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Fri, Apr 15, 2022

Amazon's Drone Program Stumbles

Rumors Abound Around Prime Air: Impatient Execs, Musical Chairs, and a 25-Acre Brushfire

Recent journalistic digging has brought up some interesting industry gossip regarding the internal workings of Amazon's drone delivery program. 

The idea of automated, "floor to door" aerial delivery of packages is one being approached from multiple angles throughout the UAV market, and of all those racing to get their program up and running, Amazon has often been seen as one of the strongest bets to make. Their infrastructure, considerable logistics expertise, and bottomless treasuries should theoretically create a sterling drone delivery system, but after a decade of work and more than $2 billion spent, Amazon still seems further away from launch than ever. 

Bloomberg's investigation purports to have uncovered internal messaging, government reports, and interviews with a dozen employees to reveal a program mired in technical challenges, continuous turnover, and executive impatience that has taken its toll on company targets time and again. A crash that resulted in a 25-acre brushfire last June drew attention to the experimental flight program, especially one so far along. The fire should by all means have been prevented by multiple safety features in such a matured aircraft, according to anonymous personnel, but pressure to get the program on track is leaving the program little choice to carry on as they try to meet deadlines.

The investigation illustrated a goal of 2,500 test flights in 2021, one that was evidently failed to the chagrin of Amazon execs overseeing the program. For 2022, Bloomberg says the program seeks 12,000 test flights, and as of February only completed about 1.6% of the total. A bevy of additional test sites are set to open, in Texas and California, where the company will begin BVLOS operations. Amazon, of course, denies any allegations that speed is being prioritized over safety, though the investigation does highlight some less-than-heartening personnel changes as the mood towards the Prime Air program became increasingly impatient. 

The necessarily safety-focused culture surrounding flight testing can seem plodding when compared to much faster, flexible development programs in tech or consumer electronics. Having to bring things to a halt and investigate every failed drone is a change of pace for a company that's often able to workshop and design its services without the regulatory requirements of the FAA. The end goal has not changed too much from the initial expectations held for an automated courier: A drone that can fly within 7 miles of its station with a 5-pound package for delivery within 30 minutes of purchase. Similar programs are in the works with rivals like Alphabet Inc's Google Wing, which had a fine year in 2021 thanks to a Walgreens delivery deal that saw success in its limited testing. 2022 will be an interesting year for the program, if the rumors are to be believed.



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