It’s been almost a decade since Amazon’s Jeff Bezos promised us delivery drones, but they don’t start out particularly impressive. About a month after Amazon Prime Air made its first deliveries in California and Texas, it had served fewer than 10 households — and it has already laid off more than half of the workers in those locations.
That’s according to a few new reports Bee The information and Business Insider, and Amazon doesn’t deny it. Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti did not dispute those numbers in an email to The edge when we asked for it. But she also said Prime Air, with FAA approval, is actually expanding drone deliveries in both California and Texas.
And there may be a very good reason why Amazon doesn’t have many customers for drone deliveries yet, such as The information points out: Amazon’s drone is not only allowed to fly over roads.
To cross the road while still adhering to FAA rules, Amazon employees had to act as spotters to make sure no vehicles came when the drone was supposed to fly across the street, a plan that the FAA was approved.
Seems ridiculous, right? Amazon’s drone is basically a five-year-old holding hands to cross the street. A drone designed to replace humans needs humans to go somewhere.
But before you decide Amazon’s drone is incapable, before you conclude that the FAA is stopping progress – either or both could be true! – I recommend you actually read the FAA decision that made things the way they are. I’ve embedded it at the bottom of this story.
If you’ve never delved into an FAA drone application before, you may not know: The FAA doesn’t actually hand out licenses to operate autonomous drones and drone delivery services. It creates specific exemptions to the strict airspace regulations of the United States, each with a long list of conditions that companies must adhere to.
Until last November, Amazon couldn’t even fly its drones outside of “sparsely populated areas,” fly over buildings or within 100 feet of a building. and had to stick to flying over real estate under Amazon’s total control. The FAA required Amazon’s drone pilots to have the kind of private pilot license that would allow you to fly a plane, not just a drone. If I read correctly, each flight needed as much as six human beings, including observers and ground station operators.
That seems to have been wise. There were five crashes in four months at Amazon’s testing facilities in Oregon, and one crash started a 25-acre wildfire. The drone weighs almost 90 pounds.
But those rules were during the experimental phase, and Amazon successfully argued last November that its experience and its new, safer and more autonomous MK27-2 drone didn’t need as many people or safeguards. Among other things, the FAA cited its “enhanced sensing system that allows detection of people or obstacles below the UA during takeoff or landing,” its auto-abort feature, remote warnings, and the fact that it can fly even if one of its six engines fails if reason to ignore those specific restrictions and more.
But not all, not by a long shot. Here are just some of the basic rules that still exist:
i. Operations over humans are prohibited unless otherwise authorized by the Administrator;
ii. Flying over power plants is prohibited;
iii. Flying over schools during opening hours (e.g. primary, middle, senior, pre-school and day care centers) is prohibited;
iv. Work above or within 250 feet to the side of moving vehicles is prohibited unless otherwise approved by the Manager
v. Overflight of any area deemed high risk by the operator during the flight path design process is prohibited;
vi. Sustained flying within 75 meters lateral to roads is prohibited, and crossings over roads are prohibited unless otherwise approved by the Administrator;
vii. The UA must remain at least 100 feet (30 m) laterally from any person during all phases of flight, unless otherwise approved by the controller.
You’ll find that Amazon’s drone still can’t cross a road by itself and can’t get close to people or fly over people. That means Amazon’s customers can’t stand in their own backyard when the package is dropped — unless their backyard is bigger than my house — and the FAA states Amazon must explicitly warn customers about that when they sign up.
In addition, both California and Texas operations were limited to flights within only 3-4 miles of their drone launch sites. That limits the number of potential customers.
However, now Amazon no longer needs nearly the same number of people for each flight, and the FAA no longer requires those employees to have the same flight or medical training – so it’s not surprising that Amazon would lay off many employees now that it’s made them expendable.
“The recent staff cuts have no impact on our plans to deliver to these locations,” said Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti. The edge. “We remain committed to our delivery operations in Lockeford and College Station and will continue to provide a safe and exceptional drone delivery service to our customers at both locations. We will gradually expand deliveries to more customers in those areas over time.”
She says last week the FAA approved flights to more customers in Lockeford, California and College Station, Texas, and that Amazon continues to work on its next-generation drone, the MK30.
You can read the FAA’s revised requirements for Amazon’s MK27-2 delivery drone (and the reasons for its decisions) in the full document below.