Pictured above is the latest design of Amazon's MK27-2 drone. The company plans to launch drone delivery services later this year. (Photo courtesy of Amazon)
Amazon’s drone delivery service, Prime Air, will begin serving customers by the end of this year, the company announced this week. Drone deliveries will first launch in Lockeford, California, a community with a population of about 3,500. Prime Air is collaborating with both the Federal Aviation Administration and Lockeford’s local officials on an ongoing basis, and will obtain permission from the appropriate authorities to begin drone delivery operations.
Amazon’s efforts to develop an uncrewed aircraft system (UAS) for delivery services were first made public in 2013. An updated hybrid prototype was unveiled at the end of 2015, a “multi-rotor helicopter” designed for vertical lift and a transition to horizontal flight with a 15-mile range. This version was one of many; the company shared that they had developed more than 12 prototypes in their facilities.
"Our algorithms use a diverse suite of technologies for object detection.” Pictured above is Amazon's drone design circa 2016. (Photo courtesy of Amazon)
The company formally requested the FAA’s approval to operate as a Part 135 unmanned air carrier for commercial drone deliveries in the U.S. in mid-2019. At the time, Amazon also requested an exemption to allow Part 135 operations to begin with its fleet of air cargo aircraft before its MK27 drone, intended for Prime Air operations, received its airworthiness certificate.
In this week’s announcement, Amazon shared that they have developed a sophisticated sense-and-avoid system to enable drone deliveries to take place without a visual observer. The system was created for operations at greater distances and to ensure safety by avoiding obstacles and preventing collisions.
The system was designed to change the drone’s course and avoid both stationary and moving obstacles. “We designed our sense-and-avoid system for two main scenarios,” Amazon stated: “to be safe when in transit, and to be safe when approaching the ground. When flying to the delivery location, the drones need to be able to identify static and moving obstacles. Our algorithms use a diverse suite of technologies for object detection.”
According to the company’s June 13 announcement, safety at the moment of delivery is critical. The Prime Air drone will check for a small area at the delivery location that is free of obstructions before descending towards the ground, hovering, and releasing the package.
The FAA’s air carrier certificate is required to operate drones that utilize sense-and-avoid technology to perform flights without a visual observer. According to Amazon, “Prime Air is one of only three drone-delivery companies that has gone through the rigorous process” to earn this certificate from the FAA.
Amazon Prime customers in Lockeford that use the free Prime Air delivery option will be an important reference point as the company continues developing the technology and scales up operations to offer delivery services to more customers. Amazon has shared that this inaugural launch in Lockeford will include investments into the community, job creation, and new partnerships with local businesses and organizations.
Heidi Schubert, a senior software engineer at Prime Air, creates drone traffic management software for enabling delivery services. Essentially, she explained, “we build a map of the area and use it to plan a detailed route that helps the drone get to its destination safely.”
Schubert remarked that in the world of autonomy, a lot of people are trying to solve the same problems. With Prime Air, the team aims to combine development and research in order to reach a set goal. “This is about using robot motion to provide value to customers and communities,” she said.