It can do vertical takeoffs and landings – like a helicopter. It’s efficient and aerodynamic – like an airplane. As a hybrid, it transitions easily between the 2 modes – from vertical-mode to airplane mode, and back to vertical mode, in sustained forward flight.
“It” is the latest Prime Air drone design, which Amazon’s consumer worldwide CEO Jeff Wilke announced at the re:MARS Conference (Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics and Space) in Las Vegas in June, 2019. He noted that the company has “been hard at work building fully electric drones that can fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under 5 pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes.” The company expects to scale the Prime Air delivery drone quickly and efficiently, with the hope that it will be able to bring packages to customers within months — with the help of the company’s fulfillment and delivery network. This newest drone design incorporates advances in efficiency, stability and safety.
The company accompanied the announcement of the new drone with a test flight video, showing how the craft transforms in midair.
Two years ago, an autonomous drone delivered several bottles of sunscreen totaling about 4 pounds to MARS 2017, another Amazon-hosted conference in Palm Springs, California. The flight occurred in the controlled airspace of the Palm Springs International Airport. That flight was the first Amazon drone delivery on public land, although the company had been testing flights for years on private land.
Now Amazon is hoping to get FAA approval for its newest delivery drone design, Prime Air. As Wilke told Bloomberg, the entire drone is built either from FAA-approved parts or designed with approval in mind. “We’re not telling the FAA, hey, here is something new that you’ve never seen before,” he said. “We’re saying, this is an airplane that’s built to exacting aerospace standards.”
The push for approval comes as the company has been aggressively working with regulators to craft a system that can operate under existing aviation rules and those being drafted for the future.
The drone incorporates a melange of thermal cameras, depth cameras, and sonar to detect hazards. Aided by machine learning models, onboard computers are programmed to instantly identify obstacles and navigate around them. Wilke said the drone’s propellers were optimized to reduce high-frequency sounds. “Just because you want your package delivered quickly doesn’t mean you want you or your neighbors to hear it coming.”
The 6 degrees of freedom (compared to 4 for a normal quadcopter) allows for more dynamic and nimble flight. A tilting design allows for the drone to use the same 6 propellers to fly forward as it does for take off and landing. The shrouds are also the wings, which makes it efficient in flight, as, after it gets off the ground, the craft tilts and flies sideways. The helicopter blades then become more like airplane propellers.
Amazon says 75 to 90% of purchased items are under the 5 pound weight limit for which the Prime Air drone is designed. Packages for delivery are carried in the fuselage in the middle.
Emphasis on the Need for Safety in Amazon’s Delivery Drone
Amazon says it continually gathers data to improve the safety and reliability of its drone operations. “We know customers will only feel comfortable receiving drone deliveries if the system is incredibly safe,” said Wilke. “From paragliders, power lines, to the corgi in your backyard, this drone has safety covered.”
The drone’s rotors are fully encased for safety, with these covers serving as wings during sustained flight. The company reiterates that their vehicles will be built with multiple redundancies as well as sophisticated “sense and avoid” technology.
Amazon says the drone’s safety features make it as “robust and stable as commercial aircraft.”
When Will the Prime Air Drone Go Live?
The company says it wants to launch a delivery service using the drone in the near future but has not said where this might take place or how many customers it might cover. It is uncertain exactly when, where, and how this technology will be made available to customers. Wilke told the audience at Re:MARS: “You’re going to see it delivering packages to customers in a matter of months.” The company has not yet selected a location for this early service.
“Our objective is to have a certified commercial program that will allow us to deliver to customers, and that’s what we’re working towards in the coming months,” Wilke told reporters a press briefing. The new drone presents even more challenges for regulators because there aren’t standards yet for its robotic features.
Shortly after the announcement, the FAA issued a statement saying it was granting a one-year approval to test the devices in limited ways that still won’t allow deliveries. The so-called special airworthiness certificate allows Amazon to continue its developmental program.
Amazon’s impetus for acquiring regulatory approval, of course, is to alter consumer shopping habits more than ever, prompting consumers to increase online purchases that might otherwise have been designated for brick-and-mortar stores.
Previous Iterations, Deadlines Come & Gone, Future Visions
Amazon’s track record for meeting deadlines has been sketchy in the past. The first announcements for Prime Air in 2013 were optimistic, but all-too-quickly the company confronted regulatory and logistical problems. In 2016, an announcement of an initial successful drone delivery to a customer in Cambridge, England was exactly that — a one-time event rather than the kickoff for continuing customer deliveries.
Wilke reminisced about previous iterations of the Amazon drones and what the future for e-commerce delivery for the company might look like. “This is my favorite one now, and we’re going to keep working on them,” he noted, adding that there will probably be a fleet sometime in the future with “different birds for different reasons.” The company currently has development centers in the US, the UK, Austria, France, and Israel and is testing the vehicles in multiple international locations.
The company continually tries to discover how best to deliver packages in a variety of operating environments, noting that the look and characteristics of the vehicles will continue to evolve over time.
“The tech industry is abuzz about drones, but not all drones are created equal,” Wilke mused.
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