A Closer Look At Amazon’s Prime Air Delivery Drone

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Amazon unveils more details about “hybrid” delivery drone, but how does it work and how close are we to being able to use it?

Retail behemoth Amazon.com has launched a new video offering juicy new details about the firm’s Prime Air delivery drones.

Let’s just put aside the fact that it’s cyber Monday and the company wanted to lap up any extra press and publicity for its mega-deals this weekend, and let’s just not mention the video’s presenter, who once said that Mexicans (bearing in mind Hispanics make up almost 10 percent of Amazon’s workforce) are “lazy, feckless, flatulent, overweight”, and take a magnifying glass to the actual technology in use here.

Let’s kick off with what we do know:

Taking a “hybrid approach”, Amazon’s delivery drone is a cross between a more conventional style drone and a plane. In the video we see the drone taking off vertically and then, with a little help from its rear airfoil, reaching speeds of up to 58 mph using its rear facing propellers.


Ex-Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson noted in the video that the initial drone design will have a maximum range of around 15 miles, flying mostly at an altitude of 400 feet. Let’s just assume that the 15 miles figure is a round trip, meaning that really, to make use of the delivery drone services a customer will have to live within a 7 and a half mile radius of the warehouse. For cities, that doesn’t seem so hard to facilitate, but that brings us on to the problem of where on earth can this drone even land?

For now, Clarkson said that the drones use GPS and sense and avoid technology to navigate to the delivery destination. The video shows the customer placing an A (for Amazon) sign out on the lovely lawn, which is then spotted by the drone which shifts into vertical mode and lands on the lawn, homing in on the ‘A’ mat. (Interesting to note at this point Clarkson said that Amazon will build different styles of drones for different environments).

droneI’m presuming that before customers can even take advantage of the delivery drones, they would have to submit photos, dimensions, or other data to Amazon about their property so that Amazon can verify a delivery drone could actually make a landing there, because the company isn’t going to waste money dispatching drones to a property which has absolutely no safe landing space. (This also gives Amazon a precious opportunity to slurp up more customer data by means of an interrogative questioning of the customer’s property details).

Here’s what we don’t know:

Amazon, in the two years that its delivery drone initiative has been public, has not mentioned when the service might be live. Clarkson fails to reveal any details either.

We then get to the question of whether this whole scheme is even legal.

The US is currently undergoing a drone revolution that will likely see remotely piloted aircraft able to navigate all sorts of legal loopholes. The altitude noted on the video also highlights Amazon’s US-centric focus, as 400 feet is the US Federal Aviation Administration’s legal maximum altitude for hobby aircraft and drones.

But over here in the UK, things are a little more difficult. The Civil Aviation Authority’s 2015 drone code stipulates that drone pilots (unless you’re sitting in a cabin in RAF Waddington scaring the living daylights out of large swathes of the Middle East) must keep their drones within direct line of sight when in flight.

Drones must also be steered well clear of obstacles such as other aircraft, helicopters, and airports. Furthermore, if there’s a camera on the drone (of which there will be on the Amazon drone), it must keep at least 50 metres away from other people, vehicles, and buildings. All of which there are many in cities in the UK.

landingHere’s what Amazon has to say: “We’re excited about Prime Air — a future delivery system from Amazon designed to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less.

“Putting Prime Air into service will take some time, but we will deploy when we have the regulatory support needed to realize our vision.”

In short, no, it’s still an idea that’s not getting off the ground just yet.

Can you fly drones in London? We take a look at the city’s drone rules here

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