Amazon pledges parcels in an hour using drone deliveries

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  • By Emma Simpson
  • Business correspondent, BBC News

Video caption,

How Amazon uses drones to deliver from the sky

Amazon has announced it will start using drones to deliver parcels in the UK in under an hour.

The online retail giant said the service would start in one location which is yet to be revealed, at the end of 2024.

The company already offers drone deliveries in two US states for goods weighing no more than 5lbs (2.2kg).

The aviation regulator said “exploring” how drones could be safely used in more of the UK’s airspace was “key”.

Amazon said it was working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to meet regulations, while the government said the move would help it understand “how to best use the new technology safely and securely”.

David Carbon, vice president of Amazon Prime Air, said he believed there was demand for the technology in the UK and that it was “absolutely safe”.

“It’s hundreds of times safer than driving to the store,” he told the BBC in an interview in Seattle.

“I’ve never heard anyone say they wouldn’t want something faster.”

Customers will be able to choose from thousands of items which weigh 5lbs or less, from washing up liquid and toothbrushes, to beauty products and batteries to fill a “shoe-box size package”.

“What our customers will do is jump on to the Amazon website, they’ll select drone delivery if it’s available in their area, they’ll order their product….and that will then set off the chain of events that goes to our ground system that finds the customer’s yard, drops package off where they asked it, and we’re out of there,” Mr Carbon said.

Image caption,

Dave Carbon, vice president of Amazon Air

The first area in the UK for deliveries by air will be named in the coming months.

The company currently has drone postage in California and Texas and is also looking to launch so-called “ultra-fast” deliveries in a third US state and in Italy.

Mr Carbon said it will start in a “lightly populated suburban area” and then “scale slowly…based on what our regulatory approvals are”.

Baroness Vere, the government’s aviation minister said Amazon’s plans would help “boost the economy” and offer consumers more choice “while helping keep the environment clean with zero emission technology”.

“It will also build our understanding how to best use the new technology safely and securely,” she said, adding that the government planned for commercial drones to be “commonplace” by 2030.

How does it work?

In the small Californian town of Lockeford, the BBC was given exclusive access to see Amazon’s drone deliveries in action.

Customers who want the option of a drone delivery need to be approved. The drone requires plenty of clear space to drop a parcel 12 feet to the ground.

Amazon customer Jeff Rhodes uses Prime Air nearly every week for everything from toothpaste and mouthwash to bike locks.

“It’s fun. I never thought I’d see a parcel delivered in my back yard,” he said.

“When you order we see it within 20 or 30 minutes so obviously quicker than having to run to the store and get this stuff.”

Image caption,

Jeff Rhodes uses Prime Air almost every week

Once he places an order, Jeff pops a small marker on the lawn which contains a QR code. As the drone approaches, it finds the spot and the package is released. But in the UK Amazon plans to use markerless delivery and enable the drones to pinpoint drop points using GPS.

America has some of the toughest aviation regulations in the world. At the launch site, the flight path of every delivery is monitored on a screen and there’s a pair of human eyes watching from a cherry picker, too.

This flying robot has on board sensors to avoid any obstacles in its path and sounds like a lawnmower when it’s hovering above the ground.

“It’s little loud, but it doesn’t disturb me,” said Mr Rhodes.

As it looks to take off the in UK, Amazon has unveiled a new smaller and quieter MK30 drone, which can work in light rain and wind and an fly as far as 12km to make a delivery.

However, a decade on since Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos first announced drone deliveries, progress has not been quick.

Amazon has not revealed how many customers are opting to get their orders by air currently, claiming only that “thousands” of deliveries had been made from its two sites.

But Mr Carbon has set a goal of 500 million global drone deliveries per year by the end of the decade, including those in densely populated suburban areas.

“We’ve designed the drone to operate across a wide beachfront,” said Mr Carbon.

“Now, where we deploy it, and the manner by which we deploy it, you obviously fit with the community, you obviously fit in with what customers need. We will never do anything that doesn’t fit within the regulatory set that the CAA lays forward.

“I think it’s going to be a norm that parcels are delivered by air. I don’t think that’s really in question anymore,” he added.

Frederic Laugere, head of innovation advisory services at the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said projects like this one were “vital to feed into the overall knowledge and experiences that will soon enable drones to be operating beyond the line of sight of their pilot on a day-to-day basis, while also still allowing safe and equitable use of the air by other users.”

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