Amazon’s Drone Delivery Plans: What’s Old, What’s New And When?

Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drone has some great new technology but the service faces strong and persistent regulatory hurdles.

Amazon’s drone delivery service is in the news again, this time with a new drone named the “MK27.” As the latest iteration of Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drone, it’s apparently safer, more efficient, and more stable than previous models, according to Amazon’s CEO Worldwide Consumer, Jeff Wilke. Wilke also said the company expects to scale the Prime Air delivery drone quickly, with the hope that it will be able to bring packages to customers “within months.”

What’s old?

For some, this may sound like déjà vu, and they’d be right. In December 2013, Amazon CEO and Founder Jeff Bezos told “60 Minutes” that drones would be flying to customers’ homes within five years. But that deadline came and went due to the many regulatory and technical hurdles that drone delivery companies face. Since Amazon first announced its plan for a drone delivery service, the company has gone through more than two dozen drone designs, none of which was able to adequately avoid other aircraft, objects, or people on the ground.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial drone use in the U.S., has approved previous Amazon drones for test flights, but each new prototype needs a special airworthiness certificate. Notwithstanding, the FAA told Forbes it has approved for Amazon one year of research and testing, allowing the company to operate its new unmanned aircraft for research and development and crew training in authorized flight areas—though not for deliveries.

What’s new?

Still, to Amazon’s credit, they have been hard at work moving drone technology forward for all. This newest drone comes packed with some impressive features, including artificial intelligence that allows it to operate more autonomously. For example, if the drone’s flight environment changes while it’s in transit or it comes into contact with a moving object while approaching the delivery destination, it will either make an appropriate evasive move, delay delivery, or abort delivery altogether. For most drones, this kind of “sense and avoid” behavior is performed by a remote pilot. In Amazon’s case, the drone employs proprietary computer vision and machine learning algorithms that can detect people, animals, and even wires and know what to do about them as they descend into, and ascend out of, a customer’s yard.

The other “cool factor” of this drone is its hybrid design. As this video shows, it takes off and lands vertically, like a helicopter, and flies horizontally and aerodynamically like an airplane—and it transitions between these two modes. While hybrid aircraft are nothing new, Amazon’s drone avoids the common shortcoming of most hybrid “tail-sitter” drones like this one by including a vision positioning system to keep it stable in the wind when landing.

When can I enjoy drone delivery?

All said and done, you can scratch that “within months” phrase. Realistically, Amazon is looking at a couple of years for any regular delivery operations—and those would be restricted. Mind you, it will be restricted because the FAA has yet to work out solutions for old and persistent problems like identifying drones, flying them over people, flying them in urban areas, and managing unmanned aircraft traffic, to name a few. Until then, we’re likely to see more headlines. Who knows, perhaps you’ll be one the lucky first recipient to get an emergency package of diapers delivered to your back yard via Amazon Prime Air once they begin testing.

Image credit – Photographer: Joe Buglewicz/Bloomberg © 2019 BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP

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Colin Snow