Fulfilling a science fiction-like promise, Amazon.com Inc.’s drone division recently completed a delivery to a customer in Cambridge, England, within 13 minutes.
The first delivery by a Amazon Prime Air drone (left) took place on Dec. 7, dropping off a bag of popcorn and a Fire TV streaming device. Amazon had announced in July that it would be testing drone delivery in the U.K.
This delivery was part of a beta trial of Amazon’s new site, which launches drones out of a specialized warehouse just outside the city. The warehouse, which serves only two customers for now, is a heavily stocked fulfillment center that can deliver packages of five pounds or less in 30 minutes or less.
The company intends to open up the delivery trial to “dozens of customers” within the coming months and after that hundreds more.
Investors have high hopes for the drones’ impact on Amazon’s operations. “We view PrimeAir as another step for AMZN in building the most cost efficient global fulfillment operation in retail,” Cowen & Co. analyst John Blackledge said in a note to clients. “Post setup costs for the PrimeAir fulfillment center and other associated costs, PrimeAir appears like it could be a huge advancement in costs savings for fast delivery of lightweight goods.”
After receiving an electronic order for a package, an Amazon staffer packs the item into a specially sized parcel. That parcel is then run up a conveyor belt to a waiting drone, which has the package inserted into a holding bay.
Then the drone takes to the skies. The drones are fully autonomous and use GPS to fly from the fulfillment center to the delivery location. For safety reasons, the drones fly below 400 feet and can be launched only during daylight hours with good visibility and low winds (no hot-chocolate mix delivery during thunderstorms).
Once at the destination, the drone uses a camera mounted on the bottom to look for a landing zone marked by the customer with a large sheet printed with a distinct symbol (video above).
The drone lands on that symbol, deposits the package and then lifts off again. From there, it returns to the Amazon fulfillment center. No pilot or human interaction is required in the delivery process.
While Amazon is testing its drone capabilities in the U.K., the Amazon Prime Air page states that the company also has testing centers in the U.S., Austria and Israel.
Although recently the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration relaxed rules on commercial drone flights, autonomous flights are still not permitted under current regulation. Amazon will need to receive a special license to proceed with tests, so American Amazon Prime customers may need to wait a bit longer to have Amazon Fire delivered by drone.
The trial is currently a private customer test in the U.K. so there is no way for people to sign up to have something delivered by drone. The company expects to expand the envelope of its testing as more data is gathered about the safety, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of such deliveries.