Amazon is having a tough time with Prime Air, its drone delivery program. CNBC is reporting that it’s learned Amazon’s drones have made just 100 deliveries in the two locations in California and Texas the company is operating Prime Air.
Amazon had projected in January it would send 10,000 deliveries to customers via its fleet of flying robots by the end of 2023. It started off slow, with a report in February saying that it had served fewer than 10 households. But the pace doesn’t seem to have picked up.
In light of its flagging progress, Amazon admits it has adjusted its delivery goal. In an email to The Verge, Amazon representative Av Raichura Zammit said, “the phased process for expanding our service areas is taking longer than we anticipated. We’re working with the FAA and plan to expand deliveries to more customers over time.” The program has been in the works for close to a decade, with Prime Air was then Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announcing plans for drone deliveries in late 2013.
CNBC paid a visit to Lockeford, California, to get a sense of where the program stands and found empty skies and stories from locals about low signup — a local deli owner said he’d heard from Amazon employees that only 14 people had signed up for the program. Amazon, for its part, said thousands of people had said they wanted flying packages — what’s with the discrepancy?
Well, the FAA is very protective of US airspace, and its regulations for drone operators can include prohibitions against things like flying across roadways or near people. Pretty hard to get around rules like that if your goal is to drop a package in a backyard in the middle of a gridded neighborhood.
Amazon has been trying to improve its drones to meet the FAA’s standards to gain more freedoms, but it hasn’t yet been able to convince the administration to remove those big restrictions. It’s had some success — one of the pre-November restrictions it had limited the company’s drone flights only to land it controlled — but for now, unless you live across a pasture from an Amazon’s drone center, you’re probably out of luck.
In the past, at least some of Amazon’s drones have been a little, shall we say, crashy, with one 2021 incident at its Pendleton, Oregon, test site sparking a 25-acre brush fire. Amazon needs to prove its drones are safe to get looser restrictions. The company made sure to tell CNBC said it had “never had an incident during an actual customer delivery flight.”
Amazon’s competitors are having a better go of things. Walmart says it has completed over 6,000 deliveries across seven states in the US south and southwest via its partners, DroneUp, Flytrex, and Zipline (apparently, one of its most common deliveries is rotisserie chickens, which tracks).
Here’s Zammit’s full statement to The Verge:
“While the FAA broadened Prime Air’s authority to conduct drone deliveries to include sites in California and Texas, the phased process for expanding our service areas is taking longer than we anticipated. We’re working with the FAA and plan to expand deliveries to more customers over time.”
“It’s important to remember that not all drone systems are equal and what we’re building with Prime Air is very different from other drone delivery companies. We’re taking a proven aerospace approach in how we design for safety – our unique sense-and-avoid system will allow our drone to operate at greater distances while safely avoiding other aircraft, people, pets, and obstacles. We’re as excited about drone delivery now as we were 10 years ago – but hard things can take time, and this is a highly regulated industry. We continue to work closely with the FAA to expand deliveries to more customers over time.”
Update May 19th, 10:20AM ET: Added a statement from Amazon.