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Amazon Prime Air Unveils New Delivery Drone, Plans to Start Deliveries Soon

BY Zacc Dukowitz
6 June 2019

Yesterday Amazon Prime Air unveiled its new delivery drone at the re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, NV, an event put on by Amazon focusing on AI and related technology (MARS stands for Machine Learning, Automation, Robotics, and Space).

The new drone is fully electric, can fly up to 15 miles, and can deliver a package weighing less than five pounds, which is the weight of 75—90% of most purchased items, according to Amazon.

Amazon Prime Air’s New Delivery Drone

The most remarkable aspect of Prime Air’s new drone is its unusual design—a hexagonal hybrid shape that has few moving parts. The shroud that protects the drone’s blades becomes its wings when it switches from vertical flight (used during takeoff) to horizontal flight (used during transit), making it helicopter-like in its ability to make that transition smoothly.

According to Amazon, the hexagonal shape allows the drone to be controlled with six degrees of freedom, as opposed to the standard four you have in a quadcopter, which makes it more stable and capable of operating safely in gusty wind conditions.

Emphasis on Safety

Safety is top of mind in the design of Prime Air’s new drone and is stressed in the announcement that accompanied the drone’s release.

We know customers will only feel comfortable receiving drone deliveries if they know the system is incredibly safe. So we’re building a drone that isn’t just safe, but independently safe, using the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.

– Amazon Prime Air statement

What does independently safe mean?

While some drones are able to fly autonomously, they still can’t react to unexpected occurrences while in flight. According to Prime Air, its new drone can react to changes in the flight environment and can also take action to avoid colliding with objects detected in the air, making it “independently safe.”

[Want to learn about new technology enabling autonomous flights for BVLOS? Check out our recent interview with Alexander Harmsen, CEO of Iris Automation.]

Amazon re:MARS - Prime Air Drone
Photo credit: Amazon Prime Air

Prime Air’s new drone is safe in both stages of delivery, while in the air and while landing.

Safety While in Transit

While in transit, the drone needs to be able to identify both static and moving objects, and avoid them.

To detect a static object, like a tree, the drone uses sensors and advanced algorithms, such as multi-view stereo vision. To detect moving objects, like a paraglider or helicopter, the drone employs proprietary computer-vision and machine learning algorithms. All of this technology allows the drone to identify obstacles and avoid colliding with them, ensuring safety while in flight.

Safety While Landing

For the drone to land and make a delivery it needs a small area clear of people, animals, and obstacles.

The drone identifies a landing location using stereo vision along with AI algorithms trained to detect people, animals, and other objects, such as wires.

Wire detection is actually one of the biggest challenges for low-altitude flights and landing. Prime Air has addressed this challenge using new computer-vision techniques that allow its drone to recognize and avoid wires as they descend into, and ascend out of, a customer’s yard.

When Do Deliveries Start?

While commercial drone deliveries faltered in 2018, 2019 might end up being the year of commercial drone deliveries, especially with the progress being made via the UAS IPP (UAS Integration Pilot Program).

Amazon re:MARS - Prime Air Drone
Photo credit: Amazon Prime Air

Prime Air says that they will begin deliveries “in the coming months” but they’re vague on the details—exactly where and when have yet to be announced.

But the biggest hurdle—FAA approval—has already been addressed:

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. Amazon Prime Air plans to use the aircraft to establish a package delivery operation in the United States. This certificate is valid for one year and is eligible for renewal.

– FAA Spokesperson

If Amazon succeeds in launching regular drone deliveries this year it will mean the company has finally accomplished the prediction Jeff Bezos famously made on 60 Minutes back in 2013, when he said that, by 2018, the company would be able to deliver items weighing up to five pounds within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon warehouse.

What do you think—will we see Prime Air drones making regular deliveries soon? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

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