While onstage at its Re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, Amazon has at last unveiled its latest version of its Prime Air delivery drone. This drone is a hybrid aircraft that’s capable of verticle takeoff and landing as well as sustained forward flight. The company says it wants to launch a delivery service using the drone in the coming months. However, it has not said where this would take place or how many customers it would cover.
Amazon’s consumer worldwide CEO Jeff Wilke emphasized the aircraft’s safety features. He said they know customers will only feel comfortable receiving drone deliveries if the system is incredibly safe. Amazon says the drone’s safety features make it as robust and stable as commercial aircraft – but this is a big claim for technology that is still very much in its early stages.
Watch the Re:MARS presentation here:
The new delivery drone uses a combination of depth cameras, thermal cameras, and sonar to detect hazards. With the help of machine learning models, onboard computers can automatically identify obstacles and navigate around them.
Packages for delivery would be carried in the fuselage in the middle. The drone’s rotors are also fully covered for safety, with these covers serving as wings during sustained flight. The drone has sex degrees of freedom, which Amazon says allows for more dynamic and nimble flight. A tilting design allows for the drone to use the same six propellers to fly forward as it does for takeoff and landing.
The company followed the announcement of the new drone with a test flight video, showing how the craft transforms in midair. Amazon says the goal for the finished Prime Air service is to create fully electric drones that can fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under 5 pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes. While this may seem like a small payload, Amazon says 75 – 90 percent of purchased items are under that weight limit.
However, what’s even more significant than the specs was Amazon’s vagueness about when, where, how this technology will be made available to customers. Wilke told the audience that we’ll be seeing the drone delivering packages to customers in a matter of months. But the company has not yet selected a location for this early service.
Amazon’s objective is to have a certified commercial program that will allow it to deliver to customers. That’s what it will be working on in the coming months.
But, Amazon is still hoping to get FAA approval for the design. Wilke told Bloomberg that the entire drone is built either from FAA-approved parts or designed with approval in mind. Amazon is saying this is an airplane that’s building to exacting aerospace standards and nothing that the FAA has seen before.
It’s worth remembering that Amazon does not have a great track record when it comes to meeting its deadlines in this area.The company first announced plans for Prime Air way back in 2013 but ran into problems with logistics and regulations. In 2016, it claimed it had made its first successful drone to a customer in Cambridge, England. However, that proved to be a one-off stunt rather than the beginning of a regular service.
Google’s rival, Project Wing, meanwhile, has slowly been expanding the number of test services in locations including Finland and Australia.
The implementation of these delivery systems is much harder than simply building the aircraft. Amazon has unveiled a drone and given itself another deadline. Now it’s time for it to deliver.
You can watch the drone in action here: