Amazon’s drone delivery service has finally taken flight with the people of Lockeford, California, being the first to receive packages through the Prime Air program later this year.
The way the service works, according to Amazon (opens in new tab), is that customers who live in Lockeford will start seeing items in the online store that are eligible for Prime Air delivery. You place an order as you normally would. Afterward, you’ll get a status tracker with an estimated time of arrival on the order as the drone flies off to your destination.
The drone will fly to a space above your backyard, find an area free of obstacles, and hover over the yard at a “safe height.” Then the drone will lower the package, release it on the ground, and fly away.
Amazon revealed a bit about its drones' features, which is something other similar services don’t really talk about. The company claims the drones are equipped with a “sophisticated… sense-and-avoid system” to avoid obstacles. They can detect if something is moving or stationary, then change course if necessary.
Amazon worked with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and regulators to make its drone delivery service possible. Looking at the pictures provided, the company had to go through many different prototypes before creating one that stuck.
That said, Amazon's brief description of its service leaves many basic questions unanswered.
For starters, what is considered a “safe height” for dropping packages? What are the Prime Air eligible items and are they fragile? What if someone doesn’t have a backyard? Are Prime Aire deliveries more expensive? Are they covered under Amazon Prime customers' free shipping benefit?
Update June 15, 2022:
After we published this story, Amazon got back to us with some answers.
For starters, the safe height is “a couple of feet above ground level.” The representative claims Amazon performed tests and made special packaging so nothing gets damaged. Drone delivery is free for Amazon Prime customers, and if you haven’t been a member within the last year, you can sign up for a free trial.
Eligible items include household products, beauty products, office supplies, and everyday essentials: so mainly stuff around the house. The drones fly autonomously, but they do have someone supervising the flight. And if the customer doesn’t have a clear yard for landing, the drone won’t deliver to you. The Amazon representative did say the company is working on different drone designs and delivery methods for people without a yard.
As for when drone delivery will expand outside Lockeford, all the representative said was Amazon is working on it.
Analysis: Hard to feel confident
While it’s exciting to see this service finally - ahem - take off, the lack of details and a spotty drone delivery track record don’t inspire a lot of confidence.
Thus far, Amazon has had a difficult time with its drones. A Bloomberg report from April 2022 (opens in new tab) revealed the team was dealing with technical problems and safety issues. Amazon also scaled back its international drone delivery program. According to a 2021 Wired report (opens in new tab), Amazon shut down the Prime Air program in the UK after considerable inner turmoil.
Meanwhile, Walmart’s own drone delivery service looks more promising. The company teamed up with tech company DroneUp to offer a delivery program that can reach four million American households across six states. It flies seven days a week for 12 hours. Hopefully, Amazon’s rocky history with drones becomes a bad memory and its delivery service takes off.
Thinking of getting into drones? TechRadar has a list of best beginner drones for 2022.