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Viewpoint: What drone delivery providers can learn from Amazon

Prime Air drones were supposed to be flying by 2022, but technical roadblocks have provided other provides a pathway to success

Drone pilot programs continue to pop up, but Amazon is generally not among those receiving attention as its program has reportedly stalled. What can be learned from the slow rollout of Prime Air? (Photo: Amazon)

This commentary was written by Shaun Passley, founder of ZenaTech and chairman and CEO of Epazz. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Modern Shipper or its affiliates.

How would the world benefit from having packages delivered via drone? Wing, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet that is currently delivering small packages via drone in four cities, provides a pretty compelling list of the things that drone delivery could accomplish “in a single city, at scale.” The list, which was compiled based on a study by Virginia Tech, includes:

  • Supporting as many as 66,000 people who do not have access to a vehicle.
  • Helping participating local businesses generate as much as $284,000 in new sales annually.
  • Reducing road travel by as much as 294 million miles per year.
  • Reducing emissions by as much as 113,900 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

According to the list, drone deliveries could have a desirable impact on communities, businesses, and the world at large. So, why aren’t they a reality beyond that which Wing and a few other companies running pilot programs elsewhere are doing? Based on what can be gleaned from Amazon’s drone program, which has yet to bear fruit, the task of making drone delivery a wide-spread reality is complicated.

Lessons learned from Prime Air

In 2013, Amazon began work on a project known as Prime Air that envisioned delivery by drone of packages weighing up to five pounds to customers within 10 miles of an Amazon fulfillment center. Three years later, in December 2016, Amazon announced that it had made its first fully autonomous drone delivery. Three years after that, Amazon announced at the 2019 re:MARS conference that it planned to begin making drone deliveries “in a matter of months.” Yet, years later, the Prime Air service is still in a holding pattern, despite Amazon winning Federal Aviation Administration approval for the program in August 2020. What happened?

According to an expose released by Wired in March 2021, the engineering required to make Amazon’s dream a reality proved to be too challenging. Primarily, the service that Amazon was seeking to provide would have made deliveries by descending to ground level or very close to it. In comparison, Wing’s drones lower deliveries by a tether while hovering at approximately 23 feet above the ground. To get their drones to ground level, Amazon needed to add systems that consequently increased the weight. As the weight increased, the drones moved into a category that triggered extra regulations, including enhanced safety features designed to protect people from being injured in collisions.

Overall, Wired’s research found that Amazon’s Prime Air stalled due to technical difficulties, and apparently the company has yet to land on a design that works. According to its website, the company is presently “testing many different vehicle designs and delivery mechanisms to discover how best to deliver packages in a variety of operating environments.” The website does not predict a time when the service will be a delivery option for Amazon shoppers, although a recent report by Business Insider says leaked documents show Amazon has been “secretly testing” drones in an effort to begin deliveries this year.


How does Wing make it work?

Even if the rumors about Prime Air are true, Amazon will be a little late to the game. In March 2022, Wing reported that it had surpassed 200,000 drone deliveries. To hit those numbers, Wing is making more than 1,000 deliveries a day. It also announced that it had entered a commercial partnership with a leading Australian supermarket chain.

How does Wing make it work? One lesson its success may offer to smaller businesses looking to try drone delivery is that smaller is better when working with sensitive technology and complicated government regulations. Wing only delivers to four cities: two in Australia, one in Finland, and one in the US. Additionally, it only delivers packages that weigh 2.6 pounds or less, during favorable weather conditions, and makes deliveries to “appropriate delivery zones.” In short, Wing seems to be focused on making drone deliveries that make sense. It is committed to delivering, but not over delivering.

About the author

Dr. Shaun Passley holds numerous masters degrees from DePaul University, Benedictine University, and Northwestern University and has a PhD in Business Administration. In addition to founding ZenaTech, he is also chairman & CEO of Epazz, Inc. – an enterprise-wide cloud software company — and the manufacturing company Ameritek Ventures – a manufacturing company. ZenaDrone is an entirely bootstrapped venture that is aiming to help the agri sector in Ireland close its emerging labor gap through automation.

Shaun Passley, founder, ZenaTech

Dr. Shaun Passley holds numerous masters degrees from DePaul University, Benedictine University, and Northwestern University and has a PhD in Business Administration. In addition to founding ZenaTech, he is also chairman & CEO of Epazz, Inc. – an enterprise-wide cloud software company — and the manufacturing company Ameritek Ventures – a manufacturing company. ZenaDrone is an entirely bootstrapped venture that is aiming to help the agri sector in Ireland close its emerging labor gap through automation.