Amazon drone deliveries are almost ready for prime time with Oregon crashing into the rearview mirror

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A tank advertises Pendleton Airport on Tuesday June 28, 2022. Although it has seen its parcel delivery drone crash several times during testing at Pendleton, Amazon is pushing ahead with delivery tests at home in California.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Amazon made news this month when it announced it would begin aerial drone package deliveries to real customers in a northern California city. As the US debut approached, the company conducted extensive flight testing in eastern Oregon, where it experienced occasional crashes. Amazon said Monday that the upcoming rollout of commercial drone delivery means the refined technology is safe and no longer experimental.

The Seattle-based e-commerce giant announced on its corporate blog that the first US customers to be able to order small items for fast drone delivery will be in Lockeford, California.

Lockeford is an unincorporated town at the northern end of the Central Valley with a population of around 3,500. California Assemblyman Heath Flora, who represents the region in the Legislative Assembly, said it was natural to ask, “Why Lockeford?” He attended an advance briefing that Amazon provided to local authorities.

“I think there were several factors: it was the FAA that liked the location,” Flora said in explanation. “It was near a major hub for Amazon (in Stockton). Having a community like Lockeford that’s relatively rural, relatively open, not a lot of obstructions there, it seemed like a perfect fit.

Flora added that he was thrilled to have a front row seat to a potentially fundamental change in “the way products move”.

Crashes

Amazon promises to start flying drones over people’s homes less than a year after some of them fell from the sky. Documents obtained by the Northwest News Network and the OPB through a Federal Aviation Administration registration request showed that an unmanned Amazon plane crashed during flight testing on an almost monthly basis between May 2021. and last February. An Amazon spokesperson said in an email that the crashes involved a now-retired drone model, not the latest version used in California.

Amazon’s package delivery drone weighs about the same as an electric lawn mower — about 85 pounds, according to specifications on file with the FAA. The autonomous flying machine has a hexagonal wing surrounding six electric motors and propellers. Amazon says the drone can deliver items weighing up to five pounds that are no bigger than a shoebox.

Northwest News Network and the OPB asked the FAA for incident reports on all unmanned aerial vehicle accidents at the Pendleton Test Range since 2018. We identified 10 accidents serious enough to report to the government federal and nearly all of them involved Amazon’s package delivery drone.

In April, Bloomberg reported on some of the drone crashes at Pendleton. Current and former employees told reporters that Amazon prioritized speed over security during the development process.

The increased surveillance has not slowed down the Pendleton UAS line of business. Drone line manager Darryl Abling said the line is forecasting 15,000 to 17,000 flights in 2022. That’s more than double the 2021 total.

Abling wouldn’t specifically discuss Amazon or any other users of the line. But he said the number of reported crashes was small compared to the number of Pendleton host test flights.

“It’s a drop in the ocean,” he said. “With so many operations, you would have to have a significant number of incidents even to reach a threshold of one tenth of a percent. The number is extremely low.

A sign advertising the Pendleton Airport Industrial Park on Tuesday June 28, 2022. Since 2013 Pendleton Airport has operated a test area for drones.

A sign advertising the Pendleton Airport Industrial Park on Tuesday June 28, 2022. Since 2013 Pendleton Airport has operated a test area for drones.

Antonio Sierra / OPB

Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit reiterated in an email Monday that safety is his company’s top priority and that the drones are equipped with several safety features.

“We use a closed, private facility to test our systems to their limits and beyond,” Zammit said. “With rigorous testing like this, we expect these types of events to occur, and we apply the learnings from each flight to improve safety.”

Other Concerns

Safety, flight times and noise are among the concerns of Lockeford residents who in some cases are still learning they will be on the cutting edge. That’s according to San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors Chairman Chuck Winn, who observed a meeting of a city advisory board where the drone shot was first released. Summarizing the public mood, Winn said local residents are open to drone delivery if the FAA sets limits to maximize safety and minimize disruption.

“I think they’re going to be very concerned about how long these drones will fly, locations, certainly height and other things,” he said.

“Obviously there are questions,” Winn continued. “But I haven’t seen any outcry or outrage over this particular project.”

San Joaquin County spokeswoman Stephanie Loder said the county only had jurisdiction over building renovations and land use at the distribution warehouse site in this case. The FAA retains sole authority over flight operations and has advised the county that the delivery drone operation still needs various federal approvals and specific airspace clearance before it can begin.

This latest iteration of Amazon's package delivery drones will be used to drop off packages in customers' backyards.

This latest iteration of Amazon’s package delivery drones will be used to drop off packages in customers’ backyards.

Amazon Prime Air /

Amazon did not give a timeline for the real-world launch of one-hour drone delivery in the United States, other than to say it will arrive “later this year” in the California city. Amazon Prime Air won’t be the first to market. Competitors such as Walmart, Google Wing and UPS are already in the air with limited drone delivery trials in Sun Belt states.

After Lockeford, College Station, Texas, equally flat, fair weather and sparsely populated, could be the next place to see Amazon drones flying over neighborhoods, judging by the advanced clearance process going on there.

During a recent Planning and Zoning Commission discussion in College Station, an Amazon representative described the “detect and avoid” sensor array on delivery drones that allow them to avoid other objects. ruffles and ensure that backyard drop zones are clear.

Amazon said its delivery drones would only fly during daylight hours and move between locations at an altitude of around 400 feet. In Lockeford and College Station, Amazon told local officials that its battery-powered aircraft would operate within a four-mile radius of the base station.

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