Amazon has taken the wraps off the latest iteration of its Prime Air delivery drone that it says could be delivering online orders to customers’ doors “in the coming months.”
Considering the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) cautious approach to commercial drone deliveries, it’s a bold claim, but more on that later.
First, the drone. Amazon unveiled its new-look flying machine at its re:MARS Conference (Machine learning, Automation, Robotics, and Space) event in Las Vegas on Wednesday, June 5.
The autonomous electric-powered aircraft features six rotors and can take off like a helicopter and fly like a plane. A video (above) showing it in action reveals a look quite unlike any we’ve seen before, with a protective hexagonal frame that tips once it starts flying through the air, and a central chamber — presumably for holding the packages — pointing forward as it flies.
Jeff Wilke, chief of the company’s global consumer business, said the drone can fly 15 miles and carry packages weighing up to 5 pounds, which, he said, covers most stuff ordered on Amazon.
The executive added that the latest design demonstrates “advances in efficiency, stability and, most importantly, safety” over previous iterations of Amazon’s Prime Air drone, the first of which was unveiled in 2013.
Indeed, safety in the skies is what it’s all about when it comes to drone delivery. With that in mind, the drone is equipped with advanced object-detection systems using advanced algorithms and machine learning, all developed in-house. Wilke said the technology ensures the drone can comfortably cope with challenging obstacles like clotheslines and other wires in people’s yards, as well as moving objects such as pets — vital for when the drone comes in to land to drop off a package.
Deliveries “in the coming months”
Now, back to Amazon’s plans for the drone. The company made the bold claim that the newly designed flying machine would be buzzing to customers’ homes in the coming months. But it declined to mention where the deliveries would take place and on what scale.
If it’s in the U.S., it first needs permission from the FAA. Soon after Amazon’s announcement on Wednesday, the FAA said it would grant Amazon a one-year “special airworthiness certificate” allowing it to test the drone under certain conditions. That’s a step in the right direction for Amazon, but it could mean its first deliveries — if they really do begin within months — may take place outside of the U.S.
Despite this week’s promising development, we feel like we’ve been here before. The last time Amazon turned the drone-related excitement dial all the way up to 11 was in 2016 when it made its first-ever drone delivery, in Cambridge, England. But it was just a test run — and a bit of a marketing exercise — and a full-fledged drone delivery service is yet to launch in the U.K.
Alphabet’s Wing project
Amazon is in competition with a number of companies, including Wing, owned by Google parent Alphabet. Wing recently launched a drone delivery service in a part of Canberra, Australia, and is now conducting trials for a similar service in Finland.
In April 2018, the company announced it had become the first in the U.S. to receive Air Carrier Certification from the FAA, taking it a step closer to launching commercial drone deliveries from local businesses to homes in the U.S.
Launching a drone delivery service may have turned out to be harder than many of these companies originally imagined, but with ongoing advances in technology that pave the way for safer designs, and moves toward the creation of the infrastructure needed to manage multiple autonomous drones at once, such a service, in one form or another, is surely edging closer.