This story first appeared on flyingmag.com.
Amazon’s drone delivery dream isn’t dead, but it may be time for the firm to reassess its strategy.
Last week, the e-commerce giant told CNBC that its Prime Air drone delivery service — which currently serves a smattering of households in Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas — has completed just 100 deliveries since launching in late December. Per internal company projections, the firm in January was targeting 10,000 deliveries by the end of 2023.
Now, that projection appears to be in peril. In Lockeford, a town of about 4,000, Prime Air employees said Amazon’s drones serve only two households, each less than a mile from the firm’s local delivery hub.
College Station, which has a population closer to 120,000, may provide more opportunities. But so far, Amazon has failed to capitalize on that market, too.
Amazon did not immediately respond to FLYING magazine’s request for comment.
There are a few potential drivers for the business’s struggles. Perhaps the largest is the regulatory hurdles it faces.
Amazon, one of five drone firms to receive FAA Part 135 air carrier certification, would appear to be in a good spot. But those approvals come with major restrictions — in Amazon’s case, they include the ability to fly at night, over people and roads, or beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of a ground observer.
Those restrictions were cemented in November after the FAA rejected several of Amazon’s petitions to ease them. The decision reportedly came as a surprise — according to Prime Air employees, the firm had put up dozens of staffers in hotels in Pendleton, Oregon, home to one of its main test sites, with plans to move them to Lockeford and College Station last summer.
According to the FAA, Amazon did not demonstrate that the MK27-2 — its latest drone model, a hexagonal design with six propellers and an onboard sense-and-avoid system — could safely operate near people. The drone’s 80-pound weight also places it outside the purview of the FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems rule, muddying the regulatory waters further.
Still, Amazon soldiered on, launching its two services a month later. But soon after, Prime Air was hit with layoffs, and early reports implied less-than-stellar returns in Lockeford and College Station. Now we know exactly how Prime Air has fared: Five months into 2023, it has completed 100 deliveries, or about 1% of its goal of 10,000 deliveries this year.
The drone delivery industry was expected to move slowly — and so far it has. But if the rest of the industry is taking its time, Amazon is moving at a snail’s pace.
Currently, Zipline is the industry’s front-runner with 600,000 completed deliveries as of May. Alphabet’s Wing, perhaps the only drone firm that can rival Prime Air’s corporate backing, told FLYING it has made more than 330,000. And DroneUp, the Walmart drone delivery partner that cut jobs last week, said it has made 110,000 deliveries, including 6,000 just last month.
In other words, even if Amazon were on track to hit its 2023 delivery target, it would still fall far short of its key rivals. That’s a sobering outlook given former CEO Jeff Bezos’ initial projections of dominance in 2013.
So how have these firms accomplished what Amazon (so far) could not? The answer lies in regulatory approvals.
Zipline, for example, owns the FAA’s most expansive air carrier approval to date — granted after the agency determined the safety of the firm’s acoustic detect-and-avoid system — allowing it to operate BVLOS and over people. That means its drones can fly where Amazon’s cannot, and the company has leveraged those permissions into robust services in Africa, Asia and the U.S.
Zipline also recently secured $330 million in funding to support the launch of P2, its new delivery system that adds a flexible delivery “droid” to the network. The droid will enable more precise deliveries and easier loading of cargo at restaurants and other launch sites.
Regulatory approvals have also given a lift to Wing. Under its Part 135 certificate, the firm can fly BVLOS and over people, which has opened up new U.S. routes and expanded its customer base. That has enabled small services in Virginia and Texas to go with Wing’s complex operations in Australia, where it has partnered with DoorDash and others.
Meanwhile, DroneUp, which flies within a 1.5-mile delivery radius with Walmart under FAA Part 107, is looking to expand its range with new technologies acquired via partnerships. Those include a drone air traffic control system and an autonomous flight system that could help prove to the FAA that its operations are safe for BVLOS.
Why, you may ask, has Amazon been unable to secure these approvals? While the company has gone through several iterations of its drone — including the soon-to-be-released MK30 — none have swayed the FAA’s confidence in Prime Air’s safety record.
Several high-profile accidents involving Amazon drones have been reported at the firm’s test facilities, including one in Pendleton that sparked a 20-acre brush fire. Accidents are part of any drone company’s journey, as it turns out. But they appear to be chronic for Prime Air, which has drastically limited its operations.
Another issue appears to be a lack of demand, though it’s unclear what’s causing it. CNBC reported that Prime Air’s Lockeford service has just a handful of sign-ups despite Amazon’s claim that thousands of people “have expressed interest.” The firm says it has been communicating with potential users directly, and some customers even said they were offered gift cards as an incentive.
It could be that the low demand is a symptom of Prime Air’s chosen markets. Lockeford residents, for example, said the drones could startle farm animals in the heavily rural area. Yet Zipline, Wing and others also fly in rural areas and have experienced no issue garnering new customers. More likely is that FAA flight restrictions have capped Prime Air’s operations — and, by extension, its potential demand in Lockeford and College Station.
“While the FAA broadened Prime Air’s authority to conduct drone deliveries to include sites in California and Texas, the phased process for expanding our service areas is taking longer than we anticipated,” Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit told CNBC.
Whatever the reason for Prime Air’s lack of success, Amazon appears to be committed to getting its drone business off the ground. But it’s going to take much longer than expected.