By: Justin Cooper
In late 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a surprise announcement on a segment of 60 Minutes: Amazon was developing small aerial drones capable of delivering packages directly to customers’ doorsteps. He stated that the drones would be used to make speedy thirty-minute deliveries from Amazon fulfillment centers, would have a range of over ten miles, and could carry packages weighing up to five pounds. At that time, he also claimed that the widespread use of drones was at least four to five years away. Nine years later, however, “Amazon Prime Air” is still grounded largely because Amazon’s rollout of delivery drones has faced multiple technical challenges which continue to push back the program’s launch. Although the clearance of FAA regulatory hurdles briefly kindled hope that the program was back on track in 2020, concerns about the privacy and safety of Amazon Prime Air, coupled with the possibility of state and municipal challenges to the program’s rollout, could keep Amazon’s delivery drones grounded well into the future.
During the first few years after Bezos’ announcement, research and development of Amazon Prime Air services seemed to be moving at a steady pace. However, in 2015 the program hit its first snag when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which establishes airworthiness criteria to ensure the safe operation of aircraft in accordance with 49 U.S.C. 44701(a) and 44704, published its widely anticipated rules governing “Unmanned Aerial Systems.” Notably, the FAA refused to green light the use of drones for commercial delivery. Amazon responded with a letter to the FAA “threatening to test the drones abroad if the FAA continued to refuse to let it test the machines outdoors in the United States.” The FAA consequently granted Amazon the ability to conduct limited domestic testing, requiring that drone test flights take place under 400 feet and remain in sight of the pilot and observer. Meanwhile, Amazon continued the development of its drones in the United Kingdom, celebrating its first successful commercial delivery in 2016. Amazon Prime Air’s United Kingdom operation seemed to be advancing even more quickly when “UK regulators…fast-tracked approvals for drone testing.” This fast-tracking “made the country an ideal testbed for drone flights and paved the way for Amazon to gain regulatory approval elsewhere.” However, behind the scenes, Amazon’s program was dealing with major problems, including staff layoffs, redundancies, and reports of mismanagement, including reports of employee drunkenness while on the job.
During all of this, and back in the United States, Amazon Prime Air was making slow progress. In 2019, Amazon petitioned the FAA to allow it to begin wide-scale testing of its drones, and a year later the company announced it had received approval from the FAA to begin testing commercial deliveries. Despite this victory, however, Amazon Prime Air has continued to face significant issues that cast doubt on the program’s safety, and an investigative report conducted by Bloomberg News has recently revealed multiple Amazon drone crashes, as well as accounts of a management culture more focused on speed than safety.
This focus on speed likely stems from the fact that Amazon has fallen behind its rivals in the drone delivery space. In August 2021, Alphabet Inc.’s program, Wing, announced that it had successfully made its hundred thousandth delivery in Australia. Wing’s drone deliveries are also automated, “but monitored by pilots who function more as air traffic controllers.” A notable difference from Amazon’s drones is that Wing packages “are dropped in front of homes using a winch”, while Amazon’s drones land to deliver their packages. In addition to Wing, UPS has also successfully tested the use of delivery drones in innovative ways. For example, UPS has tested launching drones from its delivery trucks, which allows a delivery driver to cover large rural areas in a much more efficient manner.
Aside from the technical and production challenges that have slowed the rollout of Amazon Prime Air, Amazon will likely face continued challenges due to significant privacy concerns. According to CNBC, “detecting telephone wires, people, property and even small animals on the ground all require careful sensing and collision avoidance systems.” In addition to the multiple cameras needed to navigate these obstacles, Amazon “is investing heavily in artificial intelligence to help drones navigate safely to their destinations, and drop off packages safely.” The possibility of fleets of AI-automated drones equipped with precision cameras surveilling American cities, a scene seemingly pulled from a dystopian science fiction novel, could quickly become a concerning reality.
Beyond privacy concerns, Amazon Prime Air will likely have to contend with major safety concerns. Accidents caused by manned drones have already led to multiple legal disputes. For example, in 2017, “[t]he owner of an aerial photography business was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine after a drone he was operating crashed into people during a 2015 parade and knocked one woman unconscious. Paul Skinner, 38, was found guilty of reckless endangerment by Judge Willie Gregory of the Seattle Municipal Court.” In the case of piloted drones, victims can bring a suit against the human operator; the widespread use of automated drones, in contrast, raises difficult questions about the increased risk of personal injury and how to apportion blame. Last month, questions about the safety of Amazon’s ground-based “autonomous personal delivery devices”, known as Amazon Scout, led the city of Kirkland, Washington to place a temporary moratorium on their continued use, and as Amazon Prime Air moves towards wide-scale implementation, it could likely face similar slow-downs and push back from various state and local governments.
Despite these setbacks, Amazon has not faltered in its commitment to implement Amazon Prime Air. The promise of faster, more efficient shipping will very likely continue to outweigh the challenges facing the implementation of aerial delivery drones; this is proven by Amazon’s commitment to launching its program, along with Alphabet Inc.’s and UPS’ already operational delivery drone programs. However, the technical challenges and social concerns surrounding these programs will likely continue to delay their full-scale rollout in the near future, “grounding” Amazon Prime Air for at least a little bit longer.