Get Started

Amazon Delivery Drones Off to a Rocky Start

Update 05/18/2023: Since launching in December 2022, Amazon Prime Air has just completed 100 deliveries in Lockeford, CA and College Station, TX. This figure only represents 1% of the company’s target delivery goal of 10,000 by the end of 2023. 

The once-promising projection now teeters on the brink of uncertainty. In Lockeford, a small town housing roughly 4,000 residents, reports from Prime Air staff reveal that Amazon’s drones are currently catering to a mere two households, both located within a mile’s distance from the company’s local delivery hub.

Considering College Station, a significantly larger town with 120,000 residents, one might assume greater prospects for Amazon’s drone operations. However, the company has yet to seize the potential of this market as well.

In a statement to CNBC, Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit cited FAA flight restrictions as the reason why the program is still experiencing slow progress in the two service areas.

As we’ve previously reported, Amazon has been diligently working to enhance its drone technology in order to satisfy the stringent requirements set by the FAA and gain greater operational flexibility. However, despite its efforts, the company has been unable to persuade the FAA to remove the substantial restrictions imposed on its drone operations.

Per FAA’s 2023 revised Exemption No. 18601B, Amazon can conduct drone deliveries in sparsely populated towns like Lockeford and College Station, but the drones are not allowed to fly over roadways, schools, or people without case-by-case permission, essentially limiting Amazon’s drone operations.
With a lot of regulatory hurdles to overcome, Prime Air’s wider rollout in the US might take longer than expected. But as they say, slow progress is better than no progress at all. Zammit told The Verge that the company will continue to cooperate with the FAA to ensure they meet all restrictions to be able to expand drone deliveries to more areas over time.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions and massive job cuts have reportedly stalled widespread use of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery service, in Lockeford, California and College Station, Texas. 

As a result, Amazon completed less than 10 deliveries in its first 30 days. That is a far cry from the company’s aim to deliver 500 million packages annually by drones by the end of the decade and the number of deliveries truck drivers do each day, which are about 170 to 350 packages per shift.

Does this mean Prime Air is a failure? Will we ever see a wider rollout of the program in the near future?

It all depends on the FAA’s operating restrictions for Amazon and how they are going to comply.

FAA Flight Restrictions Impacting Prime Air’s Ability to Operate

In August 2020, the FAA issued an approval certificate to Amazon which allowed the company to utilize drones in a commercial setting. However, the aviation authority also included several conditions and limitations (see below) that the tech giant reportedly tried to downplay, which turned out to be a costly move.

Amazon argued that its latest drone model, MK27-2, is safer and more autonomous than its predecessors. It is also equipped with an enhanced perception system that can detect obstacles or people below it during delivery or landing.

That means it doesn’t need as many personnel, including visual observers (people who assist remote pilots in completing delivery drone flight operations). While Amazon’s drones can fly autonomously, it doesn’t mean they can cross public areas or no-fly zones without FAA’s permission, a rule that the company presumably violated.

One of FAA’s existing regulatory barriers for autonomous delivery drones include not allowing unmanned aircraft (UA) to fly over “non-participants” unless otherwise approved by the Administrator. In Prime Air’s case, “non-participants” would be people who are not part of the drone flight operations.

So, when Amazon’s drones tried to fly over people or public roads without case-by-case permission, the FAA intervened for the safety of the residents and temporarily blocked Amazon from continuing its drone operations, The Information reported.

The suspension has significantly reduced the number of drone deliveries in California and Texas. As of mid-January 2023, Prime Air made as few as three deliveries in Lockeford, CA, and five in College Station, TX.

In an email to Gizmodo, Amazon rep Av Zammit confirmed that they’re “making a limited number of deliveries” in the two towns. Despite FAA restrictions, the tech giant still plans to continue to expand over time. 

“Just last week we received the FAA’s approval to start delivering to more customers in these locations.”

However, FAA restrictions are just one of the many obstacles that Prime Air needs to overcome in its early stages. Public outcry and labor issues may further delay its national rollout.

Amazon Drone Safety Issues

In the US, drone malfunction (resulting in crashes) is the top concern for most people.

Insider recently reported that town residents expressed safety concerns after finding out Amazon’s delivery drones would be flying over their yards, and rightly so given the program’s erratic record with the FAA.

Amina Alikhan, a College Station resident, worried about the possibility of a 90-pound drone “falling from the sky onto our home, onto our car, onto our children.” 

MK27-2s weigh roughly 80 lbs when empty, and can carry a maximum payload of 5 lbs. By contrast, Amazon’s drones are 10 to 40 lbs heavier than Alphabet’s Wing and Walmart’s Flytrex and Zipline.

During one of Amazon’s test flights in Oregon, one drone crashed into a field, causing a 25-acre bushfire

Disastrous consequences such as this one is why the FAA has more stringent rules for heavier drones than it does for small Unmanned Aerial (UA) drones weighing less than 55 lbs. 

In 2019, the FAA modified Part 107 to allow “routine operations of small unmanned aircraft over people, moving vehicles, and at night under certain conditions” potentially without a waiver depending on the level of risk small UA present to people.

That said, Amazon may need to roll out a more lightweight drone, implement advanced autonomous systems, and invest in skilled pilots and observers to change the public’s perception of drones as killing devices to vehicles that benefit shoppers with same-day delivery of products.

Widespread Layoffs Immobilizing the Drone Flight Safety Division

Another factor that could delay Prime Air’s wider rollout this year is the impact of mass layoffs on its drone safety team.

According to CNBC, around half of the drone delivery department – that includes designers, maintenance staff, systems engineers, flight testers and flight operations specialists – have been laid off.

The employees said that the layoffs, along with increased pressure to meet delivery goals, “have created new concerns about the potential dangers Prime Air poses” and made them question the company’s commitment to safety, Insider reports.

“I think it says what their priorities are,” one current employee told Insider.

If the company prioritized drone safety “as much as they like to tell the media, that team wouldn’t have gotten laid off.”

Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti quickly squashed claims of widespread drone job cuts telling Insider in an email that they are “misinformed or inaccurate,” although she did not specify how many employees from the safety teams had been let go.

Boschetti reiterated that safety is the company’s top priority, and “implying that we no longer have a robust safety team in place is completely inaccurate.”

Prime Air got off to a rocky start, but the good news is it still has “a dedicated safety officer in each location, plus dozens of other employees who are responsible for safety as part of their job.”

The teams are also currently working on a new drone model, MK30, which is lighter, smaller, and quieter than MK27-2s, indicating their continued commitment to meeting FAA’s rigorous standards.

Related: 60-Minute Amazon Drone Delivery Now a Reality, Amazon Warehouse Automation Increases Concerns Over Job Loss and Product Selection Inaccuracy, Amazon Tweaks Logistics Strategy to Streamline Operations

Get Started 1,000+ Customers. Free Data Migration. 1-on-1 Onboarding.

Need more information?

  1. Send Message: We typically reply within 2 hours during office hours.
  2. Schedule Demo: Dive deeper into the nuances of our software with Chelsea.
  3. Join Live Upcoming Webinar: New to Amazon inventory management? Learn three inventory techniques you can implement right away.

Give a Comment