Amazon has unveiled a new hybrid delivery drone that can fly both vertically, as a helicopter capable of landing in customers’ backyards, and horizontally like a conventional plane. The drone can travel up to 15 miles at high speed.
The online retail giant released a video on Sunday in which the prototype is introduced by the former BBC presenter Jeremy Clarkson. The film shows the unmanned aerial vehicle rising up from an Amazon warehouse, flying over pristine countryside, then landing on an Amazon logo placed on a customer’s lawn.
The hybrid is conceived as the prototype workhorse for Amazon Prime, the futuristic delivery service that aspires to carry purchases to customers within 30 minutes of an order.
The retail giant hopes that safety features built into the vehicle, including “detect and avoid” sensors that Amazon says allow the drone to fly around obstacles, will overcome concerns from government regulators – some of whom have proven resistant to the idea of delivery drones – and customers.
Earlier this year, at an unidentified location in Canada, the Guardian witnessed versions of the hybrid being tested. As a result of reluctance at the US regulator the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow commercial drones to fly beyond line of sight, the drone delivery team, led by Gur Kimchi, had been forced to decamp across the border.
The FAA continues to resist the idea that commercial drones like Amazon Prime Air should be allowed to operate beyond a pilot’s vision. Its draft regulations for commercial drone flights, released in February, do not permit flying beyond line of sight.
That is a deal breaker for Amazon, which says that a delivery by drone system could only be feasible if its unmanned vehicles were allowed to operate semi-autonomously, within designated air corridors.
Other governments have been notably more receptive to the idea of semi-autonomous drones. The UK’s equivalent of the FAA, the Civil Aviation Authority, has indicated it is open to the idea of delivery drones flying beyond line of sight.
Amazon’s new hybrid bird has eight rotors, assembled in pairs, that provide the helicopter-style vertical thrust. In addition there is a larger blade situated at the back of the plane, giving forward horizontal movement.
The helicopter function would be used to take the vehicle up to elevation, and then down to a customer’s doorstep or yard. Once the horizontal motor is engaged, the drone would fly at up to 60mph, allowing rapid delivery.
The hybrid aeroplane has long been an aspiration of flight engineers and it already exists in various large-scale vehicles, including the military Osprey. Amazon’s prototype is believed to be the first effective hybrid achieved in a small unmanned drone of under 55lb.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010