Amazon Only Made Drone Deliveries to 10 Houses in the First Month of Its New Programs—Here’s Why

BY Zacc Dukowitz
21 February 2023

Last year, Amazon announced that it would finally launch its first drone delivery program in the start of 2023.

This was big news at the time.

In 2013, Jeff Bezos had famously announced that the company would be making drone deliveries by 2018, a deadline that came and went as other drone delivery companies like Wing and UPS Flight Forward launched their own programs, leaving Amazon in the dust.

Credit: Amazon Prime Air

Plagued by delays, layoffs, and catastrophic crashes, for a while it seemed like Amazon Prime Air (Amazon’s drone delivery section) might never actually start making drone deliveries, even though it had secured a coveted Part 135 in 2020 and had permission to do so.

But the company stuck to its timeline after the announcement last year, launching two programs this January—one in the medium-sized city of College Station, Texas and one in the small town of Lockeford, California.

Ahead of the launch, Amazon said deliveries would be available to those living within 3.73 miles of Prime Air’s delivery center in College Station, and within four miles of its delivery center in California.

Despite Two Successful Launches, Almost No Deliveries Are Being Made

So how many families have received drone deliveries since the two programs launched?

You might guess a few hundred, or even over a thousand. After all, DroneUp’s drone delivery programs with Walmart boast high numbers like these, and DroneUp is still making deliveries within visual line of sight (it doesn’t have a Part 135 yet).

But only 10 households received drone deliveries across both locations in the first month of the two programs. And in the smaller town of Lockeford, only two customers had received drone deliveries by the middle of January.

Credit: Amazon Prime Air

10 houses is an incredibly low number.

According to an anonymous source at Amazon, the company had planned to begin deliveries to about 1,300 customers combined across College Station and Lockeford. That makes 10 about .5% of the projected number of deliveries the company had hoped to make after launch.

In addition to the surprisingly low delivery numbers, Amazon has reportedly laid off about half of its employees at the two locations since they started operations in early 2023.

These layoffs are part of larger, sweeping layoffs at the company, but still notable given the significant percentage of employees they represent for the two drone delivery operations.

The FAA Regulations Curtailing Amazon’s Drone Delivery Efforts

So what caused these incredibly low numbers?

Put simply—regulatory restrictions.

Although Amazon does have a Part 135 certificate, it still doesn’t have approval to fly:

  • Over roads or near (i.e., 250 lateral feet or less) moving vehicles
  • Over or near (i.e., 100 lateral feet or less) to people
  • Over schools during regular school hours
  • Over power plants or other high risk areas

Amazon’s drones can fly over roads with the use of a visual observer (VO) but still can’t fly near people.

This means that most people aren’t able to stand and watch as the drone makes its delivery in their backyard—a fact the FAA required Amazon to tell its customers when they signed up for drone deliveries in either of the two cities.

Credit: Amazon Prime Air

Beyond the need for a VO to cross roads, reporting from The Verge found that one delivery flight could require as many as six people providing support from the ground, an incredible—and highly impractical—number for making a single delivery when you consider that just one driver could have accomplished the same task.

That reporting also found that the FAA required Amazon’s drone pilots to “have the kind of private pilot license that’d let you fly a plane, not just a drone.”

Despite all of these restrictions, Amazon says it’s committed to moving forward with making drone deliveries in the two cities, and to further expanding the service.

We remain committed to our delivery operations in Lockeford and College Station and will continue to offer a safe and exceptional drone delivery service to our customers in both locations. We’ll gradually expand deliveries to more customers in those areas over time.

– Maria Boschetti, Spokesperson for Amazon

Plagued by Safety Concerns

Although the FAA’s restrictions on Amazon’s drone operations may seem extreme, they come with quite a lot of history.

First, it’s worth noting that Amazon’s current delivery drone weighs 90 pounds. Something that heavy falling from the sky could easily kill a person or cause a serious car accident.

And there are plenty of reasons to think it might fall from the sky.

Last year, Amazon’s delivery drones had five different crashes over a period of four months at a test facility in Oregon. One of those crashes started a brush fire that spread to 25 acres before it was put out.

Due in part to this spotty record, until last November the company could only fly over land owned by Amazon. And even then it couldn’t fly within 100 feet of a building and had to stick to flying only in “sparsely populated areas.”

The FAA eased these requirements in time for Amazon to launch drone deliveries on time in January of this year. But it still kept tight restrictions in place—no flying over roads, over people, and the others listed above—to safeguard people against possible crashes.

The reason the FAA allowed Amazon to proceed this year was that it’s newer MK27-2 delivery drone was deemed safer than previous models, with upgrades that include an enhanced system for detecting people and obstacles on the ground, an auto-abort feature, and the ability to continue flying even if one of its six motors fails.

Credit: Amazon Prime Air

Amazon is currently working on its next-generation drone, the MK30 (shown above).

When the new drone is done and has been rigorously tested, it’s likely the company will have even more restrictions lifted, enabling it to conduct more drone deliveries without the need for nearly as much human support.

But for now, it’s safe to say that the company’s highly anticipated drone delivery launch is off to a limping start.

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