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Amazon’s drone delivery ambitions receive major boost

An Amazon delivery drone dropping off a package.
An Amazon delivery drone drops off a package. Amazon

It’s been 11 years since Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revealed that his company was looking to deliver orders to customers using small flying drones.

But despite much research and development since then, a full-fledged drone delivery system has yet to emerge, with the ambition stymied to some extent by regulators wary of the safety implications of autonomous flying machines carrying objects over populated areas.

Another regulatory barrier has been the inability to fly a drone beyond the line of sight of a human supervisor. But a major development on Thursday means that’s about to change.

“We’re excited to share that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given Prime Air additional permissions that allow us to operate our drones beyond visual line of sight, enabling us to now serve more customers via drone and effectively expand and scale our drone delivery operations,” Amazon announced on its website.

It said that to obtain this permission, it submitted to the FAA details of its onboard detect-and-avoid system to ensure that its drones can safely spot and fly clear of any objects that they encounter while flying between a delivery depot and a customer’s property.

It said that part of the process involved conducting flight demonstrations in the presence of FAA inspectors to show the technology functioning in real-world scenarios.

“We flew in the presence of real planes, helicopters, and a hot air balloon to demonstrate how the drone safely navigated away from each of them,” Amazon said. “We also provided extensive analysis and test data for our technology that further validated the safety of our system. After reviewing this information and observing the technology in action at our test site, the FAA provided Amazon Prime Air with BVLOS [beyond visual line of sight] approval.”

The company said the new permissions mean it can expand a drone delivery test program in College Station, Texas, where it hopes to fully integrate the airborne drop-off service into its delivery network later this year. The goal is for small items — household essentials, beauty items, and drugstore products among them — to be delivered within 30 minutes of an order being placed. Amazon says its goal is to deliver 500 million packages per year by drone by the end of this decade.

Another leader in the race to roll out drone delivery services is Alphabet-owned Wing. While Amazon’s drone pushes out its package from a low altitude when it arrives at the delivery address, Wing’s machine lowers the item on a tether.

Drone delivery operators are constantly improving the safety of their aircraft and the air traffic systems that underpin their platforms, but one of the complaints often leveled at delivery drones is the loud noise they make as they fly overhead. With that in mind, engineers are always looking at ways to refine the design to try to make the machines quieter.

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Trevor Mogg
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