Amazon bringing drone deliveries to customers

by Emily Atkins

Amazon is promising its drones will be delivering parcels to customers in two locations before the end of the year.

The company says its electric drones that deliver packages under five pounds to customers in less than 60 minutes. The two communities where the drones will be first deployed are Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas.

Amazon’s Mk4 drone prototype.

Customers in these towns will be asked to offer feedback about the delivery service, which will see packages being dropped off in people’s backyards.

In a blog post, the e-commerce giant explained the development trajectory of its planned Prime Air drone service.

Amazon said it designed a 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. Algorithms use a diverse suite of technologies for object detection, which means the drone can identify a static object in its path, like a chimney. It can also detect moving objects on the horizon, like other aircraft. If obstacles are identified, the drone will change course to avoid them.

On descent to deliver the package in a customer’s yard, the drone ensures that there’s a small area around the delivery location that’s clear of any people, animals, or other obstacles.

“The Prime Air drones are autonomous. To fly safely, they need some ground station support,” said senior software engineer Heidi Schubert. “What we do is essentially build a map of the area and use it to plan a detailed route that helps the drone get to its destination safely.”

Over a span of 10 years, Amazon has built more than 24 drone prototypes. And, in the last two years of testing, the development team has made over 188 updates to the system to improve aspects like noise and equipment ergonomics.

FAA approval

The latest milestone has been receipt of a Part 135 Air Carrier Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2020. This means the FAA has authorized Amazon to operate as an airline and deliver small packages via drone.

To receive Part 135 certification, the company submitted detailed evidence that operations are safe, and then demonstrated those operations to the FAA. More than 500 safety and efficiency processes formed the basis of the Part 135 submission. The FAA also rigorously inspected the drones, build process and practices.