Amazon has unveiled the latest version of its Prime Air delivery drone, a hybrid aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing as well as sustained forward flight. The company says it wants to launch a delivery service using the drone in “the next few months”, but did not specify where this could take place or how many customers it could cover.
Introducing the drone on stage at Amazon’s Re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, Amazon’s Global CEO Jeff Wilke highlighted the aircraft’s safety features. “We know that customers will only feel comfortable receiving drone deliveries if the system is incredibly secure,” Wilke said. Amazon says the drone’s safety features make it as “robust and stable as commercial aircraft” – a big claim for a technology that is still in its infancy.
The new drone uses a combination of thermal cameras, depth cameras and sonar to detect hazards. Using machine learning models, on-board computers can automatically identify obstacles and navigate around them. “From paragliders, to power lines, to the corgi in your backyard, this drone has safety covered,” Wilke said.
The drone’s rotors are also fully covered for safety, with these covers acting as wings during sustained flight. The drone has six degrees of freedom (compared to four for a normal quadcopter), which Amazon says allows for more dynamic and agile flight. A tilting design allows the drone to use the same six propellers for forward flight as it does for takeoff and landing. The packages to be delivered are then transported in the fuselage in the middle.
The company accompanied the announcement of the new drone with a test flight video, showing how the craft transforms in flight. Amazon says its goal for the finished Prime Air service is to create “all-electric drones capable of flying up to 15 miles and delivering packages under five pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes.” That may seem like a small payload, but Amazon claims that 75-90% of items purchased fall below this weight limit.
More important than the specs, however, was Amazon’s vagueness about when, where, and how this technology will be made available to customers. Wilke told the Re:MARS audience, “You’re going to see him delivering packages to customers in a few months.” But the company has not yet chosen a location for this first service.
“Our goal 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 at a press briefing.
Amazon hopes to get FAA approval for the design, however. As Wilke said Bloomberg, the entire drone is built from FAA-approved parts or designed with the approval in mind. “We’re not saying to the FAA, hey, here’s something new that you haven’t seen before,” he said. “We say this is an aircraft built to exacting aerospace standards.”
It’s worth remembering that Amazon doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to meeting its deadlines in this area. The company first announced plans for Prime Air in 2013, but soon ran into logistical and regulatory issues. Then, in 2016, he said he made his first successful drone delivery to a customer in Cambridge, England. But it turned out to be a one-time stunt rather than the start of a regular service. Meanwhile, Google rival Project Wing has slowly expanded a number of testing services to places including Finland and Australia.
If we’ve learned one thing about drone delivery in recent years, it’s that implementing these systems is much more difficult than just building the plane. What Amazon did today was unveil a drone and gave itself another deadline. Now we have to see if it works.