Online retailer Amazon plans to eventually deliver packages by drone, but they are starting at the other end of the spectrum this year with 40 Boeing 767s. Each Boeing, bearing the Amazon Prime Air logo, is intended to firm up the company’s logistics and minimize revenue lost when customers purchase items from Amazon only to have them delivered by other entities, such as UPS or the Postal Service.
The plan involves both Atlas Air and the Air Transport Services Group (ATSG); each company plans to lease 20 planes to Amazon over the next two years, giving the retail giant 40 dedicated Amazon Prime Air jets and a way to stem the rise of shipping costs, which rose 44% for the company this year and outstripped sales growth.
The Prime Air fleet is designed to serve the growing needs of Amazon Prime. The subscription service, which guarantees expedited shipping to customers who pay a yearly fee, is a fundamental component of Amazon’s long-term strategy. On the other end of the Prime Air spectrum, Amazon plans to eventually deliver packages within 30 minutes via drone. The fleet of larger planes will eventually be necessary to keep the urban shipping hubs efficiently stocked with products for drone delivery.
The company released video in August displaying a representative journey for a package in the Prime Air program. The video features actual in-flight footage taken from a prototype drone as it drops off a package containing new soccer shoes in a family’s front yard. In the video, the drone leaves the warehouse, dodges a hot-air balloon mid-flight, and drops its cargo on a target mat branded with the Amazon logo which the mother places in the front yard to tell the drone where to land.
Only packages weighing less than5lbs will be delivered via drone, a limitation imposed by the small size of the drones themselves, which weigh less than 55 pounds and never get more than 400 feet off the ground in order to comply with current FAA regulations for commercial drones.
Amazon reports that each drone has a range of 15 miles and a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour, which will enable the service to deliver each package within 30 minutes. In addition to speeding delivery to customers in the “not-too-distant future,” Amazon expects the drone delivery program to “increase the overall safety and efficiency of the transportation system.”
At least one major hurdle remains, as Amazon indicates they do not have the “regulatory support” such a system would require. They currently have airspace proposals in support of the Prime Air program available on their website, and have indicated they will not deploy the Prime Air program until they are certain it can be safely and legally executed.
Currently, FAA regulations for commercial Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) allow for drones as large as Amazon Air’s; however, the regulations also require the UAV to remain within the pilot’s line of sight at all times, an obvious impossibility for the drones in Amazon’s program.