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Amazon’s drone delivery program ‘one gigantic oversell,’ says report into UK operation

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Will Amazon’s drones ever take off?

Amazon’s delivery drones have gone through many iterations, including the design above.
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A new report from Wired into Amazon’s drone delivery program in the UK says the operation has lost over 100 employees, with insiders saying the project is “collapsing inwards.”

Citing testimony from former employees, Wired describes a culture of managerial dysfunction and overwork. In February 2020, for example, Amazon reportedly shut down a team of dozens in the UK dedicated to analyzing drone footage to identify humans and animals, only to re-open the unit months later. Other stories cited in the report include the fast turnover of senior staff, an employee drinking beer at their desk in the morning, and another “pinning down the ‘approve’ button on their computer so that all the frames of footage were being approved irrelevant of whether there were hazards in them or not.”

As one former worker told Wired: “Everything started collapsing inwards because they [Amazon] piled too much on, they put people in charge who didn’t know anything about the project and they oversold. It’s all one gigantic oversell — just so many promises that can’t be kept.”

A spokesperson for Amazon told Wired that the company will continue to have a Prime Air presence in the UK, but did not confirm its current or future headcount.

It’s not clear how the dysfunction described in Wired’s report extends to Amazon’s overall drone delivery program, which was first announced all the way back in 2013. Clearly, the company has oversold the ease of introducing the technology, though, promising in June 2019 it would be launching a delivery service in “the coming months.” In August last year, Amazon did finally receive approval from the FAA to deliver packages in the US — which it cited as a key restraint — but has yet to outline a timeline for when this might happen.

Amazon positioned the UK as a big market for its technology, announcing in 2016 that it had made its first real drone delivery in Cambridge, England. But this was a stunt using a pre-arranged order, and Amazon has never offered commercial deliveries in the UK.

Although Wired’s report focuses on the UK operation, some of the problems identified in the story seem like they would affect Amazon’s overall drone ambitions. These include the company’s desire to land its drones to deliver their packages, a method which takes particularly careful navigation. Rivals like Google-owned Wing, by contrast, drop off packages without actually descending to the ground.

When contacted by The Verge for comment, a spokesperson for Amazon did not refute any aspects of Wired’s report but said the company “recently made organizational changes in our Prime Air business” and was able to find “find positions for affected employees in other areas where we were hiring.” Said the spokesperson: “Prime Air continues to have employees in the UK and will keep growing its presence in the region.”

Update Tuesday August 12:04PM ET: Updated with comment from Amazon.