After nearly a decade of promises, it appeared Amazon drone delivery was finally taking off with the rollout of commercial flights in California and Texas later this year. But the program could be coming crashing down to Earth.
Recent test crashes have caused yet another regulatory setback for the planned service, several people with knowledge of the situation told Insider.
According to the sources, the crashes alarmed the Federal Aviation Administration enough that it withheld permission for Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) to begin test flights that must be completed in order to get the program off the ground. The FAA declined to comment.
Amazon must complete 7,000 test flights as part of a federal regulatory requirement for durability and reliability. According to an internal document, it had hoped to complete nearly all of them by the end of July.
So far, the company has completed 3,000 flights — but none count toward the requirement because the FAA has yet to approve the tests, sources told Insider.
Amazon heavily disputed the claim that the FAA refused to sign off on test flights, calling the statements shared with Insider “wrong or purposely misleading.”
“Prime Air complies with all FAA requirements,” Maria Boschetti, an Amazon spokesperson, told Modern Shipper. “For example, the FAA has not counted any of the D&R [durability and reliability] campaign hours because that part of the broader type certification process has not started yet. It is false to claim the FAA has declined to sign off on it. In addition, we’re on track to launch our commercial operations — which are very much distinct from our experimental flight testing — in College Station and Lockeford later this year.”
Sources told Insider the FAA is withholding approval in part due to concerns about crashes. A person with knowledge of a crash that took place July 2 said the drone “just blew apart when it hit the ground.” According to an FAA report Insider viewed, the drone hurtled 180 feet out of the sky.
Another current employee said the FAA has questioned whether all of Amazon’s drones meet the written specifications the company has provided.
If the reports are true, the regulatory holdup could put the drone delivery service months behind schedule. It’s just the latest in a string of setbacks that have plagued Amazon for years and kept the program taxiing on the runway.
In the past year alone, eight Amazon drones have crashed during testing, including one that ignited a 25-acre brush fire in Oregon. Five of them took place over a four-month span. Reports also revealed the company tried to avoid investigations into the crashes by ducking FAA correspondences and even moving evidence at crash sites.
Watch: Humanitarian Drone Deliveries
Adding to the headache, Amazon’s drone delivery arm has seen employee turnover north of 70% in recent months. It’s safe to say that isn’t what former CEO Jeff Bezos envisioned when he first announced the service in 2013.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s rivals have taken Bezos’ idea and flown with it.
Walmart has been operating a drone delivery service in Arkansas through a partnership with DroneUp for over a year. In May, it expanded the service to six states and nearly 4 million people. Another competitor, Alphabet’s Wing, launched commercial drone deliveries in Texas in April.
Amazon may have taken two steps forward with the news that its drone delivery service would be flying in California and Texas. But if reports about the FAA’s hesitancy are true, it also just took one giant step back.
Correction: The sources telling Insider that the FAA is withholding approval of test flights are not current FAA employees, as an earlier version of this story stated.