the whip-like cable. A final aerial vehicle is affixed at the free end of the cable and may carry a payload (or it could be the payload, itself).

Then, the ship will pull the cable and attached aerial vehicles in the direction intended for launch. A winch can retract the cable and attached drones in unison, as well, which creates a whip waveform near the end of the cable.

“The continued coordination among the pulling by the vehicle, the retracting of the cable, and/or the operation of the aerial vehicles may cause the waveform to propagate along the length of the cable toward the second, free end,” Guri and LeGrand write.

When the waveform travels along the cable to the free end, the payload is released at a final speed greater than the initial speed of the wave, launching it into the air.

But patents are not the same thing as a full-fledged idea undergoing rigorous testing. Most companies patent crazy innovations to protect their ideas just in case they want to pursue that lead or to prevent a competitor from coming up with the same idea. Often, these gadgets and processes never amount to anything. So don’t expect packages to rain down from the sky just yet.

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