It’s been almost a decade since Jeff Bezos promised Amazon delivery drones. About a month after Amazon Prime Air made its first deliveries in California and Texas, it served fewer than 10 households — and already laid off more than half of the employees at those locations.
Amazon spokeswoman Maria Boschetti did not dispute the numbers, but also said Prime Air is working to expand drone deliveries in California and Texas with approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The reason Amazon doesn’t have many drone delivery customers yet may be that Amazon’s drones aren’t allowed to fly over roads on their own.
In order for the drone to fly across the road, according to FAA regulations, Amazon employees must make sure there are no vehicles on the road at the time. That is a drone designed to replace a human needs people to reach its destination.
The FAA does not issue licenses for the operation of autonomous drones and drone delivery services. It creates specific exceptions to the strict rules for the use of US airspace, each of which has a long list of conditions that companies must comply with.
Until November 2022, Amazon could not even operate its drones outside of sparsely populated areas, could not fly over buildings or closer than 30 meters from them, and had to be limited to flying over property under Amazon’s full control. The FAA required Amazon’s drone pilots to have a private pilot’s license, which allows them to fly an aircraft, not just a drone.
It seems to have been reasonable. In four months, five accidents occurred at Amazon’s test sites in Oregon, and one of them led to a fire. The drone weighs more than 40 kg.
But these rules were in effect at the experimental stage, and last November Amazon successfully proved that its experience and the new, safer, and more autonomous MK27-2 drone do not require many people and such serious precautions. Among other things, the FAA cited an “advanced computer vision system that allows the detection of people or obstacles under the UAV during delivery or landing,” an automatic flight termination feature, remote warnings, and the fact that the drone can fly even if the failure of one of the six engines as reasons for lifting these particular restrictions.
Here are just a few of the basic rules that still exist:
- Maneuvers over people are prohibited unless otherwise permitted by the Administrator;
- Flying over power plants is prohibited;
- Flying over schools during their operation (for example, primary, secondary, senior, pre-school, and children’s institutions) is prohibited;
- Flight over or within 75 meters of moving vehicles is prohibited unless otherwise approved by the Administrator;
- Flying over any territory that the Operator considers to be a high-risk area during the development of the flight route is prohibited;
- Continuous flight over or within 75 meters of roadways is prohibited, and overflight is prohibited unless otherwise approved by the Administrator;
- At all stages of the flight, the UAV must be at a distance of at least 30 meters from any person, unless otherwise authorized by the Administrator.
Amazon’s drone still can’t fly over the road on its own, nor can it approach or fly over people. That means Amazon customers can’t be standing in their own backyard when a package is dropped off, and the FAA says Amazon must clearly warn customers about it.
In addition, operations in California and Texas were restricted to flights within 4-6 km of drone launch sites. This limited the number of potential customers.
However, Amazon no longer needs that many people for each flight, and the FAA no longer requires workers to have the same flight or medical training.
“The recent staffing reductions do not impact our plans to deliver in these locations,” said Amazon spokeswoman Maria Boschetti.
She says the FAA last week approved flights to more customers in Lockford, Calif., and College Station, Texas, and that Amazon continues to work on its next-generation drone, the MK30.