Unmanned Aerial Voltage: Amazon Receives Patent for Roving UAS Car Chargers
October 19, 2017
Just when you thought there wasn’t anything that Amazon couldn’t deliver to its customers in increasingly short periods of time, it appears that the e-commerce giant has plans to deliver a new product: electricity. This week in an exciting unmanned aircraft system (UAS) and connected car crossover, technology-focused media outlets are reporting that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted a patent to Amazon for UAS that can attach themselves to electric vehicles to charge them while the vehicle is moving. The roving unmanned charging stations would be able to communicate with servers configured to monitor electric vehicles and generate energy requests based on a vehicle’s need, at which point the UAS would dock to a charging station on top of the vehicle to fulfill the request by transferring electricity from the aircraft to the car. As Tesla and others move toward fully autonomous electric vehicles, Amazon’s technology provides another piece of the puzzle for a world in which personal transportation requires no human intervention whatsoever. Some commenters also suggest that Amazon’s roving UAS chargers could help meet growing demand for charging stations as electric vehicles become more popular.
However, as some have rightly pointed out, the technology described in the patent is “a bit more sci-fi than practical solution at the moment.” This is particularly true given the limitations posed by current battery technology. The battery that powers the Tesla Model S, for example, weighs about 1200 pounds. This raises the question of how a UAS which, according to the patent may be constructed to weigh less than 100 pounds with a payload of less than 20 pounds, could possibly transport a device that could store and transfer sufficient energy to recharge or even partially charge an electric car battery. And, of course, the UAS would also need to lift its own power source. The lithium batteries typically used to power UAS today can sustain UAS flight on the order of minutes—and this is without a heavy charger attached. While the patent envisions several possible means of energy production and storage aboard the UAS, including capacitors, superconductors, batteries, flywheels—and even, ironically, a combustion engine that burns diesel fuel to produce electricity to transfer to the electric car—without major advances in energy storage technologies, it is unlikely that a UAS electric car charger will be feasible any time soon.
Even if the technology were feasible, implementation of Amazon’s roving UAS chargers would hit a regulatory roadblock, as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations currently do not allow this type of operation. Under Part 107, the FAA’s rules governing commercial operations of small UAS, several operating limitations would prevent or impair Amazon’s ability to deploy its UAS car chargers. Specifically, the requirement that the UAS weigh less than 55 pounds including payload, the requirement that the UAS be operated within the visual line of sight (VLOS) of a licensed UAS pilot or visual observer, and the prohibition on flights over people would preclude the car charging operations. In addition, the prohibitions on night time operations, operation of multiple UAS by a single pilot, and operations in certain airspace could significantly impair Amazon’s ability to offer the charging service. Finally, while the rules permit autonomous operation, the pilot in command must be able to control the UAS at all times, which could be inconsistent with Amazon’s vision for fully autonomous operation contemplated in the patent.
Although most of these operating limitations are “waivable” under the FAA’s rules, Amazon would still need to show that it can achieve an equivalent level of safety as is ensured by the rules, which is no small feat given that the UAS are intended to travel over and attach to moving vehicles. Moreover, the FAA has been reluctant to waive its flights-over-people and VLOS rules, granting only five and seven such waivers, respectively, in the fourteen months that the rules have been operational. Even where waivers have been granted, such as a recent flights-over-people waiver granted to Google Wing for limited testing of a package delivery service, they fail to provide a clear path forward for other operators, as waiver applications are considered proprietary and are therefore kept confidential. Even if Amazon could secure the necessary waivers for its UAS charging service, the requirements that UAS remain under 55 pounds including payload and have a pilot in command of the operations are not waivable, which means that Amazon would need to petition the FAA for an exemption to operate a larger UAS as well as secure a first-of-its-kind exemption to the extent it seeks to achieve fully autonomous operation.
While Amazon’s package delivery aspirations are further complicated by a Part 107 requirement that any UAS carriage of property for compensation be conducted only on an intrastate basis, it is less likely that this restriction would be implicated with respect to the charging service. The FAA adopted this limitation in Part 107 to avoid classifying UAS as “air carriers,” a class of aircraft operators engaged in “the transportation of passengers or property by aircraft” on an interstate or foreign basis, which would subject UAS to a host of additional operating requirements. It is unclear whether stored energy would be considered “property” in this context, but even if it was, FAA regulations already exempt similar operations such as crop dusting and spraying from the air carrier requirements, indicating that the FAA could extend a similar exemption to UAS carrying electricity for the purposes of refueling. Moreover, while courts have found that carriage of property by an aircraft that remains completely within state lines can still be considered “interstate” of purposes of air carrier regulations where the delivery network as a whole crosses state lines, it would be relatively easier to keep the car charging operations purely intrastate given the nature of the service, thereby avoiding air carrier regulation altogether.
The UAS car charging system could also face obstacles from other regulators, including the Federal Communications Commission (the patent discusses the UAS communicating with servers and cars via a number of communications technologies, including Ethernet, Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, and Bluetooth) and perhaps at some point the Department of Transportation more generally, as Congress is eager to regulate self-driving vehicles, particularly as related to cybersecurity. The patent envisions “multiple authentication processes” to protect the process from “malicious users,” but unless policymakers heed key principles for Internet of Things (“IoT”) cybersecurity, more onerous regulatory requirements may be in place once Amazon moves to implementation.
It will be interesting to see whether and how quickly Amazon implements its vision for roving UAS car chargers, but this isn’t the first time that Amazon has filed a patent for a unique application of UAS technology. Last year, technology media outlets unearthed a patent request by Amazon for a massive flying warehouse that would operate at a 45,000 foot altitude and deploy UAS to complete package deliveries. By comparison, the UAS car charging system feels much more down to earth.