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Amazon’s Drone Delivery Off to a Slow Start

For a decade, Amazon has looked towards the day it could officially launch its Prime Air drone delivery service.

Last month the highly anticipated plan was launched, but as of early February 2023, packages had been delivered to only seven houses in the two test cities in California and Texas, lagging far behind Walmart’s drone delivery partners Flytrex and Zipline, and Wing’s drone service.

Video Spotlight:  

This post is based on the Engadget article, Amazon’s drones have reportedly delivered to fewer houses than there are words in this headline, by Kris Holt, February 2, 2023; The Verge article, Amazon’s delivery drones served fewer than 10 houses in their first month: Not as surprsing when you see the FAA’s restrictions, by Sean Hollister, February 1, 2023; and the YouTube videos in the Spotlight. Image source: m.mphoto/Shutterstock

Discussion Questions:

1. How does the design of Amazon’s drones compare to that of rivals such as Flytrex, Zipline, and Wing?

Guidance: Amazon’s drones are massive compared to those of its competitors.  The other drones, which have in fact been operating longer and with many successful deliveries, are in the 10 to 40 pound range.  Amazon’s drone, on the other hand, weighs 80 pounds, yet can only carry a similar size payload of around five pounds.

2. What safety concerns exist with Amazon’s drones, and what quality or reliability issues has the company faced?

Guidance: Among other concerns, safety can play a major role in product and service design.  Reliability as well as liability for failures are certainly concerns for the FAA and communities alike.  Fears include crashes from mechanical failure, inappropriate reactions to obstacles, problems due to weather, or injuries to customers when packages are dropped off.  Potential liability pitfalls abound.

Amazon’s drones suffered five crashes during the four months of testing in its Oregon facility that preceded the tests in California and Texas.  One of these failures started a 25-acre brush fire. At that time, there were even more FAA restrictions in place than there are now.  The drones were only allowed to fly in sparsely populated areas, they were not allowed to fly over buildings or closer than 100 feet, and they could only fly over property that was completely controlled by Amazon.

By the time the Prime Air trial launched last month, the FAA had removed some of its flight restrictions, but there are still many rules to follow.  Amazon’s drones are not allowed to fly across roads unless an employee verifies that there are no cars coming, and they are generally prohibited from flying over such things as people, vehicles, power plants, and schools when in operation.  The drones are also forbidden to fly a distance of more than three or four miles from where they are launched.  Clearly, these safety parameters are making it challenging for Amazon to make any deliveries at all.

Amazon did upgrade to a safer drone which is also less reliant on humans.  The new drone has six motors, and as a safety feature, it can still fly if one fails.  Once the drone reaches the house to which it is delivering, it descends vertically to about 12 feet off the ground and drops the package.  Since the package has to be able to safely withstand a 12 foot fall, this does limit the kinds of things that can be shipped without having a quality problem.

Before customers can participate in the Prime Air trial, Amazon verifies that customers have a large enough backyard to accommodate the delivery, and they must agree not to be in the backyard at the time of the delivery for safety reasons.

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