Don’t look now, but Amazon’s beleaguered drone delivery program, Prime Air, is finally beginning to show signs of life. The company announced today that customers in Lockeford, California, will be among the first in the US to see Amazon drones delivering packages in their backyards.
The service is expected to launch sometime “later this year,” once Amazon receives the green light from the FAA and the local officials in Lockeford.
Acknowledging that it has been working to make on-demand drone delivery a reality for almost a decade now, Amazon also provided an explanation of sorts for why the program hasn’t taken off yet.
“Since the inception of Prime Air, we have designed, built, and tested many drones. In fact, we’ve created more than two dozen prototypes,” the company said in a post, adding that it’s relatively easy to use existing technology to fly a light payload a short distance that’s within the operator’s line of sight, but it’s a very different challenge to build a network that can deliver to customers across large communities.
We’re building something different. We’ve created a sophisticated and industry-leading sense-and-avoid system that will enable operations without visual observers and allow our drone to operate at greater distances while safely and reliably avoiding other aircraft, people, pets, and obstacles.
Amazon’s latest delivery drone, the MK27-2, comes with a unique hexagonal design (pictured above) and can carry five pounds of payload at speeds up to 50 miles an hour. The drone’s sense-and-avoid system is designed to identify both static and moving obstacles.
Our algorithms use a diverse suite of technologies for object detection. Using this system, our drone can identify a static object in its path, like a chimney. It can also detect moving objects on the horizon, like other aircraft, even when it’s hard for people to see them. If obstacles are identified, our drone will automatically change course to safely avoid them. As our drone descends to deliver the package into a customer’s backyard, the drone ensures that there’s a small area around the delivery location that’s clear of any people, animals, or other obstacles.
Amazon is not wrong in claiming that its approach is different.
Alphabet-owned Wing, for example, flies its delivery aircraft only after the route has been determined to be free from obstacles and other drones. While delivering items, the drone never touches the ground. The package is lowered onto the ground by a retractable tether.
That said, Amazon’s obstacle detection program is yet to prove its mettle. And the pilot program in California will be important for the company whose former employees call Prime Air “one gigantic oversell.”
Once the program receives regulatory approval, customers in Lockeford will be able to see Prime Air-eligible items on Amazon. They will place an order as they normally would and receive an estimated arrival time with a status tracker for their order.
“The drone will fly to the designated delivery location, descend to the customer’s backyard, and hover at a safe height. It will then safely release the package and rise back up to altitude,” Amazon said.