How often has that headline been written over the past decade? It’s like the Cry Wolf story, though this time, Amazon believes it will actually happen in the U.S. – and still before the end of this year! At the same time, it has already revealed the newer version of its delivery drone.
2023 will be an anniversary year for Amazon Prime Air [the drone airline, not to be mixed up with Amazon Air, the freighter aircraft fleet], given that it first began looking into drones in
2013... By 2015, CargoForwarder Global reported that Amazon had chosen to test its first
drones in a secret location just across the border in British Columbia, Canada, because though: “the U.S. regulatory body, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently published a set of
guidelines for commercial use of drones, [...] the new rules will take at least two years to come into effect, a delay which Amazon finds unacceptable.” It had applied for an exemption to
allow it to carry out outdoor experiments immediately, but by the time the approval came through around 9 months later, the model it authorized was already obsolete. A single customer shipment by
drone was finally carried out late in 2016 – but this took place in Cambridge, over in the far more drone-favorable UK. A one-hit wonder?
In 2017, Amazon was publishing ideas of floating warehouses that would use drones to deliver packages from the futuristic-looking blimp (CFG reported). “Amazon is taking the future of drone delivery very seriously,” CFG reported, admitting that time would tell. A Digital Trends article from that time smirked at the plans: “these ideas are not yet realistic and show that it’s likely that it will be many more years before Prime Air takes off (no pun intended). As for a timeline, it looks like we will have to wait until as late as 2020, if not later, for large-scale availability.” Indeed, it wasn’t until 31AUG20, that the FAA finally authorized Amazon as a drone airline (CFG reported) And as for take-off?...
It’s going to happen!
We’re just weeks away from 2023 – a whole three years since the FAA’s drone airline approval, and Amazon finally recently announced that its MK27-2 drone will soon start making deliveries in the U.S. In two locations, for starters: Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas. Those deliveries are planned to begin before the end of 2022. According to CNN, “the residents in the small rural town of Lockeford have expressed concerns about privacy and safety,” - will this put another spanner in the works? Amazon has always underlined that safety is a core issue and uses that as one of the reasons drone implementation has taken so long: “not all drone systems are equal,” it says in response to the fact that others such as Walmart, are already deploying drone delivery, and lists the different types of drone operations. “Then there are systems like Amazon’s, which uses a sophisticated, industry-leading sense-and-avoid system to help our drones operate safely and autonomously. If the environment changes, and the drone‘s mission commands it to come into contact with an object that wasn’t there previously, it will refuse. Designing and building a system like this was not an easy task. But from the start, the choice was clear. In order for this to make a difference at Amazon’s scale, a safe, truly autonomous drone was the only option,” it explains on its website.
The drone delivery system sounds very limited. In a CNN video, Calsee Hendrickson, Product and Program Senior Manager Amazon Prime Air, explains that “if, when it gets to its delivery location and your dog runs underneath the drone, we won’t deliver the package. The drone will come back.” Irritation is pre-programmed, it seems. Add to that, the fact that the drone is rather large and bulky, measuring 1.67 m in diameter and weighing just over 36 kg – it requires a lot of room to maneuver, albeit completely autonomously. Yet, it can only carry parcels weighing less than 2.2 kg, that fit into a shoebox, and that are likely to survive a drop from 4 m in height. Each drone, which is capable of flying a 12 km round-trip and travelling at 50 mph, only performs one delivery per flight – and one that should take less than an hour “from click to delivery”.
Smaller version to come in 2024
Amazon doesn’t disclose what percentage of its shipments falls into the less than 2.2 kg and unbreakable category, through one would expect it is a large enough majority to merit a 10-year foray into this drone design. While the one that is due to be deployed possibly even as you read this, is the MK27-2, Amazon has also just revealed the follow-on model from that: the MK30, which it plans to have in service by 2024. “Amazon's new delivery drone will have increased range, expanded temperature tolerance, safety-critical features, and the capability to fly in light rain, enabling customers to choose drone delivery more often,” its website heralds, begging the question: along with all its other limitations, is MK27-2 also only able to fly in good weather? In any case, the MK30 “will be lighter and smaller than the MK27-2” and be equipped with “new, custom-designed propellers that will reduce the MK30’s perceived noise by another 25%.” The plan is “to sustainably deliver a vast selection of items in under an hour, and eventually within 30 minutes,” and Amazon still believes that “at scale, drones are the most effective path to success”. The question is, how quickly will this really become an Amazon reality? While Amazon’s freighter fleet has seen incredible growth over the past 5 years, its drones are basically just droning on...
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