Everything You Need to Know About Amazon’s Delivery Drones

Last updated December 19th, 2019
Amazon drone delivery

Amazon announced that making product deliveries within 30 minutes by drone could soon be a reality — according to the announcement, “within months”.

The announcement, which was made during the re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, failed to offer a specific date. But it did give a glimpse at the UAV model that would serve as the Amazon delivery drone if all goes as planned.

Obviously, a drone that is capable of supporting such a lofty project must be loaded with special features to tackle the many challenges that come with drone delivery.

What Delivery Drones Do Amazon Use?

Don’t expect to find the Amazon delivery drone at your local retail outlet, or available for purchase on their website. The hopes and lofty ambitions of Amazon Air Prime is placed in a custom model dubbed the Prime Air Delivery Drone. Catchy.

During the re: MARS conference in Las Vegas, Amazon unveiled the latest design of this UAV, and also released a video showcasing the drone in action.

This video didn’t show the drone actually delivering anything, though. All we get from the video is a glimpse of the UAV flying over an open field.

That’s unlikely to alarm anybody, however. Amazon has been testing the Prime Air delivery drones for years now. And in some areas like the UK, Amazon delivery drones have already been deployed in actual deliveries.

The team behind at Amazon no doubt took all that experience and a host of other factors into account to arrive at a working prototype of their delivery drone.

They’re not the first to try this either. Companies have been testing drone food delivery and a variety of other things.

If the optimism from the re: MARS conference is anything to go by, the results have left stakeholders confident enough to expect full deployment within a few months’ time.

What Are the Features of the Prime Air Delivery Drone?

The latest Amazon Prime Air delivery drone is a multi-rotor UAV that comes with a lot of advanced features to support efficiency, stability, and safety.

Hybrid Design

First of all, it is unique enough in its design to be considered an advance in the state of the art. That’s because it is a hybrid design.

It’s considered hybrid because it borrows from two distinct aerial machines. It can do vertical takeoffs and landings (just like a helicopter), and it is also efficient and aerodynamic (just like an airplane).

Whenever conditions demand, it can easily transition between these two modes.

Shrouded Rotors

In order to ensure the safety of people that the drone comes across, the rotors are fully covered. These covers also serve as wings for the delivery drone, making the device efficient in flight.

Six Degrees of Freedom

Another feature that propels Amazon’s delivery drone beyond the usual commercial drone is that it is controlled with six degrees of freedom, instead of the standard four degrees.

The movement of your typical consumer drone is controlled by four degrees: pitch, yaw, roll, and lift. But the design of the Amazon delivery drone endows its movement with an additional two degrees of movement.

Not only does this mean that the Amazon Prime Air is more stable, it also means that it has more stamina in the air, capable of flying safely in gusty conditions.

Advanced AI Technology

Amazon has come to the understanding that their entire drone delivery operation hinges on the assurance which they can give customers about the safety of their drones.

Their drones have to be safe even when the encounter the unexpected as they operate.

To deliver on this promise, the design team invested in the latest artificial intelligence technology to create a drone that is not only safe, but independently safe.

To better understand this concept, think of some autonomous drones you know of. While they are programmed to fly on their own, they are not equipped with the capabilities to react appropriately unexpected happenings. They simply rely on communications systems for situational awareness.

The Amazon delivery drone goes beyond all this. Not only does it fly autonomously, it can also react to unexpected changes in its environment.

For example, if the delivery drone’s flight plan or mission commands it to come in contact with an object that was not there previously, the drone will refuse to comply with the order. This makes it independently safe.

To illustrate how this works, one can look at two of the drone’s main delivery stages: in transit to a destination, and when approaching the ground.

In Transit

The Amazon delivery drone is able to identify static and moving objects coming from any direction. The UAV uses a diverse range of sensors including thermal cameras, depth cameras, and sonar.

These sensors feed the advanced algorithms and machine learning capabilities so that onboard computers can automatically identify obstacles and navigate around them.

For example, the delivery drone uses multi-view stereo vision to detect static objects like a chimney. For moving objects, like a paraglider or helicopter, the drone uses proprietary computer-vision technology and machine learning algorithms.

Approaching the Ground for a Landing

For the drone to descend, it needs to detect a small area around the delivery location that is clear of people, animals, and other obstacles. How this is accomplished requires stereo vision and sophisticated AI algorithms trained to detect people and animals from above.

A yard where a delivery is meant to be delivered may have clotheslines, telephone wires, and other electrical wires. And avoiding these are among the toughest challenges for low-altitude flights.

However Amazon’s delivery drone excels even in this case with the use of proprietary computer-vision techniques. These allow the drone to recognize and avoid wires as they descend into and out of a customer’s yard.

Environmentally Friendly

Amazon Prime Air is one of many sustainable initiatives aimed at achieving ‘Shipment Zero’. Shipment Zero is Amazon’s vision of making all their shipments net zero carbon, with 50% of all shipments net zero by 2030.

Thus, the Amazon delivery drone runs on electricity, and is rechargeable. Amazon considers this a step up from deliveries done by automobile, and a big step towards reducing fuel usage and carbon emissions.

How Will Delivery Drones Work?

The Amazon delivery drones will be used to autonomously fly and deliver individual packages to customers within 30 minutes of ordering.

Drone delivery will be used only for products that can be described as:

  • Less than 5 pounds (2.25kg) in weight
  • Small enough to fit into the cargo box that the delivery drone will carry
  • Delivery destination must be within a 10-mile or 16 km radius of a participating Amazon fulfillment center

The distance requirement make a lot of sense given that Amazon’s delivery drone is capable of covering a distance of 15 miles in one flight.

In future, Amazon plans to up its game by flying drones that weigh up to 55 pounds (25kg) to deliver goods within a 10 mile radius of its warehouses at speeds that exceed 50 miles per hour.

When Will Amazon’s Delivery Drones Be Deployed?

Estimates during the re: MARS event suggested that the delivery drone would take to the skies officially within a few months.

And it is not hard to understand why given that the technology is finally ready.

But regulatory barriers remain.

In December 2013, Jeff Bezos predicted his company’s drones would take to the sky by 2018. Regulations caused that deadline to be shifted.

But regulators are more welcoming of drones than they were before. Many companies are now getting the approval they need to incorporate drones into their operations.

Amazon seems to have noticed.

During the re: MARS conference, their representatives announced that they were working with several regulators to ensure that their delivery drones could legally take to the skies as early as possible.

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