Amazon’s drone delivery program is again under the scanner with a new Business Insider report highlighting how an experimental Prime Air drone set several acres of a wheat farm ablaze when it crashed in eastern Oregon during a test flight last summer.
According to a June 2021 FAA report accessed by the publication, an Amazon delivery drone prototype (model MK27) was flying at an altitude of 160 feet before it encountered motor failure and crashed to the ground.
The report details that the drone was seen “tumbling in uncontrolled free fall until it contacted the ground,” following which an “intense lithium battery fire quickly consumed the aircraft.” As the drone crash-landed, it set “several acres of wheat stubble field” on fire, the FAA report added.
It’s worth highlighting that this June incident took place only weeks after another Amazon delivery drone prototype of the same model crashed because of propeller failure. At that time also, the 89-pound aircraft was seen plummeting to the ground “in an uncontrolled state.”
Amazon, meanwhile, maintains that no one has ever been injured or harmed as a result of Prime Air flight tests. The company says in a statement to Business Insider:
Prime Air’s number one priority is safety. We conduct extensive testing to gather data that continually improves the safety and reliability of our systems and operations. During these tests our drones fly over sterile ranges to ensure our employees are safe from potential injury.
We follow thorough procedures on how flight tests are conducted and how we respond to any incident. In this instance, we carried out a test with the utmost caution, as is normal in the aviation industry. No employee or community member was at risk and the team followed all appropriate safety procedures and reporting requirements.
Our focus remains on innovating on behalf of our customers and scaling a service that is safe and reliable. We received a Part 135 Air Carrier certification from the Federal Aviation Administration in August 2020 – a key milestone which has provided us with even more opportunities to keep improving the service.
Amazon is correct in saying that it’s not unusual for developmental drones to crash during testing because experimental flight programs are intentionally designed to determine the limits of aircraft performance.
However, Amazon’s drone delivery program has been a hot mess for a while now. Company insiders have expressed serious doubts about whether Prime Air would ever become a reality. In the UK, more than 100 Prime Air employees have reportedly been fired, while many others have been transferred into different roles abroad. In France, the company has shut down its drone delivery R&D center. Reports also reveal that internal conflict and high turnover have led to “significant confusion” between engineering and business units as to what the future product looks like.
So even though Amazon received the green light from the FAA to start commercial drone delivery in the US in 2020, the company is yet to define a timeline for when it might actually happen.