An Amazon drone sparked an acres-wide fire last summer when it crashed in eastern Oregon during a test flight, according to a Federal Aviation Administration report.
The drone’s motors failed during the flight in June, the report said, causing it to plummet 160 feet to the ground.
A video referenced in the report shows the drone “tumbling in uncontrolled free fall until it contacted the ground,” the report said. An “intense lithium battery fire quickly consumed the aircraft,” and the fire soon spread to the field where the drone had crash-landed, the report added. “Several acres of wheat stubble field were soon on fire,” it said.
The report redacted Amazon’s name but referred to the MK27 drone, the make and model of Amazon’s experimental Prime Air delivery drone.
Another FAA report, from May, does not redact Amazon’s name when describing a second MK27 drone crash. In that incident, the drone’s propeller failed, causing the 89-pound machine to careen downward “in an uncontrolled state.”
Amazon said in a statement that no one had ever been injured or harmed as a result of the company’s flight tests.
“Prime Air’s number one priority is safety. We conduct extensive testing to gather data that continually improves the safety and reliability of our systems and operations. During these tests our drones fly over sterile ranges to ensure our employees are safe from potential injury,” the company added.
“We follow thorough procedures on how flight tests are conducted and how we respond to any incident. In this instance, we carried out a test with the utmost caution, as is normal in the aviation industry,” it said. “No employee or community member was at risk and the team followed all appropriate safety procedures and reporting requirements.”
It’s not uncommon for developmental drones to crash during test flights, or for those crashes to set off blazes in dry eastern Oregon, according to a review of local media reports.
But the Amazon drone crashes are likely to raise questions about the viability of the Prime Air drone delivery program. Launched in 2013, the project has been plagued by internal conflict, high turnover, and delays. Prime Air has yet to make a single commercial delivery. Google’s drone delivery subsidiary, Wing, by contrast, has completed more than 100,000 deliveries.
“Our focus remains on innovating on behalf of our customers and scaling a service that is safe and reliable.” Amazon’s spokesperson added. “We received a Part 135 Air Carrier certification from the Federal Aviation Administration in August 2020 – a key milestone which has provided us with even more opportunities to keep improving the service.”
It’s not clear where Amazon’s timeline for drone delivery stands. Prime Air had a 20% turnover rate last year, higher than many other Amazon divisions, as employees scrambled to leave what some considered a failed project, Insider previously reported. In what some observers took as a sign of no confidence in the future of the drone project, Amazon last year gutted its Prime Air headquarters in the UK, laying off more than 100 employees, Wired reported.
Do you work at Amazon? Got a tip? Contact reporter Katherine Long on the encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-206-375-9280) or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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