Whip it good! Amazon patents a launch system for snapping payloads into the air — or even into orbit

Whip-based launch system
A diagram shows Amazon’s whip-based launch system in operation on a ship. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Never let it be said that Amazon Prime Air VP Gur Kimchi thinks small: His latest patent lays out a plan for a launch system that could theoretically send payloads into space on the end of a miles-long whip, guided by a phalanx of drones attached to the lash.

The patent application — co-written with veteran Amazon inventor Louis LeRoi LeGrand III, filed in 2017 and published on Tuesday — lays out an unusually detailed description of the system, right down to how the gear teeth in the mechanism could be arranged.

Although the application delves into the possibilities for boosting payloads to low Earth orbit, and then using orbiting platforms with tethers to transfer those payloads into even higher orbits, the inventors make clear there could be more mundane applications as well.

For example, smaller whips could send drones or other types of aerial vehicles into the air from ships at sea, or from planes in the air. Packages could be flung up on drones for processing on aerial fulfillment centers (an airship concept that’s the subject of an earlier Amazon patent).

There’s no guarantee that Amazon will actually crack the whip, or follow through on any of the other seemingly crazy concepts it’s patented over the years. The classic example of that is Amazon’s patent for an airbag-cushioned, drop-proof smartphone, with CEO Jeff Bezos listed as a co-inventor. Nevertheless, we reached out to the company for comment, and received the standard answer.

Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect our current product roadmap,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an email. “Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology.”

Why bother with what seems to be such a Rube Goldbergian concept? Kimchi and LeGrand explain in their application:

“Existing methods of launching aerial vehicles generally rely on energy-inefficient processes. For example, in order to launch a payload at high speed, conventional processes utilize fuel, e.g., rocket fuel, to launch aerial vehicles. In addition, the fuel must be carried by the aerial vehicle that is being launched, thereby increasing the weight of the aerial vehicle and requiring correspondingly more energy to complete such a launch. Accordingly, it may be desirous to launch aerial vehicles and/or their payloads at high speed using energy-efficient, controlled and repeatable processes.”

Launching aerial vehicles more efficiently is certainly something Amazon would be interested in: Sending out delivery drones is one obvious application. Sending up surveillance drones would be another.

But based on the description in the application, Amazon could also theoretically crack the whip to deliver thousands of satellites to orbit for its Project Kuiper broadband data constellation. The inventors certainly gave space-based applications a lot of thought, based on how much time they spend describing low Earth orbit vs. geostationary Earth orbit, orbital inclinations, Hohmann transfer orbits and methods for controlling tethers on satellite relay platforms.

One of the system’s big features has to do with the use of aerial vehicles attached at intervals along the length of the launch whip.

Read the full patent application: Energy-efficient launch system for aerial vehicles

Those vehicles could be quadcopters powered by electrical cables on the whip, or they could be heavier-duty aircraft. They’d be programmed to move in formation to crack the whip at what could be supersonic speeds. The guide drones could move along the whip’s length to reconfigure themselves as strings of payloads are launched.

Depending on how many drones are attached, the whip could stretch as long as 500 miles, the inventors say.

It all sounds pretty fanciful, but there are actually a few precedents for this in science-fiction and fact-based research.

For example, several years ago, former Microsoft executive and Intellectual Ventures co-founder Nathan Myhrvold set up a demonstration showing that sauropod dinosaurs could snap their tails at supersonic speeds.

More recently, science-fiction author Neal Stephenson worked a launch system based on whips and chains into the plot of one of his novels, “Seveneves,” and said that he looked into the detailed dynamics of such a system while he was helping Bezos out at the billionaire’s Blue Origin space venture.

There’s even a space startup called SpinLaunch that’s working on a system to launch payloads by flinging them out of a giant catapult. Physicist Rhett Allain did the math for Wired and determined that SpinLaunch’s concept just might work, as long as the payload has its own rocket engine to provide an extra push.

It’d be great to see space geeks breaking out their rocket equations and doing a similar reality check on the assumptions behind Amazon’s newly issued patent. If there’s a deal-breaker hiding among the details, let me know and I’ll update this report accordingly.

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