Amazon this year aims to recruit 1,300 test customers to place orders through its Prime Air drone-delivery program, a sign the company is inching closer to its vision of shipping packages via autonomous aerial vehicles, Insider has learned.
These testers will be recruited from Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas, with deliveries starting in September, according to documents obtained by Insider. Customers will be able to choose from roughly 3,000 items weighing under 5 pounds — largely pharmaceutical, beauty, and pet supplies. Amazon aims to deliver one item at a time, within an hour, to these customers, these internal planning documents say.
This would be a significant expansion of Prime Air and the program’s largest commercial test. For at least the past 18 months Amazon has operated a much smaller-scale test in almost complete secrecy near the company’s drone facilities in parts of Oregon and Crows Landing, California, according to documents and four current and former Prime Air employees. This test reaches about two dozen customers, of which only a handful are not Amazon employees, according to the documents and employees.
Those testers have had access to about 30 non-bulky items, such as a bottle of Dr. Formulated Probiotics, the UNO card-game set, and Apple headsets, a live storefront for those trial users showed as of Friday. Amazon appeared to have disabled this portal after Insider asked a Prime Air spokesperson about it.
The expansion of its testing program would mark the largest public-facing step forward for Prime Air, nearly 10 years after Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos unveiled the vision for drone-delivery service in a “60 Minutes” segment. Amazon’s goals for the program are ambitious, with plans to ultimately operate 145 drone launchpads, have 250 drones in the air at any one time, and deliver 500 million packages by drone a year, the documents say.
But those plans can still change, company insiders said, as Prime Air has been slow to launch amid regulatory challenges, high turnover, and safety concerns. These people spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Amazon.
Amazon’s spokesperson declined to comment.
The new test flights are part of Amazon’s plan to reach at least 12,000 total trial flights by the end of the year, the documents say. Of the 12,000 flights, Amazon expects roughly 5,000 to be commercial flights for trial customers, with the other 7,000 being run for separate durability and reliability testing.
Amazon needs those test flights for regulatory approval. One of the documents said Prime Air has to obtain the Federal Aviation Administration’s type certificate for its latest drone model, an approval of the aircraft’s design and safety. It said that the customer-initiated test flights would “demonstrate system maturity and service expansion readiness” and that the application for the type certificate would be “submitted upon completion” of the durability and reliability testing.
Amazon has largely been silent about Prime Air’s progress lately. Its last major milestone was in August 2020, when Amazon won the FAA’s approval to use “unmanned aircraft systems” in a commercial operation. It’s been a noticeably slow process with several missed goalposts. In 2013, Bezos predicted Amazon would be delivering packages by drone within “four or five years.” Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s former retail CEO, announced in June 2019 that Prime Air would launch “within months.”
Part of the recent slowdown has to do with internal turmoil and high turnover. Prime Air’s team experienced a culture clash between new executives and existing employees last year, with a 20% turnover rate, which was higher than many other parts of Amazon, Insider previously reported. It also closed its office in the UK last year, laying off more than 100 employees, Wired reported.
The team’s rigorously hands-on approach may be another reason for the delay. Prime Air employees — not warehouse workers — currently pack each item for the test deliveries, and every product on its trial website needs to be curated to ensure it fits in the drone. The team is in early talks with Amazon’s pharmacy team to expand its product selection, as medications are usually not bulky or hazardous, making them ideal for drone deliveries, one person directly familiar with the discussions said.
The customer-onboarding process is also making it hard to scale. Currently, Prime Air can take up to six weeks to sign up a trial customer, this person said. Prime Air employees, called “Backyard Ambassadors,” inspect each trial user’s household to make sure the delivery route is clear and the backyard is big enough, with space to plant QR markers for drone scanning. Amazon hopes to reduce the onboarding to two weeks and eventually automate it using new technology, like lidar sensors, this person said.
The trial flights have had mixed customer responses so far and struggled to generate organic demand among testers, this person said. Amazon has partly relied on incentives to get its test customers to use Prime Air, like providing Amazon gift cards in return for placing orders, they said.
The safety of drone deliveries appears to be a major concern for the team. “Safety is paramount” is the first of Prime Air’s seven organizational tenets.
Insider confirmed eight instances in which Prime Air drones fell in the past year, including one in which a drone plummeted 160 feet and sparked an acres-wide fire. The most recent crash Insider confirmed was last month.
Amazon has said that no one has ever been harmed as a result of its drone tests.
The company plans to tell customers its drones “present less risk than a car on the road,” a pitch document reviewed by Insider said. “Prime Air’s drone has been designed so that it does not need to land to deliver your package. It ensures all objects, people, and pets are not within the drop zone range before releasing the package and if it deems it unsafe, it will not deliver.”
Having the drones drop packages into customers’ yards is different from how Amazon initially envisioned its drone-delivery program operating. Originally, the drones were supposed to land in customers’ yards to deliver packages, then take off again. Part of the reason for the shift to a drop-off mechanism was to increase safety by preventing crashing into a dog or other obstacles, a person familiar with the matter said.
A video posted last year on Reddit shows a Prime Air drone in Corvallis, Oregon, disgorging a package from a height of roughly 6 feet. A former Prime Air executive, Gur Kimchi, shared the video on LinkedIn last week. “Nice to see the Amazon MK27 delivering in the wild!” he wrote, using the drone’s official model number.
Amazon expects regulators to approve the company’s request to scale back some guardrails before it expands its Prime Air beta test, the documents show. Federal regulators currently bar Amazon’s drones from flying over people, roads, or buildings. The company has applied to have those restrictions loosened, but regulators have not responded.
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