Amazon was granted US patent number 9,778,653 on Oct. 3 titled "Systems, Devices and Methods Delivering Energy Using an Uncrewed Autonomous Vehicle". The abstract of the patent describes a system which is capable of a rendez-vous with a moving vehicle to provide additional power on the go—an interesting and exciting blend of two of the tech industry’s fastest growing domains.
Cars that Send an SOS for Recharging Batteries
The goal of the device is to ensure that systems which require energy, such as an electric vehicle, have the means to obtain additional energy when it needs it, recognizing that "depletion may result in adverse user experience". For example, if a driver does not have enough battery power to make it to the next charging station. Especially since electric vehicles still haven’t quite reached ubiquity, even if a generous passerby did try to help they may not have the means to do so if they are driving a traditional combustion engine car running on gasoline. Further, gas stations still out number electric car charging stations.
The system is also intended to be used for charging various other systems including surveillance and security equipment, and can provide energy by several means including fuel cell batteries, combustion, or chemical reaction. More or less, covering all the bases for any potential requirements that there may be for autonomous, mobile refueling.
A diagram of proposed UAV charging system. Image courtesy of Amazon.
The system described has several different configurations involving fully-autonomous, partially-autonomous, and human-operated modes. In one example, an electric vehicle will register that it will not have enough energy to make it to the next charging station and will send an energy request to the recharging network. Upon receiving this request, the network will determine which UAV to send from a fleet. Once a UAV is selected, it then computes a route to meet with the vehicle as it travels. This can be aided by the vehicle making the energy request sending speed and location information to help the UAV determine where it will be at a given time, and adjust its route as necessary as these factors change.
To avoid collision with known obstacles, it might also be possible that the UAV will only dock on certain stretches of highways without overhead freeways or signs.
The patent also takes into consideration potential authentication processes to prevent theft of energy or data. Malicious users could possibly steal energy, or a malicious UAV could dock with a vehicle and have unauthorized access to data, which is an increasing concern with increasingly connected automotives that are collecting more and more information about their drivers. The authentication process may be active or passive, and it might authenticate for which types of energy transfers are permitted.
Docking with a Moving Target
The diagrams in the patent that describe the mechanical elements of the system show a contact-style mechanism, as well as a clamping mechanism. In the contact mechanism, two contacts will extend upward to interface with paired contacts on the UAV to transfer energy. In the docking mechanism, the UAV lands on a designated area and is secured by hinged clamps before energy transfer.
Charging UAV clamping mechanism diagram. Image courtesy of Amazon.
It is certainly a very interesting and exciting concept, particularly in the electric vehicle domain. Such a system could add a layer of reliability and convenience for electric car drivers. In particular, it could reduce the need to stop and recharge vehicle batteries for long distance travel. Knowing that an energy request can be made so that you can charge up anywhere is certainly valuable. However, the speed and amount of charge it could provide is still to be determined.
As of now, however, there is no word on when we might see the first version of this system.
Featured image courtesy of Amazon.