Amazon’s drone dream deferred. Again
We were all hopeful when online retailer Amazon announced that they were finally going to get their drone delivery wing, the Amazon Prime Air, finally off the ground.
In the 3,500-strong community of Lockeford, California, the company seemingly had found a perfect spot to take off and finally join the ranks of Zipline, Wing, Matternet, DroneUp, and Flytrex, which have already made thousands and thousands of commercial deliveries on US soil. Scores of residents had signed up for the trial phase and were looking forward to the big day.
Sadly, it now seems the company has to hold off on that dream for a while longer.
A string of software and hardware failures in the lead-up to and on the launch day will keep Amazon’s drone fleet in trial mode for a while longer, as authorities and experts and authorities scramble figure out a safe way to integrate the drones in the ways on a commercial basis.
Wired has just reported that the retailer’s drones faced this setback when they tried to launch in front of officials and engineers and members of the public.
“Early (on the morning of December 22, 2022), about 40 people—including FAA officials, Amazon engineers, public relations staff, and Prime Air chief pilot Jim Mullin—waited outside a steel frame warehouse on a flat, 20-acre parcel of land flanked by vineyards,” the publication wrote.
“Inside the warehouse, a flight crew had loaded the drone—a six-propeller, roughly 80-pound carbon-fiber MK27-2 — with a lithium-ion battery and a box containing an Exploding Kittens card game.
“But when the operator in charge tried to load the flight package, the software wouldn’t boot up, says a former employee who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation: “That’s when panic started to set in, and the higher-ups went into war-room mode.”
“While teams at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle tried to diagnose the issue, the flight crew powered up a second drone. This one took off as expected, whirring loudly like an airborne lawnmower. But before it reached its intended destination—the backyard of a single-family home roughly 1,500 feet away, on Taylor Ranch Road—it turned around and started heading back. The drone’s sensors had identified that the 2.5-foot-wide QR-code-like marker it was aiming for in the customer’s yard wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
“A flight crew member who saw the botched delivery says, ironically, several FAA officials were smiling: This proved that the drone’s autonomous technology was working as it should. Higher-ups at Prime Air, on the other hand, were quietly fuming.”
We understand their frustration – this would be the tenth year since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos promised the world that his company would be launching unmanned small package deliveries to customers within five years.
That was in 2013, and since then, Amazon has watched as a host of drone logistics companies have lived its dream, while it literally crashed from one setback to another – technical and regulatory setbacks, ambitious targets missed, at least one fiery crash, and, recently, layoffs.
It does make one wonder exactly what type of drone the company is trying to make that has seen about 25 prototypes fail thus far, when everybody in the industry seems have the hang of it already.
As of now, the company has had its application for continued trials (they are working on getting the MK27 and MK30 models) approved in November last year, but it is just that: an exemption for flights in a controlled environment in which Amazon cannot charge clients for deliveries and any operations “over people,” “over roadways,” and within “100 feet laterally from any person during all phases of flight” require further special approval from an FAA administrator.
The drones also have to stay within sight of the pilot from launch to landing (at a time when other delivery drones can fly for nearly 100km beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight) and observers have to notify the pilot of any obstructions that pose a risk to the operation, such as stray dogs, hobbyist drones, kites, and children.
“Whether Amazon’s drones are actually safe to fly over roads and residential areas has been debated among the company’s flight crews and safety teams,” Wired reported.
“Some members of those units say that there has been a string of crashes due to motor failures, overheating electronic speed controllers, and inexplicable in-flight software reboots. One, in June 2021, resulted from an MK27 drone overheating near the launchpad and plummeting to the ground, leading to a 25-acre brushfire in Pendleton, Oregon.”
A former flight operator who works closely with Prime Air’s drones says safety issues caused by faulty motors and other hardware issues have been largely resolved in the MK27-2, but unforeseen software bugs still crop up.
“The computer, the ACS, the brain of the whole thing, is constantly telling the aircraft what to do and how to do it,” they say. “So when that restarts, you’re no longer getting power or signals or command to the motors. Everything goes offline. It turns into a brick and falls from the sky.”
The company spokesperson Maria Boschetti was asked to share evidence that Amazon’s MK27-2 drones are safe and ready for customer deliveries.
“We use a closed, private facility to test our systems up to their limits and beyond,” she responded in an email.
“With rigorous testing like this, we expect these types of events to occur and we apply the learnings from each flight toward improving safety. No one has ever been injured or harmed as a result of these flights, and each test is done in compliance with all applicable regulations.”
She added that “there has never been any incident during customer delivery flights.”