Drone’s Biggest Flop Is About to Make a Comeback

It was once considered the drone industry’s biggest flop.  Ten years ago, Jeff Bezos, then President and CEO at Amazon, announced plans to start delivering the company’s products directly to your doorstep – or rather, your backyard – in a matter of minutes.   It sounded gimmicky, and it was.  The plan ran into a host of problems, including opposition from the FAA and from local governments.  In fact, residents in the very communities where the package deliveries were planned weren’t too happy, either.  Some even threatened to shoot Amazon’s wacky flying machines out of the sky.

So the company quickly scuttled its plan.  But now it’s back, and a host of other companies, including Walmart and Google, have announced plans to follow suit.  What’s changed?  Lots.  For one thing, drones are now commonplace; about 8% of Americans own or fly one and the drone consumer market is booming.  Drones are also becoming more popular with the broader public, which has gotten used to seeing them playing vital public service roles – in local law enforcement, for example,  and more recently, in the delivery of badly needed medical supplies and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And the FAA, ever since President Obama ordered the agency to develop new regulatory guidelines for industry use of drones in 2015, is on board, too.  Amazon is no longer flying alone, pushing the proverbial envelope.  It’s one of hundreds of companies that employ drones for a wide range of commercial purposes.  So, what’s not to like about Amazon’s latest version of the “Drone Express”?

It turns out that some Americans, including Amazon’s own customers, still don’t like the idea. And the company may have goofed by choosing a rural ranch town – Lockeford, CA – as the pilot test site for the service.  Amazon employees thought the town’s sleepy profile and the popularity of Amazon Prime with some of its customers there, would make for a (no pun intended) smooth landing.  But some of the same objections raised previously – the possibility of drone crashes, injuries to property and farm animals or children, and competition with the town’s small – and economically challenged – “Mom and Pop” stores” have resurfaced.  And of course, many residents own guns in Lockeford.  They’re threatening to blast the drones to smithereens if they touch down on or near their farms.

Amazon’s already obtained approval from Lockeford’s government to move forward with the plan.  The company’s also trying to reassure local residents that its drones are equipped with technology to avoid collisions or damage local property.  “If obstacles are identified, our drone will automatically change course to safely avoid them,” Amazon stated in a press release. “As our drone descends to deliver the package into a customer’s backyard, the drone ensures that there’s a small area around the delivery location that’s clear of any people, animals, or other obstacles.”

Amazon originally planned to reinstate its drone delivery service in 2024 but decided to move up the date.  Skeptics say reports that Amazon’s drone fleet had suffered  numerous crashes during testing were beginning to surface and the company wanted to get the new service up and running before greater disclosure occurred.   One of those crashes sparked a brush fire after the motor exploded.  Critics say Amazon has deliberately tried to stifle FAA investigations of those crashes.

Company officials discount those reports and say that Amazon has complied with all incident reporting, investigation, and other applicable regulatory requirements.  They also note that the FAA has never taken an enforcement action against Prime Air, the company division developing the drone delivery service

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