Amazon’s first package delivery drones are about to achieve liftoff – literally. The company announced this week that its latest drone model, the MK27-2, specifically designed for package delivery, will begin unmanned aerial flights from Lockeford, California and College Station, Texas by the end of 2022. Last week, the company invited journalists and drone industry specialists to witness a test run of its “Prime Air” delivery service that has been dogged by problems in the past, including recurring drone crashes. Amazon officials insist that they have rectified these problems and point to the FAA’s granting of a BVLOS waiver in 2020 as proof that future Prime Air flights will be safe and efficient.
The MK27-2 drone is about five-and-a-half feet in diameter and weighs 80 pounds. Its payload is modest: Packages must be less than five pounds, and deliveries must fit in a single rectangular compartment about the size of a shoe box. The drone is powered by six rotary blades and flies at a maximum speed of 50 mph. It arrives at a predetermined location and hovers in the air at a height of 12 feet in an area that its sensors detect is free of human traffic or physical obstruction The drone then automatically drops its package and flies away.
Despite the limits on the size and weight of its payloads, Amazon insists that the MK27-2 can deliver a sizable portion of its merchandise catalogue and that demand for its services is great. However, the MK27-2 does have some time of operation and distance limitations: About 25 minutes and just 12 kilometers round trip.
In fact, Prime Air may not deliver goods directly from Amazon warehouses but could instead make the so-called ”last mile” trip: Packages would be transported by trucks to local storage centers, some located in convenience stores, and then loaded onto the drones for the final leg. Moreover, to maximize their value, drone deliveries may be targeted at remote rural areas that are largely inaccessible by conventional road vehicles due to the terrain, the presence of snow or to other unfavorable road conditions.
Amazon’s MK27-2 is just the first of its new drones configured for remote package delivery A second model, designated MK-30, has a higher temperature tolerance and is more weather resistant: It’s already been tested under conditions of light rain. In addition, Prime Air’s engineers have equipped the MK-30 with specially designed propellers that can reduce its perceived noise by around 25 percent. After Amazon’s initial test of the MK27-2 in College Station more than two years ago, the FAA declared in a formal environmental assessment that wildlife “would unlikely be affected” by the drone’s noise. But Amazon has been determined to make its latest drone delivery model even quieter. The MK-30 won’t be ready for commercial use until 2024.
Several other companies have been piloting remote drone package deliveries for about two years. Walmart has been delivering select grocery and household essential items from its stores using its “Flytrex” automated drones. In September 2022, Amazon and Walmart joined forces and together petitioned the FAA for the right to fly through private property airspace – without charge – to facilitate its remote deliveries. The FAA is still considering the joint petition. Once approved, Walmart plans to begin remote package deliveries to 34 different sites in 6 states by early 2023.