August 16, 2022
Enlarge / Amazon’s latest delivery drone design, the MK27-2.

Amazon is detailing plans to begin its drone delivery service, Amazon Prime Air. The company still has some regulatory obstacles to overcome but expects drones to be dropping packages into customers’ backyards in Lockeford, California, by the end of 2022.

In a blog post this week, Amazon said that after receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Lockeford officials, it would launch its drone delivery service in Lockeford and build it based on customer feedback. Amazon said it’s already been working with the FAA and has acquired an air carrier certificate.

Amazon highlighted Lockeford’s connection to aviation, namely former resident and 1900s aviator Weldon B. Cooke. But it probably also helps that Lockeford is a rural town. It’s about 100 miles east of San Francisco, with an estimated population of about 3,500. Amazon also has some facilities in the city’s San Joaquin County.

According to Amazon, Lockeford residents will soon be able to sign up for drone deliveries for free. After, they can place orders on Amazon like usual, with “thousands of everyday items” available for drone delivery. Amazon has been working with a goal of a five-pound payload, which may sound small but represents 85 percent of Amazon deliveries, Bloomberg reported in April. For comparison, Walmart’s drone delivery service claims up to three pounds, and Alphabet’s Wing can carry 2.5 lbs.

After placing an order for a delivery drone, the customers will get an estimated time arrival and status tracker, Amazon said. The company didn’t make a promise on delivery time but is aiming for under 60 minutes.

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“For these deliveries, the drone will fly to the designated delivery location, descend to the customer’s backyard, and hover at a safe height,” Amazon said. “It will then safely release the package and rise back up to altitude.”

Prime Air is different from the competing drone delivery services that use parachutes and long tethers. Amazon’s drone will hover at a close distance (six feet, according to Axios) before lowering its package.

Avoiding people, buildings, and other obstacles

Amazon has gone through more than 24 drone prototypes for Prime Air, some of which you can see below.

The current drone, the MK27-2, leverages a hexagonal shape that provides six degrees of freedom, giving it more stability, Amazon said. It also has propellers designed to minimize high-frequency sound waves.

Of course, a critical part of FAA approval includes drones that won’t crash into anything. Amazon claims that the issue is covered with a “sense-and-avoid system.” It’s focused on safe transit, where it needs to look out for obstacles, and safety when approaching the ground to drop off a package. The system’s algorithms use various approaches for object detection, which include camera sensors, to avoid everything from chimneys, pets, and other aircraft, according to Amazon.

“If obstacles are identified, our drone will automatically change course to safely avoid them,” Amazon explained. “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 will launch its delivery service with human observers keeping tabs on the drones (like other drone delivery services do) but thinks it will eventually be able to move past that.

Flying into competition

Amazon has been working on its Prime Air for nearly a decade (in 2013, founder Jeff Bezos declared Amazon drone deliveries could start by around 2018, Bloomberg noted). It admittedly struggled with challenges around cost, speed, and scalability. Now, after spending over $2 billion with more than 1,000 workers contributing to the project (based on an April Bloomberg report), Amazon is finally ready to discuss a (vague) timeline.

In April, Bloomberg also pointed to “technical challenges, high turnover, and safety concerns,” including a 2021 crash that caused a brush fire, as hampering the service’s debut.

A decade of research and development allowed Walmart and Alphabet to fly ahead of Amazon and launch drone delivery. Alphabet’s Wing launched its drone delivery service in Texas in April.

Walmart, meanwhile, started its drone delivery service in Arkansas in November. The company announced in May that it plans to expand to six states and 34 sites by the end of this year.