Drones

New Amazon Drone, Growth of Drone Supply Providers: the DRONELIFE Interview

Amazon Prime Air debuts new drone, announces international expansion

By DRONELIFE Feature Editor Jim Magill

Amazon Prime Air, which last December launched its first two U.S. pilot projects, has unveiled a new updated UAV and plans to expand its drone delivery service to two European countries.

Last month the company announced it would begin deploying its six-rotor MK30 by the end of 2024. The new model drone will replace the company’s MK27.2, which is currently delivering packages to Amazon customers in College Station, Texas and Lockeford, California.

Prime Air also plans by the end of next year to expand its service to a third U.S. location, in an undisclosed state, as well as offering its first international drone deliveries, in the U.K. and in Italy. The company is declining to reveal the exact locations of its new drone delivery services, pending agreements with the appropriate aviation regulatory agencies in the two European countries and consultation with the local population in the third U.S. location, Prime Air spokesman Av Zammit said in an interview with DroneLife.

“We want to work and ensure that the communities in which we’re going to operate learn about it first. As you can appreciate, we’re working with the local communities to ensure that as we integrate, we are able to ensure that they have that knowledge first before we bring it out to the world,” he said.

Since beginning drone deliveries last December, Prime Air has “made thousands of deliveries to thousands of customers” across its two existing U.S. locations, Zammit said. Prime Air customers can order everything from “right-now use” items such as double AA batteries, to leisure items such as board games.

In addition, residents of College Station who are Amazon Pharmacy customers can order life-sustaining medications to be delivered by drone directly to their home in under an hour.

Ups and downs

Prime Air’s fortunes have had their share of ups and downs ever since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos first announced the giant retail delivery company’s plans to initiate package delivery by drone in 2013.

 

Although in a 60 Minutes broadcast Bezos had predicted that drones would be delivering packages to customers within five years of his announcement, the company did not receive its FAA Part 135 certificate, necessary for making commercial drone deliveries, until August 2020.

Further, in 2021, Prime Air shut down major portions of its U.K. development team and laid off about 100 employees, according to Wired Magazine. Then, earlier this year Amazon announced the layoff of about 18,000 employees, its biggest job reduction in the company’s history. Many of the employees who were affected worked in the Prime Air division including “design, maintenance, systems engineering, flight testing and flight operations teams,” according to a DroneLife story at the time.

New beginnings

Zammit said the company’s revival of its U.K. program and expansion into Italy represents “the first iteration of our international expansion.” Prime Air’s ambitious goal is to log 500 million drone package deliveries annually across the world by the end of this decade.

Likewise, the introduction of its new delivery drone model showcases a step change in Prime Air’s technological development. The design and testing of the MK30 came together in about 18 months through the innovative and collaborative work of the company’s engineers, according to an Amazon press statement.

Innovative safety-critical features will allow this drone to deliver packages to customers with smaller backyards and in more densely populated suburban areas, the statement says.

“The MK30 is a real feat of engineering,” Zammit said. In comparison to the MK27.2 drones currently in use, the MK30 is smaller and lighter, and has a different form factor, so it looks visually different from the earlier drone model.

Its design gives the MK30 greater range, allowing it to fly twice as far as the company’s earlier models. Other technological and operational upgrades give the MK30 a greater ability to fly in inclement weather.

“Currently we operate during daylight hours, in clear weather. The Mark 30 will be able to operate during light rain, which obviously expands the envelope for when we’re able to operate,” Zammit said. The new drone model will also be able to fly in both hotter and colder conditions than previous models.

“So, it expands the weather envelope for when we’re able to deliver. It means that drone delivery will be able to get to customers during a wider span of the year than it currently does,” he said.

In addition, Prime Air’s Flight Science team has custom designed the MK30’s propellers to reduce the perceived noise by about 40 percent, which should increase the drone’s abilities to operate in quiet residential neighborhoods, without unduly disturbing the neighbors.

“We are aware that noise is one of the core things that we’ve got to consistently keep working on, to ensure that as we scale, this remains something that communities welcome,” Zammit said.

The new model drone also features improved “sense and avoid” software that allows the UAV to operate in urban and suburban environments by detecting and flying around potential obstacles including people, pets, and structures.

“If we’re coming in to make a delivery and the customer’s backyard is not clear or if there are any static or moving obstacles in the delivery area, we will not make that delivery. We will rise back up to altitude and fly back to our delivery area and the customer will get a notification saying, ‘Your delivery area was not clear. Please ensure it is and we’ll reattempt that delivery,’” Zammit said.

Prime Air’s drones are designed to take-off vertically before transitioning into horizontal, wing-borne flight and can carry and deliver packages of up to five pounds. One of the distinguishing features of the Prime Air drones is their interior payload system in which the package is fully protected within the body of the drone, rather than being suspended beneath the vehicle, as is the case in other drone delivery services.

Once the drone reaches its destination, typically the backyard of a residential home, it descends to an altitude of about four feet and releases its payload from that height. Special packaging is designed to ensure the enclosed cargo can handle the impact of the relatively short fall and arrive intact.

As it expands its drone delivery service beyond the pilot test phase into fully commercial operation, Prime Air will no longer operate exclusively out of centers especially designed for drone service, but instead will fly its UAV missions out of the same fulfillment centers that deliver goods via ground vehicle. This will give drone-delivery customers greater access to the wide variety of products that Amazon delivers to consumers every day, Zammit said.

“In the future – in the next year — in the additional US site, we’re actually going to be integrated into our same-day delivery network,” he said.

“This is a delivery station that operates today where delivery drivers with vans or flex drivers with their own cars would go to this place to deliver packages to customers,” he said. “Next year you will see such a site essentially have the same thing, with vans and cars coming out and going to deliver packages, but also a drone leaving.”

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Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

 

Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry.  Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.

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