Operations

Amazon Prime Air moves into launch sequence

The drone delivery service is debuting in Lockeford, California, later this year.

A Prime Air drone

An Amazon Prime Air drone. (Courtesy photo)

Prime Air has its first landing spot.

Amazon’s drone delivery service is planning to start making deliveries in Lockeford, California, later this year, marking the first customer deliveries for the program.

Residents will be able to sign up for a free drone delivery service, and select from Prime Air items on Amazon. The drone will arrive at a backyard, hover at a “safe height,” and then release a package.

The company said it is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local officials on obtaining permission for the service.

Amazon’s announcement comes amid a flurry of activity in the ecommerce drone delivery space. In recent weeks, Walmart announced plans to expand its drone service to 34 sites in six states. Meanwhile, Alphabet’s Wing service is delivering Walgreens items in four suburbs of Dallas. Unilever has a partnership with Flytrex to deliver ice cream by drone this summer in North Carolina and Texas, too.

Amazon planted the earliest flag for drone delivery in 2013, when then-CEO Jeff Bezos famously appeared on 60 Minutes to make a surprise announcement about the Prime Air program’s ambitions. But the company has since struggled to get the drone service off the ground amid delays and crashes.

With its launch now, Amazon is looking to demonstrate that it is best positioned.

With the announcement of Prime Air’s debut in Lockeford, Amazon offered a glimpse at its development through the years, including a slideshow of some of the more than two dozen prototypes it has developed that nodded to the many iterations.

It also provided a look at how it plans to stand out. Amazon said its technology is designed to automatically “sense-and-avoid” potential hazards. This is distinct from drone delivery that requires an observer to visually observe a route. From the description:

We designed our sense-and-avoid system for two main scenarios: to be safe when in transit, and to be safe when approaching the ground. When flying to the delivery location, the drones need to be able to identify static and moving obstacles. Our algorithms use a diverse suite of technologies for object detection. Using this system, our drone can identify a static object in its path, like a chimney. It can also detect moving objects on the horizon, like other aircraft, even when it’s hard for people to see them. If obstacles are identified, our drone will automatically change course to safely avoid them. 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.

The program will need to be cleared for takeoff by regulators, and Amazon said it will work with federal and and local officials. In 2020, Amazon received a Federal Aviation Administration air carrier certificate for Prime Air.

Along with a leadership role into the future of airborne, autonomous technology, the prize of a successful drone delivery system is the ability to provide the fast (read: less than one hour) delivery that customers want, while doing so without sending human delivery drivers.

Going first on a new technology can bring the spotlight that’s sought by those who want to be seen as innovators, but those bright lights can get hotter if the results don't come. Meanwhile, when others make their own moves, it can appear that they've pulled into the lead.

Famously averse to acknowledging competitors, Amazon tries to be impervious to this. It is known for giving technologies time to develop. It has led to plenty of success that put it in the driver's seat of US ecommerce. But some developments didn’t ever see the light, such as the company’s ill-fated Fire Phone, which failed on launch. Others, like the company’s grocery business, have gone through a series of pivots as the company seeks to find a breakthrough.

Over nearly a decade, the drone program has had a unique place in this pantheon. The 60 Minutes appearance instantly brought it into the public consciousness. Simultaneously, it has yet to be used by the public to allow consumers to deliver a verdict.

The stakes for a potential launch suddenly seem higher now. Amazon is facing pressure over rising delivery driver crashes and labor unions in its logistics facilities, who were successful in organizing a fulfillment center in New York. It is also seeking to get its consumer business back to growth after reporting a quarterly loss and admitting it overbuilt logistics facilities. Meanwhile, the CEO of its consumer business is departing. As underscored by its own drone expansion, Walmart is rolling out big ecommerce upgrades with the kind of organizational foresight and technology combination that’s typically seen with Amazon. Perhaps those are leading the company to act more quickly. Stories from Bloomberg and Business Insider earlier this year depicted a program that was struggling to get off the ground. Monday’s announcement, however, is a sign that it is closer to the light of day than the public thought.

Whether it is successful in a community remains to be seen. Amazon said residents will help in offering feedback. The company said it will also be "creating new jobs, building partnerships with local organizations and helping reduce carbon emissions."

Though it didn't provide details on specific local initiatives , it's clear the groundwork is being laid. In our recent roundup of the drone delivery launches, we concluded the piece by writing of Amazon’s drone delivery ambitions, “Down the road, there may be another big unveiling still to come.”

With the stage set in Lockeford, it looks like that could arrive before the year is out.

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