Amazon's Jeff Wilke unveils the company's new all-electric delivery drone design at re:MARS. (Jordan Stead/Amazon)
Amazon plans to launch Prime Air delivery in the next few months, using a new electrically powered vertical-takeoff-and-landing drone design unveiled Wednesday.
The company’s latest fully-electric drone design features six shrouded rotors and is capable of transitioning from vertical takeoff and landing to forward, efficient flight. It can travel 15 miles and carry packages up to 5 lbs, which Amazon says covers between 75 and 90 percent of the packages it delivers.
The FAA issued a special airworthiness certificate to Amazon Prime Air, allowing the company to operate the new design “for research and development and crew training in authorized flight areas,” acknowledging the company’s plans to establish a package delivery operation. The certificate is valid for one year and eligible for renewal.
“We know customers will only feel comfortable receiving drone deliveries if the system is incredibly safe,” said Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer division, unveiling the design at Amazon’s re:MARS conference.
To achieve the high bar necessary for safety, Wilke explained Amazon’s use of multiple types of sensors combined with machine learning-powered object detection.
“We’ve designed our aircraft to be safe on its own,” he said. “The sensors we use include visual, thermal and ultrasonic. No sensor by itself can do it all. … Fluffy dogs are invisible to sonar. That’s where diversity in sensing becomes essential."
Close-up of the new Amazon Prime Air delivery drone. (Jordan Stead/Amazon)
“Our algorithms [use] data from our suite of sensors and also diverse technologies including state-of-the-art machine learning for object detection,” he added, using example images of a thin clothesline that could obstruct the drone’s delivery zone, almost invisible almost invisible to the naked eye. The drone’ sensors and object detection algorithm, however, are able to clearly see it.
Wilke explained that expecting the unexpected — autonomous decision-making — is necessary to ensure delivery drones react safely in all situations.
“Customers are notified when the drone is approaching, in our system, so we don’t expect to see people in the delivery zone very often, but that doesn’t matter," Wilke said. "We collect huge amounts of data and run millions of simulations to verify that any situation is covered.”
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In April, Wing – a division of Google parent company Alphabet – became the first U.S. company to receive air carrier certification from the FAA, allowing it to begin drone deliveries in parts of Virginia.
Amazon expects to receive similar approval from the FAA “within months,” according to Wilke, and hopes its electric delivery drones will join the company’s armada of planes, trucks, vans and robots to push the limit of timely delivery.