This is Patent Pending. Supply-chain-related patent applications are published every day and this is where we'll talk about the ones that could have the biggest impact on the supply chain and the ones that challenge the norm. We want to give you an idea of where supply chains are heading and what the industry is thinking. Read the previous issue here.
A robotic tag team for deliveries
In a bid to solve the costly last mile of delivery, plenty of companies have rolled out initiatives to make shipments via autonomous robots and drones. FedEx has its self-driving bot Roxo. Amazon is (finally) starting drone deliveries in the U.S. Even Chick-fil-A is testing autonomous vehicles to deliver food.
But these programs center around only one type of future-forward device. What if a company was to pair an autonomous ground vehicle (AGV) with a drone, or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), creating a dynamic air-ground duo to fulfill deliveries? That's what a patent application from Walmart, which was published June 30, envisions.
The retail giant's application laid out a system that could determine if an AGV has stopped during its route due to an obstacle, like a blocked road or a raised bridge. The system would then instruct a UAV to retrieve the item the AGV is carrying via a "gripper mechanism," and complete the delivery.
"For example, the AGV might get [stuck] at the gate in front of a customer's residence. So, the AGV could travel all the way to the gate, and the UAV can then grab the package and deliver it to the residence," the application reads.
The UAV could "ride piggy-back" on the AGV, serving as the back-up delivery device when obstacles arise, per the application. The UAV could also recharge via an AGV-connected charger, which would alleviate some of the range limitations drones currently have.
- How the case for drone delivery expanded beyond parcels
- Autonomous vehicles make inroads — inside and outside the warehouse
- Amazon drone delivery to take off in California
UPS pitches cardboard box alternative
Cardboard boxes are a crucial component in the parcel delivery space, especially as e-commerce demand surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the space inside boxes are rarely used efficiently — leading to wasted space in carriers' vehicles — and the stoppage of several curbside recycling programs adds a sustainability concern to cardboard reliance.
Package delivery giant UPS cited these reasons in its patent application, also published June 30, to make its case for a new type of storage unit. UPS' application envisioned items being sandwiched between two rectangular enclosures, connected via a joint component, with "stretch members" like elastic straps holding the payload in place. This unit could reduce environmental concerns by being reusable and also reduce the likelihood of breakage or damage compared to cardboard boxes.
"In some embodiments, these stretch members are configured to conform tightly or snug against one or more items that are stored within the item storage unit such that there is little to no movement," the application reads. "In this way, there is no need for filling material and the items themselves are less likely to shift or slide, unlike existing parcel technologies."
The application also described an "electronic ink display" on the unit that could include shipping information, like an address, and a barcode.
"By incorporating the electronic ink display … there is no need for paper or adhesive shipping labels or the like, which is common on existing corrugated parcels, for example," according to the application.
The storage units could be held in the slots of "holding apparatuses" to make more efficient use of space within delivery vehicles, per the application.