Amazon is expanding US drone service after regulator’s nod

Federal regulators have given Amazon key permission that will allow it to expand its drone delivery program, the company announced on May 30, 2024. — AP Inc’s Prime Air drone programme has been cleared by US regulators to fly devices beyond the visual line of sight of pilots, increasing range and giving more customers access to the service.

The approval, which means pilots won’t need to be able to see the drones with their own eyes, will allow Prime Air to scale deliveries in the US, Amazon said on its website on May 30. The company will expand the area it services with unmanned aerial vehicles in College Station, Texas, and will start integrating such shipments into its same-day delivery network this year.

Amazon is the latest company to gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones more freely amid the proliferation of rapid delivery services. UAVs offer a potentially faster, cheaper way to deliver small parcels than paying drivers to fight through traffic and find parking. Amazon, Alphabet Inc and Walmart Inc have all invested in drones with mixed success.

Prime Air was slow to launch. A Bloomberg investigation in 2022 revealed that the programme was beset by technical challenges, high turnover and safety concerns. A serious crash in June 2021 prompted federal regulators to question the drone’s airworthiness because multiple safety features failed and the machine careened out of control, causing a brush fire.

The 2021 crash occurred during test flight operations, Amazon spokesperson Sam Stephenson said by email. “During our commercial operations,” Stephenson said, “we haven’t had any safety mishaps delivering to customers.”

Amazon is seeking to deliver 500 million packages a year by drone by the end of the decade. It delivered more than four billion units on the same or next day to Prime members in the US in 2023.

In announcing the FAA’s clearance on Thursday, Amazon said it has spent years “developing, testing, and refining our onboard detect-and-avoid system to ensure our drones can detect and avoid obstacles in the air”. – Bloomberg

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