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Amazon Delivery Drones Cleared for Takeoff

Amazon is one step closer to realizing its long-sought dream of delivering packages to your door via flying drones.

On Aug. 29, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued Amazon a Part 135 air carrier certificate using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), officially giving the e-commerce giant the go-ahead to operate its delivery drone fleets as part of its Prime Air brand.

The newly issued drone license will give Amazon broad privileges that include carrying packages beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator.

To receive Part 135 certification, Amazon was required to submit detailed evidence that the operation was safe. Amazon developed and validated over 500 safety and efficiency processes to form the basis of its Part 135 submission, according to an Amazon spokesperson.

The company has not revealed when it would start testing with consumers, or which markets would see the first commercial delivery trials in the U.S., but it already has testing sites close to its Seattle headquarters in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and nearby in the Vancouver area. Amazon also maintains testing sites in Austria, the U.K. and other international locations, although at the moment it can only perform tests involving customers in the U.S. and U.K.

“Amazon Prime Air’s concept uses autonomous UAS to safely and efficiently deliver packages to customers,” a spokesperson for the FAA told Sourcing Journal. “The FAA’s role is to ensure that any UAS operation is performed safely. The FAA supports innovation that is beneficial to the public, especially during a health or weather-related crisis.”

Amazon Prime Air is the third commercial UAS delivery service company in the United States to receive certification by the FAA. The FAA already issued Part 135 air carrier certificates to Alphabet-owned Wing Aviation in Virginia and UPS Flight Forward in North Carolina. While Wing has piloted package delivery for FedEx and Walgreens, UPS began offering prescription medicine delivery for CVS in May to a retirement community in Florida.

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At its 2019 Re:MARS (Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics and Space) conference, Amazon debuted an electric delivery drone that’s capable of carrying packages under five pounds to customers within a half hour and can fly up to 15 miles. Amazon estimates that nearly 90 percent of all products sold on its platform weigh less than five pounds.

Routine drone deliveries to U.S. consumers are still likely a few years away, partly because the FAA needs to complete rules for remote identification of more than 480,000 drones currently registered for commercial operations, and issue separate rules permitting drones to fly regularly over populated areas. Package deliveries won’t proceed beyond limited trials in the U.S. until new federal regulations go into effect.

Earlier this year, Amazon hired former Boeing executive David Carbon to lead the drone program.

“This certification is an important step forward for Prime Air and indicates the FAA’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver packages to our customers around the world,” David Carbon, vice president of Prime Air, said in a statement. “We will continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones into the airspace, and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery.”

During the Re:MARS conference last year, former Prime Air vice president Gur Kimchi gave some initial details on the composition of the drones.

The drone is surrounded by a six-sided shroud designed to protect people from the propellers, but that also serves as a high-efficiency wing so it can fly horizontally more like a plane. After it gets off the ground vertically, the craft tilts and flies sideways, with the helicopter blades becoming more like airplane propellers.

The drone uses a suite of sensors so it can fly robotically without threatening traditional aircraft or people on the ground. A camera within the drone uses infrared to recognize heat signatures. To add extra redundancy, the drone’s computers use multiple computerized methods to recognize hazards such as wires and clotheslines.

It is unknown how much the drone investment has cost so far. But Amazon is no stranger to shelling out an outrageous amount of money to get its products in the customers’ hands, and that has only been ramped up further as the company caters to COVID-driven demand. The company’s overall shipping costs totaled $13.6 billion in the second quarter, a 68 percent jump year-over-year. The company’s grocery delivery capacity skyrocketed by more than 160 percent amid a threefold spike in online grocery sales during the quarter.

In July, Amazon said it was upgrading its fleet of delivery trucks to meet the new online demands by ordering more than 2,200 heavy-duty Utilimaster “walk-in” delivery trucks from Shyft Group, a Michigan-based specialty vehicle company. Most recently, the company said it was adding more than 1,800 electric vehicles (EVs) from Mercedes-Benz Vans to its delivery fleet in Europe this year as part of both companies’ shared commitment to reduce emissions from the transportation sector. Amazon was the first signatory of the Climate Pledge — a commitment to meeting the goal of net zero annual carbon emissions 10 years earlier than the Paris Agreement.

Amazon has made plenty of other moves to expand its e-commerce presence in 2020, both on the road and in the air. On June 26, Amazon purchased self-driving startup Zoox for nearly $1.2 billion. Earlier that month, Amazon leased 12 Boeing 767-300 converted cargo aircraft from Air Transport Services Group (ATSG), expanding its existing fleet of 70 aircraft to 82. Eleven of the 12 leased planes will be delivered in 2021.

In May, Amazon Air began gateway operations at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, and Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Amazon then opened a regional air hubs at Lakeland Linder International Airport in Florida in July. In 2021, the company expects to open its central Amazon Air Hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, as well as another hub at San Bernardino International Airport.

Since Amazon Air’s launch in 2016, Amazon has invested hundreds of millions of dollars and created thousands of new jobs at Amazon Air locations across the U.S. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as Amazon continues to make these investments has been largely mum about details of the expansion of its Air and ground initiatives.

In fact, throughout 2020, there has been very little chatter about drones, even though the company has been trialing them since December 2016. In February 2017, Amazon received a patent permitting the company to carry out no-landing drone deliveries.

The ambition has been there for Amazon for years, but the predictions of when the tech would be deployed on a mass scale have been off thus far. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in 2013 that drone-delivered packages would arrive at the doors of customers in five years, but that obviously hasn’t come to fruition.

Even last year at the Re:MARS event, Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s CEO of worldwide consumer who is stepping down in the first quarter of 2021, said at the time that the newest drone iteration could be used by the company “within months” to deliver packages.

Next up, it will be interesting to see where Walmart fits into the drone wars. According to data made available by international accounting firm BDO in June 2019, Walmart filed more drone-related patents than Amazon in the two years prior—and nearly twice as many since July 2018.

BDO found that over the year-long span, Walmart filed 97 drone patents with the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) compared to the 54 drone-related designs filed by Amazon in the same time frame. In the 12 months prior, Walmart managed to file 57 new patents in the field of drone technology while Amazon filed 54.