Amazon Prime Air Drone Delivery Will Soon be a Reality

2022-08-01 07:59

Amazon announced on June 13th 2022 that it is preparing to start deliveries of its retail products to its US customers by drone.1 The first areas chosen are Lockeford, in California, and College Station, in Texas.2

Amazon said that after receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Lockeford officials, it would launch its drone delivery service using their 'MK27-2' drones in Lockeford and scale it based on customer feedback. Amazon said it's already been working with the FAA and has acquired an air carrier certificate. Basically, this means it's run almost like an airline.

Note that Amazon is one of only three companies given air carrier certificates by the FAA to operate drone deliveries, the other two being Walmart and Alphabet Wing Aviation (owned by the same parent company as Google).

This is an important milestone in drone technology, and a gamechanger when it comes to logistics for package delivery to consumers... In fact, the logistics industry is abuzz with all-things drones these days.

Let's dive deeper into how Amazon Prime Air is doing this and what we know about their drones and their drone operations... I'll also make predictions about how delivery drones zooming overhead will become a ubiquitous reality for all of us by 2025.

What is Amazon Prime Air, and Who Is Their competition?

Amazon launched Amazon Prime Air a decade ago to develop the capability to deliver its items via drones.

In 2013, founder Jeff Bezos declared Amazon drone deliveries could start by around 2018 (Bloomberg). It admittedly struggled with challenges around cost, speed, and scalability, but the company eventually made its first fully autonomous Prime Air delivery on December 7th, 2016, in Cambridge, England, where the company has a fulfillment center.

A decade of research and development allowed Walmart and Alphabet to fly ahead of Amazon and launch drone delivery. Alphabet's Wing launched its drone delivery service in Texas in April.3

Walmart, meanwhile, started its drone delivery service in Arkansas in November. The company announced in May that it plans to expand to six states and 34 sites by the end of this year.

Alphabet’s Wing Aviation is the first company to receive an FAA air carrier certificate to operate drone delivery in the United States. Alphabet, parent company of Google, took in Wing Aviation as an independent subsidiary as of July 2018. Since then, Wing has been closely working with FAA regulatory officials to submit evidence and demonstrate that their operations are safe.4

Wing has worked for six years to build a small, lightweight aircraft and navigational system that can safely deliver small packages on demand to specific destinations in only a few minutes. The company has since flown over 70,000 test flights, and more than 3,000 deliveries to doorsteps, driveways and backyards of customers in Australia. To achieve this, the aircraft employs a hover propellor used to reduce noise, wings designed for efficient horizontal flight, a retractable tether for raising and lowering packages, and many other technical features. Throughout the testing, safety has been emphasized as Wing Aviation’s number one priority. Additionally, the company has highlighted other the potential for the air delivery service to bolster local business, minimize carbon emissions and relieve road congestion, all while maintaining community and customer privacy.

Wing Aviation has also been working closely with the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP), which was created by the FAA. They have utilized this working relationship with the FAA to also be allocated a flight testing area near Virginia Tech, where flights have been conducted since 2016. With its new Air Carrier Certification in hand, the company has expanded deliveries in southwest Virginia, recruiting businesses and potential customers in the Blacksburg and Christiansburg areas who want to try out the delivery system.

Now, after spending over $2 billion with more than 1,000 workers contributing to the project (based on an April 2022 Bloomberg report), and "technical challenges, high turnover, and safety concerns," including a 2021 crash that caused a brush fire, hampering the service's debut, it's finally about to become a reality...

Furthermore, lots of applicants are entering the drone delivery business, and soon they will be tempted to offer their drone delivery technologies to similar companies, or even their competitors. Uber Eats applied in early June 2022 to the FAA to begin delivery operations in San Diego...

Will Amazon Prime Air succeed?

In the beginning, many people didn't take Amazon Prime Air seriously. The promise of drone delivery has often felt like science fiction to most people, but the more knowledgeable and informed folks in the aerospace industry know that by 2025 drone delivery would became a reality, and that Amazon Prime Air was a serious endeavour with a high chance of success, probably one of the top three such endeavours in the USA (next to Walkmart and Alphabet).

Amazon has been working for almost a decade to make it a reality, and in my opinion they have the three things that are needed to succeed:

  1. They have a clear vision as to how this will improve their business since they recognize that drones are the disruptive technology that can make a step change in delivery times: imagine waking up in the morning, ordering your Amazon items on your tablet or smartphone, then walking outside 30 minutes later with a coffee in one hand to witness a drone zoom into view and descend into your back yard and drop the ubiquitous Amazon package onto a designated spot on your lawn. In today's consumer market where everything is about "instant gratification", this will get Amazon as close to the top of the consumer food chain. Think of it like what Elon Musk and SpaceX did to the business of sending astronauts and payloads to space; it's a total game changer, and once they achieve it, few companies will be able to compete with Amazon in terms of delivery times.

  2. They have the business stability and financial resources required to see this through. Anybody who has experience in aerospace engineering and product development knows that developing a new aerospace products takes millions if not billions in capital investments before you're able to see a penny of revenue, let alone profit, out of the entire endeavour. Not many companies have deep enough pockets, consistent revenue streams and/or can secure the financing required to see large scale or new & novel aerospace projects through until certification and entry into service. Even big aerospace companies that have all of these ingredients sometimes struggle; take Boeing with the 737 MAX-10 program which might soon be canned, and Bombardier's slew of divestitures of their commercial aircraft as proof of this point. However, in 2021 Q1, at the height of the pandemic when vaccination were just starting off and at the height of all restrictions, Amazon’s sales increased 44% to USD$108.5 billion (yes billion with a 'b') in the first three months of 2021. In fact the company’s pandemic boom continued into 2021. Amazon made a profit of USD$8.1 billion for 2021Q1 – USD$2.7bn a month – beating analysts’ forecasts after a series of better than expected results from tech companies and others. Sure, its investment in electric vehicle company Rivian wiped out profits in 2022Q2, but that's just a temporary hurdle (Amazon is not just investing in autonomous air deliveries, it's doing the same for autonomous or reduced cost road deliveries too, which makes sense)! In any case, at USD$2 billion of profit each month, Amazon can easily affort funnelling a consistent source of funds into Amazon Prime Air.

  3. They have a capable team working hard at making this a reality. Working as an expert in aircraft certification, I know that it takes a wealth of knowledgable and experienced individuals to obtain the necessary certifications and operational authorizations from the competent authorities like Transport Canada Civil Aviation (TCCA), the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), or the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), and it seems Amazon Prime Air has been building a team of the best in the business. In June 2022, I had the opportunity to attend the annual FAA/EASA International Aviation Safety Conference in Washington, DC, and one of the panel discussions was about "Developing International Standards at the Speed of Change". One of the panelists was Sean Cassidy, the Director for Safety for Flight Operations & Regulatory Affairs at Amazon Prime Air, and he was very insightful about how regulators and industry can coordinate and collaborate on the development and implementation of international standards to support the increased introduction of innovative and disruptive new technologies. Sean was clear: they've hired the best in the aerospace industry (some of their people have run aircraft operations for large operators, and have working extensively in aircraft certification and with the FAA and other authorities, and safety is at the core of Amazon's business. People in the industry know that "right people + safety culture" is the right foundation and mindset before even attempting to get regulatory approvals for such projects. Sean also gave a glimpse of Amazon's certification strategy: they've been very methodical and have been taking small incremental steps to demonstrate safe operations with small remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), aka drones, in more constrained vertical airspace. He also mentioned they've been very active in industry standardization efforts, and their vision is to develop performance-based standards which support innovation and are agnostic from legacy systems and technology. Being an expert in this field, my gut feel is that these guys are dead serious and super smart in their strategy, and it's only a question of time before they can demonstrate compliance to the highest safety standards and obtain the necessary approvals to operate their Amazon Prime Air delivery drones in urban congested airspace. In fact, the world’s largest online retailer says “hundreds of residents have expressed interest in receiving their Amazon orders via drone”, and the company has built new facilities to support the expansion into the air. So it's happening. The aerospace industry is often secretive until it received the necessary regulatory approvals to operate in public, at which point the marketing side goes crazy and the general population will only start appreciating the reality that the new product offers after they experience it themselves. But don't kid yourself, it's coming, and nothing will stop them at this point...

The company still has some regulatory obstacles to overcome but expects drones to be dropping packages into customers' backyards in Lockeford, California, by the end of 2022. And I believe them.

What we know about their Drones

We know that Amazon Prime Air has created and tested more than 24 drone prototypes and proofs of concepts of drones which can deliver their packages.1,4

For example, what Amazon calls their 'MK4' was one of their first drones designed to demonstrate the concept of fulfilling customer orders via drones.

However we do know that Amazon Prime Air looked into various drone configurations. Here's an overview of some interesting configurations they designed and tested such as the 'MK21', and the 'MK23' .

Amazon 'MK4' drone, a sixcopter designed to demonstrate the concept of fulfilling customer orders via drones. Notice the rotors are unprotected (they don't have guards) which decreases the level of safety in case of collision with obstacles (it increases the chance the rotor get damaged during a collision) and should the drone have an uncontrolled crash into people (laceration injuries).

The 'MK21' was a quadcopter with a large fuselage that could fit packages inside its body. Notice that compared to the earlier 'MK4' design, the rotors were now protected (they have guards) which increase the level of safety in the case of collision with birds or obstacles (less of a chance the rotors get damaged during the collision) and should the drone have an uncontrolled crash into people.

The 'MK23' could fly forward like an airplane and perform vertical takeoffs and landings like a helicopter. It's probably faster than VTOL 'copter' style drone configurations, so Amazon surely wanted to test it out before making a key decision on which configuration to adopt.

While their early testing in the first couple of years was done without the need for regulatory approvals, Amazon first took steps to win the blessing of the authorities in July 2014, when it petitioned the FAA for permission to begin testing its drones in more commonly used airspace. But the agency's response was hardly swift, finally granting an "experimental airworthiness certificate" to Amazon in March 2015, with the company since revealing the vehicle cleared for use had already become obsolete. The slow progress partnered with the now-evident worthlessness of the permit prompted Amazon to carry out testing of its more sophisticated models abroad, namely at a secret Canadian site only 2,000 ft (610 m) from the US border (Amazon has bought a chunk of land to carry out testing of its drones with the full consent of the Canadian government. The land is watched over by teams of security guards).

Amazon 'MK27' drone that was shown in 2019.

Three-view drawing of 'MK27' drone that Amazon included in it's petition to the FAA for an exemption.

Amazon 'MK27-2' drone that was shown in 2021. Notice this image has the word 'EXPERIMENTAL' on the side of the drone, with displayed registration markings. This means the drone is an actual Flight Test Vehicle (FTV), likely used to demonstrate compliance to the FAA's certification requirements...

Amazon released an image of the drone production line. The 'REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT' flags show that they're approaching it like any other aircraft, with proper checks and balances in place to ensure safe operations later on. Also note the 4 different cameras mounted in the nose; this is different than the single camera in the 'MK27' nose.

AmazON Prime Air Starting Commercial Deliveries using the 'MK27-2' Drone

The current drone that Amazon Prime Air will be using to start it's delivery service is the 'MK27-2'.

We know from publically available FAA exemptions that Amazon formally entered aircraft type certificate program status for the 'MK27' drone in 2017 and has been engaged on a weekly basis with the FAA on that effort since its initial filing.

In June 2019, the FAA issued a Special Airworthiness Certificate to Amazon Prime Air, "allowing the company to operate its 'MK27' unmanned aircraft for research and development and crew training in authorized flight areas". It's renewable annually.

It's an Amazon-designed hybrid aircraft; it's basically a fixed-wing aircraft capable of Vertical Takeoff And Landing (VTOL) and wing-borne flight. In other words, it can take off and land vertically like a helicopter and sustain forward flight at higher speeds than conventional quadcopters or sixcopter drones.

It leverages a hexagonal shape that provides six degrees of freedom, giving it more stability and safety. The hexagonal walls act both as propeller guards and wings. It's wingspan is 2.15 meters, and it measures 1.2 meters between motor mounts.

The aircraft structure is mostly a combination of carbon fiber composite materials and metal (likely aerospace grade aluminum).

It's Max Gross Takeoff Weight (MTOW) is 88 lbs (including payload) or 40 kilograms, so it puts it above the typical small RPAS threshold of 25 kilograms.

It's powered by rechargeable Lithium batteries, and has 6 brushless DC electric motors for propulsion, with electronic controllers. It also has propellers designed to minimize high-frequency sound waves, so it's less noisy. Amazon doesn't want to irritate the general population, since that could drive further rulemaking and restrictions down the road...

Some reports state it has a range of 8.5 miles from the Amazon fulfillment center that deployed it.7 Other more recent reports, including Amazon's petition for exemption, state it can fly for 15 nautical miles round trip (including a 5lb payload), giving it a useful operational range of less than 7.5 nautical miles (you need to account for the time of flight required to deliver the package). This is its most limiting design parameter, in my opinion, because this limits Amazon's ability to only perform drone deliveries within that distance of their fulfillment centers where they plan to operate the drones, at least initially. This might not cover entire urban centers, so Amazon might be forced to build more fulfillment centers (which offsets the cost savings generated by using drones for delivery), or develop a drone with a higher range eventually.

It's max operating altitude is 1,200 feet. Above Ground Level (AGL), although it will initially only fly at 400 feet AGL to avoid general aviation aircraft (more on that below).

It's designed to operate in ambient temperature between -10 to 40 degrees C, although it's not capable of flight in icing conditions (more on that below).

It's nominal cruise speed 60 knots Indicated AirSpeed (IAS). It can deliver packages in less than 30 minutes (but Amazon is initially targetting 60 minutes, see below).

It's controlled by onboard distributed modular avionics, and it has an onboard INS/GNSS (e.g. GPS) primary navigation system (with a non-GNSS backup means of navigation to enable a safe landing in the case of degraded GNSS performance.

Its command and control (C2) Link is dual cellular connectivity, likely using independent connections and carriers (so it's redundant in case it loses one of it's cellular network connection).

It will be flown autonomously using Amazon-developed artificial intelligence software.

Although an operation with an FAA airman certificate and a class III medical certificate will be able to recall the drone, Amazon claims the drones will be able to maneuver around flying objects using onboard sensors – and even land itself if it goes out of communication range.

Of course, a critical part of FAA approval includes drones that won't crash into anything. Amazon claims that the issue is covered "through a combination of foundational elements of a UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system (e.g., remote identification and automated deconfliction), onboard sense and avoid (SAA) capabilities, communications with local air traffic control (ATC) facilities, and careful screening of the flight area. This multi-layered approach helps ensure safe separation between our UA and other aircraft (both manned and unmanned) and obstacles, and is consistent with fulfilling the analogous responsibilities that are embodied in the FAA’s right-of-way rules for manned aviation." (See 14 C.F.R. § 91.113 ). The key to it though is Amazon's custom-designed onboard Sense And Avoid (SAA) system. It's focused on safe transit, where it needs to look out for obstacles, and safety when approaching the ground to drop off a package. The system's algorithms use various approaches for object detection, which include camera sensors, to avoid everything from chimneys, pets, and other aircraft, according to Amazon.

It also has onboard health monitoring systems that support maintenance and diagnostic functions. In the event there is an in-flight malfunction that impacts mission capability, the drone will either return to base or land at a safe alternate location, depending on the specific fault condition. Amazon has also indicated that the drone will be maintained like an aircraft that's operating under US 14 CFR Part 135.

But not all drone systems are equal. It's important to look at why Amazon chose a certain configuration and specific design features. And it all comes down to ensuring a high level of safety and seamless integration into the foreseen operating environment. However some of the design was influenced by Amazon's desire to avoid irritating existing airspace users and the general population, because that could drive further rulemaking that would limit drone operations for everybody involved in drone operations in civilian airspace...

“Prime Air is confident our autonomous systems will achieve demonstrable levels of safety and reliability equivalent to operations that currently rely on certificated airmen with manned flight experience,” wrote Sean Cassidy, the company’s Director of Safety and Regulatory matters in a letter to the FAA.7

That same letter states that the drone has completed more than 10,000 “real-world datasets accomplished via flights in representative backyard locations.” The hardware has gone through some 15,000 simulated tests, and the software more than 250,000.

Watch the full test flight of the new Prime Air Drone below.

Sixcopter vs. Quadcopter configuration

It's important to note that before the regulators allow any small drone to operate over assemblies of people or near people, they require the drone manufacturer to perform a safety assessment of their drone design to minimize various risks to an acceptable level. Amazon has likely done that, and it's probably arrived at the conclusion that some configurations have a better chance of minimizing the risks and reaching the desired safety objectives.

When making a safety assessment, a manufacturer must assume all foreseeable failures and operating conditions. One such foreseeable failure is the failure of one of the rotors, likely due to the motor or propeller or electrical power supply or some other component failing.

On a typical quadcopter, the failure of 2 out of the 4 rotors can cause an uncontrolled crash into people. In fact, in certain environmental conditions (like gusting winds, for example), the failure of 1 out of the 4 rotors can also cause the drone to tumble in an uncontrolled fashion into people; the onboard control unit is spinning some of the remaining 3 rotors at high speed in its desperate attempt to regain control of the drone.

You wouldn't want a rotor spinning at high speed plowing into your neighbour Anna who's walking her dog. And neither does the FAA, thankfully.

When using what I call a 'sixcopter' layout, with 6 rotors laid out in a hexagonal shape, you would need the failure of more than 2 rotors to cause an uncontrolled crash into people. The probability of 2 out of the 6 motors failing on the same flight is already much lower than the probability of having 1 out of 4 rotors on a quadcopter failing on the same flight.

A recent blog post by Amazon mentioned that the hexagonal wing also acts as a cover for the rotors so that they are not exposed, keeping anyone on the ground safe from harm in the event of a malfunction.

So you can imagine why Amazon chose a sixcopter configuration in lieu of a quadcopter configuration.

How the Drone is Built

Amazon’s business decisions have a tremendous impact on many business areas. On November 20, 2020, it was reported that Amazon is restructuring their drone design staff and outsourcing this work to Aernnova Aerospace and FACC Aerospace.5 It comes during a period when investment in drone businesses has increased at an exponential rate. Together, Amazon Prime Air and Amazon Pharmacy will influence the logistics, aircraft and pharmaceutical business as well as expand the market for consumer pharmaceutical deliveries and medicine shipment through drone air traffic.

For Amazon, the two aforementioned European companies have strong aerospace design operations and will bring benefits to the development of the Amazon 'MK27' drone.

Aernnova, based out of the town of Alvala, Spain, is a multinational company that has been successful in airplane design. Aernnova has design factories in Mexico and has been very successful in designing both core and appendage parts from airplane manufacturers like Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier.

FACC Aerospace is an Austrian aerospace design company that is famous for its Air Taxi, a futuristic helicopter designed for short travels of 15-80 miles. A video of a launch party for the Air Taxi can be seen here.

Aernnova has extensive ties and large-scale manufacturing operations, while FACC Aerospace has chic designs and cutting-edge technology to create futuristic drones.

In fast-moving technical areas, one reason that companies convert from in-house staff models to external resources as Amazon has done with its Amazon Prime Air is that companies find it harder to obtain the constant experiences that keep an initiative current. Drone development and experimentation requires these companies to do beta testing and flight simulation, while also developing updates to their technologies. The use of Aernnova and FACC Aerospace is a move by Amazon to benefit from the two companies’ resources and breadth of experience with testing flight components.

Sense and Avoid (or Detect and Avoid)

Most drones do not have the capability to sense and avoid other aircraft and obstacles—and it’s easy to understand why that could pose problems. Those systems will require visual observers along the route of every flight to help the drones avoid hazards. That type of drone can be deployed relatively quickly, but it limits delivery operations to a small radius.

Amazon is building something different. They've created what they claim is "a sophisticated and industry-leading sense-and-avoid system that will enable operations without visual observers and allow our drone to operate at greater distances while safely and reliably avoiding other aircraft, people, pets, and obstacles".

"If obstacles are identified, our drone will automatically change course to safely avoid them," Amazon explained. "As our drone descends to deliver the package into a customer's backyard, the drone ensures that there's a small area around the delivery location that's clear of any people, animals, or other obstacles."

Amazon designed their sense-and-avoid system for two main scenarios:

  1. To be safe when in transit: When flying to the delivery location, the drones need to be able to identify static and moving obstacles. Amazon engineers designed algorithms which use a diverse suite of technologies for object detection. Using this system, Amazon Prime Air drones can identify a static object in its path, like a chimney. It can also detect moving objects on the horizon, like other aircraft, even when it’s hard for people to see them. If obstacles are identified,it will automatically change course to safely avoid them.

  2. To be safe when approaching the ground: as the drone descends to deliver the package into a customer’s backyard, the drone ensures that there’s a small area around the delivery location that’s clear of any people, animals, or other obstacles.
    “Our system is designed with default fail-safe logic to abort the delivery if an obstruction is detected,” Cassidy wrote.

    And once the drone decides to cancel, Prime employees would be unable to override the system. wouldn’t be able to make the drone deliver the package even if they wanted to.

How Amazon Prime Air Drones will operate

Image courtesy of Amazon.

Amazon's Concept of Operations (CONOPS) is described by the graphic above.

According to Amazon, Lockeford residents will soon be able to sign up for drone deliveries for free. After, they can place orders on Amazon like usual, with "thousands of everyday items" available for drone delivery. Amazon has been working with a goal of a five-pound payload, which may sound small but represents 85 percent of Amazon deliveries.3 For comparison, Walmart's drone delivery service claims up to three pounds, and Alphabet's Wing can carry 2.5 lbs.

Amazon's initial operations will be overseen by operators in command (OICs) who possess, at minimum, a current US 14 CFR Part 61 airman certificate, a Class III medical certificate, and who will have participated in a training and qualification program approved under Amazon's Part 135 AOC. The OIC will be assisted by a Safety Officer (SO) who will undergo a general core curriculum and role specific training syllabus that defines roles and responsibilities .Amazon will initially launch its delivery service with human observers keeping tabs on the drones (like other drone delivery services do) but thinks it will eventually be able to move past that to fully autonomous operations.

Initially, Amazon has set its sights on a certain chunk of airspace, higher than 200 feet (61 meters) where most buildings end and beneath 500 feet (152 meters), where general aviation starts. While the company initially envisionned autonomous drones weighing less that 55 lbs (25 kilograms) zipping through dedicated 10 mi (16 km) long corridors at 50 mph (80.5 km/h) with small parcels, we know their 'MK27' is heavier (88 lbs or 40 kilograms). Prime Air also now announced they will fly the drone only during daytime and at a maximum altitude of 400 feet (which interestingly is the normal ceiling for operating small RPAS in Canada and the USA), and they will avoid areas of significant meteorological activity, hospitals, “sensitive government facilities” and football stadiums or any sporting event. The dornes will remain grounded if winds read above 24 knots or under “icing conditions”.

Amazon Prime Air drone delivery operations will begin over areas with low population density that have been thoroughly vetted for proximate airborne operations, obstructions, communications coverage, and sensitive overflight areas, and will be subject to FAA approval in the form of a certificate of authorization (COA). Amazon will seek to expand their areas of operation based on the submission of the appropriate operational plan and risk mitigations necessary to support the issuance of subsequent COAs.

So how will this work for the consumer?

After placing an order for a delivery drone, the customers will get an estimated time arrival and status tracker, Amazon said. The company didn't make a promise on delivery time but is aiming for under 60 minutes, and it thinks it can achieve 30 minutes. Instead of the current Prime standard of 1 day (or 24 hours), they're aiming at 1 hour (or even 30 minutes eventually). A step change for sure...

Once an order is placed, a flight assistant will be responsible for ensuring a pre-flight inspection is complete to ensure that the drone is prepared for flight and is in an airworthy state. The assistant will then be responsible for preparing the package for delivery, including an accurate package weight and drone center of gravity (CofG) is reflected in the mission data; proper weight and balance is very important for safe aircraft operations. An OIC will then be assigned to the drone. Operations will be flown concurrently, with each drone having a dedicated OIC for the duration of a specific mission. Before OICs can upload mission data to the drone and authorize launch, they must first confirm that:

  1. the drone is airworthy and ready for delivery;

  2. the mission has been validated (including conformance to weight and balance limits and operational/airspace restrictions); and

  3. an SO has been assigned to the flight.

Operations will begin under a 1:1 UA to OIC ratio but Amazon plans to increase the UA to OIC ratio subject to FAA approval based on flights and simulations that demonstrate required levels of safety.

From the point of launch, flights will be conducted autonomously. Amazon's flight planning system incorporates a fail-safe design architecture whereby any proposed modifications to the mission profile that violate operating limits or airspace restrictions will be automatically rejected. The drone will depart an Amazon facility to its preprogramed cruise altitude and transition to horizontal flight, after which it will transit to the delivery location. Flights will eventually be conducted Beyond Visual Line of Sign (BVLOS), with the OIC remotely monitoring vehicle telemetry and system state. Amazon will maintain separation assurance from other aircraft through multiple layers of technical and operational safety mitigations to include the optional use of visual observers (VOs) as an added safety mitigation. Technical mitigations will include an on-board Sense and Avoid system, a UTM system that incorporates ADS-B in traffic data, local ATC feeds, and full duplex communications between OICs and local ATC facilities. The flight path will be planned to avoid any known obstacles, and active onboard sensors will provide separation assurance from any uncharted obstacles and airborne objects. Real-time UA identification and tracking capabilities will also be available to the FAA ATC facility that oversees local flight operations.

The OIC will have final responsibility and authority for the safe operation of the flight, and will oversee the mission, monitor UA telemetry, airspace, weather, and, to the extent necessary, issue commands to the drone through the GCS. If an off-nominal event occurs, the OIC will have the ability to command the drone to return home or command a landing (with the benefit of onboard sensors to ensure safety), as dictated by the specific circumstances.

"For these deliveries, the drone will fly to the designated delivery location, descend to the customer's backyard, and hover at a safe height," Amazon said. "It will then safely release the package and rise back up to altitude." More specifically, once the drone arrives close to the delivery location, it will transition to vertical flight, identify the specific delivery area through a unique marker, and then perform a delivery area clear assessment using onboard sensors. If that condition is met, it will descend to a safe delivery height, hold in a hover position and, barring any other obstructions or hazards being sensed, release the package. Even though our system is designed with default fail-safe logic to abort the delivery if an obstruction is detected, the OIC will have the ability to discontinue the delivery phase for any reason. Conversely, the OIC cannot force the drone to proceed with a delivery if the UA decides to abort the delivery and return-to-base.

Once the delivery has been completed, the drone will return to the Amazon facility along a route that incorporates all operational limits and airspace constraints.

Prime Air is different from the competing drone delivery services that use parachutes and long tethers. Amazon's drone will hover at a close distance (six feet, according to Axios) before lowering its package.

Amazon also highlighted Lockeford's connection to aviation, namely former resident and 1900s aviator Weldon B. Cooke. But it probably also helps that Lockeford is a rural town. It's about 100 miles east of San Francisco, with an estimated population of about 3,500. Amazon also has some facilities in the city's San Joaquin County.

Here's a cool video released by Amazon Prime Air showing how their drones will operate.

What will 2025 Look Like?

Considering that large profitable companies are making so much progress obtaining approvals for drone package delivery, I predict that by 2025, most small packages will be delivered to traditional homes by drone. By minimizing the number of humans involved in the complex logistics of package delivery, companies like Amazon and Walmart will be able to drive down the cost of their logistics significantly over the long term. While they're investing massive amounts of their profits to develop the technology and obtain the necessary approvals, they're clearly in it for the long game.

Let's also not forget that all of this innovation will definitely drive even more of an 'instant gratification' consumption mindset, which is not always healthy for society, even though it's largely unavoidable at this point. On the flip side, this will help develop and drive the economy, creating high paying aerospace jobs in the logistics business. In the aviation buisness, it's clearly one of the areas where there will be a big boom.

Throughout all of this, it's important that everyone involved keeps a clear focus on safety and environmental sustainability. This includes:

  • Companies and regulators paying close attention to anything that compromises safety, and investigating these and putting in place well thought out and sustainable mitigating and corrective actions.

  • Companies compromising (or preferably making more technological breakthroughs) on issues like community noise, environmental footprint... Our children will grow up with this technology as a fait-accompli, and care needs to be taken not to create something that's unsustainable for the next generations.

  • Regulators facilitating approvals in areas where they have little experience and where companies have more knowledge and experience, like artificial intelligence and increased automation. However, regulators need to remain vigilant to risk vs benefit. Ultimately, that's what approvals should come down to.

In fact, drones zooming overhead will become quite ubiquitous in my opinion, and not just for package delivery. Some companies are developing air taxi drones. The downside is that by 2025, looking overhead won't be as peaceful of an experience anymore; our inevitable gaze towards the clouds and clear blue sky will be soon interrupted, so enjoy the view while you can...