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Here’s everything you need to know about Amazon’s drone delivery project, Prime Air

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Image used with permission by copyright holder
Amazon has done a lot recently to speed up its shipping services. It has algorithms that anticipate your orders, ultra-efficient robots that pick items from warehouses, and even a service (Prime Now) that delivers certain items to your doorstep just hours after you order them.

The only problem? Right now, this super-fast shipping service depends on delivery trucks, and only works if you live fairly close to one of Amazon’s warehouses. This puts limits on not only the number of people who can use the service, but also the selection of items available to prospective buyers.

That’s where Amazon’s efforts to introduce drone delivery come in. The company first announced its project — appropriately dubbed Prime Air — in late-2013, to much skepticism. Since then, the project has overcome numerous hurdles, and while it’s not quite ready for primetime quite yet, every month it inches closer toward launch.

To help you keep track of the project’s development, we’ve put together this comprehensive timeline. It starts with Prime Air’s history and goes through every major development up to the present. Be sure to circle back from time to time, as this article is updated regularly to include the latest news and information. Enjoy!

A dose of reality

Getting Amazon drones off the ground (both literally and figuratively) will take a lot of work, in addition to persuading the FAA to agree to let drones in the air in the first place. One big hurdle is the issue of getting the packages to you. Although Amazon has established a commendable network of fulfillment centers throughout the country, there are only locations in 24 states, most of which are coastal.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

To remedy this — and this is pretty out there — Amazon recently patented what it calls an “airborne fulfillment center.” This basically amounts to a warehouse that doubles as a drone airport, one that would hang suspended from a blimp. Another issue Amazon has to deal with is where to put these drones when they’re not in use. For this one, the company has suggested using street lights, cell towers, and other high-lofted objects as potential “docking stations.” And how about getting the package to you? Does the drone land on your front porch? Maybe not — it might deliver the package via parachute.

But in every case, 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.

Prime Air struggles to take off (2013 through early-2015)

We’ve already discussed the launch of Prime Air in 2013, and the skepticism of the project from critics. However, said criticism didn’t stop Bezos & Co. from moving forward in 2014 and laying the groundwork for drone delivery. By April of that year, Amazon said it was already testing technologies for the service, and in July the company made its first overtures to the FAA about officially testing Prime Air outside.

The FAA seemingly ignored Amazon’s requests, though. A second letter to the the FAA showed Amazon’s frustration, with the company warning that the agency’s lack of communication would force the company to start testing abroad, which it did by building a new R&D center in the United Kingdom that became operational in 2014.

Initially, things did not look good for Prime Air. The FAA established new drone regulations in February 2015, which stated that UAVs must be operated within eyesight of the pilot, and banned the flight of these drones over people who have no connection to the drone’s operation.

Amazon would receive somewhat of a break the following month, however, when the FAA finally approved testing with tight restrictions for a drone that the company had long since retired. This meant much of the testing for Prime Air would still need to happen outside of the U.S. Amazon followed through with its threats, leading to a testing center that resides a mere 2,000 feet from the U.S. border in Canada.

Prime Air catches some breaks (late-2015 through late-2016)

Although it’s not clear whether Amazon’s public shaming of U.S. government agencies had any effect, Prime Air seemed to gain some momentum throughout the rest of 2015 and into 2016. The company spearheaded efforts in the summer of 2015 to set guidelines on where drones should fly, and later in the year debuted a new design for its drone with a longer range (15 miles) and better tech, which allows the drone to avoid ground and air-based obstructions automatically.

Without much action on the regulatory front, much of late-2015 and 2016 left Amazon with quite a bit of time to work on functionality. In an interview with Yahoo in January 2016, project spokesperson Paul Misener said the company was continuing work on automated collision avoidance technologies, as well as noise reduction.

By summer, Amazon finally saw the movement it was looking for from the U.S. regulatory agencies. New rules in June allowed commercial outfits to operate drones without lengthy authorization processes, though they still had to adhere to tight restrictions, such as those pertaining to line of sight. A few days later, however, the FAA decided to allow drones to operate without being in the pilot’s line of sight, a move that made Amazon’s delivery effort truly feasible for the first time.

A concept becomes reality (late-2016 through present)

Much of the real-world work with Prime Air has happened since the end of 2016. In fact, the first proof-of-concept flight didn’t happen until December, when an actual package was delivered to a customer in Cambridge, England. The company is gradually expanding service in the area, but only thanks to a favorable regulatory environment created by U.K. authorities.

First-ever #AmazonPrimeAir customer delivery is in the books. 13 min—click to delivery. Check out the video:

— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) December 14, 2016

By January, Amazon made moves to gain authorization to experiment with wireless communication that appeared to have something to do with the control of its drone fleet. This was followed by a surprise cameo of Prime Air during one of Amazon’s Super Bowl commercials the following month.

Also in February, the company unveiled plans for a new cargo hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport in Hebron, Kentucky. While it’s not directly related to the company’s drone delivery effort, it signals a movement by Amazon to control every part of the delivery process, which may not involve USPS, UPS, or FedEx in the near future.

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Ed Oswald
For fifteen years, Ed has written about the latest and greatest in gadgets and technology trends. At Digital Trends, he's…
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