Amazon says it has successfully trialled its Prime Air drone delivery service in Cambridge, UK, by delivering a TV streaming stick and bag of popcorn directly to the garden of a nearby customer.
The breakthrough suggests that autonomous aerial delivery could become a viable business sooner than thought, albeit only for customers with huge gardens, who live close to the delivery depot, and want items weighing less than 2.6kg.
Additionally, while deliveries will be available seven days a week, the drones can only fly in daylight hours and clement weather. Currently, the trial is only open to two customers, but Amazon says it hopes to expand that to dozens in the coming months. For those customers, Prime Air is available for no extra cost.
The company says the delivery, which took place last week, involved fully autonomous flight, with no human pilot involved in the process. The success was announced by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, who tweeted: “first ever #AmazonPrimeAir customer delivery is in the books. 13 min—click to delivery.” Amazon released a video of the flight but no press were invited to witness the test.
Amazon’s drone testing facility on the outskirts of Cambridge has been operating since summer 2015, according to documents revealed under a freedom of information request. That was when the company invited the Civil Aviation Authority to witness its first test flight.
Government regulations in the UK are generally considered favourable to companies wanting to experiment with autonomous aircraft, but the restrictions still heavily limit what Amazon can test. The company is allowed to test drones that fly beyond line-of-sight in rural and suburban areas; flights where one person operates multiple largely autonomous drones; and sensor performance associated with sense-and-avoid technology.
Amazon first announced its intention to deliver packages by drone in 2013, in a lavishly-produced special on US TV show 60 Minutes. At the time, Bezos suggested that the company would begin delivery in 2018, a timescale commentators called “hugely optimistic”, citing a number of concerns around theft, liability and safety. The latest limited trials suggest that Amazon still intends to hit that 2018 target, albeit by sidestepping many of the concerns through the limited nature of the rollout.
Amazon isn’t alone in the field: Google’s experimental sibling, X, has a long-running drone delivery project of its own, Project Wing. Its prototypes use a fixed-wing drone, and are aimed at deliveries to particularly isolated rural customers.
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