In a 2013 CNN interview, Jeff Bezos said that Amazon planned on becoming the first company to offer customers a drone based delivery program. Unfortunately, logistical, software, and hardware issues greatly delayed many drone programs. For almost a decade, Prime members have been patiently waiting for Amazon to follow through on their promise to much dismay. However, there are quite a few other drone delivery systems in place that have been tested and granted FAA approval. That’s not to say Amazon hasn’t been competitively preparing for the day when they could start making deliveries with drones.
Medical delivery drones certainly paved the way for the use of consumer drone deliveries. Headquartered in San Francisco, California, Zipline has changed the way medical supplies are transported throughout Rwanda and Ghana. Zipline opened the first of four distribution centers in Ghana in 2019, increasing to six centers within a year. Using a custom designed drone Zipline transports hundreds of vaccines, blood and tissue samples, and medications to areas that are cut off from hospitals. Their model proved so successful that in wake of the recent COVID-19 pandemic the FAA granted Zipline permission to begin delivering medical supplies in the United States to medical sites.
Founded by Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet partnered with UPS in early 2019 to also deliver medical supplies. They set up distribution centers at the WakeMed campuses in Raleigh, North Carolina to deliver lightweight medical supplies in record time. This was the first major drone distribution trial in the United States. It has saved the hospital tremendously in terms of cost and time efficiency. A few months ago, roughly one year after the WakeMed trial began, Matternet revealed their next step in conquering urban drone deliveries. They have built a 10′ tall docking station that will allow drones to recharge, drop off and pick up packages, and cut down on delivery costs even more.
While both of these drone delivery options are currently focused on the delivery of medical supplies, Google has successfully begun delivering personal items with drones to customers. Developed through Google’s parent company Alphabet, Wing first started delivering goods in Australia and Finland. By downloading the Wing app customers can order items from local eateries and shops to be delivered in minutes by a drone. In April of 2019, Wing was granted permission by the FAA to begin a drone delivery trial in Christiansburg, Virginia to deliver everyday items weighing just over 3lbs directly to customer homes. This waiver from the FAA, a Part 135, was the first of it’s kind to be granted in the United States.
Through all of this Amazon has been quietly building its drone delivery program, filling out countless patents for everything from drone models and docking stations to logistical software. In June of 2019, Amazon announced that they had perfected their delivery drone and were just awaiting permission from the FAA to begin trials. Amazon’s Jeff Wilke stated that “A safe, truly autonomous drone was the only option.” The final drone design, called the MK27, can lift off and land vertically, fly horizontally, hover, is lightweight, quiet, can avoid obstacles and planes, and has all of its rotors protected. At the time of this announcement, the FAA said they had “issued a Special Airworthiness Certificate to Amazon Prime Air allowing the company to operate its MK27 unmanned aircraft for research and development and crew training in authorized flight areas.”
This week Amazon announced that they had finally been granted a Part 135 certification from the FAA to begin practical drone delivery trials. After years of dedicated research and development, Amazon Prime Air has finally become a reality. But that doesn’t mean that Prime members everywhere should start expecting drone deliveries right away. Amazon is still in the testing phase, and they vow that they will never launch a program that isn’t 100% safe and reliable. For now, Amazon will begin testing the MK27 for 30 minute deliveries in low population regions to complete the final leg of a delivery route. The goal is to collect all data from these initial drone deliveries before bringing it to more populated or urban settings. “This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world,” said David Carbon, Vice President of Prime Air. “We will continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones into the airspace, and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30 minute delivery.”