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Amazon Prime Air Becomes Third Drone Delivery Company in the U.S., No Plans Shared Yet on When It Will Launch

BY Zacc Dukowitz
3 September 2020

Back in March we fact-checked a rumor floating around that Amazon Prime Air was one of three companies that held FAA approval to conduct drone deliveries.

What we learned was that, contrary to the rumors, Prime Air did not have that approval, which comes in the form of a Part 135 certificate—only UPS’ Flight Forward and Alphabet’s Wing did.

But now it does.

Last Saturday, the FAA issued Amazon Prime Air a Part 135 certificate for drone delivery, making it the third company in the U.S. to have official FAA approval for conducting drone deliveries in the U.S.

Amazon gets FAA approval to operate a fleet of delivery drones

What Is Part 135 Certification?

Part 135 certification is now “the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight” (from the FAA).

Prior to Part 135, drone delivery companies would apply for waivers to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) or in other ways that might be required for drone delivery.

Part 135 certification provides a path for these companies to essentially be recognized as small drone airlines. There are currently three companies in the U.S. that hold Part 135 certificates (Wing, Flight Forward, and Prime Air) and at least five that are in the process of applying for it.

When Will Amazon Launch Drone Delivery Services?

Back in 2013, Jeff Bezos told a reporter on 60 Minutes that Amazon would be able to deliver items weighing up to five pounds within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon warehouse by 2018.

Of course, that didn’t happen, although some of the lag can be blamed on regulatory hurdles. (In its defense, Prime Air did test its first delivery drone back in 2016.)

amazon-part-135
Photo credit: Amazon Prime Air

But even though the company now has permission to conduct drone deliveries, it doesn’t look like they will be ramping them up any time soon.

Despite receiving its Part 135, no one from Prime Air has made any statements about when we can expect to see its drone deliveries start.

[The Part 135 certification] indicates the F.A.A.’s confidence in Amazon’s operating and safety procedures for an autonomous drone delivery service that will one day deliver around the world.

– David Carbon, Vice President of Prime Air

Notice the wording in the quote above—“one day” implies that Prime Air’s drone deliveries may start at some point in the future, but certainly not tomorrow.

This is a different response to receiving a Part 135 than we saw from Wing and Flight Forward. Both of those companies launched drone delivery programs fairly soon after getting permission to do so, Wing in Virginia and Flight Forward in North Carolina.

One possible reason for the delay is that Prime Air simply hasn’t had the opportunity to test their drone delivery technology as extensively as Wing and Flight Forward have, since it wasn’t accepted into any of the UAS IPP (UAS Integration Pilot Program) partnerships.

Both Wing and Flight Forward have benefited greatly from being part of the UAS IPP, which is demonstrated by the fact that their first drone delivery programs were the direct result of the IPP testing they had done.

[Related reading: It’s Official—the UAS IPP Will End in October, 2020]

Under the IPP, Wing conducted consumer drone delivery testing in Christiansburg, VA in partnership with the Virginia Tech mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, which is where it now has an ongoing consumer drone delivery program in place. And Flight Forward conducted its IPP testing in partnership with Matternet on the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, NC, where it currently conducts regular medical drone deliveries.

So it could be that Amazon is just behind in testing—but it would nice to know if they have a timeline for launching, however vague it might be.

Are We Ready for Drone Delivery at Scale?

One method for drone delivery that doesn’t seem to require a lot of testing is conducting deliveries within the pilot’s visual line of sight (VLOS).

Flytrex, an Israeli drone delivery company, launched a VLOS drone delivery program in Grand Forks, ND a few months back.

Flytrex doesn’t hold a Part 135 certificate and it doesn’t need one, since it’s deliveries are all conducted VLOS, a drone delivery model that the FAA has recognized as acceptable without special regulatory approval.

flytrex-vlos-drone-delivery
Photo credit: Flytrex

But VLOS drone delivery doesn’t present a scalable solution for a company the size of Amazon.

That’s why the technology and methods that Amazon has developed for delivery rely both on BVLOS and autonomous flight, which could hypothetically support large fleets of drones conducting deliveries without a pilot closely monitoring the flight path of each one from the ground.

However, a drone industry insider we know recently made the observation that, when you look closely, drone delivery programs that claim to be BVLOS may be a lot closer to VLOS, even if the companies have permission to fly BVLOS, essentially calling into question how ready the technology is to be scaled.

The same insider also pointed out that Flight Forward’s second drone delivery program, which will deliver medicine to seniors in Florida, is explicitly VLOS and operating under the Part 107 rules, even though the company has permission to operate BVLOS under its Part 135 certificate.

Whether or not the drone delivery programs currently operating in the U.S. are truly BVLOS or not, we do know that there are only two of them: Wing’s consumer program in Virginia and Flight Forward’s medical program in North Carolina.

And that fact alone makes us wonder—if the technology being used in these programs is ready to scale, then why haven’t we seen more drone delivery programs started by those two companies?

Looked at through this lens, it could just be that Amazon wants to be ready to start deliveries at scale before launching. It will certainly be interesting to see what the company’s next move is now that it has the regulatory greenlight to proceed.

When do you think Prime Air will be ready to start drone deliveries? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

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