Amazon’s Prime Air Drone Service Another Painful (But Promising) Transition

Amazon announced this week that it was dismantling one of its two founding drone hubs in historic Lockeford, CA after a decade of failing to make significant aerial deliveries from the site.  The company says the move is part of a strategic transition away from isolated rural areas toward more densely populated suburbs and will set the stage for a major expansion of its drone service with the help of new UAV prototype, the MK30, which is quieter and faster but also more durable and efficient than past drones.

The MK30 can withstand light rain and make precision package drops into small backyards, as needed, company officials say.  It’s also quieter and can reduce potential customer complaints about propeller noise, officials add.

According to Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit, the new Phoenix-area location will be the first time the company has deployed a drone from one of its existing same-day delivery sites, which will streamline the loading process and reduce delivery time to less than 30 minutes. Vast numbers of existing Amazon customers can easily transition to the air service, at minimum cost, expanding the expected volume of customers served exponentially.

Amazon will continue to experiment with deliveries from its second hub site in College Station, TX, where the company claims it has already made thousands of deliveries since formally launching operations in November 2022.  Industry experts have cast doubt on those numbers, saying the company’s Prime Air service has reached barely several hundred customers, due to persistent safety and performance failures as well as delivery delays due to strict FAA protocols limiting the scope and duration of Prime Air flights.

Amazon is still testing the MK30 but expects the FAA to grant the company greater freedom to make less closely monitored long-distance flights, possibly with the same BVLOS waivers granted last year to Wing, Zipline and other Amazon competitors that have clocked tens of thousands of customer deliveries in dozens of US sites nationwide.

Amazon also has plans to expand overseas, to small towns and suburbs in Italy and the UK, hoping perhaps that somewhat looser regulatory restraints might make it easier to get MK30 flights approved more quickly.  Aviation authorities in both countries – especially Italy, with its still fledgling drone industry – are open to Amazon’s expansion into their airspaces, saying the company’s plans dovetail with their own for an expansion of aerial delivery services nationwide.

“Being chosen by a global player such as Amazon is further confirmation of the strategy pursued by [ENAC, Italy’s National Civil Aviation Authority] to push for innovation of advanced air mobility in the aviation industry, creating a national ecosystem favorable to the safe development of new services. Italy’s experience will be an inspiration and support for safe operations in the rest of Europe,” says Pierluigi Di Palma, ENAC’s president.

But Amazon will still have to contend with local authorities and citizens who may not be so keen on seeing a troubled American drone company encroach on local turf.  It will likely take some patient prodding and persuasion over many months, to say nothing of a fresh FAA safety and “type” certification for the MK30 to allow Amazon to gain real traction in these European markets.

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